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Exhibition to highlight Chinese imperial examination system

     China's imperial examination system was pioneered as a way of selecting government officials on merit. Indeed, by upholding the principles of equal competition this system helped the imperial court to recruit outstanding people for government service. During more than 1,300 years of its implementation, the imperial examination produced many prominent government officials, philosophers and artists, reflecting its considerable influence in Chinese history.

     Running from tomorrow (November 9) until February 6, 2012, the "Knowledge•Power: The Imperial Examination System of the Qing Dynasty" exhibition, to be held at the Hong Kong Museum of History, will showcase more than 100 sets of artefacts selected from the collections of the Shanghai Jiading Museum, along with other exhibits provided by local sources. By tracing the system's development, demise and legacy, the exhibition provides a better understanding of its symbolic importance and the instrumental role it played in shaping Chinese society and culture.

     Jointly presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Shanghai Jiading Museum, the exhibition was officially opened today (November 8) by the Under Secretary for Home Affairs, Ms Florence Hui; the Deputy Director of the Jiading District Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV of Shanghai, Mr Yao Qiang; the Chairman of the History Museum Advisory Panel, Dr Philip Wu; the Deputy Curator of the Shanghai Jiading Museum, Ms Shao Hui; the Secretary General of Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, Dr Tong Chong-sze; and the Acting Chief Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, Ms Rosa Yau.

     Speaking at the opening ceremony of the exhibition, Ms Hui noted that the imperial examination was established in the Sui dynasty, flourished in the Tang and Song dynasties and developed further throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, helping to recruit public officials through open and fair examinations. Used for more than 1,300 years, this system helped the government to select outstanding individuals to serve the country while also providing ordinary people with an opportunity for social mobility.

     Ms Hui pointed out that the examination, combining education with recruitment for the state bureaucracy, was considered an effective and important means of consolidating imperial rule, which exerted a great influence on Chinese culture and society, and was a forerunner of modern civil service recruitment systems in various Western countries.

     The Chinese imperial examination system dates back to the Sui dynasty in AD 605, when Emperor Yang introduced the system to recruit state officials. Since then, the imperial court regularly held public examinations on different subjects to select individuals with the necessary talent for the requisite government positions. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, children began their formal education at the age of 6 or 7. For rich families, tutors were hired for home schooling. Other village children would attend schools at their ancestral halls, temples and village houses.

     The system comprises a series of local examinations and a central examination. The palace examination was formally introduced in AD 689 during the Tang dynasty. The examination system was then institutionalised at three levels - provincial, metropolitan and imperial - and this structure was adopted ever since. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, the system further developed into preliminary, provincial, metropolitan and imperial levels.

     The imperial examination is a literacy-based system. In AD 702, Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty introduced the imperial military examination to select individuals for military posts. Military examinations were not adopted consistently in different dynasties, and only some 500 rounds were held throughout the history of China. Military examinations became regular again in AD 1504 during the Ming dynasty, when they were held triennially. The practice continued throughout the Qing dynasty for a period of 256 years, from Emperor Shunzhi till Emperor Guangxu (1901). Apart from mastering martial arts, candidates were also required to take written tests on military classics. 

     The announcement of the examination results was a memorable occasion for aspiring candidates, and their names were listed on a scroll and posted outside the examination hall. "Juren", or those candidates who had passed the provincial examinations, qualified for appointment to government posts. "Gongshi", those who passed the metropolitan examinations, would be recommended to sit the palace examination, for which they were further divided into three classes by their results. The top three candidates were given the honorary titles of "zhuangyan", "bangyan" and "tanhua" respectively, while graduates in the second and third classes earned their own specific degrees and titles.

     Over the centuries, the imperial examination system became a major institution in Chinese society. The dream of rising from rags to riches by education and examination was shared by many. The desire for success motivated the candidates and united families and clans. The presence of the system and its values were felt everywhere, in household items, architectural decorations and leisure activities.

     From the mid-19th century onwards, the Qing government was rocked by both internal turmoil and foreign aggression. Influences from the West aroused severe criticism of both the imperial examination system and the state bureaucracy. The traditional education system was failing to meet the challenges of the times, especially in the military field. State bureaucracy was furthered corrupted by the sale of official titles. China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and its signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 sparked off territory-wide anger. In Beijing, the pro-reform intellectuals Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, together with over 1,000 candidates of the metropolitan examination, made an urgent plea for political reform, including changes to the imperial examination system. Their requests were met during the Hundred Days' Reform in 1898 with the abolition of the "eight-legged essay" in the imperial examination. The reform was ultimately crushed. In the 31st year of Emperor Guangxu (1905), an imperial decree was announced to abolish all provincial and metropolitan examinations, which finally brought the imperial examination system to an end.

