Essay / Fairy-Tale for the Literatus: Ladder-Climbing through the Civil Service Examinations in Ming China

by Bo Zhang

edited by Anthony Kuan


The civil service examination, or keju, is considered by many scholars to be one of the great Chinese inventions. The meritocratic system of recruitment enabled talented and hardworking candidates to increase their chances at filling the various posts in the imperial bureaucracy. In turn, the examination system allowed what Elman considers “reproduction” in society (social mobility, prestige), culture (literati culture, classical values and historical mindsets) and the most important from the viewpoint of the state, politics (well-trained loyal Confucian literati-officials who served to maintain public order and administrative efficiency).[1] With the collapse of the last Chinese imperial dynasty in 1912, however, critics treated the examination system to be among the chief culprits that marked the backwardness of the Chinese. By then, the keju was understood by reform-minded intellectuals to have promoted no innovation or freedom of thought; to have stifled the bureaucracy and ultimately brought the empire to its knees. This latter opinion, of course, relies on the hindsight bias of cynical commentators and is far from accurate.

In my discussion, I seek to demonstrate that some of the well-known features of the examination system that later were subjected to severe critique in fact culminated in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), from the Yongle period (1402-1424). My questions will focus on how the keju’s various barriers created what Miyazaki calls an “examination hell” in which candidates of favourable socioeconomic and geopolitical backgrounds were more likely to succeed, and vice versa; how this examination system perpetuated the “vicious [social] cycle” and the impact it had on society at large.[2] I proceed as follows.

In part I, I introduce the examination as a main avenue to obtain, ultimately, a “jinshi” degree, and a mainstream platform for entering the “shi” stream. Part II refers to the financial, literary, and linguistic hurdles candidates of various socioeconomic and geopolitical backgrounds had to overcome. Then, in part III, I illustrate how the interconnection between private academies and the examination itself limited the ladder-climbing ambition of those with fewer educational resources. The limiting aspects of the examination system, though not necessarily invented nor unique to the Ming dynasty, had ultimately marked a crucial turning point in the development of the keju. Indeed, these aspects of the civil service examination had a great impact on Ming society, culture, and politics, as well as the intellectual and everyday lives of some millions of aspiring men, their families, and lineages.


To begin our discussion, it is important to first understand why aspiring men from the age of eighteen to sixty-five wanted to enter what Miyazaki calls an “examination hell” in the first place, when only less than one percent of the candidates would have been able to pass the final “jinshi” degree.[3] Yet, the prospect of climbing the social ladder through the keju seemed so attractive that, centuries later, we are left with countless traditional stories that told, for example, the tale of the literatus-scholar, obsessed with passing the examination, had his life ridiculed for pursuing nothing but the examinations. Fan Jin is one such character, depicted in Wu Jingzi’s satirical fiction Rulin Waishi, or The Scholars (1740-50).[4] At fifty-four, Fan had taken the examination over twenty times.[5] When he did eventually pass the prefectural examination at such “old age,” winning his place as a juren (Raised Candidate Degree), he was so stunned with ecstasy that he temporarily lost his senses. While the author intended to portray Fan’s reaction as an ironic mockery of the literati’s obsession over examination success, he also showed how much passing one level of the examination meant for a candidate who had spent decades studying the Confucian classics.[6] For poor Fan Jin, however, becoming a juren merely meant that he was qualified to participate in the next stage of the “examination hell”: the triennial metropolitan examination (huishi) held at the capital in spring. Those who passed went on to the Palace Examination (dianshi) and received the title “Literatus Presented [to the Emperor for Appointment] Degree,” or jinshi degree, which had by the Ming dynasty become more important than ever before. In Gaiyu congkao, Qing historian-scholar Zhao Yi claimed: “to be considered a candidate for important positions in the Capital, one must have acquired the jinshi degree, [the acquisition of the] juren degree alone cannot be considered.”[7] This was true not only at the imperial capital, as important posts at regional level were also frequently conferred on  those who had acquired the jinshi degree. This is due to the simple reason that there was little supply of bureaucratic posts available in a market swarming with bureaucrat hopefuls. The state had used the jinshi degree to filter out the less qualified, regardless of whether one’s examination success really translated into bureaucratic success. In very rare cases, the truly exceptional and lucky candidate, such as the prominent scholar-official, Shang Luo (1414-1486) and Yang Shen (1488-1559), reached the top prize in becoming the primus (zhuangyuan).[8] In the 276 years of the Ming dynasty, however, only ninety zhuangyuan were produced. The immense challenge and almost impossibility of reaching the ultimate success in the Ming civil service examination only attested to the prestige society attached to the scholar who succeeded in the examination. So much so that it had become an illusion to which millions of men young and old dedicated their lives in the hope of climbing the social ladder.

