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On the Origins and Persistent Effects of the World’s First Meritocratic Institution

James Kai-sing Kung ()
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James Kai-sing Kung: The University of Hong Kong

Comparative Economic Studies, 2022, vol. 64, issue 4, No 1, 563-581

Abstract: Abstract Meritocracy embraces the value of social mobility based on ability and effort, and, conversely, despises entrenched elites. I demonstrate that the civil service examination system of Song dynasty China (c. 960–1279CE) was the world’s earliest meritocratic bureaucracy. First, the examination, known as keju in Chinese, was open to all males regardless of age and family background, including those from the families of merchants and artisans, who in the preceding (Tang) dynasty were forbidden to take the exam. Second, unlike the Tang dynasty, political selection in Song was entirely based on exam success; candidates were no longer allowed to “signal” to the examiners their portfolio of work before the exam, which previously formed an important part of the selection process. Third, to ensure social mobility the highest qualification of jinshi was not heritable. Fourth, to ensure a level playing field mass education was provided by the merchants in the form of private academies. The genesis of this meritocratic institution was however “accidental.” It came about as a consequence of the combination of (1) the rise of a merchant class whose foremost interest was to fight for their children’s inclusion in the imperial Chinese bureaucracy; (2) the Song emperor’s preference to reduce the military’s influence; and (3) the need for more officials to manage the growing number of market towns that flourished in the wake of commercialization. All of these ensured a vast expansion of the civil service examination. Finally, I show that this meritocratic institution had persistent effects. Using data on the Ming-Qing dynasties as example, I find that historical prefectures with the highest jinshi density still have higher years of schooling today.

Keywords: Meritocracy; Origins; Persistence; Civil Service Exam; China; D02; D73; N35; N45; O43; O53; Z10 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2022
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DOI: 10.1057/s41294-022-00201-7

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