The commandery quota system (chaju zhi 察舉制, lit. "elevation after examination"), also called "elevation on recommendation" (jianju 薦舉), was a means of recruitment for offices in the local and low-level central administration between the Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and the Sui 隋 (581-618) period. Classified tests (kemu 科目) were established according to need, and the government ordered the head of departments or administrative units concerned to select appropriate and competent personnel. The recommended persons were appointed (luyong 錄用) after evaluation by the central government. In the same way, promotions and transfers (sheng qian 升遷) were carried out.
Tests were carried out in regular intervals and were therefore called "regular tests" (changke 常科) or "annual elevations" (suiju 歲舉). Qualification was assessed according to moral standards like filiality-incorruptibility (xiaolian 孝廉) or "cultivated talent" (xiucai 秀才). The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) commentator Yan Shigu 顏師古 (581-645) defined: "filial piety (xiao 孝) means to serve father and mother well (shan shi fumu 善事父母), and incorruptibility (lian 廉) means purity and sincerity (qingjie you lian'ou 清潔有廉隅).
Extraordinary tests were held on imperial edicts and were therefore called "special tests" (teke 特科) or "elevations by edict" (zhaoju 詔舉). In such cases, the candidates were tested whether they were "worthies" (xianliang 賢良), literati (wenxue 文學), experts in the Confucian Classics (mingjing 明經), or such in "possession of the Way (i.e. virtue)" (youdao 有道).
Candidates for all types were either commoners or petty officials already holding an office (liyuan 吏員). Because candidates hailed "from the villages", the method was also known as "elevation and selection from among the villages and hamlets" (xiang ju li xuan 鄉舉里選).
This system was initiated in the early years after the foundation of the Han dynasty and replaced the tradition of inheritance of offices. It appears that the involvement of fresh people in the administration raised the level of flexibility and broke up encrusted structures. Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) proclaimed an edict in 178 to "present capable and good persons who are four-square and upright and are able to speak frankly and unflinchingly admonish the emperor" (ju xianliang fangzheng neng zhiyan jijian zhe 舉賢良方正能直言極諫者, transl. Dubs 1938), and in 165 ordered all princes, ministers, and governors (taishou 太守) to carry out this form of discussion. More than a hundred selected persons participated in the political discussions (duice 對策) and were then, according to their performance, appointed to offices. In this way, the extraordinary tests were regularized.
During the reign of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE), Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE) brought forward the argument that too many officials were just appointed by inheritance (ren zi 任子) or because they had paid for it (zi xuan 貲選), and recommended that annually each marquis (liehou 列侯, see titles of nobility) or governor present two "worthies" (xianzhe 賢者) for appointment.
In 134, Emperor Wu ordered a corresponding edict to present one filial (xiaozhe 孝者) and one incorrupt person (lianzhe 廉者) per commandery (jun 郡). This system became the common form of recruitment during the Han period.
In the course of time, a specialization in examinations emerged, with separate tests for candidates with literary background (wenxue 文學), upright and straightforward ones (fangzheng 方正), very filial ones (zhixiao 至孝), virtuous ones (youdao 有道), honest and sincere persons (dunpu 敦樸), careful and competent ones (zhiju 治劇), braves (yongmeng 勇猛), strategists (bingfa 兵法), law experts (mingfa 明法) or experts in Yin-Yang phenomena and natural portents (ming yinyang zaiyi 明陰陽災異, see magicians).
Most candidates had to participate in "public" discourses the themes of which were determined by the emperor and which should demonstrate the political knowledge of the participants. Experts in the Classics (mingjing) had to undergo an examination requiring "anwers pronounced quickly as arrows go" (shece 射策). The annual examinations included such for primary candidates and such for persons already serving (lianli ke 廉吏科). The examination for "cultivated talents" (xiucai) was first a special test, but became an annual regular one in the late Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE).
The selection was usually presided by a regional inspector (cishi 刺史) who was responsible for the quota system in provinces (zhou 州) and commanderies. During the reign of Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (r. 25-57 CE), whose personal name was Liu Xiu 劉秀, this examination was renamed maocai 茂才 because xiu was a taboo word.
Candidates having passed the xiaolian examination were not directly appointed to an office, but first served in the Imperial Palace—often in the night watch (suwei 宿衛)—in order to learn more about administrative matters and in order to further evaluate their competence. Only after selection (xuanba 選拔) they were appointed to local offices like district magistrate (xianling 縣令) or manager of a princely household (zhang 長, cheng 丞, xiang 相) or in the central government. After successful service, a promotion to the post of regional inspector or governor might be offered. The book Hanjiuyi 漢舊儀, surviving in fragments, reports that under Emperor Wu, candidates having passed the examination were appointed attendant gentlemen (langzhong 郎中), and then, after successful evaluation, promoted into the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu 尚書), or to the post of palace attendant (shizhong 侍中) or attendant censor (shiyushi 侍御史) (Gao 1997).
This procedure was further cemented in the early Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE). Experience in practical service became a prerequisite for further promotion—barring the most talented candidates. The first decision to tie the quota of candidates to the size of the local population was made in 85 CE. In the commanderies and princedoms (wangguo 王國, guo 國), 5 candidates for the mingjing examination were to be presented per 100,000 persons, and for leftover numbers less than 100,000 people, 3 persons. Emperor He 漢和帝 (r. 88-106) reduced this quota to one candidate for each 200,000 persons. In smaller commanderies, the quota was to be fulfilled in two-year intervals, and in very small units of less than 100,000 inhabitants, every three years a candidate would be presented.