It is important to explain the content of the Ming civil service examinations. According to Benjamin Elman, the rough format was as follows:

Three essays on quotations from the Four Books;
One essay on a passage from one of the Five Classics;
One discourse;
Three compositions in an official document style;
Explanation of five legal terms;
Five treatises on intellectual or policy issues.[9]

Through these essays, compositions and treatises, the examination candidates were grilled intellectually on both their interpretations of the Confucian Classics (jingyi) and physically over the course of several days and nights locked inside tight examination chambers to prevent cheating. In the early Ming (1370-1425), the Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398) instituted the northern Song “learning of the Way” (i.e., neo-Confucianism as interpreted by Zhu Xi (1130-1200) as the mainstream classicism and political orthodoxy in the examinations. [10]

The Yongle Emperor inherited this model of “Way learning” not only because he wished to “appear as sage ruler, a teacher of his people, and a patron of learning.”More importantly, he used this “Way learning” to gain political legitimacy through supporting Confucian literati empire-wide. The Yongle Emperor’s cultural endeavours came to a climax in 1415 with the publication and dissemination of three projects: (1) The Great Collection [of commentaries] for the Four Books; (2) Great Collection for the Five Classics (Wujing daquan); and (3) Great Collection on Nature and Principle.[11]These three compendia produced in the Hanlin Academy enshrined “Way learning” and defined the sources that millions of candidates should use to prepare for the civil examinations in all government schools down to the county level.[12] It became the empire-wide examination curriculum reaching into 17 provinces, 140 prefectures, 1350 counties, and tens of thousands of villages.[13] The Ming emperors thus became the greatest imperial patrons to date of “Way learning.”[14] Their literati supporters could have it both ways: they used “Way learning” to restore literati influence in the government and saw to it that Cheng-Zhu learning prevailed in official rhetoric. In turn, a literatus-scholar wishing to earn his jinshi degree had to conform to the classical ideals and upheld the “Way learning” orthodoxy formulated during the Song-Yuan-Ming transition. Inculcation of values through durable training yielded what Max Weber called a process that “Confucianized sages.”[15] Institutionalizing and transmitting Confucian values through the civil service exam helped to reproduce those structures among the examination candidates. In this way, state authorization of the “Way learning” was also about the cultural transformation of the literatus into a political servant of the ruler.

By the Ming dynasty, the civil service examination had become literati-scholars’ principal avenue for joining or being selected to the guan/shi (shidafu) stream of the bureaucracy.[16] This was particularly true among those aspiring literati-officials without connections to high officials or access to the “Yin privilege,” who constituted the vast majority of those hoping to climb the social ladder through the civil examination. [17] Whether or not the examination facilitated social mobility was beyond their consideration. What mattered was that it gave the illusion that it did – and many clung onto that belief.  As Dieter Kuhn points out in his study, the examinations were designed to ensure elitism rather than promote social mobility. We will discuss each impediment the scholar might have had to face in the so-called “road to obtaining Sagehood” in detail. Yet, Yates notes, there was a contradiction between becoming a sage and gaining examination success.[18]


How much money an examination candidate or his family had and was willing to invest in his education was crucial to his examination success. Alas, the road to examination success was expensive and thus by no means all-inclusive. Circulated Ming-Qing stories told, for example, the tale of a whole village donating bits-and-pieces in order to sponsor a hardworking but impoverished scholar in the examinations and help fulfill his dream of becoming a jinshi. His success would honour the village, too.[19] However, before reaching that stage, the candidate had to first be trained in the various aspects of classical Chinese expected to have been mastered since childhood. It is important to note that because the imperial school system, especially in mid-late Ming, was limited to candidates already conversant or literate in classical Chinese, schools were oriented only to the examinations and not  elementary reading or writing. This meant that initial stages in training and preparing a son for the civil service became the private responsibility of families: they needed to invest heavily in the boy’s education, from paying teachers to the cost of replenishing his ink. Often, they sought to attain or maintain elite status as “official” families. Designation as an official household brought with it fiscal and legal privileges in the local community once the initial licensing examinations were passed. Even if higher-level provincial and metropolitan examinations were insurmountable hurdles for a young man, achieving licentiate status in the local county-level competition was sufficient social reward to merit the investment of family resources for the training required in preparation for the civil service examinations.[20] Still, most aspiring candidates and their families would have hoped for better rankings at provincial or palace levels and, ultimately, become a jinshi so as to bring honour and glory to his lineage.

