Confucian Exams

Confucian Ideology and Traditional Chinese Politics[1]

In traditional Chinese politics, the autocracy was maintained by Confucian ideology, which preached filial piety. Filial piety promoted a hierarchy of loyalty and respect from younger to elder, and the emperor sat at the top of this system. Filial piety was stressed in official education, which prepared male citizens for the civil service examination. In order to become a bureaucrat and serve in the government, intense memorization and study of Confucian classics was necessary in order to succeed in exams and climb through the degree ranks to secure a bureaucratic position in the government. This process was time consuming and meant those who spent their lives striving for excellence in the system did not wish to see it falter in any way. For those who did not do as well as they wished in exams, dissenting views would of course emerge towards the system, but those who did well nonetheless retained the status, power, and wealth needed to ensure the system’s stability.

In the autocratic system of China, the emperor was the zenith of power and status. In his position, the emperor was “surrounded by relatives and trusted councillors [sic]” (Wakeman, 19). In addition, a vast bureaucratic network functioned beneath the emperor, which “was staffed with scholar-officials who had achieved a [high-degree] in the state civil service examination” (Wakeman, 19). The emperor and the imperial advisers were part of the highest echelons in the imperial central government. In the lower levels of local government, the shenshi, or gentry, worked in informal government and dealt with social services in their communities in service of the emperor. Wakeman states that the term English-term gentry is not accurate compared to the “the binomial Chinese term… [which attests] to the gentry’s bureaucratic and aristocratic tendencies alike” (19-20). The characters in the term, says Wakeman, “[denote] the meritocratic quality of gentry status” with the character shi, while shen describes “one who assumed an administrative position” (20, 25). The gentry’s status was above that of the peasants as the gentry managed daily community tasks that included “mediation of legal disputes… supervision of local schools and academies… supervision of irrigation works… recruiting and training of local militia… [and the] proxy remittance… of the peasants’ taxes to the yamen clerks” (Wakeman, 31). The gentry’s roles in such tasks “were honored… because the imperial government realized that it could not govern the fifteen hundred districts of the empire without the informal help of the gentry” (Wakeman, 29).

However, the empire was able to manage the gentry by utilizing civil service examinations. Wakeman argues “through its control of the content, frequency and difficulty of the examinations the central government could manipulate the ideology, size, and caliber of the influential elite that governed the empire on its behalf” (21). Thus, by pushing Confucian ideals in the its exams, the central government could maintain its prestige because of the philosophy’s stressed hierarchy that was internalized by the exam candidates through memorization of the Confucian canon.

The exam system implemented by the Qing government originated from the Ming dynasty. Wakeman asserts “the [Ming] monarchy encouraged mobility in and out of the bureaucratic gentry by vastly expanding a civil service examination system which was available to men of all by the meanest social background” (21). Undeniably, excellence in the exams meant one would need the time and funds for expensive tutoring, which could begin as early as the age of 5 and last until a student’s mid-teens (Wakeman, 23, 25). The foci of the civil service exams were literature and philosophy. Questions on the exam “had to be answered in a prescribed and formulaic [eight-legged] essay style which was exceedingly difficult to master” (Wakeman, 23). In addition to this difficult essay style, exam candidates had to master writing poetry and were expected to memorize the Confucian classics (Wakeman, 23). Thus, Confucian ideology flooded the focus of the exams where they were constantly reflected on and employed as candidates toiled to earn their degrees.

The civil service exam basically consisted of three-degree levels, which included prefectural, provincial, and national (Wakeman, 21). While a degree-holder could be eligible for a government post no matter what degree he possessed, only those who earned the highest level of degrees were guaranteed positions in the government (Wakeman, 22). Thus, the possession of a degree, or lack there of, created distinctions within the gentry itself because of the difficulty involved in lifelong study in order to attain the higher-level degrees. As a result, such degrees “conferred immense social prestige” (Wakeman, 22). Wakeman states: “The upper gentry [who succeeded at provincial and national level exams] were notably distinguished from lower degree holders [who only passed the prefectural level exam]” (22). These lower degree holders “were often referred to as ‘gentry commoners’” (Wakeman, 22-23).

Indeed, high-level degrees were respected because they were so difficult to earn. It was common knowledge that “each of the two million students waiting outside the prefectural examination halls of the empire in any given year knew that he had only one chance in six thousand of ever reaching the top rank where a bureaucratic post would be would be guaranteed him” (Wakeman, 22, 24). Even if one was to attain a high-level degree, “the degree-holder had to take examinations every three years until old age just to maintain his gentry status” (Wakeman, 24). Nonetheless, there was a high culture maintained among all the members of the gentry. Being able to read classical Chinese, write calligraphy, and possess knowledge of the Confucian canon united the gentry in their mindset and differentiated them from peasants because of their specialized abilities (Wakeman, 23).

But for those who did not succeed in exams, anomie and frustration could result. With studying so intensive and the odds stacked against examination candidates, unsatisfied low-level degree holders could be motivated to stage revolts or rebellions (Wakeman, 24). But such dissent against the system could be often quelled by the central government via the awarding of titles to senior degree-holders of lower standing (Wakeman, 24). On the other hand, the possibility of social mobility, a rare occurrence in classical civilizations, which entailed the earning of a degree that could rocket one from rags to riches, had a strong influence in traditional China (Wakeman, 23). Degrees offered a “social recognition [that] satisfied even the lowliest degree-holder and set him apart from simple commoners” (Wakeman, 24). Thus, the exam system was stable overall as “the possibility of success, however unlikely, alleviated social discontent and gave the civilization tenacious staying-power” (Wakeman, 23).

Conclusively, the traditional Chinese political system was autocratic and utilized a civil service examination that remained stabilized by candidates dedicating their lives to Confucian education and earning high-level degrees. Confucianism’s filial piety promoted the hierarchy involved in the autocratic government. Education infused Confucian ideals in officials and promoted a high gentry culture among the educated, uniting them in their knowledge. The arduous studying for exams was a lifelong process that promoted dedication to the system, where the possibility of upward mobility proved motivation enough to keep the system stable.


[1] The Romanization of Chinese used in the essay is the Pinyin system.

Works Cited
Wakeman, Frederic. The Fall of Imperial China. New York: The Free Press, 1975. 19-37. Print.

Written for Prof. Bell's HIST182 (Modern China) on April 19, 2010.

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