Civil Service

Topics: Qing Dynasty, China, Imperial examination Pages: 13 (3502 words) Published: January 7, 2013
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Comprehensive index starts in volume 5, page 2667.

Civil Service Examinations
Kējǔ ​ 举 科

The civil service examination system, a method of recruiting civil officials based on merit rather than family or political connections, played an especially central role in Chinese social and intellectual life from 650 to 1905. Passing the rigorous exams, which were based on classical literature and philosophy, conferred a highly sought-after status, and a rich literati culture in imperial China ensued. ivil service examinations connected various aspects of premodern politics, society, economy, and intellectual life in imperial China. Local elites and the imperial court continually influenced the dynastic government to reexamine and adjust the classical curriculum and to entertain new ways to improve the institutional system for selecting civil officials. As a result, civil examinations, as a test of educational merit, also served to tie the dynasty and literati culture together bureaucratically. Premodern civil service examinations, viewed by some as an obstacle to modern Chinese state-building, did in fact make a positive contribution to China’s emergence in the modern world. A classical education based on nontechnical moral and political theory was as suitable for selection of elites to serve the imperial state at its highest echelons as were humanism and a classical education that served elites in the burgeoning nation-states of early modern Europe. Moreover, classical examinations were


an effective cultural, social, political, and educational construction that met the needs of the dynastic bureaucracy while simultaneously supporting late imperial social structure. Elite gentry and merchant status groups were defined in part by examination degree credentials. Civil service examinations by themselves were not an avenue for considerable social mobility, that is, they were not an opportunity for the vast majority of peasants and artisans to move from the lower classes into elite circles. The archives recording data from the years 1500 to 1900 indicate that peasants, traders, and artisans, who made up 90 percent of the population, were not a significant part of the 2 to 3 million candidates who usually took the local biennial licensing tests . Despite this fact, a social byproduct of the examinations was the limited circulation in the government of lower-level elites from gentry, military, and merchant backgrounds. One of the unintended consequences of the examinations was the large pool of examination failures who used their linguistic and literary talents in a variety of nonofficial roles: One must look beyond the official meritocracy to see the larger place of the millions of failures in the civil service examinations. One of the unintended consequences of the examinations was the creation of legions of classically literate men who used their linguistic talents for a variety of nonofficial purposes: from physicians to pettifoggers, from fiction writers to examination essay teachers, and from ritual specialists to lineage agents. Although women were barred from taking the exams, they followed their own educational pursuits if only to compete in ancillary roles, either as girls competing for spouses or as mothers educating their sons.

© 2009 by Berkshire Publishing Group LLC


Berkshire Encyclopedia of China

Pu Songling (1640–1715), a failure many times himself, immortalized the travails of those trapped in the relentless machinery of late imperial civil service examinations in his many stories that parodied the examination system. His most famous portrait sketched “The Seven Likenesses of a Candidate”: A licentiate taking the provincial examination may be likened to seven things. When entering the examination hall, bare-footed and carrying a basket, he is like a beggar. At roll-call time, being shouted at by officials and abused by their subordinates,...
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