The most important ability tested of the candidates was a fundamental literacy of the classical Chinese as seen in the classical texts composed some hundreds of years ago. Because of the requirement to master non-vernacular classical texts, an educational barrier was erected as the hidden curriculum that separated those licensed to take examinations and those who could not because they were classically illiterate.[21] This philological tradition had by the Ming dynasty become far detached from everyday usage. Therefore, in order to succeed in the examinations, the aspiring young scholar had to have begun learning from childhood a complex grammar and syntax exclusive to the classics. Miyazaki Ichisada estimates that by the time one mastered the Four Books and Five Classics required for the examinations, the candidate should have acquired nearly four-hundred thousand unique characters.[22] Just to memorize these characters would have taken six years, and on average two-hundred characters a day. Note that this is exclusive of characters contained in The Histories. Taking these massive tomes into consideration would have meant an additional corpus of obscure and out-of-date characters to memorize (in their detailed descriptions of earlier dynasties). Frederic Wakeman further points out that a better-than-average apprenticeship for the examinations meant the candidate had to have begun learning to write characters at the age of five; to have memorized Confucian classics such as the Four Books and the Five Classics by the age of eleven; to have mastered poetry composition at age twelve, and to have begun studying the eight-legged essay style (baguwen) thereafter.[23] Without substantial financial support, these tasks would have been nearly impossible to achieve for the young scholar who hoped to become a jinshi.

Starting from the Ming,[24] the “8-legged essay” had become the required eight-part response to civil service examinations based on the “learning of the Way.” [25]  This extremely formulaic essay was an additional hurdle posed by the examination system which favoured those from better socioeconomic backgrounds, because that often indicated one had received a better education. Indeed, the genre was infamous among examination candidates and baffling for merchants, peasants, and artisans unschooled in elite discourse.[26] Tu Ching-I claims that in the past scholars have either totally ignored this kind of essay or presented it with minimum description but maximum contempt. This is because the eight-legged essay could not be ranked as belles-lettres and that it was “responsible for China’s stagnation and backwardness in the past” (pointing particularly at the powerlessness of the Chinese before foreign invasion in the Late Qing).[27] Based on the specific eight-legged style, examiners and tutors literally followed the number of legs and counted the number of characters in an essay based on the requirements of balanced clauses, phrases, and characters. This classical grid provided examiners with a simple, “impartial” standard for ranking essays, which has rightly been labeled “a kind of stylistically formalized classicism.”[28] If a candidate could not follow these strict rules of length, balance, and complementarities, then his essay was judged inferior. One misplaced character, or one character too many or too few, in building a clause in one of the legs of the essay could result in failure. Interestingly Liu Haifeng argues that the eight-legged essay served the purpose of testing for intelligence rather than scholarship by means of complicated stylistic constraints.[29] Liu’s view is shared by Elman, who divides further these cognitive issues into an exaggerated structural commitment to formal parallelism on the one hand, and uses of analogy on the other. [30] Both aspects would have been disadvantageous to those without intensive classical training since childhood.

In addition, the aspiring young scholar would have been discriminated against based on which part of the country he came from, as well as his or his forefathers’ professional occupations. After all, in the Ming dynasty, most male commoners – particularly rural peasants, artisans and traders – were linguistically and culturally excluded from the examination market. The Mandarin vernacular and classical literacy played central roles in culturally defining social status in Ming society. The selection process permitted some circulation of elites in and out of the total pool, but the educational curriculum and its formidable linguistic requirements effectively eliminated those from marginal socioeconomic and geopolitical backgrounds from the selection process.[31]Since the Tang dynasty, the linguistic registers differentiating vernaculars, semiclassical, and classical Chinese ensured that fully classically literate scholar-officials were entering a world of written discourse in which few in local society could participate. Even those from the capital who spoke in the Ming standard dialect (guanhua) would have not been able to compete with those well-versed in classical Chinese in the examinations, let alone those who came from, say, the southwestern region of Yunnan who spoke in “unintelligible” dialects. Classical Chinese thus functioned as the lingua franca of classically educated literati.

