It was during the Han Dynasty under Confucian scholar Dong Zhong Shu's persuasion that Emperor Wu (r. 140-68 BC) canonized the five Confucian classics as teachings of the state, created an imperial academy and instituted the civil service examinations as a nascent tool of talent recruitment. The examination system was theoretically posited as the means by which "scholastic achievement and dedication to public service, and not noble birth, [would be cemented] as the requisites for entrance into officialdom." (Hansen 127) But this single piece of rhetoric on impartiality and egalitarian Confucian ideals actually betrays a lack of commitment towards meritocracy and even hidden political agenda. For is "scholastic achievement" even an egalitarian measure of the right to officialdom? Might there not be a paradox in the concept of an "exam-based meritocracy," given the inherent advantages that wealth and family background can confer on a candidate? The examinations were clearly targeted against those of "noble birth."
[...] In fact, as Elman argues, “what was so unique about this conscious effort by the state to develop instruments for social control and political efficacy, was its remarkable success in accomplishing its [veiled] goals.”(23) The civil service examination effectively legitimated the differentiation of Chinese society into autocratic rulers, Confucian gentry-officials and illiterate (or rather, non-classically literate) commoners. Whether or not these met goals were in the long run productive for society, is certainly a pertinent question that arises. For these exams certainly made for a stagnant society that suffered from an absence of talent renewal in the bureaucracy, and its sterility was quite possibly an institutional obstacle to the modernization of China. [...]
[...] The Song had employed education to bring about “social transformation from a medieval aristocracy to a gentry society.” Once Confucianism was established as the ideology of the bureaucrats, the Ming and Qing emperors then used education as a mechanism for maintaining the status quo. For example, the content of civil service examinations was made even more subordinate to elite literary culture with the strict requirement that all essays were to be composed in a rigid parallel prose known as the “eight-legged essays.” (ba gu wen) Ostensibly introduced to provide a standard form for uniformity in marking, the genre was in reality not only intentionally baffling for merchants, peasants and artisans unschooled in elite discourse, but also a ploy to “discourage original thinking on the part of the scholars of empire.” (Lui 393) Since examination success was predicated on the mastery of this consuming and difficult prescribed form, the scholar would have little time and incentive to pursue other branches of knowledge that might deviate from the political uniformity that the state was trying to enforce. [...]
[...] As the civil service examination route became increasingly popular, the scholar-official families were able to find, in the provision of these special preliminary examinations, their greatest form of protection from the overwhelming competition in the open examinations. Restricted to the relatives of officials, these avoidance examinations (bie shi), were theoretically designed to combat nepotism by ensuring that the commoners would not be subjected to the same adjudication that might privilege the elite sons. But because the avoidance exam quota ratios were much more attractive when compared to the 1/100 or worse of prefectural exams, the very measure to promote fairness was subverted by official families for their own ends. [...]
[...] As Elman emphatically asserts, the civil service examinations had become a “powerful educational gyroscope whose intense self-centered motion was the sine qua non for [both] gentry officials and aristocratic rulers to maintain their proper balance and direction vis-à-vis the society at large.” What was particularly threatening to the talent renewal was the meritocratic guise that the examinations afforded: “trial by examination based on linguistic competence in classical Chinese, concealed the preliminary process of social elimination that took place even before the examinations were administered.” The “best and the brightest” that the exams supposedly sieved out, were essentially member of the scholar- official class in monopolistic possession of “cultural and linguistic resources”. [...]
[...] It must first be noted that the civil service examinations did not become the primary mode of official recruitment until the Song Dynasty. Despite extolling the many meritocratic virtues of examinations, the Han court continued to recruit officials largely by recommendations. Local governors would nominate talented young men for either their gift at record-keeping (xian liang) or high moral rectitude (xiao lian). (The more subjective measure was notably more frequently employed- nearly 300 were nominated each year based on their “moral standing”.) The nominees only sat for exams upon arrival in the capital: it was merely an administrative exercise that placed candidates in the appropriate entry-level positions. [...]
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