Do you want to become a civil servant and enjoy a great career in the Imperial China?
Study ten years, travel for more than three thousands mile to Nanjing and take your written examination at the National Examination. The examination last nine days (including the nights).
In the photo is your room at the National Examination Palace in Nanjing. Are you ready?

The Imperial National Examination Museum in Nanjing old town is very small but it certainly gives you a lot to reflect on how certain issues or kind of eternal.

How to examine candidates and assess they are sufficiently fitted for important jobs?

Even more important: how to choose the right people for key position in the Government of Imperial China?

This is what the National Examination Museum in Nanjing is about: the complicated (but so modern!) way used during the Qing Dynasty to select the best people that would become Chinese Imperial Civil Servants.

Nanjing (also spelled Nankin) was during Qing Dynasty the Chinese Capital of the Chinese Empire and here from all over China and sometimes from more than 3000 miles away candidates came to attend their examination to become important bureaucrats of the Emperor.

Now, when I talk of Qing Dynasty I talk of the Seventeen and Eighteen Century when China was still an Empire. So, why should be so interesting to know how candidates were selected to become important imperial civil servants?
The Examination Palace is situated along the river in very
beautiful and scenic spot in the heart of Nanjing

And why to make a Museum about the History of the Examination that candidates had to undergo to become Civil Servants in Imperial China?

The answer? Because the system of selection to select high officers of the government at that time is so amazingly modern!

To guarantee a fair and equal examination process for all the candidates, avoiding possible acts of corruption, nepotism and the use of any illegal device was an issue five hundreds years ago in medieval China exactly as it is still an issue today around the modern world.

Read this descriptions of the examination in Imperial China and tell me if they would not sound modern today (well... yes, apart for the funny beards and the strange hats , obviously!)

Candidates at work!

Rules of the examination to become civil servants (Qing dynasty - Seventeen Century, from the diaries exhibited at Nanjing National Examination Museum in Nanjing, China): 

"The candidate is not allowed to have with him during the examination any written piece of paper, book, diary or any other similar support.

The examination  officers must check the bags of the candidates.

The hats of the candidates should be of a single layer, the big and the small gown should be of a single layer too, so that nothing can be hidden inside.

The divinity protecting the candidates.
The brush pen tube must be emptied by the candidate in front of the examination officers to verify that nothing is hidden inside.

When the candidate's name is called he must come forward and unfasten his vest and remove his socks. two officers (and not just one... for obvious reasons...) must search and inspect the candidate.

When all the candidates have entered in the room where the written examination takes place the room must be locked, the the big cannon would mark the start of the examination and even the Dragon Gate protecting the walls must be closed so that none can enter or exit".

What is changed in five hundreds years? Very little, the rules above can be as modern as an iPad today. 

Timeless items are exhibited in the National Examinations Museum in Nanjing: little books found hidden in the long beard and in the long clothes of some candidates, written in minuscule characters, so to be illegally used during the examination.

Even more amazing than these objects, it is the grade of importance and prestige that the National Examinations had at that time.

As you can read below the photo: "rare book for cheating in imperial examinations of Qing Dynasty

To pass the examination and become an Imperial Civil Servant was such a prestigious status that needed an appropriate public recognition and acknowledgement: so the successful candidates were allowed to stop dressing their plain clothes but were allowed to dress adorned hats, jewels and heavenly decorated brocade, a long decorated silk gown, literally shining the new status acquired.

People travelled from all over China to attend these examinations.

Understandably the Imperial Examinations weren't just a necessary step to start a prestigious job, it was much more than this: it was a way to see recognized and celebrated a life of study, of hard work and of intellectual efforts.

The examination rooms (small cubicle where each candidate has to stay during the written examination) is like a battlefield, a book of the time states.

Essays are written in haste during the day and reviewed carefully at

"It is is not 9 days striving, but ten years assiduous learning. Do not forget!" says an old inscription once at the entrance of the examination palace.

Yes, an entire huge building, looking like a fortress was exclusively built and dedicated for the National Examination in Imperial China.

Toilet of the Examination Palace.
Hundreds of little rooms, with just a table and a chair, huge kitchens and a large courtyard composed the palace, surrounded by large walls and a fortified gate.

"Grave is the environment and difficult the test. I scratch my head and moan and grow with apprehension, alas for me the examination  is a big waste of time!", is the inscription below a picture of one of the many candidates looking at the examination papers in their little cubicles.

"One old man at the age of 80 years old comes for the examination too. His ambition would not die till passing the examination" tells another little panel of the museum.

So organized in every possible detail was the National Examination that even the meals of the candidates were regulated: "Taking tests is not a relaxing time: three meals for day are served: rolls made the night before.

Officers at the entrance of The Examination Palace calling the candidates.

It is fascinating to think that centuries ago, when distances in China were even longer than now (and distances still be huge today!), the imperial examination took place and gathered together people from so many different regions and races customs and cultures.

It is somehow a romantic and surrealistic picture to imagine these men spending and devoting their lives and their energies in the study for the National Imperial Examination and then, after years of study and sacrifice, finally start their long travel to take the examination with great hopes and the great pressure and expectations of their own family and friends and may be of the whole town from where they came from.

How modern can look old china today!

Are you planning to travel to China?

Read my page My China Project where you can find the list of all of my posts and the destinations covered in this blog in China.

Read also the page Visit China and the page What to know before to travel to China.

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