Royal Examinations in Vietnam
Road to Honour and Fortune of Scholars
© Minh Tran
Oct 16, 2007
In Vietnam in the past, the Royal Examinations were major events because they proved the abilities of the scholars as well as decided the chief officials of the country.
As the name suggests, the Royal Examinations were examinations organized by the court to recruit learned people for administrative positions in the government. The first Royal Examination was held in 1075 under the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong. In the Ly Dynasty, the Examinations were organized only when the court needed mandarins. Thus the interval between two Examinations could be up to 40 years. In the Tran Dynasty, the Royal Examinations became more frequent: one examination every seven years. The Tran Kings also standardized the structure of the Examinations and the classification of candidates who passed. In the Le Dynasty, the interval between two Royal Examinations was reduced to three years, a practice maintained until the last Royal Exam in 1919. Besides the scheduled Royal Examinations, there were also irregular Examinations organized to celebrate important events such as the coronation of a new king. When the French colonists came to Vietnam, the Royal Examinations were deemed obsolete and were completely abolished in 1919.
Before the Royal Examination actually takes place, there are selective tests in the provinces that every first time candidate has to pass to earn the right to participate in the Examination. A typical Royal Examination has 3 rounds: huong (the regional round), hoi (the national round), dinh (the round determining the best candidates of that examination). The huong round is held in the main town of each region, the hoi round is held in the capital city and the dinh round is held at the Royal Palace. Within each round there are 3 or 4 parts that the candidates must pass in sequence to qualify for the next part and ultimately complete the round. The candidates who pass the huong round attain the title cu nhan and can be appointed a position in the local government if they choose to work for the court instead of participating in the hoi round of the Examination or pursuing another career. Those cu nhan who attend the hoi round will have to undertake a journey which can be very long and fatally dangerous from their homeland to the capital city. Those who pass this round will be awarded the title tien sy (also called thai hoc sinh in Tran Dynasty) and will be invited to join the dinh round to compete for the top three positions of the Examination.
As the Vietnamese society under the rule of kings was organized and managed after Confucian principles and philosophy, the officials were required to be learned in Confucianism, which was reflected in the Royal Examinations. The candidates were asked about the classics of Confucianism and the history of China and Vietnam. They also had to compose poems on specified themes and express their views about state affairs. The exam questions were given by the ministers of education. In the dinh round, the questions were often given by the king himself. The exam papers were written in Han characters and language, the official writing system and language of the kingdom.
The Royal Examinations were the road to fame and fortune opened to everyone, even those who come from the lowest classes, as long as one was learned enough and had a clean profile. In a society strongly influenced by Confucianism like Vietnam, the intellectual were highly respected and those who succeeded in the competitive and prestigious Royal Examinations had a considerably prominent place in the society. Indeed, many of the laureates were virtuous and talented people who made remarkable contributions to the country like the author and politician Nguyen Trai, the mathematician Luong The Vinh and the scientist Le Quy Don.
Duong Quang Ham, “The Essential History of Vietnamese Literature”, Center of Educational Resource, 1968