Innovation of Education in Ming & Qing Dynasties
Innovation in Education System
In the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) subjects raised by government had been much less than that in the Tang Dynasty, but the examination for "jin shi" was still fashionable. Most of the prime ministers of high rank also had to pass the exam in this subject which then was regarded as an exclusive subject of prime ministers. Meanwhile, regardless of form and content, the system underwent great innovation.
Firstly the extension of matriculation was broadened. In the former dynasties like the Tang Dynasty, each year the "jinshi" were no more than twenty to thirty in number but in the Song Dynasty, there were as many as hundreds of people passing the exams and even those who failed the exams many times could apply for tolerance of the emperor and so serve as officials with less important positions.
Secondly, the frequency of exams was limited to a fixed "once every three years". The local tests came first in autumn and in the following spring the qualifying candidates would trudge to the capital for the higher imperial examination.
Thirdly, so far as content was concerned, while the earlier examinations laid much stress on the ancient classical texts, the great reformer Wang Anshi (1021 - 1086) advocated an innovation which was much more practical. He changed the blank-filling of verses into composition about the verse, giving free reign to the ability of the candidates. However this was opposed by other grandees and did not last for long.
Finally, to prevent the practice of favoritism, examinees" names were closely covered on their papers which were then exchanged among different local examiners. This did indeed greatly reduce the incidence of cheating.
In the Song Dynasty, few governmental schools were erected, but it was the vogue for scholars to set up numerous private educational organizations - "shu yuan". The function of this kind of school was to cultivate talented people, to encourage a devotion to learning, as well as to spread culture. The four most reputed "shu yuan" were named Bailudong Institute of Jiangxi, Songyang Institute and Yingtianfu Institute of Henan, and Yulu Institute of Hunan. Scholars were invited to give lectures and students were provided with dormitories, desks and food while basically studying on their own. Subsequently, most of these institutes became places where students prepared for exams.
Full-Bloom in the Ming Dynasty
With the coming of the Ming Dynasty, the imperial examination system reached its period of full bloom. Great attention was given to the administrative procedures and the tests became more rigorous.
Central government managed to found schools called "guozijian", and strengthened their function to be the only road by which people could take the exams. There were in total three stages leading to realizing the dream of becoming an official: provincial examination (xiangshi), metropolitan examination (huishi) by the Board of Rites, and Palace examination (dianshi) by the emperor himself. Only students of "guozijian", commonly known as "xiucai", could participate at the provincial level as their starting point.
The provincial and metropolitan examiners tested only "eight-legged" essays and people easily realized that the quality of that sort of essay was the key to achieving a pass. Therefore, it became usual for them to concentrate too much energy on it, neglecting other forms and contents. They were required to write in a fixed style with a fixed word count - it had to be eight paragraphs, while imitating the tone of the classics. Eventually, it was realized that this method was harmful as it stifled both creativity and imagination. Once these book worms had passed their exams, they could go further to take the simpler test set by the emperor. There were no failures during the Ming Dynasty, but each candidate"s placing on the pass list was decided personally by the emperor.
Declination in the Qing Dynasty
Since the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) was dominated by the Manchu ethnic group, they gave their people priority over the Han people. Manchu people attending the imperial examination were not tested but required only to undertake some translation, yet the Han people were still formed a majority of the examinees. As the tight hold on affairs held by the Qing Dynasty became more and more unpopular, the education system also needed fresh ideas and input as it was a disservice to the country. A trend appeared towards the way in which the positions of court officials could be purchased and this sometimes even gave rise to unlawful pass to the degraded system
It is interesting to note that one of characters depicted in the novel "Fan Jin Zhong Ju" is quite a typical victim of the declining system. The hero Fan Jin took pains time and time again to achieve a pass the provincial examination. Never one to give up, he was in his fifties when his efforts were finally rewarded. When he got the news that he had finally ranked on the list of successful candidates, he was in a delirium with great joy!