Education-Based Mobility and the Chinese Civilization

  • Hsueh-Cheng YenEmail author
Part of the Education in the Asia-Pacific Region: Issues, Concerns and Prospects book series (EDAP, volume 26)


This article addresses two issues of mobility in Chinese education: the emergence of the meritocratic ideal and its realization through the civil service examination. My argument is based on a theory of civilization. I contend that a complex society must transcend the kinship principle to incorporate non-kin strangers into an enlarged social unit. Historical evidence has shown that the pre-Qin philosophers acknowledged the stranger problem and argued against guanxi or relationalism. Instead of the kinship principle, which calculates social distance, ancient philosophers proposed a ladder structure whereby strangers could be evaluated based on meritocratic standards. They insisted that a person’s position on the ladder should be the basis for distributing political power and material wealth in a complex civilization. However, upward mobility in a meritocracy was a threat to the ruling class. In considering class reproduction, modern scholarship generally agrees that education mobility was only a facade and commoners obtained no true mobility. I argue that this position disregards the power struggles between the Chinese emperors and their court officials. Mobility, as exemplified in the civil service examination, can be seen as a strategy of the emperors to recruit new members to supplant the old guard in court. As the examination system consolidated the power of rulers at the expense of the reigning bureaucrats, both the meritocracy and imperial autocracy reinforced each other. Moreover, encouraging commoners to compete in the examination also provided an efficient way for integrating local societies into the empire.


Complex society Meritocracy Social mobility Resource distribution Ladder structure 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyNational Taiwan UniversityTaipeiTaiwan

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