Imperial Examination, the Gaokao, and the Measure of Success

How do we decide who is intelligent in our society? Qualified? Successful? Does everyone have an equal shot at these things, or do certain people have special advantages over others because of their parents, their money, their language, or other factors?
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

In this museum diorama, hopefuls sit for the intensive imperial examination, the world’s first high stakes merit-based testing system. (Beijing, China, 2015.)

Merit-based Exam

The imperial examination in China was the world’s first high stakes examination system, designed to select candidates for careers the state bureaucracy.  These jobs were the main source of financial success, social respect, and power in the empire.  Although there were imperial exams as early as the Han dynasty, (206 BC-260 AD) the system became the major path to office only in the mid-Tang dynasty, (618-907 A) and remained so until its abolition in 1905.

By 115 AD, a set curriculum had become established for the so-called First Generation of examination takers. They were tested on their proficiency in the “Six Arts“:

  • Scholastic arts: music, arithmetic, writing, and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies in both public and private life.
  • Militaristic: archery and horsemanship
The curriculum was then expanded to cover the “Five Studies”: military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography, and the Confucian classics. In this form, the examinations were institutionalized during the sixth century AD, under the Sui dynasty. These examinations are regarded by most historians as the first standardized tests based on merit.

The Confucian System

The exams did not rely exclusively on knowledge of the civil or criminal laws of the empire, diplomatic strategy, tax code, or any other immediately practical topics.  A great deal of emphasis on how well a candidate could quote and discuss the Confucian classics – ancient texts that outlined the ethics and ideas of Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE).  Confucianism focuses on the social and political order that comes from a proper respect for the importance of honoring the family (also called filial piety) and social harmony.

The Family and the State

Modern statue of Confucius at a university in Shanghai.
Statues of Confucius, one of the primary archetects of the Chinese social order, are common on university campuses throughout the country. (Shanghai, China, 2015.)

According to Confucius, each person had a specific place in society and certain duties to fulfill. Confucius hoped that if people knew what was expected of them they would behave correctly. Therefore, he set up five principal relationships in which most people are involved. These relationships were (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend.

Confucius placed great importance on the family. Family life was seen as a training ground for life in society. It is at home in the family that the child learns to deal with problems that he or she will face later in the world. The family is responsible for educating the child to be a good member of society. Confucius emphasized the importance of education, the aim of which is to turn people into good family members, responsible members of society, and good subjects of the emperor.

The state (government) was regarded as an extension of the family in many ways. The emperor and his officials were referred to as the parents of the people. Subjects owed the same loyalty to their rulers that they owed to the senior members of their family.

All of these concepts would have been seen in some form in the imperial exam, with those demonstrating the greatest understanding of Confucian morality earning the best government jobs.  The system of testing was designed according to the Confucian principle of a society ruled by men of merit, and to achieve this by objectively measuring various candidates knowledge and intelligence.

Taking the test

The examinations consisted of tests administered at the district, provincial, and metropolitan levels. Tight quotas restricted the number of successful candidates at each level — for example, only three-hundred students could pass the metropolitan examinations. Students often took the examinations several times before earning a degree.
Each candidate arrived at an examination compound with only a few amenities: a water pitcher, a chamber pot, bedding, food (which he had to prepare himself), an inkstone, ink and brushes. Guards verified a student’s identity and searched for hidden printed materials. In the Ming and Qing periods, each exam taker spent three days and two nights writing “eight-legged essays” — literary compositions with eight distinct sections — in a tiny room with a makeshift bed, desk and bench. There were no interruptions during those three days, nor were candidates allowed any communication.


Young pupils with their tutor.
Young pupils with their tutor.

Intense pressure to succeed meant that cheating and corruption were rampant, often outrunning strenuous attempts to prevent or defeat them. In order to discourage favoritism which might occur if an examiner recognized a student’s calligraphy, each exam was recopied by an official copyist. Exact quotes from the classics were required; misquoting even one character or writing it in the wrong form meant failure, so candidates went to great lengths to bring hidden copies of these texts with them, sometimes written on their under garments.


By the Ming dynasty, the highest degree, the jinshi (進士/进士), became essential for highest office, while there was a vast oversupply of holders of the lowest degree, shengyuan (生員), who could not hope for office.  At least one armed rebellion during the 19th century was carried out primarily by unemployed and disgruntled degree holders.

Critics charged that the system stifled creativity and created officials who dared not defy authority, yet the system also continued to promote cultural unity. Wealthy families, especially merchants, could opt into the system by educating their sons with private tutors or purchasing degrees. In the 19th century, critics blamed the imperial examination system with its focus on the classics for China’s lack of technical knowledge, its lack of creative thinking, and its defeat by foreign powers like Britain and the United States.  The exam system was finally abolished in 1905.


Modern Chinese students sit for the gaokao.

The gaokao is modern China’s university entrance exam. Somewhat similar to the American SAT, except that it lasts more than twice as long, the nine-hour test is offered just once a year and is the sole determinant for admission to virtually all Chinese colleges and universities.


A report by Xinhua, the state news agency, said that of the 9.15 million students who took the gaokao in 2012, at least 2 million will get rejected from college. Once the students get their scores, they submit a list of universities to education officials, ranking them in order of choice. Administrators at the universities then look at the students’ scores and decide whether to admit them for the coming September.

The most serious Chinese students study for long hours in preparation for the gaokao. (Beijing, China, 2015.)

“3+X” system

Students must pass four tests as part of the Gaokao – this is known as the 3+X system.