In 132 CE, the government dediced that average graduates (xiadi zhe 下第者) of the mingjing examination were appointed (bu 補) trainees of erudites (boshi dizi 博士弟子) in the National University (taixue 太學). In 147 CE, graduates of the other examinations with an age of 16 sui and more were given the same right. The status of trainee would give them the option to participate in the mingjing examination. A newly introduced examination was the "apprentice examination" (tongke 童科) for boys between 12 and 16 sui. Graduates were made *apprentice gentleman (tongzilang 童子郎).
In 132, Zuo Xiong 左雄 (d. 138 CE), Director of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu ling 尚書令), suggested that candidates for the "elevation of filial and incorrupt" persions (xiaolianju 孝廉舉) had to be younger than 40 sui. Moreover, their family background came into the focus of examination. Scions of average households were checked concerning their "family laws" (zhusheng shi jiafa 諸生試家法), i.e. the mastering of Confucian propriety, while the government requested of offsprings of literati families a test of the family's literary abilities as seen in official documents produced by them (wenli ke jianzou 文吏課箋奏). The quota system of official recruitment was thus a combination of recommendation by local officials and an examination carried out by the central government.
Until the early years of the Later Han period, the quota system was carried out in a coherent and strict way. Abuse was even punished, and the person responsible for the appointment or promotion of "unworthy" persons were punished by dismissal or demotion. The success of the system can be seen in the confirmation that "many a high official came out of this system" (ming gong ju qing duo chu zhi 名公巨卿多出之). In the 2nd century CE, the political power of eminent families (haoqiang 豪強, haomen 豪門, menfa 門閥) grew, and they were able to enforce the appointment or promotion of their offspring. A common saying from that time held that
|Promoted "cultivated talents" cannot read,
Selected "filial ones" live separated from their fathers,
The "pure ones" from poor backgrounds are dirty like mud,
And "good officers" chosen for high positions are shy like hens.
Sons of eminent families were in fact appointed to offices whose rank corresponded to the rank of the family according to the nine-rank system (jiupin zhongzheng zhi 九品中正制). "Filiality" or "pureness" was in this system not a matter of individual persons, but of their family clusters. The negative side of this system is reflected in contemporary writings as Wang Fu's 王符 (83-170) Qianfulun 潛夫論 or the Daoist book Baopuzi 抱樸子. The outcome of this system was that "no scion of a poor family was in high offices, and no son of an eminent family had a humble post" (shangpin wu hanmen, xiapin wu shizu 上品無寒門，下品無世族).
During the Three Empires 三國 (220~280 CE) and Jin periods 晉 (265-420) the quota system remained formally the normal way for access to the officialdom. Emperor Wen 魏文帝 of the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265) fixed a quota of one "filial-incorrupt person" for each 100,000 inhabitants of a commandery, and abolished the ceiling age of 40 sui for the entry of official career. The Jin dynasty created the discursive test (duice 對策) for the xiucai examination. It consisted of five parts (wu ce 五策) and included written discussions about the Classics as well as the writing of a treatise (lun 論). Only those having successfully answered all five questions were made appointees.
The Eastern Jin 東晉 (317-420) fixed a quota of one "filial-incorrupt" person annually per commandery, with the exception of the commanderies of Danyang 丹陽, Wujun 吳郡, Guiji 會稽, and Wuxing 吳興 which had to present two persons per year. The province of Yangzhou 揚州 would have to provide two "cultivated talents" (xiucai) per year, the other provinces only one, or one every three years.
Emperor Ming 宋明帝 (r. 465-472) of the Liu-Song dynasty 劉宋 (420-479) changed the conditions of the xiucai test by giving grades. Candidates passing all five questions were called "primus" (shangdi 上第), those succeeding in thee or four questions "average" (zhongdi 中第), and those having just passed in two questions, were given the grade "fair" (xiadi 下第). All others failed.
It is known that the various regimes in north China in the 4th and 5th centuries made use of the system. The xiucai examination consisted of five questions, the xiaolian test of 10 paragraphs, of which 8 were to be answered with success. Commanderies were divided into such of 1st-class and 2nd-class provinces (shangzhou 上州, xiazhou 下州, shangjun 上郡, xiajun 下郡), the former having a quota of one xiucai candidate per year, the latter one every three years.
The Han-period custom to have appointees first serve in the imperial palace to train them was abolished. Most graduates were directly appointed erudites (boshi 博士), assistants in the Palace Library (bishulang 祕書郎), editorial directors (zhuzuolang 著作郎), supernumerary gentleman cavalier attendants (yuanwai sanji shilang 員外散騎侍郎), audience attendants (fengchaoqing 奉朝請) or district magistrates (xianling) or petty officials (liaoshu 僚屬) in the central civilian administration (gongfu 公府), the military administration (junfu 軍府), the princedoms or the provincial administration (zhoufu 州府).
The aspect of recommendation lost its importance during the Southern and Northern dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600), and the central examination won prominence. This trend resulted in the creation of the civil examination system during the Tang period for which candidates could enrol by themselves and were not dependent on a recommendation. At the same time, the strict quota system was given up. This decision drastically enlarged the pool of candidates the central government could chose from.