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China Examination Systems

Power, Politics, And Examinations, Literacy And Social Dimensions, Fields Of Learning, Delegitimation And Decanonization

Civil examinations in late imperial China (1400–1900) intersected with politics, society, economy, and Chinese intellectual life. Both local elites and the imperial court influenced the dynastic government to reexamine and adjust the classical curriculum and to entertain new ways to improve the system for selecting officials. As a result, civil examinations represented a test of educational merit that served to tie the dynasty and literati culture together bureaucratically.

Civil examinations were not an obstacle to modern state building. 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. Gentry and merchant status groups were defined in part by examination degree credentials. Although civil examinations themselves were not an avenue for widespread social mobility, nevertheless a social by-product was the limited circulation of elites in the government from gentry, military, and merchant backgrounds.

In addition, the large pool of examination failures created a source of literary talent that flowed easily into ancillary roles as novelists, playwrights, pettifoggers, ritual specialists, and lineage agents. The unforeseen consequences when the civil examinations were summarily eliminated by modern reformers in 1905 reveals that late imperial civil examinations represented a partnership between the dynasty in power and its gentry-merchant elites. Imperial interests and literati values were equally served. They fell together in the twentieth-century Chinese revolution.

Late imperial examinations broke with medieval (650–1250) poetic and literary traditions and successfully made "Learning of the Way" (Neo-Confucianism) the state orthodoxy. The intersections between elite social life, popular culture, religion, and the mantic arts reveal the full cultural scope and magnitude of the examination in 1,300 counties, 140 prefectures, and 17 provinces. These testing sites elicited the voluntary participation of millions of men—women were excluded—and attracted the attention of elites and commoners.

Its demise brought with it consequences that the last rulers of imperial China and reformist gentry underestimated. The Manchu Qing dynasty was complicit in its own dismantling after the forces of delegitimation and decanonization were unleashed by reformist Chinese gentry, who prevailed in late-nineteenth-century education circles and convinced the imperial court to eliminate the entire examination institution in 1904.

Reform of education and the elimination of examinations in China after 1905 was tied to newly defined national goals of Western-style change that superseded conservative imperial goals of maintaining dynastic power, granting gentry prestige, and affirming classical orthodoxy. Since the Song-Yuan-Ming transition (1250–1450), the struggle between insiders and outsiders to unite the empire had resulted in over four hundred years of so-called barbarian rule over the Han Chinese. With the Republican Revolution of 1911, that historical narrative ended.

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