National University Awards First Doctorate

Yangdi, the second Sui emperor, set up a civil service examination system that made appointments to political offices by merit. This system, which culminated in the doctoral, or jinshi title, lasted into the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Beginning in the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), there were only two ways for a learned man to enter officialdom: by recommendation or by examinations. The Han rulers started a government-operated academic institution called taixue, equivalent to a national university today. The taixue served two purposes: to help cultivate and educate scholars and talented people who could serve as elite officials and to act as a political censor for the emperors. Education;China At the taixue, diligent and gifted individuals were able to receive an education in the Confucian classics from the nation’s best professors and officials appointed by the ruler. These scholar-officials Scholar-officials[scholar officials] made annual recommendations to the emperor, who used these recommendations to directly and immediately appoint the officials in his court. This system enabled the ruler to keep watch over the intellectuals and, at the same time, to concentrate the appointments of administrative and judiciary officials in the hands of the central government. The system of recommendation had its downside. Corruption and monopoly were rampant, especially among rich landholders. [kw]National University Awards First Doctorate (606)
[kw]University Awards First Doctorate, National (606)
[kw]Doctorate, National University Awards First (606)
Examinations, Chinese civil service
China;606: National University Awards First Doctorate[0250]
Education;606: National University Awards First Doctorate[0250]

Wei Dynasty (220-265) emperor Cao Pei (Ts’ao P’ei, r. 220-226), who reigned as Wendi Wendi (Wei emperor) , introduced a new recruitment system called jiupin zhongzheng zhi, or the nine-rank equity system, because of his need for political support from the official-gentry class. Instead of relying on recommendations from the taixue, Wendi ordered equity officers to be selected and placed in each county and province; these officers then selected qualified candidates for recommendation to official posts ranging from the first to the ninth rank, with the ninth being the lowest. The criteria for selection were academic talent and family background, both of which were to be of equal importance. In the end, however, family background took priority over talent and education, chiefly because of Wendi’s need to please the powerful gentry class who usurped land as well as political power, taking advantage of the social upheaval that was occurring. By practicing this system, Wendi was acknowledging that these illustrious families possessed the exclusive right to officialdom.

During the Sui Dynasty Sui Dynasty (581-618), China was once again unified. The first emperor of Sui, Yang Jian (Yang Chien; 541-604), who reigned as Wendi Wendi (Sui emperor) (Wen-ti; r. 581-604), wanted to rejuvenate higher education and do away with the disparity of the nine-rank equity system. He started the guozijian, the inspectorate of education, which was similar to the modern-day ministry of education. This institution, headed by a high-ranking official, had control over the four colleges of advanced studies in the capital. To recruit new talent, the emperor demanded that each prefecture send in candidates annually. About nine hundred men were summoned to the capital each year, to be screened by the guozijian. In 601, disappointed by the results achieved by the guozijian, the emperor closed some of the colleges and local schools.

Wendi’s son Yang Guang (Yang Kuang, known as Yangdi Yangdi after his succession to the throne), saw education Education;China
China;education as the basis for rebuilding a nation and made it a priority at the beginning of his reign. At the time, the entrenched families had begun to decline in power as the middle class had begun to flourish and demand equal opportunity to serve as officials. The emperor, in an attempt to strengthen his royal power with popular support, satisfied the demand of the majority by creating the jinshi, or presented scholar, an equivalent of a doctorate degree in 606, ending the long practice of recruitment by recommendation. Universities;Chinese

Yangdi combined the endowment of the doctorate with the recruitment system. In other words, when a candidate passed the examination, he would receive the doctorate title as well as an official title in court. Historians named this system keju, or civil service examination. To obtain this prestigious degree, a candidate first had to pass the district examination in his area, then another one at the provincial level. The third step was a national examination at the capital. Scoring high in the national examination would earn him the jinshi degree, the highest academic recognition available. However, if he chose to work for the government, the new jinshi had to take yet another examination in court before he was assigned an official position.

Although Yangdi set up the civil service examination system, it was interrupted and ignored after the emperor became caught up in his other endeavors, one of which was the building of an eastern capital at Luoyang, a symbol and a center of power for him. His other major projects included improving and extending the canal system started by his father and the reconstruction of the Great Wall, all of which required great cost and extensive labor. These projects, combined with Yangdi’s attempt to subdue Koguryŏ (present-day Korea), caused education to suffer. The keju system was introduced and practiced in the Sui Dynasty, but it never reached maturity.

