Reaching out for the Ladder of Success: “Outsiders” and the Civil Examination in Late Imperial China

  • Wing-Kin Puk


The civil examination was the most important ladder of success in late imperial China; passing the examination and earning a degree was a way to achieve status without being born to it. As might be expected, the examination, or series of examinations, was extremely rigorous, and competition was fierce. While in theory the examination was open to everyone, Ho Ping-Ti’s monumental study showed that in fact it was not the case. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) 47.5 percent of the jinshi, the highest degree, went to candidates from families where no one, for three preceding generations, had possessed even the most elementary degree. By the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) this percentage had dropped to 19.1 (Ho, 1964: 107–125). The more limited their success rate, the more likely that participants from previously uneducated and marginalized groups were being excluded. In this case, how did marginalized social groups gain access to the ladder of success?


Social Mobility Qing Dynasty Ming Dynasty Government School Household Registration 
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© Siu-Keung Cheung, Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, and Lida V. Nedilsky 2009

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  • Wing-Kin Puk

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