Beyond being evaluated on their literacy, professional occupation, and geopolitical background in this “examination hell,” scholars were also expected to display exceptional calligraphy on top of the ultra-stressful state of the examination. Well-written “regular” calligraphy (kaishu) on special paper free of smudges or cut-and-paste graphs was essential. In local examinations, the students’ papers were not anonymous, and the county, township and prefectural examiners evaluated a candidate’s calligraphy as well as his essays in order to determine his character. Similarly, calligraphy was an important element in the ranking of palace graduates, where there were no copyists. While standard kaishu was used in official documents, the literatus was expected to have mastered “cursive” (caoshu), “running” (xingshu) as well as the ancient “seal” (zhuanshu) forms of writing. These forms and aesthetics they were meant to master would have been intelligible only to the most erudite.[32] This exclusive knowledge of calligraphy further confirmed that those with more affluent, elite backgrounds and greater educational resources would be better prepared for the civil service examinations.

However, in his work, Liu Haifeng suggests that the relationship between the examinations as aptitude tests and the examination results did not necessarily reflect the importance of the family background of candidates. Traditionally, the line of interpretation has uniformly been that only wealthy families had the means to support their young male members as examination candidates. Some Chinese scholars, like the geneticist Pan Guangdan, find that alternatively, it was only natural that economic endowment helped successful candidates to stand out, but what families of successful candidates contributed was actually inherited talent rather than a financial contribution that allowed them the leisure to study.[33] According to Thomas H. C. Lee, Liu and Pan’s discussion of the nature of the tests compel us to think more carefully and critically about the role of “natural” endowment, and not economic advantage, in the success of an examination candidate.[34] While this is important to note, I still think that the latter mattered for the vast majority of the examination candidates. Continued success of those with more financial and educational resources meant that elites circulated in local, provincial, and capital circles, while non-elites were limited to local groups that spoke the same dialect and shared the same traditions. For example, in their 1947 study of the Ming Palace examinations, Edward Kracke and Ho Ping-ti found that the percentage of jinshi degree-awardees whose ancestors (three-generations) belonged to the peasant class shared around 49.5%.[35] However, more recently studies speculate that these numbers might have been inflated as Kracke and Ho overlooked the hidden networks of relationship between those with “peasant” class and their relatives who might have been members of the shi class. In addition, considering the peasant population (specifically those who signed up for the examination in hopes for overturning their class) which represented the vast majority of the candidates, such a figure still shows that candidates from elite backgrounds had been disproportionately dominating the examinations. Indeed, while in theory the path to sagehood was open to all, the competitive nature of the keju kept ninety-percent of the Chinese out of the first step in the ladder of success.[36] This indicates that the resources required to tread the path to sagehood were far larger than was traditionally understood. Without money and the right socioeconomic as well geopolitical background, simply put, the young scholar would not have been able to afford the texts, training and, of course, schooling needed for examination success.


The influence of the Ming state’s emphasis on the interconnection between examination and the schools, both in terms of the state-sponsored imperial academy (guozijian) and later, private academies, should not be overlooked. In early Ming, the imperial academy played an important role in producing successful candidates at higher level examinations like the palace examination, where many jinshi were graduates of the imperial academy. This is shown by the fact that out of a total of 12,272 jinshi degrees granted in forty-four examinations between 1406 and 1574, no less than 6453 of the recipients, or 52.6 percent, were originally students of the Imperial Academy.[37] In 1499 and 1508 students of the Imperial Academy monopolized all the three “first-class honours and the honours” of being placed first in the metropolitan examinations. This particular institution thus became a major recruitment source for the civil service. The large majority of students of the imperial academy (jiansheng) were recruited from among the examination first-degree holders (shengyuan) or government students in the local schools through recommendations and examinations. Even without the benefit of immediate official appointment these jiansheng from above-average socioeconomic backgrounds still enjoyed the best library and tutorial facilities in the country. Many of them, little wonder, were connected to those occupying high offices of the state, and thus indicating their above-average socioeconomic backgrounds. Further, students of the imperial academy had to serve on internships in some government offices before they could graduate. This likely became an opportunity where the student formed a lasting connection with their superintendent-officials, who would have later supported his student protégé in his career in the imperial bureaucracy. Indeed, in the early Ming hundreds of officials appointed to mid-high offices came from the imperial academy, without having to acquire a more advanced degree through the examinations. In Ming times the status of the jiansheng as a potential official can hardly be doubted, for special recommendations, jinshi and jiansheng, and the promotion of government clerks and sub-officials were known as the three major orthodox avenues towards membership in the bureaucracy.[38]

