Kwagŏ: The Civil Service Examination

Crane (Embroydered),
Courtesy of the National Folk Museum of Korea

Written by Hur Joon, Sogang University
Translated by Michael Kim

During the Chosŏn period, the government used a system of merit examinations in order to recruit talented government officials. In doing so, the government not only stressed the Confucian value of education, but also helped consolidate the power of the central government. These exams became a vehicle for social advancement, prestige, wealth, and power. They also stressed the importance of Neo-Confucian teachings, thereby inculcating them into Korean society.

Basic Explanation and Purpose

The Korean word, kwagŏ, refers to the system of civil and military service examinations designed to recruit government officials from among the population. The tests were originally designed to promote a merit-based bureaucracy. In other words, Kwagŏ’s purpose, in theory, was to staff the administrative positions of the kingdom based on a person’s ability rather than their rank or status. Legally, anybody within the Chosŏn Kingdom could sit for the exams. However, in practice, only men with aristocratic (yangban) family histories had the means and education to successfully pass the exams.

The government exams began as early as the Unified Silla period (668 – 935 CE), but were not truly implemented until the Kŏryo dynasty (918 – 1392 CE). This strong push for implementation came towards the dynasty’s end when provincial gentry enjoyed a sense of semi-independence from the Koryŏ central court. These gentry gained this semi-independence through the ability to take taxes from the commoners and hold influential government posts through family connections. As such, the aristocratic gentry, or yangban, became a decentralizing force that drained power and influence from the fledgling king.

After the fall of the Koryŏ Kingdom and the rise of the Chosŏn Kingdom, the Chosŏn rulers sought to minimize the power and influence of these powerful aristocrats in a number of ways. Chosŏn rulers began by conducting a kingdom wide land reform. This land reform took away the powerbase of many of the influential clans. Next, Confucian scholars required that government officials pass a merit based exam to enter into government service. By using merit exams, the Chosŏn founders helped weed out inept and dissenting officials by replacing them with new administrators schooled in Neo-Confucian thought. In doing so, the king strengthened the power of the central government.

Kwagŏ was implemented more systematically and thoroughly during the Chosŏn period than in any other period in Korean History. The kwagŏ exams were divided into three broad categories: the civil service examinations (mungwa), the military examinations (mugwa), and the miscellaneous examinations (ch’apgwa).

The Civil Service Exams

The civil service examinations were the most prestigious of all the examinations. The exam system split into two tiers, the lower and the higher exams. For the lower exams, candidates could take either the classics exam (saengwŏn) or the literary exam (chinsa). The classics exams tested the candidate on their knowledge of the Confucian canon, and the literary exams tested the candidate on their ability to write in various forms of prose and poetry. Some candidates took both exams; however, passing either exam qualified the candidate to move on to the upper level of exams.

The higher exams were restricted not only to a small number of students each year, but also by a stringent set of rules. Only two hundred forty candidates were allowed to sit for the higher exams every three years. However, the ministry in charge of the exams (the Ministry of Rites) periodically administered special exams in order to allow for more testing. Within the higher exams, candidates had to complete three levels of testing in order to fully pass the exams. The first two levels (ch’osi and poksi), like the lower level exams, tested candidate on both his knowledge of the Confucian classics and on his ability to write. For these tests, the candidate sat in small cells for several days to guarantee privacy and integrity of the testing process. After completing their individual tests, professional copiers rewrote each candidate’s test to ensure that the exam graders would not recognize the candidate’s calligraphy style. Upon passing these two levels the candidates entered the last stage of testing.

Candidates sat for their last stage of testing (chŏnsi) in the presence of the king. For this section of the test, the court provided a problem essay to gauge the candidate’s ability to use the Confucian classics to manage political problems. During each exam year, only thirty-three candidates passed this final level of testing. Each candidate that passed the exam received a certificate and flower headdress. They also had a high chance of receiving an official government post. In addition, the candidate with the highest score on the exam (changwŏn) received special honors. This tradition continues in South Korea today as the highest scorer on the Korean equivalent of the SAT receives national recognition.

The Military Exams

Although much of the prestige and attention of the examination system and government bureaucracy focused on civil service, the military exams played an important role in recruiting capable men to fill its ranks. Candidates began their testing by demonstrating their skills of warfare. For example, candidates had to master archery skills using different types of arrows as well as demonstrate their shooting ability while riding mounted on a horse.

Upon the successful completion of the physical testing, candidates were tested on military theory and the Confucian classics. Although they did not need to know the Confucian classics to the extent of the civil servants, they were required to know the basics of each text. Moreover, the testing did require that the candidates have in-depth knowledge of the Chinese military classics like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Historically, several important military leaders, including Yi Sun-shin, used this knowledge to successfully defeat enemy forces. These exams also helped relatively poor or lower status yangban better their situation.

The Miscellaneous Exams

The miscellaneous examinations recruited technical specialists to serve the royal court under the civil and military officials. Only members of the chungin or middle people could take these tests. This class of technocrats lived in the middle of the capital city and usually only married within their own class. While not as wealthy and influential as the yangban class, these chungin were still considered upper class by many commoners

Chungin class could test into four main departments. They included translation, medicine, law, and geomancy (a field related to astrology, geography, and divination). In these examinations, the applicants were tested in their understanding of technical literature. They also had to demonstrate their skills pertinent to their field. Translators were tested on their ability to translate foreign languages and mathematicians on their ability to solve arithmetic problems.