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Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China.

Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China. By Benjamin A. Elman. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 389. $45.00.)

One of the key elements buttressing the sustainability of the Chinese empire from the fifteenth century to its end in 1905 was the civil service examination institution, which was finalized in its perfect form in the late imperial dynasties of Ming and Qing. The author of this book discusses all the facets in this newly accomplished study, which is very much based on his previous solid research. It is a good book for anyone who is interested in understanding the nature of late imperial China.

Benjamin Elman draws from impressive sources such as original documents from as far back as the sixteenth century and famous Chinese books such as the memoir by Shang Yanliu, one of the 1904 licentiates that has rarely been used by English writers. All these strongly support his findings. Elman believes that the Cheng-Zhu persuasion was well established by the early Ming rulers as the orthodox ideology. The usurper, Emperor Yongle [r. 1402-1424], was especially critical in this Neo-Confucian Way learning movement, by which he was legitimized as an ideal sage-king. Together with lower Yangzi literati, the court created a new ruling class through the civil service examinations based on this ideology.

The civil service was not a truly open system. Classical literacy with the Way learning, the Eight-Legged Essay, and basic language skills hindered plebeians from joining the ruling circle. Elman does not agree with Ho Ping-ti's observation that the civil examinations played the central role in social mobility. He believes, rather, that the meritocracy was limited.

Manchu's Qing dynasty easily carried through the system to rule China skillfully. As population multiplied and competition became cutthroat, cheating was rife and corruption rampant. The meritocracy was profoundly undermined. Elman interestingly coins the term "cultural prisons" to refer to the system and needless to say the examination halls, which were intimidating and horrible, wounded candidates who failed. Many fell into bizarre abjectness, and the furious among them launched uprisings. This collective anxiety is beautifully addressed in chapters 5 and 6, occupying almost one-third of the book, and these essays will definitely help future scholars deepen their understanding of this anxiety.

The Manchu court was, nevertheless, far more reform minded. Elman posits that since the mid-eighteenth century, the court retooled the system by absorbing the "evidential studies" of Han Learning and reviving a poetry-writing tradition into the content of the examinations. Despite the fact that the Bible was once included in the examinations during the Taiping uprising, the Qing reforms remained intact up to 1905.

Elman correctly points out that the examinations critically connected the court and society. He successfully describes the detailed origins and development of the examination from Ming to the High Qing dynasties. However, the concluding chapter on post-Taiping China is too hasty and murky to reveal the changing nature of the coming modernity. One of the finest products of the examinations, Li Hongzhang, the leader of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, keenly sensed the changing era as the dawning of the new age, which was "unprecedented in the last three thousand years." That is why the imperial civil examinations were abandoned by the ancient regime. However, the institutions remain there to revamp the meritocracy, and the pains of the anxiety still affect China as well as the rest of East Asia.

Hsiang-Wang Liu

University of Minnesota at Morris
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Author:Liu, Hsiang-Wang
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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