From 1451 onward, however, the Imperial Academy’s status as a “bureaucracy feeder” began to decline due to its sale of studentships – a signal that there was a direct relationship between a jiansheng’s wealth and his so-called “success.” Of course, success in the context of Ming keju could have been both flexibly defined and achieved in various ways: although most candidates underwent the conventional route of decades of hard work, there were also many opportunists who tried to cheat through various means, or simply bribed or purchased a degree. In any case, they were replaced by local government schools and more importantly, private academies (shuyuan). In the Ming, education was for the most part monopolized by gentry and merchants who organized into lineages and clans to provide superior classical educations. The local government schools became virtually the “sole apparatus” for producing candidates of the keju.[39] At the same time, the examination system and the jinshi degree began to replace the university as the chief recruitment channel for higher offices in the central government. Elman explains this phenomenon as follows:

Imperial control over elite education was premised on the state’s prerogative to select and promote officials. In fact, the state was more concerned with organizing and codifying examination competitions than it was with setting up schools or training teachers. After creating functional units in officialdom to be filled through competitive selection, the emperor was willing to allow the actual process of education in classical Chinese and training for the examinations to drift out of state schools into the private domain of tutors, academies, or lineage schools.[40]

With the renewed emphasis on the examination and the jinshi degree by the mid-sixteenth century, the private academies (shuyuan) began gradually to take over the government schools’ role as centers for preparing for the examination for the higher degrees, and maintained this role though the late Ming.[41]

The many barriers of the examination system discriminated not only against the candidate’s socio-economic background, but also the part of the country they came from, as the state imposed a geopolitical division between those who came from the North and the South. What Liu Haifeng calls “geography of talent” has been a topic that has received relatively little attention in the West but has been of considerable interest to Chinese researchers. Because of the economic advantages and larger population in south China (especially the Yangzi [Chang] River delta), which translated into superior cultural resources for the rigorous private education needed for the examinations, candidates from the south consistently performed better on the civil service examinations than candidates from less prosperous regions in the north, northwest, and southwest. This also meant that candidates from the latter regions initially faced an even larger hurdle in the provincial examinations. Competition for successful places in the provincial examinations was 100:1 in the Southeast and only 10:1 in the Northwest.[42] This had two major ramifications for the scholars who tried to navigate the examination system as a ladder of social mobility. First, southern candidates for the palace examination were better prepared for the required literary answers. A cult of literary style emerged in the south, while northern literati emphasized substance, that is, classical doctrine.[43] In other words, there was a literati cultural distinction between the “refinement” of the Southeast and the “simplicity” of the Northwest. The less affluent North, with its relatively poorer families and lineages, was at a cultural disadvantage in a civil service competition that still tested the literary elegance of classical learning. Lineage schools in the South were jealously guarded private possessions whereby the elites of southern society in the Yangzi delta competed with each other for social, political, and academic ascendancy. Corporate estates thus played a central role, according to Elman, in “perpetuating an economic and political environment in which southern gentry and merchants [were] educationally dominant.”[44]

By the late Ming, schools for sons of merchants also emerged in the Yangzi delta.[45] This Southern dominance in the early civil examinations became a ticklish problem for the Ming Emperors. In the (in)famous case of the “North-South Proclamation” (nan-bei bang an) in the spring 1397 palace examination, the Hongwu emperor discovered that all fifty-two graduates were southern literati. Suspected of favouritism, the chief examiner Liu Sanwu alongside other readers were punished. Thereafter, examiners took careful note of the geographical background of palace candidates. A bureaucratic pigeonhole was devised to identify the geographical origins of examination papers and quotas were set up; anonymous papers classified as either “northern” or “southern.” This “pigeonhole” thus led to the second ramification of the north-south divide. In order to leverage and exploit this bureaucratic loophole in the examination system, the southern literatus could have found ways to emigrate to the north and settle there so as to assume his identity as a member of the northern society. Because of the less fierce competition in the regional examinations, his chances of being selected to participate in the metropolitan examination or becoming a jinshi would have increased. 

