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The utility of Confucianism & civil service examinations: from Han to Qing

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  1. Introduction.
  2. The civil service examinations in the Tang Dynasty.
  3. The 12th century introduction of examinee anonymity during grading.
  4. The time-consuming and expensive examination lifestyle.
  5. A threat to the talent renewal.
  6. Who the Confucian educational agenda served.
  7. The civil service examination - not an instrument to social mobility.
  8. Conclusion.

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. [...]

[...] Until the Ming dynasty, sons of merchants were not legally permitted to take the civil service examinations.[1] Occupational prohibitions also barred peasants, artisans, Buddhists and Taoists from the licensing stage, eliminating all but the culturally advantaged. This ensured that those who were actually allowed to ?compete in the competition? were a ?self-selected minority of young men from Confucian families, lineages or clans with the sufficient cultural resources to invest in their male children.? An important ?cultural resource? to possess was the grasp of classical Chinese, which in itself was a requirement that placed the commoners of later imperial China at an inherent disadvantage. [...]

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