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Full Access The Civil Examination System in Late Imperial China, 1400–1900

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The Civil Examination System in Late Imperial China, 1400–1900

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Scholars often contend that civil examinations were what made imperial China a political meritocracy. They point to the examination system to show that the selection process served more as a common training program for literati than as a gate-keeper to keep non-elites out. Despite the symbiotic relations between the court and its literati, the emperor played the final card in the selection process. The asymmetrical relations between the throne and its elites nevertheless empowered elites to seek upward mobility as scholar-officials through the system. But true social mobility, peasants becoming officials, was never the goal of state policy in late imperial China; a modest level of social circulation was an unexpected consequence of the meritocratic civil service. Moreover, the merit-based bureaucracy never broke free of its dependence on an authoritarian imperial system. A modern political system might be more compatible with meritocracy, however. One of the unintended consequences of the civil examinations was creation of classically literate men (and women), who used their linguistic talents for a variety of non-official purposes, from literati physicians to local pettifoggers, from fiction-writers to examination essay teachers, from Buddhist and Daoist monks to mothers and daughters. If there was much social mobility, i.e., the opportunity for members of the lower classes to rise in the social hierarchy, it was likely here. Rather than “social mobility,” this phenomenon might be better described as a healthy “circulation” of lower and upper elites when compared to aristocratic Europe and Japan.


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