The examination helped to shape China's intellectual, cultural, political, shopping, arts and crafts, and religious life. The increased reliance on the exam system was in part responsible for Tang dynasty shifting from a military aristocracy to a gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats. Starting with the Song dynasty, the system was regularized and developed into a roughly three-tiered ladder from local to provincial to court exams. The content was narrowed and fixed on texts of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. By the Ming dynasty, the highest degree, the jinshi (Chinese: 進士), became essential for highest office, while there was a vast oversupply of holders of the initial degree, shengyuan (生員), who could not hope for office, though these were granted social privilege. Critics charged that the system stifled creativity and created officials who dared not defy authority, yet the system also continued to promote cultural unity. Wealthy families, especially from the merchant class, could opt into the system by educating their sons or purchasing degrees. In the 19th century, critics blamed the imperial system, and in the process its examinations, for China's lack of technical knowledge and its defeat by foreign powers.
The influence of the Chinese examination system spread to neighboring Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan (though briefly) and Ryūkyū. The Chinese examination system was introduced to the Western world in reports by European missionaries and diplomats, and encouraged the British East India Company to use a similar method to select prospective employees. Following the initial success in that company, the British government adopted a similar testing system for screening civil servants in 1855. Other European nations, such as France and Germany, followed suit. Modeled after these previous adaptations, the United States established its own testing program for certain government jobs after 1883.
Although, in a general way, the formative ideas behind the imperial exams can be traced back at least to Zhou dynasty times (or, more mythologically, Yao), such as imperial promotion for displaying skill in archery contests, the imperial examination system in its classical manifestation is historically attested to have been established in 605, during the Sui dynasty; which in the quickly succeeding Tang dynasty was used only on a relatively small scale, especially in its early phase. However, the structure of the examination system was extensively expanded during the reign of Wu Zetian: the impact of Wu's use of the testing system is still a matter for scholarly debate. During the Song dynasty the emperors expanded both examinations and the government school system, in part to counter the influence of military aristocrats, increasing the number of those who passed the exams to more than four to five times that of the Tang. Thus the system played a key role in the selection of the scholar-officials, who formed the elite members of society. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the system contributed to the narrowness of intellectual life and the autocratic power of the emperor. The system continued with some modifications until its 1905 abolition under the Qing dynasty. Other brief interruptions to the system occurred, such as at the beginning of the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. The modern examination system for selecting civil servants also indirectly evolved from the imperial one.
The operations of the examination system were part of the imperial record keeping system, and the date of receiving the jinshi degree is often a key biographical datum: sometimes the date of achieving jinshi is the only firm date known for even some of the most historically prominent persons in Chinese history.
Tests had a lengthy historical background in Chinese thought, including evaluating the potential of possible people to fill positions through various contests, competitions, or interviews: even as early as the Zhou dynasty promotions might be won through winning archery competitions. Much of the development of the imperial bureaucracy in the Confucian form in which it was known in later times had much of its origin in the Han dynasty rule of Han Wudi (Emperor Wu of Han). Through the Three Kingdoms and the Sui dynasty recruitment would be viewed as basically a bottom-up process: promotions being generally through preferment from the local and lower levels of government up to each successively higher level until recommendations finally might be offered to the emperor himself, in continuation of the Zhou idea that the lower levels of government were responsible for finding recruits for the higher ones.