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Chinese imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China for selecting candidates for the state bureaucracy. The concept of choosing bureaucrats by merit rather than birth started early in Chinese history but using written examinations as a tool of selection started in earnest during the mid- Tang dynasty. The system became dominant during the Song dynasty and lasted until it was abolished in the late Qing dynasty reforms in The exams served to ensure a common knowledge of writing, the classics, and literary style among state officials.
This common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule. The examination system played a significant role in tempering the power of hereditary aristocracy, military authority, and the rise of a gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats.
Starting with the Song dynasty , the system was regularized and developed into a roughly three-tiered ladder from local to provincial to court exams. Wealthy families, especially from the merchant class, could opt into the system by educating their sons or purchasing degrees. In the 19th century, critics blamed the examination system for stifling Chinese science and technical knowledge. The Chinese examination system also influenced neighboring countries.
The Chinese examination system was introduced to the Western world in the reports of European missionaries and diplomats , and encouraged France , Germany , and the British East India Company to use a similar method to select prospective employees. Following the initial success in that company, the British government adopted a similar testing system for screening civil servants in Modeled after these previous adaptations, the United States established its own testing program for certain government jobs after Tests of skill such as archery contests have existed since the Zhou dynasty or, more mythologically, Yao.
Although some examinations did exist from the Han to the Sui dynasty, they did not offer an official avenue to government appointment, the majority of which were filled through recommendations based on qualities such as social status, morals, and ability. The bureaucratic imperial examinations as a concept has its origins in the year during the short lived Sui dynasty.