The Golden Rice Bowl

The civil service is still seen as a safe career option by many, if one can surmount the high bar for entry. (Artwork by Yan Nanfei)

The civil service is still seen as a safe career option by many, if one can surmount the high bar for entry. (Artwork by Yan Nanfei)


NANJING — On Nov. 30, roughly 900,000 people across China sat through the national civil service examinations, which is also known as the Guokao (国考), including several students from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. Nearing the end of their penultimate semester at the Center, second-year MA students are (or should be) considering career options after graduation. For Chinese students, the civil service is one option, for which they must take the Guokao. This intensely rigorous examination is the first stage of beginning a career in the civil service. The next stage is a more specialized test specific to each department, followed by an interview with the final applicants.

The Guokao is actually one of several tiers of civil service examinations that take place annually. After the Guokao will come the Shengkao (省考), the provincial civil service exam, followed by the Shi’kao (市考), the municipal civil service exam. This system mirrors, and is a continuation of, the old Imperial examination system in which candidates from all backgrounds competed for the chance to begin a prestigious career in government service. This system of meritocratic selection of administrators has a pedigree stretching back over a thousand years, predating any equivalent system in Europe or the Middle East. The system was briefly abolished towards the end of the Qing Dynasty because the material on which applicants were tested – classical texts, ancient poetry, and calligraphy – had little relevance to the challenges China faced at the beginning of the 20th century.

The modern civil service exam is very different from its precursors. It no longer requires detailed knowledge of classical literature as the older exams did. Instead, it has become more of a general knowledge test, albeit a very rigorous one, with over a hundred and thirty questions on everything from politics, geography, and history, to mathematics, chemistry, and reading comprehension. Apparently, there was even a section on common knowledge. “The preparation process was especially strenuous,” said Pan Meng, a second-year MA student who took the test, “but I really got to know more about subjects like history, geography, and politics which I used to be familiar with in high school. It was a good way to pick up knowledge that I’d learned years ago but gradually forgot.”

In spite of the rigorous preparation needed beforehand, most students from the Center who took the exam were ambivalent about the civil service as a career. A job in government service is still seen as a “golden rice bowl”, particularly by older generations of Chinese, but it appears to have less appeal to younger Chinese. The daunting reputation of the Guokao’s difficulty is one factor which puts off many potential applicants; some of the students who initially planned to take the exam, having passed the initial screening process, ultimately decided not to sign up.

Another factor is the availability and attraction of alternative careers. In ancient China, Imperial examination candidates would spend years preparing for the examinations before they could take it. If one was to invest that amount of time and effort on preparing for the exams, one had better be dead-set on a career in government. Today, the civil service is just one of many career options available in modern China. “The decision to take the exam is mostly influenced by parents, who still think it is highly prestigious for their child to find a position in the government,” said Gong Yaochen, another second-year MA student who took the exam, “but since there is a chance to enter the civil service system (we call it the “golden rice bowl”), why not have a try? I will be neither too happy nor too disappointed when I learn my exam results because there are still many opportunities besides the civil service.”

The civil service still retains a strong reputation as a safe career path, but given the availability of other career options, most of the students I spoke to who took the exam were doing so merely to test their aptitude, and were not particularly set on a career working for the government.

The examinees will receive their results sometime in January. We at The SAIS Observer wish them the best of luck.