Jinshi 进士 was the highest degree in the Imperial China, conferred by the Emperor every three years to those who passed the rigorous and competitive Imperial examinations. It usually identified with the year the candidate had passed:
嘉靖二十六年進士, which was year 1547, conferred by Emperor Jiajing
咸豐十年進士, which was year 1860, conferred by Emperor Xianfeng
Many considered it as the modern day PhD. The difference is PhD degree is awarded by each accredited university around the world annually while Jinshi awarded every three years to a handful men. In 1860 when my great great grandfather was conferred by Emperor Xianfeng. He ranked 11th, out of 189 candidates (the population was 430 million).
In the past few millenniums, the scholars, farmers, artisans and trademen was the social pecking order in China, and literary excellence was the passport to all high posts in the government. Men sought official positions either by merit or purchase as the mean of enriching themselves. However the following three degrees were never for sale:
– Jinshi 进士, meaning presented scholar, a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations
– Juren 举人, means recommended man, was the successful candidate in the imperial examinations at the provincial level. given every three years was equalvent of a master degree, and
– Xiucai 秀才, means licentiate who passed the imperial examination at the county level ever year was the bachelor degree.
Many men would chase their Imperial Exam dreams 赶科场 well into their seventies, sporting a head of silver hair.
The Imperial Examination was all about literature, narrow scope, impractical nature, rigid conformity and yielded only a tiny pool of candidates, nevertheless was the only passport into China’s bureaucracy where fortunes could be gathered. This corner stone of Chinese political and cultural life continued for 1300 years, ending in 1905 was admired by the west and widely speculated as the blue print for the 1855 competitive written examinations for the entry into the British civil service, and 1883 for the United States.