It has become clear by this point that what was believed by countless literati-scholars then as to have been an equal opportunity was, rather, an “examination hell” that inherently advantaged those with more favourable socioeconomic or geopolitical backgrounds. This meant that one was far more likely to succeed in the examinations if he was born into a scholar-official family from the southeast region; and maybe not so if he was born into a peasant or artisan family in rural northwest. Nevertheless, the vast majority of those who belonged to the latter category clung on to this belief that the examinations provided an opportunity for them to move from the lower classes into elite circles. The anxiety produced by examinations was a historical phenomenon that was experienced most personally and deeply by boys and men. They encoded fate using cultural glosses that had unconscious ties to popular religion. Often, they turned to religion and the mantic arts to understand and rationalize their chances of success in the competitive local, provincial, and metropolitan examinations. Examination dreams and popular lore spawned a remarkable literature about the temples that candidates visited, the dreams that they or members of their family had, and the magical events in their early lives that were premonitions of later success. Both elites and commoners used fate to describe the forces operating in the examination marketplace. Meanwhile, others who were frustrated in their cyclical failure in these examinations became cynical towards the system. This phenomenon inspired many popular fictional narratives as reality transcended into fantasy. Examination life and literati anxieties became a pervasive aspect of society and the popular imagination. Candidates were unwilling to sacrifice their decades of preparation to the dynastic interest.[46] Pu Songling (1640–1715) famously wrote a humorous and scathing critique of the examination system, called “The Seven Likenesses of a Candidate”:

A licentiate taking the provincial examination may be likened to seven things. When entering the examination hall, bare-footed and carrying a basket, he is like a beggar. At roll-call time, being shouted at by officials and abused by their subordinates, he is like a prisoner. When writing in his cell, with his head and feet sticking out of the booth, he is like a cold bee late in autumn. Upon leaving the examination hall, being in a daze and seeing a changed universe, he is like a sick bird out of a cage. When anticipating the results, he is on pins and needles; one moment he fantasizes success and magnificent mansions are instantly built; another moment he fears failure and his body is deduced to a corpse. At this point he is like a chimpanzee in captivity. Finally the messengers come on galloping horses and confirm the absence of his name on the list of successful candidates. His complexion becomes ashen and his body stiffens like a poisoned fly no longer able to move. Disappointed and discouraged, he vilifies the examiners for their blindness and blames the unfairness of the system. Thereupon he collects all his books and papers from his desk and sets them on fire; unsatisfied, he tramples over the ashes; still unsatisfied, he throws the ashes into a filthy gutter. He is determined to abandon the world by going into the mountains, and he is resolved to drive away any person who dares speak to him about examination essays. With the passage of time, his anger subsides and his aspiration rises. Like a turtle dove just hatched, he rebuilds his nest and starts the process once again.[47]

This account is, of course, fictional, but its cultural content lays out in the psychological strain that candidates experienced inside and outside the examination compounds. The simple fact is, as we have seen throughout this discussion, that the keju favoured those with favourable socioeconomic and geopolitical backgrounds. As Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron note, the gatekeeping function of the civil service examinations was an unspoken social goal of the process of selection. [48] No wonder then, many failed scholars turned to cynical and scornful mockery of not only the system, but mimicries of themselves as well.

Having discussed the various barriers the literati-scholars had to face in what was ostensibly an equal opportunity to obtaining sagehood, it becomes evident that what Miyazaki calls an “examination hell” discriminated against those with less favourable socioeconomic and geopolitical backgrounds. In other words, in order to succeed in the keju, one had to be born into the game. However, that is not to say that those from lesser backgrounds could not have succeeded in the civil service examination, at least in theory. Exceptions did occur, and, when the “literatus Cinderella” emerged –whether in reality or in fiction – false ideas about the examination as an instrument that promoted social mobility seduced  candidates all the more. That is probably why the vast majority of peasants and artisans from the lower classes in the Ming remained excluded from the elite circles dominated by literati-scholars distinguished by their classical education and identity as civil service examination candidates.

Bo Zhang is a fourth year student at McGill University studying history and politics. He likes to cook, write, sleep, eat and repeat.