     In addition to the exhibition, the Hong Kong Museum of History will also organise a writing competition and a series of lectures and workshops to enhance public knowledge of the subject matter. On November 26, a lecture introducing the cultural relics in relation to the imperial examination system in Hong Kong will be given by the Assistant Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, Ms Josephine Wong. Another two lectures, "The Imperial Examination System of Ming-Qing China: A General Introduction" by the Assistant Professor, Department of History, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Dr Puk Wing-kin, and "Education and Imperial Examination in the Qing Dynasty" by the experienced instructor of antiquities and monuments, history and heritage, Mr So Man-hing, will be held on November 12 and December 17 respectively. The lectures, to be conducted in Cantonese, will be held in the museum's Lecture Hall from 3pm to 5pm. Admission to the lectures is free and seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For details, please call 2724 9082.

     The Hong Kong Museum of History is located at 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm on Mondays to Saturdays and from 10am to 7pm on Sundays and public holidays. On Christmas Eve and Chinese New Year's Eve, the museum will open at 10am and close at 5pm. It is closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays) and the first two days of the Chinese New Year. Admission for the museum is $10 and a half-price concession is available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

     For details of the exhibition, please visit the Hong Kong Museum of History's website at or call 2724 9042.

Ends/Tuesday, November 8, 2011


This painting, "In procession to the examination hall in the Qing dynasty", depicts candidates during the Qing dynasty waiting to enter the examination hall. The painting, which is part of the Hong Kong Museum of Art's collection, is now on loan to the Hong Kong Museum of History for display at the "Knowledge•Power: The Imperial Examination System of the Qing Dynasty" exhibition.


This is a replica of a grand golden list, which gives the names of successful candidates in the palace examination held in 1904. This palace examination, held in celebration of Empress Cixi's 70th birthday, was the last imperial examination in the history of China. Showing candidates who passed the palace examination, the list was called the "golden list" because it was written on a piece of yellow paper affixed with the imperial seal. This artefact is from the Shanghai Jiading Museum.


The imperial examination was a highly competitive endeavour which required both effort and luck. For every round of examinations, only a selected few were awarded top honours among tens of thousands of candidates. Many were tempted to take shortcuts to success by cheating. A variety of tools and tricks were used, including bribery, and cheats were caught frequently. This is a replica of a linen vest which was used for cheating in the imperial examination during the Qing dynasty. Hidden inside are 62 "eight-legged essays" with a total of more than 40,000 characters. This artefact is from the Shanghai Jiading Museum. 

This statue has been provided by the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall, Sheung Shui. Depicting a reddish-blue goblin and named "Kui Xing", the statue was originally kept in Man Ming Temple in Fu Tei Au, Sheung Shui. The deity of this statue stands with one leg on the head of a sea-turtle - signifying "distinction from the rest" - and the other thrown behind his body in the shape of a big hook, while holding a ladle in one hand and a writing brush in the other, as if poised to write the names of the successful candidates in the imperial examinations.


This replica of a crane badge for a civil official of the first rank was provided by the Shanghai Jiading Museum. Rank badges were first used by the empress Wu Zetian in the Tang dynasty. Rank badges, both round and square, were used to classify official ranks and to decorate costumes. Round badges were worn by royalty and nobility, and square badges by civil or military officials. The different ranks were illustrated by patterns of birds or mammals.


The opening ceremony of the "Knowledge•Power: The Imperial Examination System of the Qing Dynasty" exhibition was held today (November 8) at the Hong Kong Museum of History. The picture shows officiating guests cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony. They are, from left, the Deputy Curator of Shanghai Jiading Museum, Ms Shao Hui; the Chairman of the History Museum Advisory Panel, Dr Philip Wu; the Under Secretary for Home Affairs, Ms Florence Hui; the Deputy Director of Jiading District Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV of Shanghai, Mr Yao Qiang; the Secretary General of Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, Dr Tong Chong-sze; and the Acting Chief Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, Ms Rosa Yau.


Officiating guests view the exhibition.


Officiating guests view the exhibition.





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