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China Examination Systems

Delegitimation And Decanonization

After 1860 radical reforms were initiated to meet the challenges of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) and Western imperialism. The Taipings instituted their own Christian-based civil examinations. In the last years of the Qing dynasty, the civil examinations lost their cultural luster and became the object of ridicule by literati officials as an unnatural educational regime that should be discarded. During the transition to the Republic of China, new political, institutional, and cultural forms emerged that challenged the creedal system of the late empire.

The emperor, his bureaucracy, and literati cultural forms quickly became symbols of backwardness. Traditional forms of knowledge were uncritically labeled as superstition, while modern science was championed by new intellectuals as the path to knowledge, enlightenment, and national power. Most representative of the changes was the dismantling of the civil examination regime that had lasted from 1370 to 1905.

By dismantling imperial institutions such as the civil examination system so rapidly, Chinese reformers and early republican revolutionaries underestimated the public reach of historical institutions that had taken two dynasties and five hundred years to build. When they delegitimated the institutions all within the space of two decades starting in 1890, Han Chinese literati helped bring down both the Manchu dynasty and the imperial system of governance. Its fall concluded a millennium of elite belief in literati values and five hundred years of an empirewide imperial orthodoxy.


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Benjamin A. Elman

Additional topics

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