  • “3” refers to compulsory subjects, including “Chinese, Mathematics and English,” each of which accounts for 150/750 in total score.
  • “X” means that students can choose, according to their own interests, one subject from either Social Sciences(including Politics, History and Geography), or Natural Sciences(including Physics, Chemistry and Biology), which accounts for 300/750 in total score.
Students might read English novels or watch American movies in order to improve their language skills.  Figurative language, slang, and idioms may prove to be the most challenging part of learning a new language. (Beijing, China, 2015.)

Listen to typical lesson from the Chinese classroom where I once taught English:

Criticisms of the gaokao

Regional discrimination and Corruption

A university usually sets a fixed admission quota for each province, with a higher number of students coming from its home province. As the advanced educational resources (number and quality of universities) are distributed unevenly across China, it is argued that people are being discriminated against during the admission process based on their geographic region.
China’s prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University, both based in Beijing, will collectively take about 84 students out of every 10,000 Beijingers who took the gaokao this June; 14 students from every 10,000 who took the gaokao in nearby Tianjin, 10 out of every 10,000 test-takers from Shanghai, and only about three per 10,000 candidates from Anhui, Zhang’s province of residence, and a mere two from every 10,000 taking the test in Guangdong.  Perhaps unsurprisingly with stakes these high, the gaokao has been dogged by accusations of corruption.  Evidence frequently surfaces of leaked test content, cheating through bribery, the purchase of extra homes to establish residency in advantageous testing provinces, and other advantages unavailable to those without money.

Psychological pressure

The gaokao is a key to social mobility in China and a defining moment in the lives of those who take it. Success and failure on the test can mean the difference between prosperity and a life of drudgery. It also determines the direction in life an individual will take: company management, government bureaucracy, or a profession such as medicine. Success or failure can not only shape the lives of those who take it can also shape the lives of their families, who may depend on their future earnings.

Because gaokao is one of the most influential examinations in China and the fact that students can only take the test once a year, both teachers and students undergo tremendous pressure in preparing for and taking the exam. Because Chinese society focuses on a teacher’s rate of student admission into universities, teachers have to pay more attention to each student’s ability to take the exam. This teaching methodology, colloquially referred to as “cramming”, involves students memorizing large volumes of information fed to them by teachers and undertaking many practice exercises in order to optimize exam writing ability. Disadvantages of this method include the lack of focus on teaching critical thinking and ignoring students’ emotions, values, and personalities.

The gaokao has been called the most pressure packed examination in the world.  Many examinees suffer from severe nervousness during the test. One report had doctors in Tianjin purportedly prescribing birth control pills to female students whose parents wanted to ensure the girls were not menstruating at the time of examination. Testing pressure, for some critics, has been linked to faintings, increased drop out rates, and even increasing rates of teenage clinical depression and suicide in China.

Because the gaokao is so vitally important, there are always students willing to attempt cheating on it, and with modern technology cheating has become a veritable arms race between students, the authorities, and enterprising merchants who offer everything from false erasers and rulers to eyeglasses featuring hidden cameras connected to off-site helpers who use the internet to scan questions and feed test takers correct answers. Authorities now patrol test sites with remote controlled drones and often outfit test sites with a variety of signal-blocking electronic devices, but cheating devices of various sorts are still readily available to those foolish or unprepared enough to attempt using them.


The Bottom Line

  1. Summarize the history of the Imperial Examination.  What subjects were traditionally covered on this test, and what does this tell you about the values that Chinese have sought in their leaders?
  2. Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, called the gaokao a weapon of the bourgeoisie which kept the rich rich and the poor poor.  Gaokao expert Professor Wang Yong calls the gaokao a chance for the children of the poor to “surpass the privileged ‘tall, rich, and handsome,” to beat the offspring of the wealthy and powerful.”  Evaluate each of these arguments.
  3. Compare and contrast the gaokao with high stakes testing such as the SAT or state standardized testing in the U.S.  Draw upon the arguments articulated by Mao and Professor Wang in question two – in your opinion, who best describes the U.S. system?
  4. Is it better for the government to design such tests, or should this task be contracted to a private corporation like ETS or Pearson?  What are the downfalls of each system? For further background on this controversy, start here.
  5. If you were in charge, would you modify the Chinese college entrance system?  Describe specific measures you would take to modify, reform, or abolish the gaokao.
  6. Consider issues of bias that might arise from a national test given to rich children and poor children, urban children and rural children, and children of different ethnic backgrounds.  Have you ever experienced examples of bias in exams you have taken?  Identify potential bias in the following  questions taken from the actual gaokao – what assumptions are being made by the authors of these questions?
  • Topic 1: “A father was talking on the phone while driving on a highway. His daughter reminded him repeatedly to stop doing this, but her father would not listen. The daughter called the police and reported her father at last. When the police arrived, the father was reprimanded. This generated heated debate among the public.” Write a letter of 800 words to either the father, the daughter or the police officer.
  • Topic 2: Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer?
    • Biotechnology researcher: Mr. Lee led the company to a globalized market.
    • Welding engineering technician : Mr. Wang was an ordinary welding engineering technician, and through perseverance, has become a world-renowned craftsman.
    • Photographer: The photographer posted a collection of his photos to his blog and was well-received online.
  • Topic 3: Do butterfly wings have colors? “A teacher asked the students to look at butterflies under a microscope. At first, they thought the butterflies were colorful, but when they looked at them closely, they realized that they were actually colorless.”  Based on this story, write an essay.


Calligraphy taught with a greater emphasis in China than in many western countries. Why do you think that might be? (Chongqing, China, 2015.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

Scenes from China, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.

Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume One – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.

Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume Two – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.