Most of what is known about the civil service examination comes from records of the Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty;education (T’ang; 618-907), when the keju system reached its height. The national examinations covered mostly Confucian classics, which the candidates were expected to have memorized. In the examination, parts of the Confucian text would be blocked out, sometimes a paragraph and other times an inch off both sides of the margin, and the candidates were required to fill in the missing portions verbatim. In addition, the candidates also took examinations on contemporary affairs in which they were asked to express their opinions on socio-political issues. The doctorate, or jinshi, was awarded in two categories: A and B, with A signifying a high score in all exams and B meaning the candidate had scored at least 80 percent. The jinshi was the highest academic degree available at that time. During the Tang, there were, on the average, about thirty jinshi awarded each year. Some of the renowned jinshi in Chinese history include the celebrated poet Bo Juyi (Po Chü-yi; 772-846), the court historian Sima Guang (Ssu-ma Kuang; 1019-1086), the literary giant Su Dongpo (Su Tung-p’o; 1036-1101), the legendary judge Bao Zheng (Pao Cheng; 999-1062), and the Song minister Wang Anshi (Wang An-shih; 1021-1086).


The keju system pioneered by the Sui emperor had both good and bad points. For the ruler, the new system restored the recruitment of talented people to the central government and removed this power from the local equity officers. The system was also good news to the poor but talented. The examination system made it possible for intellectuals from far and wide, Chinese or non-Chinese, and with insignificant backgrounds or social qualifications to aspire to official positions. It was not only a model of educational parity but also a powerful impetus toward higher education for all. For these reasons, the examination system continued to prosper in the subsequent dynasties of Tang, Song (Sung; 960-1279), part of Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and most of Qing (Ch’ing; 1644-1911). The last year of the civil service examination was 1905, when Manchu power was moribund and China was influenced by westernization and modernization.

Over the centuries, the examination system spawned many problems. To obtain the jinshi degree, the candidate needed to be well acquainted with the topics and curricula designated by the inspectorate of education. These fields encompassed the Confucian classics, literature, and political theory and strategy. Although these were practical and useful subjects, the focus on these areas meant the exclusion of other fields, such as mathematics. This issue led to a second problem within the system: Young men studied only for the examinations, which acted as a stepping stone to political power and fame, and ignored other, potentially more useful subjects. In addition, private institutes sponsored by the local gentry began to emerge, all with the single goal of helping their students succeed in the examination.

This formulaic approach to education dictated the curricula of schools and converted scholastic establishments into extensions of the examination system. Students were only instructed in the subjects needed for the examinations. This not only defeated the purpose of education but also encouraged cheating and dishonesty. There were numerous cases of cheating in the examination halls in which candidates were discovered wearing undershirts on which they had made full copies of Confucian classics. Switching examination books with some other, more competitive candidate was another common way of cheating; in addition, rich families bribed examination officers so that their sons would pass. As a result, many talented candidates were not chosen, and mediocre students from illustrious backgrounds were awarded the degree. Whatever its imperfections, the keju system was a tool used by the imperial rulers to recruit talented men who would devote their lifetime to assisting the emperors in their propagation and maintenance of political power.

Further Reading

  • Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Contains a concise overview of the Sui and Tang Dynasties.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. Prehistory to c. 1800. Vol. 1 in A History of China. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Contains a summary of the Sui Dynasty.
  • Williams, S. Wells. The Middle Kingdom: A Survey of the Geography, Government, Education, Social Life, Arts, Religion, Etcetera of the Chinese Empire and Its Inhabitants, with a New Map of the Empire. Vol. 1. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1876. Although much of the work is outdated, chapter 9, “Education and Literary Examination,” gives an overview of Chinese higher education through the centuries.
  • Wright, Arthur R. “The Sui Dynasty (581-617).” In Sui and T’ang China, 589-906. Vol. 3 in The Cambridge History of China, edited by Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Wright, formerly Charles Seymore Professor of History, Yale University, covers the short-lived Sui Dynasty and its major rulers; Wendi and Yangdi. Wright’s discussion includes the political and personal problems of the rulers during their region.
  • Wright, Arthur R. The Sui Dynasty. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. The restoration of cultural hegemony during the reign of Wendi and Yangdi is discussed in detail.