During the Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907) periods, shengyuan 生員 "government student" was a term referring to students enrolled (yiye 肄業) at a national school and obtaining a scholarship. The number of government students was fix. Those enrolled at the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) were called university students (jiansheng 監生). Others were enrolled at the National University (taixue 太學).
From the Song period 宋 (960-1279) on there was a clear difference between Directorate students and the more general government students. During the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods the term shengyuan was used for students who had passed all levels of examinations up to that of the prefectural level. They were also called with the old designation "cultivated talents" (xiucai 秀才). As long as they had not passed the provincial examination (xiangshi 鄉試), students had no more rights than commoners.
In 1369 Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398) ordered that each first-class prefecture (fu 府) care for the scholarships of 40 students, each second-class prefecture (zhou 州) for 30, and each district (xian 縣) for 20 students. Each of them was granted a monthly allowance of 6 dou 斗 (see weights and measures) of grain. Another term to refer to this "multitude" of low-level students (zhusheng 諸生) was "salaried students" (linsheng 廩生, linshansheng 廩膳生, linshan shengyuan 廩膳生員).
In places where the number of scholarships surpassed the regulated quota, such additional students were called zengsheng 增生 (i.e. zengguang shengyuan 增廣生員). They obtained a place in a school, but no allowance. Further increases of scholarship places (and likewise no monthly allowance) were given to "appended students" (fusheng 附生, fuxue shengyuan 附學生員).
The Qing dynasty took over this custom, but there was no nation-wide quota anymore for each district or prefecture. The scholarship was monetized, with a monthly amount of 4 tael/liang of silver as "nourishment pay" (linqi yin 廩餼銀). If excelling in annual local examinations, fusheng could raise to the status of zengsheng, and the latter to that of linsheng. The latter again could be promoted to the status of tribute student (gongsheng 貢生), which gave them the possibility to obtain a place in the Directorate of Education. Young "apprentice" students (tongsheng 童生) had the right to seek the protection of a scholarship student to support them economically in case of need. This custom was called "protection by a scholarship [student]" (linbao 廩保).
Sons of Bannermen (see Eight Banners) were also allowed to apply for a scholarship. These were the Banner government students (baqi shengyuan 八旗生員 or baqi xiucai 八旗秀才). Manchu and Mongolian members of the Banners were examined in a joint test carried out by the Imperial Household Department (neiwufu 內務府) and the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部). These institutions tested whether the examinees were able to read Manchu and Chinese texts, and they had to translate a Chinese text into Manchu; those not mastering Chinese had to write an essay. Chinese members of the Banners were examined by the state academy (xueyuan 學院) of Shuntian 順天 (i.e. the prefectural name of Beijing), with a catalogue similar to that of Chinese non-Banner government students. The quota of scholarships was 300, with 120 for Manchu students, 60 for Mongols, and 120 for Chinese Bannermen. This regulation was fixed in 1651, but until 1670, the number of scholarships was reduced to 40 persons for each of the three groups. In 1672 a new rule was introduced which allowed the best among the students to enroll directly at the Directorate of Education, with 2 places for Manchus and Mongols each, and one place for a Chinese Bannerman. From 1677 on Banner students could enroll as the Banner school students (baqi guanxuesheng 八旗官學生) directly.
The term sheng-jian 生監 is an aggregation of the words shengyuan "government students" and jiansheng "university students". Both refer to students enrolled at a government school, the former to local schools, the latter to the National University.