Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China

Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China

Benjamin A. Elman
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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    Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China
    Book Description:

    During China's late imperial period (roughly 1400-1900 CE), men gathered by the millions every two or three years outside official examination compounds sprinkled across China. Only one percent of candidates would complete the academic regimen that would earn them a post in the administrative bureaucracy.Civil Examinationsassesses the role of education, examination, and China's civil service in fostering the world's first professional class based on demonstrated knowledge and skill. Civil examinations were instituted in China in the seventh century CE, but in the Ming and Qing eras they were at the center of a complex social web that held together the intellectual, political, and economic life of imperial China. Local elites and the court sought to influence how the government regulated the classical curriculum and selected civil officials. As a guarantor of educational merit, examinations tied the dynasty to the privileged gentry and literati classes--both ideologically and institutionally. China eliminated its classical examination system in 1905. But this carefully balanced, constantly contested piece of social engineering, worked out over centuries, was an early harbinger of the meritocratic regime of college boards and other entrance exams that undergirds higher education in much of the world today.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72604-8
    Subjects: History, Education, Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Conventions (pp. ix-xii)
  4. [Maps] (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction (pp. 1-10)

    This volume integrates the history of late imperial China with its history of classical education and civil examinations. It stresses the role education played in Chinese society and the significance of the civil service in approximating the world’s first political meritocracy in political, social, and intellectual life. The history of traditional education and imperial civil examinations before the rise of the Chinese “Republic” provides us with a prism of analysis to delineate the complex relation between classical ideals of individual merit and historical processes of education, learning, and socialization from 1400 to 1900.

    Probing beneath the educational ideals enunciated by...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Ming Imperial Power, Cultural Politics, and Civil Examinations (pp. 13-45)

    Since the early empire of Qin and Han (ca. 221 BCE–220 CE) and the medieval era of Sui and Tang (581–907), China’s government balanced between the emperor and bureaucracy. The interests of each dynasty were never uniformly decided in favor of the ruler or his officials. Nor was there an essentialized “state” that served the emperor and his court without resistance from the bureaucracy and the scholar-officials serving there. Nevertheless, the late imperial government was in important ways semiautonomous from the landed gentry elites who filled the bureaucracy via civil examination success. The ruling house maintained its pedigree...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Ming to Qing: “Way Learning” Standards and the 8-Legged Essay (pp. 46-92)

    Public ceremonies honoring emperors as imperial teachers accompanied the testing and selection of candidates for public office. Once they were cut down to literati size, both the Hongwu and Yongle emperors accorded graduates with both sociopolitical status and cultural prestige. Thereafter, classical literacy, the mastery of “Way learning,” and the ability to write terse but elegant examination essays publicly identified the literation the final lists of graduates. The civil service competition successfully created a dynastic curriculum which consolidated gentry, military, and merchant families empire-wide into a culturally defined status group of degree-holders sharing a common classical language and memorization of...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Circulation of Ming-Qing Elites (pp. 95-125)

    Analysis of the structure and process of late imperial examinations reveals that the success of the Ming system lay in its elaboration and reform of Song-Yuan civil examination models. After the 1350–1450 economic depression, the history of the civil service was, on the one hand, a story of the expansion and intensification of its institutional machinery from the capital to all 1,350 counties. Intense commercialization from the mid-to the late Ming and slow but steady demographic growth reaching 231 million subjects by 1600 contributed to this expansion. On the other hand, the secular upsurge in numbers of candidates, which...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Classical Literacy in Late Imperial China (pp. 126-146)

    Classical literacy played a central role in late imperial China. As the official language of the bureaucracy, it helped to define social status in Chinese society until 1905. Given the absence of any “public” schools in Ming-Qing times, the social and geographical origins of civil examination graduates correlate quite closely with private education in lineage schools, charity and temple schools, or at home. In such venues, young men acquired the classical training needed to pass local licensing and renewal examinations. Once licensed, a successful candidate entered local dynastic schools in counties, townships, or prefectures. An official place in dynastic schools...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Anxiety, Dreams, and the Examination Life (pp. 147-210)

    Young and old brought different experiences into the examination compound. The rituals of success lured the immature. Repeated failures tortured older men still seeking an elusive degree. Their emotional tensions, based on years of hopeful preparation for boys, and even more years of bitter defeat for men, represented the human response to the dynasty’s examination compounds. Its venues were places of opportunity for the youths trying to break in and “cultural prisons” for the old men who never made it out.¹ Mental pressure to succeed molded individual character. For most, persistence, symbolized by the career ofoptimusZhang Jian (see...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Limits of Dynastic Power (pp. 213-249)

    Part II of this volume has shown that imperial authority in Ming-Qing China was conveyed via classical literacy and cultural resources through the accredited cultural institutions of the Ministry of Rites, the Hanlin Academy, and civil examinations, which in turn transmitted the moral teachings of “Way learning.” The ruler often tried to transform his elites into a service class, but in the end a partnership was usually the result. Tang rulers proudly observed the grand sight of new palace graduates in procession after the rankings were posted. Tang Taizong (r. 627–650) exclaimed: “The world’s most outstanding men have entered...

  12. CHAPTER 7 From Ming to Qing Policy Questions (pp. 250-279)

    Examiners had long subordinated policy questions(lit., “questions on the classics, histories, and current affairs”jingshi shiwu ce)to the 8-legged essays on the Four Books and Five Classics (see Chapter 2). As a result, historians have overlooked policy questions and missed their long-term evolution from the Former Han dynasty to the end of the civil examinations in 1905. These two millennia of policy questions should be evaluated in light of the examination essays that began in the Song and the 8-legged essay that lasted for 400 years. Policy questions reflected the intellectual vicissitudes from the early and middle to...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Curricular Reform: From Qing to the Taipings (pp. 280-322)

    In the late eighteenth century, evidential research penetrated civil examinations empire-wide through the initiatives of examiners who were tied to the Yangzi delta and other southern literati. During the Qianlong reign, they embraced evidential techniques as a legitimate textual means to restore ancient classical learning. Court ministers tied to the Imperial Library such as Ji Yun also stressed Han dynasty sources for the examination curriculum as a whole. Beginning in the 1740s, officials in the Hanlin Academy and the Ministry of Rites debated a series of new initiatives that challenged the classical curriculum in place since the early Ming. As...

  14. APPENDIX 1 Dates of Chinese Dynasties (pp. 323-324)
  15. APPENDIX 2 Emperors of the Great Ming (1368–1644) (pp. 325-326)
  16. APPENDIX 3 Emperors of the Great Qing (1644–1911) (pp. 327-328)
  17. Abbreviations (pp. 329-332)
  18. Notes (pp. 333-386)
  19. Acknowledgments (pp. 387-390)
  20. Index (pp. 391-402)


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