The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911

(Columbia University Press:NY, 1962)

by Ping-ti Ho (pinyin: He Bingdi) (何炳棣)

One cannot long study pre-Modern Chinese society, or even read a story set in Imperial China, without running into references to the Chinese imperial bureaucracy's "examination system." This and other commonplaces in the stories and histories of China, leave a reader with a usually somewhat vague sense of the workings of a highly formalized system of testing that was in place for much of China's history, and that might have been the envy of the Educational Testing Service, if ETS had ever had a sense of how truly grandiose it might have become with a bit more imagination, subterfuge, cool brush pens and a society that accepted poetic talent as the sure mark of a leader.

Usually, one hears of this system and is left with the impression that the Chinese bureaucracy was, at its heart, a "meritocracy." Founded on largely Confucian notions — especially a long tradition of Chinese thought on how best to ensure that "superior" people would rise to positions of power and influence, based largely on their accomplishments, learning and wisdom — by the time of the Last Qing Emperor, who abdicated in all but name in 1911, this system had metastasized into a creature very hard to describe in simple terms. This system was almost certainly very different from what one imagines Confucius and the other renowned sages of Chinese antiquity had in mind when they conjured up their varied notions of how Chinese civilization should be structured and safeguarded.

Opinions may differ on the details, but few contemporary scholars or Chinese intellectuals spare much nostalgia for this system. By its end in 1911, the system had devolved into an elaborate structure that mainly guaranteed a bureaucracy marred by widespread nepotism, institutionalized timidity, interpersonal intrigue that rivals or surpasses what the West came to call byzantine, plus a "pay for play" system that today's lobbyists might very well drool over with envy. Examination rankings (and the jobs that went with them) were frequently purchased with little ceremony or sense of impropriety. Sometimes exams themselves could be taken by a proxy, at least if one's family had the financial means and connections to "work the system" in favor of a particularly dim-witted son.

Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's Gladiator-at-Law and much of their Space Merchant-related collaborations are set in a highly stratified society that is very reminiscent of the setting for many a Chinese novel. The lesser-known Cordwainer Smith, who happened to be Sun Yat-sen's (孙中山) godson, based many of his stories and novels in situations that closely parallel these aspects of Chinese Imperial society, particularly for those connected to government service.

Despite extreme levels of corruption, though, the system did sometimes allow brilliant individuals of low birth to rise within the ranks of Chinese society, at least within the service of the bureaucracy.

Many contemporary critics of the "old" China tend to lay considerable blame on this system for the intellectual stagnation and ossified nature of Chinese society, as well as the tendency the system had for squashing innovation and risk-taking behavior. The system resembled many of the worst features of the U.S. military's "proficiency report" system, where caution and extreme avoidance of risk tend to be rewarded far more readily than results, personal accomplishment or actual work performance. However, even the worst American bureaucracies tend to pale in comparison to the seemingly endless stories of opportunities shunned in favor of playing it safe and politically-aware within the ranks of the Chinese bureaucracy.

This book is an excellent, relatively short overview of the system, how it was structured, its history and evolution, the dynamics of both upward and downward mobility within it and much more. It also contains numerous anecdotes and "case studies" of individual careers as they were recorded in public records and other historical documents. It is not a screed against the system, but an attempt at a balanced and fairly objective analysis of the system's structure, strengths, weaknesses and its transformation over the more than 500 years the author takes as the scope for his study.

And, while concentrating chiefly on events and details after 1368, the early chapters sketch out a portrait of the events, history and social philosophy that led to the formalization of the examination system as practiced during the Ming and Qing dynasties, for which considerable detailed records of Imperial day-to-day business, promotions and examinations results (and scandals) survive in detailed form. The starting year for the study, then, is 1368 — not because the bureaucracy was started then, but because that is the year generally accepted as the start of the Ming Dynasty, and that is the year for which comprehensive records at an individual level still remain fairly intact and reliable, as primary source materials for analysis.

The book is fairly well-laden with tables and percentage breakdowns of things like the percentage of high offices that were won through examination alone and those offices that were simply purchased by members of established, wealthy families. Such a statistical approach would be more than a little suspect for a period where relatively few records survive.

The beginnings of the meritocracy, in Ho's view, can be traced back at least as far as 134 BCE, which he notes as the year in which local and regional authorities were first formally pressed to report and recommend individuals of merit to the officials of the central bureaucracy of the Han Dynasty. This is also an approximate date by which a rough consensus had been reached between competing schools of thought within Chinese social philosophy, at least where the idea of a meritocracy was concerned.

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