8 Unintended Consequences of Classical Literacies for the Early Modern Chinese Civil Examinations

In: Rethinking East Asian Languages, Vernaculars, and Literacies, 1000–1919


Was imperial China a meritocracy? If so, were civil examinations an important part of what made it a meritocracy? Did the standard training program in the classical language serve as a gatekeeper to keep non-elites out? Due to the symbiotic relations between the court and its officials, the asymmetrical relations between the powerful throne at the center and its disparate elites nonetheless empowered elites to seek upward mobility through the classical language. But true social mobility (i.e., peasants becoming officials) was never the goal of the imperial state. The modest level of social circulation enabled by a classical education was a precocious harbinger of the unifying power of a common written language in the early modern world and an unexpected consequence of the meritocratic civil service.By limiting their focus to the civil examination graduates, earlier accounts of the civil service failed to tell us what classical literacy meant for the vast majority of candidates (over 90 percent of whom failed!) or the society at large. To see the larger place of the classical language in Chinese society, we must look beyond the official meritocracy of the graduates and their immediate families. One of the unintended consequences of the civil examinations was the creation of millions of classically literate men and women, perhaps 10 percent of the population (200–250 million in 1600), who used their linguistic talents for a variety of nonofficial purposes, becoming hereditary doctors or classically trained literati physicians, local pettifoggers, fiction writers, and examination essay teachers. If there was much social mobility (i.e., the opportunity for members of the lower classes to rise in the social hierarchy), it was likely here. The archives indicate that peasants, traders, and artisans, who made up over 90 percent of the population, were not among those 100 annual or 50,000 total palace graduates between 1371 and 1904. Nor were the lower estates a significant part of the two to three million who failed biennial licensing examinations. What many who follow P’ing-ti Ho mean by the anachronistic term "social mobility" might be better described as a “healthy circulation” of lower and upper elites via classical literacies.