Book Release

Monday, Nov 16, 2015
by ahepler

he following book by Professor Benjamin Elman will be out from Harvard University Press in fall 2013.


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” provide 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 to1900.

Scholars often contend that civil examinations were an important part of 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 more modern political system, such as that of the Singapore city-state, 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. Archival sources reveal that peasants, traders, and artisans, who made up over 90% of the population, were not among those 100 annual or 50,000 total Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) palace graduates from 1400 to 1900. Nor were they a significant part of the two million or so who failed examinations at lower levels every two years. What many who follow P’ing-ti Ho mean by "social mobility" might be better described as a healthy “circulation” of lower and upper elites when compared to aristocratic Europe and Japan,.

Factoring in the healthy dimensions of the merit-based selection process for imperial China, despite its autocratic excesses, we can assume that the current debate about combining the best of democracy and meritocracy should not be ruled out a priori. Neither the Ming nor Qing dynasty every construed its politics that way, but it may be that electoral credentials and merit-based selection are compatible.