Examinations for admission to the Imperial bureaucracy were introduced by the Ly kings in the eleventh century as part of a range of reforms that served to underpin the nation’s stability for several centuries. Vietnam’s exams were based on the Chinese system, though included Buddhist and Taoist texts along with the Confucian classics. It took until the fifteenth century, however, for academic success, rather than noble birth or patronage, to become the primary means of entry to the civil service. By this time the system was open to all males, excluding “traitors, rebels, immoral people and actors”, but in practice very few candidates outside the scholar-gentry class progressed beyond the lowest rung.

First came regional exams, thi huong, after which successful students (who could be any age from 16 to 61) would head for Hanoi, equipped with their sleeping mat, ink-stone and writing brush, to take part in the second-level thi hoi. These national exams might last up to six weeks and were as much an evaluation of poetic style and knowledge of the classic texts as they were of administrative ability; it was even felt necessary to ban the sale of strong liquor to candidates in the 1870s. Those who passed all stages were granted a doctorate, tien si, and were eligible for the third and final test, the thi dinh, or palace exam, set by the king himself. Some years as few as three tien si would be awarded whereas the total number of candidates could be as high as six thousand, and during nearly three hundred exams held between 1076 and 1779, only 2313 tien si were recorded. Afterwards the king would give his new mandarins a cap, gown, parasol and a horse on which to return to their home village in triumphal procession.

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