[1] Benjamin Elman, “Political, Social, and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China,” The Journal of Asian Studies vol. 50, no. 1 (1991): 7-28.

[2] Kracke asked whether the civil service examinations introduced new blood into the Chinese civil service? What Kracke meant by “new blood” was the free rise of talent from non-bureaucratic families to positions of governmental responsibility. Or, on the contrary, did the body of public officials form a distinct, exclusive, hereditary bureaucratic class whose offspring tended to perpetuate the successes of their forefathers? The importance of Kracke’s question is clear. Its answer will influence basically our conception of the Chinese state and Chinese society in the Ming. It will also affect our understanding of the social and political role of neo-Confucianism, which sponsored the examination system. E. A. Kracke, “Family vs. Merit in Chinese Civil Service Examinations under the Empire,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 10, no. 2 (1947): 103.

[3] Eighteen to sixty-five is the usual age range during which one enters the examinations. They would have surely started to prepare their work well before the age of eighteen.

[4] Wu Jingzi, The Scholars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).

[5] Fan was likely referring to the second-level triennial qualifying examination (keshi, or kekao) held at the prefecture, as opposed to the first-level licensing examination, which qualified the examinee as a licentiate (shengyuan, or informally, xiucai).

[6] In the Ming, the quota for juren degrees was fixed at 90 as of 1458 (increasing to 112 in 1870), the number of candidates at the examination was 1800 in 1468), 3800 in 1607, and 11,000 in 1870. Benjamin Elman, A cultural history of civil examinations in late imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Shang Luo (1414-1486) was jointly appointed as the minister of civil service affairs as well as the Grand Secretary under the Zhongtong Emperor. Amazingly, Shang Luo was ranked first place in every stage of the examinations (sanyuan jidi). Yang Sheng (1488-1559) was the son of the Grand Chancellor Yang Tinghe. He was awarded zhuangyuan under the Zhengde Emperor. Although his prospect of bureaucratic success was evident, however, when he became involved in the Great Rites Controversy, Yang was banished to Yunnan and was not granted amnesty until his death.

[9] Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, 162.

[10] One of the Four Books, the Mencius, angered Zhu Yuanzhang. The passage in the text in which Mencius drew limits to the loyalty an official owed his ruler, “When the ruler regards his officials as the ground or the grass, they regard him as a robber and an enemy.” Mencius claimed that the ruler served the people: “The people are the most important element; the spirit of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the least important.” Afraid its views might impart the “wrong” ideas to his subjects because of its Lèse-majesté, Zhu Yuanzhang removed certain passages of the Mencius from the reading list for the keju candidates. Tu Shan, Mingzheng tongzong [Chronicle of Ming government] (Taibei: Chengwen Bookstore, 1971), 5.11a.

[11] The Ming government from Yongle onward saw to it that these editions of the “Way learning” canon were placed in schools throughout the empire. No such definitive collection had existed empire-wide prior to the Ming dynasty. Ming Hanlin academicians overdetermined, for example, the rigorous moralism that derived from the Cheng-Zhu bifurcation of heavenly principles from human desires.

[12] Benjamin Elman, Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013),182.

[13] Ibid.,3.

[14] Chan Hok-lam, Frederick W. Mote, and Denis Twitchett, “4. The Chien-Wen, Yung-Lo, Hung-Hsi, and Hsüan-Te Reigns, 1399–1435.” In The Cambridge History of China, 182–304 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 221.

[15] Max Weber, The Religion of China: Confucianism and Daoism (New York: Free Press, 1958), 104-17.

[16] Peter K. Bol, “The Sung Examination System and the Shih,” Asia Major, ser. 3, 3.2 (1990): 149-71.

[17] This was a privilege regularly accorded to certain higher officials, by which they were permitted to designate for entrance into the civil service, without examination, a specified number of relatives, and in certain cases non-relatives. Kracke, “Family Vs. Merit in Chinese Civil Service Examination Under the Empire,” 120.

[18] Robin Yates’s comments in the light of the author’s original draft.

[19] Yet, wealth itself was not considered an ultimate source of power in Ming China, for it was not equal to bureaucratic power as conferred by examination success. Ho mentions the case of Wang Tsung-chi, a millionaire merchant of Hui-chou. Being so rich, Wang travelled with a large retinue of servants and female entertainers. Once his retinue affronted a local official by failing to make way promptly enough and the result was prolonged litigation which brought about his bankruptcy. It is impossible to ascertain whether wang had obtained a degree or an official status through purchase, but it is clear that wealth alone was not equal to bureaucratic power as conferred by the jinshi degree. Ho Pingti, The Ladder of Success in Imperial China (New York: Wiley and Sons, 1962), 44.

