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Tang Dynasty: The Education and Examination Systems

Tang Dynasty: The Education and the Examination Systems



Education during the Tang Dynasty usually began when a child, most often a male, was six years old, and continued until they were nineteen. Literate families found it beneficial to educate their daughters as well. The fathers, or male relatives, were most often the teachers. Peasants and farmers were taught only orally. Artisans learned through apprenticeship and on-the-job training like in Europe. There were few public schools, and they tended to be in county and provincial capitals. Tutors were hired by the wealthy and for young men who wanted to take the imperial examinations.

The “capping” of boys occurred when they were 19 years old. This ritual was held at an ancestral shrine and marked the beginning of manhood. The new man often received a new name. The “pinning” of girls happened when they were 14 years old. At this time the girls would begin to pin, or tie up, their hair on top of their heads. This signaled that they were now eligible for marriage.

Formal education was for the most part a religious affair, as all clergy, whether Daoist, Buddhist, or Confucian, were literate. Most temples also had libraries. By 618 AD, emperor Gaozu recreated three universities in the capital city of Chang’an. The three universities were called The College For the Sons of the State, which accepted the sons of fathers who were ranked in the top three levels within the imperial bureaucracy. The second was The College For Grand Learning, which was for sons whose fathers were in the fourth and fifth ranks. The third university was The College of Four Gates, which enrolled sons of fathers in ranks six and seven. In the year 733, its was expanded to include ranks eight and nine, and for some talented commoners. Boys attended these universities from the ages of 14 to 19, and ages 18-25 for the commoners. The state paid for tuition, room and board.

In the year 738, emperor Xuanzong ordered that schools be established throughout the country. In the census of 754, the country had two capitals, one in Chang’an and the other in Luoyang, 321 prefectures, 1,538 counties, and 16,829 villages. The overall population was 48.9 million people, with 130,000 students attending university (0.26%).
The public school curriculum included the Daoist and Confucian classics. Lectures and memorization was the norm. Calligraphy and composition were also a part of the student’s studies. In the capital only, students could also learn medicine, law, math, astronomy, and the rituals.

The Examination System:

The purpose for taking one or several of the imperial examinations was to secure a government position, either civilian or military. Candidates assembled in the capital city of Chang’an on the eleventh lunar moon, usually in our month of December. Before the exams, which were administered after the Chinese New Year in our January or February, the examinees tried to influence the examiners by submitting their poems, and essays of flattery. These had to be passed along by third parties, and not given directly. They could submit up to three scrolls. If successful, the candidates would be given a personal interview with one of the examiners.

Three of the most important exams were the Classical Masters, Advanced Scholars, and the Elevated Warriors. Classical Masters had 65 fill-in questions covering eight of the literary and philosophical classics. Ten questions asked the examinees to interpret these classics. Three essays had to be written on contemporary issues. And finally there was an oral component.

After the year 681, the Advanced Scholars exam was the most popular and carried with it the most prestige. It consisted of ten fill-in questions and a commentary on one of the major classics. Five essays, and the composition of lyric and prose poems were also required.

The Elevated Warriors exam was added in 702 by Empress Wu. An examinee had to shoot his arrows at a target from 105 paces away, display his archery talents while both walking and riding his horse, and his martial art skills in lance manipulation. He also had to pass the weight lifting, physique and discourse standards.

Successful candidates often met his examiner after the exam and became friends and colleagues for life. Parties, celebrations, and proposals of marriage were abundant in the capital following the exams.

Merchants and artisans were not eligible to take the exams. They also could not be landowners. Government office holders had to retire by the age of 69. At the age of 59, peasant farmers had to give up ownership of their land in order to pass it down to the younger farmers.

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