Classicist (mingjing 明經) was a category according to which local authorities selected able candidates for recommendation to appointment for state offices. The term was created during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and given up in the early Song 宋 (960-1279), when the examination system became the predominant way of selecting candidates. All candidates eligible for official appointment or for enrolment at the National University (taixue 太學) were to be familiar (ming 明) with the Confucian Classics (jing 經). It seems that the term was introduced under the reign of Emperor Wu 漢武帝, when Confucianism became state doctrine and the Classics were canonized. Many high officials like Gong Sui 龔遂 or Zhai Fangjin 翟方進 (d. 7 BCE) had begun their career as classicists.
In 85 CE a quota was introduced for the recommendation of classicists, with 5 candidates for each 100,000 inhabitants of a commandery, or 3 in case of a smaller commandery. Candidates could also be recommended by high officials in the central government. Appointment to an office was only possible after an assessment of the abilities by an examination (shece 射策). Zhao Xinchen 召信臣 or Wang Jia 王嘉 (d. 2 BCE), for instance, passed the examination with the grade A (jia ke 甲科, best of three), and were appointed court gentlemen (lang 郎). Many classicists were appointed erudites (boshi 博士) at the National University or were made instructors (wenxueguan 文學官).
The category of classicist did not play a role during the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin 晉 (265-420) periods, but won again importance during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589), mainly for filling places at the National University (at that time called guozixue 國子學). Those with the highest grade in the entrance examination (shece) were called gaodi 高第.
During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) classicists and "presented scholars" (jinshi 進士) were the two categories of candidates by which offices were staffed. At that time the category of classicist was much more detailed than before, and their professionality was much more emphasized. There were classicists excelling in five of the Classics (wujing 五經), three Classics (sanjing 三經), two of them (erjing 二經), one book (xue jiu yi jing 學究一經), the three ritual Classics (sanli 三禮) or the three commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals (sanzhuan 三傳). In the examination the candidates were presented one phrase of the Classic they were experts in (called tiejing 帖經 "slip from the Classics"), and were ordered to recite the full text of the paragraph and to explain the meaning of it. They were also asked questions on present affairs.
In 742 the Daoist book Laozi 老子 was eliminated from the curriculum and replaced by the glossary Erya 爾雅, which was in turn replaced by questions to judicial matters in 786. During the Yuanhe reign-period 元和 (806-820) the oral examination (kouyi 口義) was replaced by a written one om a question-and-answer mode (moyi 墨義). The result was one of four grades, depending on which an office was offered. This examination was much easier than that of the presented scholars, and the status of the classicists was accordingly much lower. While just one or two per cent of the presented scholars passed the examination, it was 10 to 20 per cent in the case of classicists.
During the Song period, classicists still had a different examination procedure than the presented scholars and the general candidates (zhuke 諸科). They underwent a large examination (dayi 大義) and a palace examination (dianshi 殿試) and had to answer ten questions to the Classics, each for one, and three to contemporary affairs. The reformer Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067-1085) abolished in 1071 the classicist examination as well as that of the general candidates.
The term mingjing was later occasionally used to refer to the tribute students (gongsheng 貢生) in local schools.