[20] By 1400, for example, it is estimated that there were thirty thousand licentiates (sheng-yuan) out of an approximate population of sixty-five million, a ratio of almost one licentiate per 2,200 persons. Benjamin A. Elman, “Political, Social, and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China,” The Journal of Asian Studies vol. 50, no. 1 (1991): 14.

[21] The circulation of partially literate non-elites and lesser lights as writers-for-hire was an unintended by-product of the civil examination’s educational process and explains the value of examinations for the many and not just the few in premodern China.

[22] Elman states that despite such elitism, filial piety and ancestor worship transcended class and cultural barriers. Even the Thousand Character Text, Hundred Surnames, and Three Character Classic primers, which almost all families and local schools used to train children to read and write the 1,500 different characters needed for functional literacy, were encoded with classical values that the society upheld. Elman, “Political, Social, and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China, 15.

[23] Frederic Wakeman, The Fall of Imperial China (New York: Free Press, 1975), 23.

[24] Gu Yanyu dated the 8-legged essay with more historical precision to the late fifteenth century: “The popular tradition of calling classical essays “8-legged” probably began from the Chenghua Emperor’s reign (1465-1488). The term “leg” (gu) is the term for “parallel wording.” Before the Tianshun Emperor’s reign (1457-65), writing in the classical essay was nothing more than an extension of classical scholia. They were sometimes parallel, sometimes varied, but without any fixed form… Since the Jiajing Emperor’s reign (1522-67), the essay style has continually changed, and if you ask a candidate, none of them know why such essays are called “8-legged).” Gu Yanwu, Rizhi lu jishi, (Taibei: Taiwan Commercial Press): 1968. 479-480 (juan 19), on “Shiwen geshi”

[25] Most Ming-Qing literati traced the essay form back to the 1057-1071 Northern Song debates for and against replacing poetry and rhyme-prose on civil examinations with essays. Ching-I Tu, “The Chinese Examination Essay: Some Literary Considerations,” Monumenta Serica, Vol. 31 (1974-75): 395.

[26] Elman, “Political, Social and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China,” 11-18.

[27] Tu, “The Chinese Examination Essay: Some Literary Considerations,” 393.

[28] Elman, “Political, Social and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China,” 11-395.

[29] Liu Haifeng 劉海峰, Kejuxue daolun 科舉學導論(Introduction to the study of the imperial examination) (Wuhan 武漢:Huazhong Shifan Daxue Chubanshe 華中師範大學出版社,2005).

[30] The prose exhibited strict adherence to balanced clauses (duiju) and pairs of characters (shudui) throughout, but this feature became particularly rule-like in the 8-legged writer’s framing of the argument via the three major legs of the essay.

[31] As well, an unstated gender ideology simply assumed that women were ineligible.

[32] Elman, “Political, Social and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China,” 51.

[33] Thomas H. C. Lee, “Review: Imagining the Chinese Examination System: Historical Nature and Modern Usefulness,” China Review International 13, no.1 (Spring 2006): 1-12.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Kracke, “Family Vs. Merit in Chinese Civil Service Examinations Under the Empire, 115.

[36] Xie Haitao, “Benjamin Elman’s View on Three-fold Properties of Imperial Examination System in Late Period of Imperial China,” Journal of Beifang Ethnic University 6, no. 96 (2010).

[37] Elman, “Political, Social and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China,” 51.

[38] Gu Yanwu, Ji-chi-lu chi-shih, 17.39a.

[39] Ma Tai-loi, “The Local Education Officials of Ming China, 1368-1644,” Oriens Extremus vol. 22, no. 1 (1975): 11-27.

[40] Benjamin Elman, “Political, Social, and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China,” 7.

[41] Jan L. Hagman, “Schools and Civil Service in the Ming Dynasty,” Hawaii Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (2017): 495.

[42] Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations, 26.

[43] Ibid., 26.

[44] Ibid., 27.

[45] Ibid., 27.

[46] Ibid. 309.

[47] Ibid., 361.

[48] Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture (Beverly Hills, 1977): 141-67.


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