Ancient History of Examinations in Asia

"The Official Career of Xu Xianqing" - on the bottom right the imperial examination examinees sit their exam, 1590, Ming dynasty

An examination or test (informally, evaluation or exam) is an institutional assessment intended to measure test-takers’ skill, knowledge, physical fitness, classification in many other topics (e.g., beliefs), or aptitude. A test may be conduction on paper, verbally, on a computer, on a smartphone, or in a predetermined area that needs a test taker to perform or demonstrate a set of skills and abilities.

Exams vary in rigor, style, and requirements. There is no invariable standard or general consensus for test difficulty and formats. The test’s design and complexity depend upon the instructor’s educational philosophy, class size, subject matter, educational institution policy, accreditation requirements, or official governing bodies.

History of Examination in Asia

Let’s explore the history of examination in Asia, starting from the Ancient Days.

Oral and informal examinations

Unofficial, informal, and non-standardized exams and evaluation systems have survived throughout history. For instance, skill tests such as archery contests have survived in China since the Zhou dynasty days. Oral exams were conducted in different parts of the world, including ancient India, ancient China, and Europe. A forerunner to the later Chinese imperial tests was in place since the Han dynasty period, during which the examiners concluded the Confucian characteristic of the examinations. However, these tests did not offer an official avenue to the administrative appointment, the bulk of which were filled through testimonials based on qualities such as morals, social status, ability, and skillset.


Early education training in Ancient India started under the supervision of a Prabhu or guru. Initially, education was completely open to all in India and seen as one way to achieve enlightenment (Moksha). As time progressed, due to a decentralized social structure, ancient Indian schools (gurukuls) imparted education based on varna and the relevant duties that one had to perform as a member of a specific caste. Students were required to follow strict monastic guidelines directed by the guru and stay away from towns in ashrams. Exams in Ancient Indian Gurukuls included physical tasks, oral recitation, and practical implementation of acquired knowledge.

Examples of royal patronage include the construction of educational buildings under the Rastrakuta dynasty. The institutions arranged for multiple homes for educators and state-sponsored education and arrangements for scholars and students. The Chola dynasty made similar arrangements, which granted state support to chosen students in educational establishments. Hindu Temple schools from 12–13th centuries included the school at the Nataraja temple located at Chidambaram, which employed 20 librarians. Two were employed for verification of the copied manuscripts, and 8 were copiers of documents. The remaining staff carried out other duties, including maintenance and preservation of reference material. They took exams in these temple.


Historians conclude that the first implemented standardized written examinations were launched in China. They were commonly known as the keju (imperial examinations).

The bureaucratic royal examinations as a concept have their origins in the year 605 CE during the short-lived Sui dynasty era. The Tang dynasty’s replacement executed imperial tests on a relatively small scale until the imperial court extensively expanded the examination system during the Wu Zetian’s reign. The expanded examination system in that era was an army exam that examined physical ability. Still, the military exam never significantly impacted the Chinese officer corps, and the superiors saw military degrees as inferior to their senior civil counterpart. The exact nature of Wu’s impact on the test system is still a matter of insane scholarly debate.

During the Song dynasty era, the emperors evolved both the government school system and examinations to counter the impact of hereditary nobility, increasing the number of authentic degree holders to more than three to four times that of the Tang Dynasty. From the Song dynasty period onward, the tests played the central role in deciding scholar-officials, who formed the literati cream of society. However, the examinations co-existed with other recruitment forms such as direct appointments for the nominations, the ruling family, clerical promotions, quotas, and special systems for eunuchs. Ancient China declared the general higher level degree examination cycle in 1067 CE to be three years, but this triennial cycle only survived in nominal terms. In practice, both before and after this, examiners irregularly executed the examinations for significant periods: thus, the estimated statistical averages for the number of degrees conferred annually should be interpreted in this context. The jinshi exams in Ancient China were not a yearly event and should not be considered so; the annual average figures are a significant artifact of quantitative analysis. The examination system’s operations were part of the imperial record-keeping system, and the date of obtaining the jinshi degree is often a critical biographical datum: sometimes the date of completing jinshi is the only specific date known for even some of the most historically notable persons in Ancient Chinese history.


Japan took exclusive exams for 200 years during the Heian period (794 CE-1185 CE). Like the Ancient Chinese examinations, the curriculum revolved around the Confucian canon. However, unlike in Ancient China, it was only ever used to the minor nobility and so slowly faded away under the popular hereditary system during the Ancient Samurai era.


The examination system was practiced in Korea in 958 CE under the Gwangjong of Goryeo’s reign. Any free man was able to take the tests. By the Joseon era, high offices were blocked to aristocrats who had not passed the exams. The examination system continued until 1894 CE, when the Gabo Reform abolished it. As in China, the examinations’ content focused on the Confucian canon and secured a loyal scholar bureaucrat class that supported the throne.

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