The Culture of Exams in Chinese History: The Big Picture

On November 13, 2012, Mark Elliot, a historian at Harvard University, took to the pages of The New York Times to address an old them: the use and abuse of history in contemporary political discussion. Elliot was responding to a previous op-ed by Chinese political scientist Zhang Weiwei, titled “Meritocracy vs. Democracy.”[1] As the title suggests, Zhang advocated a view of the Chinese past, and by association the Chinese present, as a meritocracy based on an objective standard, the imperial exam (keju 科举). Under this view, a young man of talent, no matter his family background could, with hard work and a bit of good fortune, pass through the different levels of the exam system and enter the bureaucracy. Zhang links past and present and argues that “consistent with this tradition, Beijing practices—not always successfully—meritocracy across the whole political spectrum.”[2] Elliot disagrees with this idealized conception. Citing several decades of scholarship, he holds that the exam system was hardly a “ladder of success” and that “a majority of elites in imperial China relied on means other than “merit” to succeed politically. Like political elites in Western societies, Chinese elites “depended on family connections and material resources.”[3] In a powerful closing paragraph, Elliot argues that the real continuity in Chinese history is not the history of “meritocracy” but “the strong hold that the Chinese state continues to have over much of China’s (and not only China’s) intelligentsia.”[4]

These two op-eds about China’s past, present and future is, for the student of Chinese history in particular, a remarkable exchange that shows how academic debates spill over into the press. After all, one rarely finds reference to Ho Ping-ti, Benjamin Elman and a recently completed doctoral dissertation about the sale of offices during the Qing dynasty on the pages of the The New York Times. But the work of these academics, obscure beyond the narrow confines of Chinese history, hit at a point that as crucial in imperial times as it is today with the college entrance exam and civil service test: who really has a shot at doing well? Are these exams vehicles are vehicles that provide opportunities or do they just reaffirm the power of the few, privileged and connected? It’s a big topic, almost unanswerable, but here are is a brief introduction to a few important works by historians on the nature of the Imperial Civil Service Exam.

The first really important academic work in English on the exam system The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911 (1962) by Ho Ping-ti, found a great deal of social mobility in Chinese society, with individuals and families gaining and losing positions in the bureaucracy after success or failure on imperial examinations. Ho Ping-ti, looking at the biographies of over 12,000 jinshi (進士) degree holders in addition to a larger number of shengyuan (生員) and juren (舉人) in the Ming and Qing dynasties, concludes that “the status system was fluid and flexible and there were no effective legal and social barriers which prevented the movement of individuals and families from one status to another.”[5] In any debate about social mobility, categories and standards are key. Ho Ping-ti asks whether any members of the male-line in the previous three generations—the candidates’ father, grandfather or great-grandfather—held office. With this standard in mind, he finds a great deal of social mobility in the early Ming and a rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger style narrative of success through the exam system that gets challenged, but not completely destroyed, by a growing population and increased competition during the Qing dynasty. In fact, he locates a divide around 1450. Before this time wealth did not determine exam success and could only provide resources for studying. After this point the Ming began to sell offices and the link between wealth and office became more direct, though he insists that up until the Taiping rebellion of the 19th century, “the state had always made the exam the primary and the sale of offices the secondary channel of mobility.”[6] Through he recognizes the increasing importance of wealth as a determining factor in entrance to the bureaucracy, Ho comes to a provocative conclusion when he judges that “it is inconceivable for a nation as large and as pragmatic as China to have perpetuated an institution if it were truly a sham.”[7] These interpretations established the parameters for future scholarship and, as we can see in The New York Times op-ed by Zhang Weiwei, still carry some weight in terms of cultural resonance.

