The jinshi examination in imperial China was the most prestigious of the civil service exams, the approximate equivalent of a doctorate degree, but more selective. Passing the exam guaranteed the candidate power and prestige within the complex Chinese imperial bureaucracy. Since the examination emphasized poetic composition, it encouraged the intelligentsia of medieval China to study poetry and cultivate talents in poetic composition. It is no accident that most of the important poets of medieval China (such as WANG WEI, LI HO, BO JUYI, and YUAN ZHEN) made their careers as government employees.
   The elaborate Chinese civil service system was established theoretically to draw the best minds in the empire into government service, without regard to birth or wealth. In effect, the time and intense study that a candidate had to spend preparing for the examinations probably precluded all but a very few candidates from the lower classes. There were three tiers of exams: first at the county level, next at the provincial level, and finally at the national level, in the capital. The most prestigious of these national exams was the jinshi; those who passed it were called “presented scholars,” and were presented to the emperor. But it is estimated that the pass rate for the jinshi exam was only 2 to 3 percent of the thousand or so scholars who took the exam each year. It is easy to see that this state of affairs led to lives of bitter frustration among those who were never able to pass the exam despite years or even decades of preparation. There were three sections to the jinshi exam as it developed after its introduction in the early TANG DYNASTY in 680: First, the candidate had to demonstrate rote knowledge of a memorized portion of the acknowledged Confucian classics. Second, the candidate was required to compose a poem and a piece of rhymed prose on an assigned topic and according to an assigned rhyme scheme. Third, the candidates were required to write “dissertations” or essays on contemporary problems— there were five main questions to be dealt with, and each of these could be divided into several sub-questions, all of which the candidate had to address in his dissertation.
   ■ McMullen, David. State and Scholars in T’ang China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
   ■ Owen, Stephen. The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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