Chinese Civil Service | History, Facts, Exam, & Bureaucracy

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It is Civil Service?

The civil service ran the government in ancient China. The Emperor received reports from hundreds of public servants spread out across the empire. Ministers that worked in the palace and answered to the Emperor were the highest ranking government officers. Ministers were powerful and rich members of the government.

When did it first begin?

The first Han Emperor, Gaozu, established the civil service in 207 BC during the Han Dynasty. Emperor Gaozu was aware that he was unable to rule the entire realm alone. He came to the conclusion that a strong and well-organized empire would benefit from having well educated ministers and government officials. The civil service that would manage the Chinese government for more than 2000 years started off in this manner.


People had to pass exams in order to become civil servants. The higher position they could obtain in the civil service depended on how well they performed on the tests. The tests were really challenging. To pass the exams, many people would spend years studying at the Imperial University or with tutors. Many of the exams included Confucius’s philosophy and demanded extensive memorizing. The military, mathematics, geography, and calligraphy were additional topics. Poem writing was even required for some tests.

The civil service was divided into nine separate levels or grades. By passing the subsequent level of exams, individuals could advance in rank. Only a small percentage of the most intelligent students were able to advance all the way to rank nine. These men amassed wealth and power. The type of insignia an official wore on their robe could reveal their rank. The badge for each rank featured a different bird.

How did they act?

The government was operated with the aid of civil servants. The jobs they held varied. The top positions were located in the palace and answered to the empire. Large portions of the empire would be under the administration of these officials. Others held positions in the neighborhood districts. They would serve as judges, tax collectors, and law enforcers. They frequently ran or taught in neighborhood schools and maintained the local census.

Was the job done well?

In all of China, working in the civil service was seen as a superb and noble profession. The education required to pass the examination was only affordable to the wealthy, and only men were permitted to take the exams. However, it is believed that at one point there were so many applicants for the civil service that the odds of passing and landing a job were only approximately 1 in 3,000.

Interesting Facts regarding the Chinese Civil Service:

A town and the surrounding farmland were under the control of a prefect. Prefects were something like to modern-day mayors.

Depending on the time period or dynasty, there were several uniforms and methods of identifying rank. These featured hats, necklaces, and badges.

The number of employees in the civil service was reportedly far over 100,000.

Exam cheating carried severe consequences, including death.

A meritocracy was to be established through the civil service. This indicates that promotion decisions were made based solely on an individual’s “merit”—that is, how well they performed on the exam—and not on factors like family background or financial standing. But the majority of the officials were descended from affluent and influential families.

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