Imperial Exams: The World’s First Standardized Tests

Few people realize that the first standardized tests ever given in the world were taken in China. Starting as early as the Han Dynasty, examinations were sat by intellectuals and upwardly mobile men who wanted to become civil servants. Sometime around 600 A.D., the Sui Dynasty emperor standardized the exams and made them the compulsory criterion by which people were appointed to civil service positions. By the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the exams were rigidly formed and firmly part of Chinese society.

China’s imperial examinations were intense and difficult. Test-takers were asked to sit several exams, starting with regional ones and moving up through provincial and eventually palace tests until they either failed or were given a post. Each test lasted between 24 and 72 hours, and the individuals were locked into small bedroom cells that contained only a bed, desk and writing instruments. This ensured the security of the test results and increased the value of the individual score’s merit.

The content of the exam changed over time. During the early years of the examination’s influence, candidates were tested on a curriculum set that included series of important arts, like music, arithmetic and ceremonial arts, as well as military skills. Later, the test was adapted and concentrated mostly on classic Confucian writings, as well as agriculture, geography, taxation and other important civil concepts. By the time the examination was strictly standardized in the later eras, test-takers were asked to compose the Eight-Legged Essay, a rigid written composition on subject matter that related to the Confucian books.

The scores of the imperial examinations, which were given only every three years, were catalogued and individuals were given post classes that corresponded with their results. The highest and most honorable palace posts were reserved for the top-scoring candidates, the best of which was the zhuangyuan, or “exemplar of the state”. The top three individuals were given the high honor of entering the Forbidden City from the middle gate.

Though it eventually fell out of use around the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese imperial examination system was lauded as a system of award based solely on merit. It was widely known than many of the top scorers on the exams came from meager backgrounds, and so offered anyone with big dreams the chance to excel and move up in social class.


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