China’s civil service examination and hiring system has lately experienced all sorts of interesting and strange problems. In some cases, testing and hiring procedures are clearly rigged. In others, the favors are less obvious, with curiously detailed and tailored requirements seeming to point certain candidates right to the job.
Taken all together, this strangeness and inconsistency amounts to a frightening prejudice in favor of the sons and daughters of sitting officials and the powerful. Just days ago a citizen named Wang Peng (王鹏) was arrested across provinces after blowing the whistle on local fraud relating to the civil service exam in Shaanxi’s Wuzhong prefecture. The wrongful case was quickly resolved, but it nevertheless exposed serious defects in our civil service examination system.
The history of China’s imperial examination system stretches back more than 1,300 years. In ancient times, the so-called imperial examinations were referred to as “elective” (选举) [or meritocratic], and this “election” [or meritocratic principle] was at the very core of China’s ancient system.
Therefore, people have referred to ancient Chinese society as a meritocratic society (选举社会). In any dynastic period, society could maintain relative stability so long as this meritocratic system was fair and impartial.

[ABOVE: a painting depicting testers for the imperial examination during the Song Dynasty (960-1279AD).]

Before the Cultural Revolution, China’s university entrance examination system worked in much the same way as the ancient imperial examination system, and virtually all those who tested in and completed their studies became national officials. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the midst of the division and confusion, there was a rush to reinstate the college entrance examination system and reestablish order in Chinese society.
In today’s society, college graduates go off on their own to seek work, and the old system in which graduation led naturally to a government position is a thing of the past.
College examinations are no longer imperial examinations. But the civil service examinations have emerged to take the place of the old imperial examination system. In fact, our civil service examinations are modeled somewhat on civil service exams in the West (文官考试), but Western civil service exams in turn were modeled to some extent on the ancient Chinese imperial system. Therefore, the civil service examination should take the original place of the college entrance examination before the Cultural Revolution, becoming a national exam for government service.
Strictly speaking, civil service examinations in China began as early as the Beiyang Period (北洋时期) of the Republican Era, during which time exams were introduced for tax officials and foreign affairs personnel. Also during the Republican Era, a special testing academy was established handling examinations for top county government officials. But those were times of war and division in which military matters held sway, and it was impossible for a civil service examination system to take root.
In the era of economic reform and opening changes were again introduced to the civil service exam system, and this has gone on for well over a decade now. Up to now, however, our society has continued to focus its energy on the university examination system, and college entrance exams are regarded as an imperial examination of sorts. Civil service exams are undertaken independently by various local government departments and offices, with little or no coordination. Each office does its own thing, throwing standards to the wind.

[ABOVE: The first crop of prospective university students take the re-instituted college entrance exam after the Cultural Revolution.]
The fact that civil service examinations have become such a hot thing in China in recent years is not at all a good thing. Naturally, China has its own unique reasons for the way things are. As national attention has turned to civil service examinations in China, the whole system has been exposed as a hideous mess suffering from all sorts of abuses and anomalies. And the consequences of this are too serious to overlook.
When imperial examinations were first introduced over 1,300 years ago, they were standardized nationwide from the get-go, and the reasoning behind this has been clear ever since. For a system so core to the imperial bureaucracy, if consistent standards were not applied across the empire, there could be no way to ensure their fairness and rigorousness.
The history of imperial examinations shows us that if testing agencies, locations, topics, supervision, material, grading and the publishing of results were not handled with the strictest care, and if the toughest penalties were not imposed on those abusing the system, it was impossible to ensure that the government bureaucracy employed the best talent available in society. This is why even the most miniscule abuses could cause an uproar, or even open unrest, among Chinese scholar-bureaucrats, inviting broader social instability.
Today, the civil service examinations organized by various government departments across the country are a boon for fraudsters. Even if organized with the best of intentions, its nearly impossible for exams to escape the stain of nepotism and favoritism. Power and self-interest have infiltrated the testing system, and fairness has been the first casualty.
Many people have naturally come to see these tests as a mere formality, and believe that how well you test makes little difference anyway if you don’t have the right government connections. As a result, a civil service examination system originally conceived to ensure fairness, and by extension social stability, has already become a source of resentment and instability.
In the modern world, standardized college entrance examinations are no longer of great importance. But standardized civil service examinations are a pressing matter of the moment. And building such a system would not be difficult.
This article was originally published in Chinese at Nanfang Dailyand is available also at Zhang Ming’s blog.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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