Grading exams in Late Imperial China

As finals week is here for many of us I thought this would be a good time to dip into Benjamin Elman’s A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. Elman includes a whole chapter on student methods of dealing with the exams, most of which seem to involve cheating or some form of divine intervention rather than, say, studying. Below we see the 1604 optimus, top scorer on the exam, being given the answers by the god of literature while he is passed out drunk in the exam cell.


More interesting to me is what Elman has to say about grading the exams. Ch’ien Ta-hsin reported on his grading work for the 1782 provincial exams in Hunan.

Over 4,000 literati took the Hunan examination. The three sessions produced a total of 12,000 rolls of answers. If you separately count the papers on the [Five] Classics and the [Four] Books, poetry, discourse, and policy questions there were no less than 56,000 compositions. From the time we began to read the [essays on the] rolls until we made the final selections, my fellow examiners and I spent eighteen days and nights on them. The number of the rolls of essays was huge, and the time [to grade them] was limited. If we were to say that those we chose were always correct, or that even one man of talent was not overlooked, then, sincerely, I would not dare to believe this myself. We did our best, however, to open the path for selection widely and to evaluate the papers impartially. p.423

Elman has a good deal on ways that the Qing in particular tried to deal with the grading load. One method was to shorten the examiner comments on winning essays. In the Ming these could be several sentences, by the Qing they had been reduced to 8-character stock phrases and by the Late Qing to single characters (zhong 中, hit the mark). Examiners also skimmed over categories deemed less important and imposed length limits. Unfortunately none of this seems to have worked. Exam results were widely regarded as fairly random, with little stability in rankings from exam to exam. The bumbling exam-grader became a stock figure of Qing fiction. Doubtless multiple choice exams would have solved all these problems of essay-grading, but China failed to make this educational breakthrough.


  1. Multiple-choice exams may be fine for a government of laws, but not at all for a government of men.

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