The work of John Chaffee in The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China (1985) and Robert Hymes in Statesman and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-hsi, in Northern and Southern Song (1986) respond to and try to build on the work of Ho. Chaffee believes the standard of social mobility used by Ho—office holders in the previous three generations of the male line—obscures and overlooks other types of important relationships, lineage groups, marriages, siblings and presupposes “the nuclear family as the significant social unit.”[8] Instead of directly confronting Ho on the social mobility debate, Chafee aims to elide it and focus on the “connections between the exam institution and society” and to put “an emphasis upon the social functions of the exam system and people’s perception of it.”[9] To focus only on issues of social mobility, Chaffee argues, overlooks the exam system as an institution of “social and intellectual control, and imperial symbolism.”[10] This is a view that in many ways is a harbinger to Benjamin Elman’s volume to be addressed later. Robert Hymes is more explicit in critiquing the methods and definitions of debates surrounding social mobility and proposes a new way to examine the social strategies of participants in the exam system. He thinks “the whole enterprise of dividing jinshi into to neatly distinct groups and measuring their relative proportions may be simply misfounded.”[11] Instead of looking at these “rates of movement” within the office holders that express social mobility in a comparatively static language of statistics, Hymes holds that “it may be more useful to study how men made use of whatever connections they had, or how they created new connections—to study means and strategies.”[12]  Carrying out his own call, Hymes tracks the strategies and structures of how families win and maintain elite status and finds by the middle of the Southern Song a growing importance of the locality in elite self-conception and, importantly, a separation of the elite from the state, as more outlets and occupations evolved for males family members outside the bureaucracy. Together this two works begin to ask new questions and look at the examination system in a different way, not focusing solely on the question of social mobility.

Benjamin Elman builds on Chaffee and Hymes work and most directly critiques Ho Ping-ti’s thesis concerning the social mobility inherent in the exam system. A massive volume based on years of research and examination of new materials, including a detailed analysis of examination questions and answers, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China (2000), addresses a number of aspects of the civil service exam and provides rich details of how candidates studied for, took, worried about and reflected on the exam system. Despite the breadth of the book, Ho Ping-ti’s arguments concerning social mobility linger throughout the volume. Elman first faults Ho on a narrow, methodological level but uses this point to expand the critique. By taking successful exam candidates and working backwards to trace their lineage, Elman thinks that Ho’s study suffers from survivorship bias. Focused on the successful candidates, Ho ignores those who did not succeed but were still shaped by the exam system. Elman thinks the experience of the unsuccessful candidates is crucial because it connects to “exam life,” the “rituals of preparation and it stages of success” that “tied to a complex and interrelated process of political, social and cultural reproduction.”[13] The last word is key. Reproduction is the opposite of mobility. Building on this point, Elman holds that previous scholarship “concealed the process of social selection that resulted from an exam regime designed to measure the merits of literati by testing classical learning” and formed “a linguistic barrier between those licensed to compete and those who were kept out.”[14] Though the exams were theoretically open to all, Elman thinks the content and linguistic challenges of the exam excluded ninety percent of the population. Taken together, Elman advocates a view emphasizing the power relations inherent in the exam system and the disciplinary nature of the process of preparing for and taking tests. In fact, Elman goes so far as to term the exam compound itself as “cultural prisons” that when not in use resembled “ramshackle prisons without inmates.”[15] With this view in mind, the exam system was not an avenue of mobility. Instead it was a “flawed but well-oiled ‘educational gyroscope’ whose intense self-centered motion every two to three years was the sine qua none for gentry officials and aristocratic rulers to maintain their proper balance and direction vis a vis society at large.”[16] Ultimately, for Elman, the exam system is not a vehicle for mobility but a mechanism for reproducing cultural power.
So where does this all leave us? Then and now, the pessimist might pack up his quill or pen, resign himself to the fact that failure is inevitable while the optimist might keep his head in a book and his thoughts on his goal. The real significance of the imperial exam system, the Gaokao, and the civil service exam, then, is whether or not people buy into the possibility of success.


[1] Zhang Weiwei, “Meritocracy Versus Democracy,” The New York Times, November 9, 2012.

[2] Zhang Weiwei, “Meritocracy Versus Democracy.”

[3] Mark Elliot, “The Real China Model,” The New York Times, November 13, 2012.

[4] Mark Elliot, “The Real China Model.”

[5] Ho Ping-ti. The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911(New York: Columbia, 1962), 257.

[6] Ho, 51. For an article of some interest on the practice of selling offices in the Qing dynasty after the Taiping Rebellion see Elisabeth Kaske, “Fund-Raising Wars: Office Selling and Interprovincial Finance in Nineteenth-Century China,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Volume 71, Number 1 (June 2011): 69-141.

[7] Ho, 258.

[8] John Chaffee, The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 10.

[9] Chaffee, 10.

[10] Chaffee, 13.

[11] Robert Hymes. Statesman and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-hsi, in Northern and Southern Song (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 41.

[12] Hymes, 41.

[13] Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China  (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 123.

[14] Elman, 239.

[15] Elman, 194.

[16] Elman, 293.

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  1. Pingback: So you want to be a Government Official?–Meeting the Basic Requirements | The Licentiate's Ledger

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