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A Collection of the Collège de France Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies 

Delphine Spicq

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015

Texte intégral

1The library of the Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies holds 33 original papers from the Palace Examination (dianshi 殿 ) dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Shen Qingzao’s 沈清藻, 1775 examination paper. The candidate was successful and was ranked third (tanhua 探花)

2The Palace Examination was first established under the Song Dynasty (960-1279) by the Taizu Emperor 太祖 (r. 960-976). This new examination followed the Metropolitan Examination, set up by the government, and was designed to bind the empire’s future civil servants more closely to the Emperor himself. Under the previous Tang Dynasty (618-907), the laureates of the Metropolitan Examination (the last and most difficult examination, which took place after those at the prefectural and provincial levels) remained very close to their examiners and were often obligated directly to them. Strong factionalism resulted from this, which the Emperor controlled only with great difficulty. This new examination would leave successful candidates indebted to the Emperor for their titles and positions, thus imposing on them loyalty to the Emperor and the dynasty. The technique seems to have proven efficient, even though the Emperors’ more autocratic style from the Song Dynasty onwards also contributed to the greater loyalty shown by high-ranking officials.

3Under the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasties, the Metropolitan Examination was followed by the Palace Examination and officially held every three years. However, they were actually many additional sessions. Under the Qing Dynasty, Palace Examinations took place from 1652 to 1904.

4The Palace Examination was held on the twenty-first day of the fourth lunar month in the Baohe Hall (Baohe dian 保和殿) of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The candidates had to write a dissertation answering four questions asked by the Emperor himself on current or administrative issues. From 1781 onwards, the papers had to be handed back by dusk. Each paper was reviewed and graded by eight examiners (this number sometimes varied). These examiners were high-ranking officials. There were five grades: an empty circle meant 100%, i.e. an excellent paper; an inked-in circle meant 80%, a very good paper; a triangle meant 60%, a good paper; a line meant 40%, an average paper; and a cross meant 20%, a poor paper. Each examiner would write his name above the grade he gave. The grades were then added up to get the final score for each paper. The process lasted for three days, during which, to avoid any corruption, the examiners had to sleep inside the Palace. Among many hundred papers, they had to select the ten best, rank them and submit them to the Emperor. Intense disputes between the examiners surrounded the selection process: at the end of the Qing Dynasty, it was thus decided that only the papers awarded 100% by every examiner would be included in the top ten. At dawn on the twenty-fourth day of the fourth month, the top ten best papers were presented to the Emperor, who would read and rank them, according to the ranking suggested by the examiners or in a different order, if he so pleased.

5The successful candidates received the title of doctor (jinshi 進士).

  • 1 The members of the Hanlin academy compiled and edited books, and drafted decrees.

6The laureates were ranked into three groups. The first class (yi jia 一甲) was comprised of the top three successful candidates (respectively called zhuangyuan 狀元, bangyan 榜眼 and tanhua 探花), who received the title of jinshi jidi 進士及第 and would directly enter the Hanlin Academy1. Successful candidates in the second class (er jia 二甲) received the title of jinshi chushen 進士出身 and would be awarded a position as a high-ranking official in a government bureau in the capital or an official post in the provinces. Finally, successful candidates in the third class (san jia 三甲) received the title of tong jinshi chushen 同進士出身 and were given a position according to availability (they sometimes had to wait several years). That is why, from the reign of Emperor Yongzheng 雍正 (r. 1722-1735) onwards, an additional examination, the “Court Examination” (chaokao 朝考), was set up and took place at the Hanlin Academy, after the Palace Examination. The successful candidates would also be ranked in several classes, leading to different types of appointments.

7Results were made public on the twenty-fifth day of the fourth month, during a ceremony called the “calling of the names” (chang ming 唱名), held inside the Forbidden City in the Taihe Hall (Taihe dian 太和殿), in the presence of the Emperor, the laureates and all the high-ranking officials of the capital. The following day, a banquet was offered to honour the laureates and thank the examiners. Three days later, on the twenty-eighth day of the fourth month, the new graduates would stand in line in front of the Gate of Perfect Harmony (Zhonghemen 中和 ) and pledge allegiance to the Emperor by bowing down in the direction of the imperial residence and thanking the sovereign for the diploma and the banquet. The Emperor in person would then give each graduate official clothes, money and other gifts. On the first day of the fifth month, all new graduates would gather at the Confucius Temple, in the Imperial University, to pay their respects to the ancient sages. The Ministry of Rites would then ask the Emperor to have a stele erected inside the Imperial University, listing the names of all the successful candidates. New graduates were also allowed to erect an archway (fang ) in front of their residence. The local authorities or elites often paid for the expenses, happy to boast of a jinshi graduate from their locality.

8Finally, the Office of Rites would publish a register including the Emperor’s question, the papers of the first three graduates and finally the names and origin of all the successful candidates. This register was circulated throughout the empire. Some graduates would publish their paper at their own expense and have it distributed to their close relatives and acquaintances.

9The original papers were archived at the Grand Secretariat. When they were transferred to the new Ministry of Education in 1909, copies of the examination papers of several famous officials were reported missing. It is a number of those missing papers that are now to be found at the Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies (IHEC) and in other collections, without, however, our being able to explain exactly how they entered the IHEC collection.

The Collège de France Digital Archives are sponsored by the Fondation de l’Orangerie and its generous donors.

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1 The members of the Hanlin academy compiled and edited books, and drafted decrees.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Shen Qingzao’s 沈清藻, 1775 examination paper. The candidate was successful and was ranked third (tanhua 探花)
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Référence électronique

Delphine Spicq, « A Collection of the Collège de France Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies  », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 29 septembre 2015, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Delphine Spicq

Associate-professor at the Institute of Advanced Chinese Studiesen104-105

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