The Sui Dynasty was started by a dude who knew the value of fair treatment and honesty, Emperor Wen, who when criticized for punishing his wastrel son answered:
I am the father of just five sons, not the father of all people over the land. If I agreed with you, does that mean I have to draft a Penal Code for the Emperor’s Sons? Even a man as kind as the Duke of Zhou executed his brothers, the lords of Guan and Cai, for their crimes. I am nowhere as capable as the Duke of Zhou, so I can break my own laws?
This backfired slightly on him when his second son decided that under these incredibly unfair circumstances where you couldn’t just count on nepotism, it was probably best to resort to multiple murder. I have to admit I’m almost fond of Emperor Yang. There’s something about a dude who gets his older brother judicially executed, has his father poisoned, casually orders massive architectural projects which kill millions, fights terrible and disastrous wars against Gorguryeo (in Korea), and then kills everyone who tries to desperately warn him that he is hideously unpopular and going to be murdered.
Wendi and Yangdi had some pretty conflicting priorities, in that Wendi wanted maximum utilization of practical degrees, and Yangdi wanted all to love him and despair. The historical record is unclear on how the imperial examination system rose out of the edit war that was their respective sets of educational reform, but rise it did, complete with oral examination, written examination, and letters of recommendation.
On the one hand, this widened access to power and education tremendously. On the other hand, this widened access to the hell on earth that is academia tremendously, and put a pretty heavy bottleneck on other forms of success. Students would retake the imperial examination over and over again until they died or passed, meaning that there were usually a few fifty or sixty year olds sitting in the halls. Being a candidate for the imperial examinations was a little bit like having malaria: you spent your whole life having regular interludes of feverish terror, going slowly blind, and drinking heavily.
Of course one had to examine the military as well. If one was Wu Zetian, the one and only empress regnant of China, one does so because one is “afraid of people’s forgetting war.” (This despite the fact that she was in the middle of a series of civil and foreign ones. I love Wu Zetian.) The previous system of military examination involved being “six feet tall and able to carry five bushels of rice thirty paces,” among other issues, and this one actually tested military capability, and began the systematization of Chinese martial technique. It will come as no surprise to anyone that it also involved being able to quote the classics.
The Tang Dynasty improved the system, of course (the Tang Dynasty spent most of its time improving things) and the Song Dynasty perfected it (ditto). These are interesting and complex topics and I am only a small, hyperbolic history blogger, so I’m not going to get into it, but I am going to briefly mention the Song Dynasty reformer Wang Anshi and his Ten Thousand Word Memorial. Specifically, this part:
In the main the training they receive consists of explanations of the texts of the Classics, analyzed into sections and sentences…. More recently a new method of instructing students to prepare for the official tests by writing essays has come into existence. This method, however, calls for the recitation and memorizing of an enormous amount of literature, and the candidate must devote himself strenuously to this task the whole day long if he is to achieve success. But even if success in this matter is gained, it does not qualify the best student for a position of power, or the less successful for the other public services. So that even if they should go on learning in these schools until their hair turned grey, and give themselves the whole day long to the attempt to conform to the requirements of their superiors, they would have only the vaguest notion of what to do when they were appointed to actual office.
This system has been preserved in the modern day in the American law school.
Wang Anshi’s reforms, more or less, got put into place, and under the Song Dynasty the imperial examination system was a method of developing academic talent totally unequaled anywhere else in the world and is still pretty much unequaled anywhere else in the world. The Song Dynasty was a flowering of culture and brilliance and as long as you were a reasonably wealthy dude from an acceptable ethnic group and what you wanted to do was somewhat classical, the world was your oyster!
And then the Mongols invaded.