Today is the gaokao (高 考) when parents across China send their senior high school students off to take the most important exam of their lives, offering such helpful, encouraging words as “If you do badly your mother will die in a pauper’s grave.” Clearly in today’s China-A-Go-Go, competition for elite, urban jobs is intense. You don’t want to be left behind in a rapidly stratifying society, and since most families have only one shot at exam success, let’s just say there are a few stressed-out teenagers and parents around town this morning.
As hard as the gaokao is, it’s nothing compared to the ordeal of the imperial civil service examination. For three days, exam candidates were locked in a cell and forced to write formulaic essays that required instant recall of the entire canon which is ironic because despite their “Confucian” content, these kinds of examinations are not to be found in the original Confucian classics. In fact, given Confucius’ emphasis on moral rectification and reflection, he probably would have seen the cramming and rote memorization of form that became the imperial examination system as somewhat antithetical to his goals of becoming a “man of humanity.”
And the exams were tough. Scandals were common; as were mental breakdowns. Throughout the imperial period there was all manner of cheating-bribery, ringers, crib sheets, prep books, even full suits of underwear with the entire text for the Confucian classics written out in tiny characters. I remind my students of this every year: There really was no form of academic shadiness unfamiliar in the examination hell (I mean, “halls”) of Imperial China.
The basic form of the examinations changed over time but by the Qing Dynasty, there were three levels: A county-level exam, a provincial level exam, and a final nationwide exam held every three years at the capital. Even passing the lowest level could give the examinee considerable benefits including the right to address officials directly without kneeling and also an exemption from capital punishment while in court. (Given the vagaries of local power, this sort of unhindered access to official and judicial channels was an extremely valuable asset.) Passing the higher levels gave the candidate eligibility for important-and sometimes quite lucrative-offices and sinecures in the national bureaucracy. It was a very big deal.
Exams had been used since the reign of Han Wudi, but the ‘exam culture’ didn’t develop fully until the Song Dynasty (960-1276). It was then that the examinations were opened to (almost) any male who wished to take them. During the Han and Tang, the exams were limited mostly to the scions of aristocratic families, but in the Song the doors to elite status were thrown open to anybody…anybody, that is, who had the time, means, money, books, and tutors to memorize the complete Confucian canon by rote. Obviously, this was something of a stumbling block for your average poor farmer. In later periods, those with money were even able to ‘buy’ a lower-level degree and thus jump the queue a bit in the examination process, an advantage that would have been prohibitively expensive for most families.
But the myth of success was ever-present. Down until 1905, when the exams finally ended, one would hear stories of the poor struggling farmer whose whipper-snapper son aced the exams and became a high official, and bestowed a fortune upon his struggling parents and supportive family and village.
Hey, in the US anyone can become president, right? But for every Obama, we’ve had two Bushes. Is the process open to anyone? Sure. Does it really help to have money and connections? Absolutely.
And so it was in Imperial China. One of the most debated topics in the field of Chinese history is just how much social mobility was there in the imperial period. Early PRC historians would have said, “None. It was a feudal society where the landed elite oppressed the masses. Long live Chairman Mao.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, Western historians of China took a different view, arguing that many of the successful exam candidates in the Song came from ‘new families’ without any degree-holders among their direct ancestors. At the root of these arguments is a characterization of imperial Chinese society as socially and politically meritocratic and, in these ways, more ‘modern’ than Europe would become until much later. (A view actually not unknown in early modern Europe. European Sinophiles such as Voltaire praised the system on the basis of its perceived meritocracy and openness.)
More recent research has complicated both the depressing judgments of Marxist/Maoist historians and the starry-eyed romanticism of Voltaire.
Certainly there are cases of non-official families educating their sons for the exam and then benefiting from their successful entrance into the bureaucratic elite. This was particularly true when the restrictions on merchants’ children taking the exam were relaxed. Merchants, theoretically the lowest category in Confucian society, now had a way to transform wealth into power through education.
However, it was hardly a socially fluid ‘early-modern society.’ First of all, Chinese families are large and complex. The early research proved to be too narrow in scope. Just because somebody’s dad or grandfather wasn’t an official didn’t mean that candidates couldn’t receive the benefits of a well-placed uncle or even get some help from Mom’s family. More current studies show the vast array of strategies deployed by the elites to mark and maintain their status in society.
Benjamin Elman has argued, for example, that the examinations themselves were a masterpiece for the reproduction of elite status. They persuaded all levels of society to buy in to a “Confucian Dream” that offered hope for social mobility even as it misrepresented the “objective consequences of the system.” Did some people get in from the outside? Yes. But as John Chaffee (1998) notes, this ”myth of opportunity was as important for social stability as its lie was for the elite privileged position.” In fact there have been arguments that this prevented the rise of a European-style urban bourgeoisie. In Europe (and Japan) merchants faced a hereditary aristocracy that was nearly impossible to crack. But in China, the system was open. Merchants had no reason to challenge the system because it could be made to work, if not for them, at least for their children. Think of it as “What’s the matter with Shanxi?“
This could work both ways. If there was a hope that people could move up, there was also a very real and palpable fear on the part of the elite about the possibility of downward mobility. Hence the pressure, even (if not especially) among elite families, for examination success.
It made one student (Hong Xiuquan) so crazy that he began having visions he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and led a revolution that almost toppled a dynasty and left 30 million people dead.
Remember that when you see one of the crazed “Gaokao Moms” hanging out in front of the exam center chain smoking Zhongnanhais and swilling baijiu from a sippy-cup. Nobody wants to be buried in a pauper’s grave.