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China Examination Systems

Literacy And Social Dimensions

The monopolization of cultural resources by literati and merchant elites depended on their linguistic mastery of nonvernacular classical texts. Imperial examinations thus created a written linguistic barrier between those who were allowed into the empire's examinations compounds and classical illiterates who were kept out. Because there were no public schools, the partnership between the court and the bureaucracy was monopolized by gentry-merchant literati who organized into lineages and clans to provide superior classical educations.

Language and classical literacy played a central role in culturally defining high and low social status in late imperial Chinese society. The selection process permitted some circulation of elites in and out of the total pool, but the educational curriculum and its formidable linguistic requirements eliminated the lower classes from the selection process. In addition, an unstated gender ideology forbade all women from entry into the examination compounds.

Literati regularly turned to religion in their efforts to understand and rationalize their emotional responses to the competitive examinations. Examination dreams and popular lore spawned a remarkable literature about the temples candidates visited, the dreams that they or members of their family had, and the magical events in their early lives that were premonitions of later success. Popular notions of fate influenced the examination marketplace and were encoded as cultural glosses with unconscious ties to a common culture and religion.

Anxiety produced by examinations was a historical phenomenon, experienced personally and deeply by boys and men. Fathers and mothers, sisters and extended relatives, shared in the experience and offered comfort, solace, and encouragement, but the direct, personal experience of examination success or failure belonged to the millions of male examination candidates who competed with each other against difficult odds.

The civil service competition created a dynastic curriculum that consolidated gentry, military, and merchant families into a culturally defined status group of degree holders that shared a common classical language, memorization of a shared canon of classics, and a literary style of writing known as the "eight-legged essay." Internalization of elite literary culture was in part defined by the civil examination curriculum, but that curriculum also showed the impact of literati opinion on imperial interests.

In addition to helping define literary culture, the examination curriculum also influenced the literatus's public and private definition of his moral character and social conscience. A view of government, society, and the individual's role as a servant of the dynasty was continually reinforced in the memorization process leading up to the examinations themselves. For the literatus, it was important that the dynasty conformed to classical ideals and upheld the classical orthodoxy that literati themselves had formulated.

The bureaucracy made a financial commitment to staffing and operating the empirewide examination regime. Ironically, the chief consequence was that examiners could not take the time to read each individual essay carefully. Final rankings, even for the eight-legged essay, were haphazard. We should guard against overinterpreting the classical standards of weary examiners as a consistent or coherent attempt to impose orthodoxy.

An interpretive community, canonical standards, and institutional control of formal knowledge were key features of the civil examination system. The continuities and changes in linguistic structures and syllogistic chains of moral argument in the examination system reveal an explicit logic for the formulation of questions and answers and an implicit logic for building semantic and thematic categories of learning. These enabled examiners and students to mark and divide their cognitive world according to the moral attitudes, social dispositions, and political compulsions of their day.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideChina Examination Systems - Power, Politics, And Examinations, Literacy And Social Dimensions, Fields Of Learning, Delegitimation And Decanonization