2012 December 02 Sunday
How Well Did Chinese Imperial Exam System Work?

How well did China's imperial examination system work at selecting the most talented for the imperial civil service? Mark Elliott, a history prof at Harvard, says the imperial civil service competition was effectively open to less than a tenth of Chinese society.

Over the last 20 years, research has shown that the keju was far from the “ladder of success” it was long widely reputed to be. We know that in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), for instance, merchants’ sons were not allowed to take the examinations at all, and that in the Qing (1644-1911), as Benjamin Elman, a scholar from Princeton University, has decisively shown, “the content of the civil service competition clearly excluded over 90 percent of China’s people from even the first step on the ladder to success.”

In other words, to have any kind of reasonable shot at passing the exams, you needed to come from a family with an established tradition of classical literacy, meaning a family with money to buy books or close connections to another such family. Only 10 percent of the population made that cut.

This system based on testing on a large body of knowledge was a less than ideal test for talent for a few reasons. First, it excluded those too poor to allow their sons many years to study. Second, it was wasteful of the time of all those who studied for years and then failed the exam. Third, since it was heavily weighted toward testing knowledge it was not testing intelligence very well. A test of puzzle-solving skills would have been far more effective, less expensive, and accessible to a much larger proportion of the population.

The restriction to less than tenth of society still left the test serving a huge filtering function for talent. First, the families who could afford to have their sons study were more affluent and therefore probably smarter. Plus, the ratio of those who took the test to those who passed was so high that the test was filtering for higher cognitive ability at least among the sizable number who took the test.

Still, I wonder whether the imperial examination created genetic selective pressures for higher IQ. There was likely at least a moderately strong correlation between test performance and the g factor.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2012 December 02 08:47 PM 

DirkY said at December 3, 2012 1:04 AM:

I have always suspected that the Chinese are not as smart as Koreans and Japanese, but they all tend to test at IQ 105 because the vast rural Chinese majority never takes these tests. They are instead illiterate barefoot farmers. This also explains the huge overperformance of Japan over China in just about every intellectual sphere relative to total population.

In other words, I think Japanese IQ really is 105, but for China you need to average the coastal urban 20% who test at 105 with the rural group that never had this history of eugenic IQ selection, and are probably around 100. That would put the Chinese average around 101.

Are there any famous Chinese intellectuals whose parents were both substistance farmers? The Chinese Americans I know, when they've come from poverty, still come from coastal urban poverty and not from interior farms.

Joe said at December 3, 2012 1:15 AM:

China's obviously poor because of communism. If you want to compare ethnic Japanese to Chinese, use Taiwan as a proxy. Taiwan now has a higher gdp per capita than Japan when using PPP (it's a little under when you use nominal). And Japan had a huge head start. Likewise, Chinese-Americans test significantly above white Americans.

georgesdelatour said at December 3, 2012 4:13 AM:

The crucial question is:

Did those who passed the Imperial Exam usually have more children who survived to adulthood than those who failed it or never took it? If they did, then under Malthusian conditions, it's likely the effect of the exam would be to increase the IQ of the Chinese population. Even if the exam was only taken by the brightest 10% of the population.

Joe said at December 3, 2012 9:01 AM:

I've seen people in the HBD-sphere claim before that the exams are the reason for such high East Asian IQ. I think it's ridiculous. It happened for only a few thousand years, on and off, and as you say here, for only a small number of people. Notice that korea and vietnam had exams too, but to a much smaller extent. And Japan, almost not at all. Yet korea and japan score above china in iq, and vietnam a little below it. The ultimate reason is more ancient than some imperial exams.

J. said at December 3, 2012 10:40 AM:

Are there any famous Chinese intellectuals whose parents were both subsistence farmers?

The physicist C. K. Jen was born to a farming family in Shanxi province.

Engineer-Poet said at December 3, 2012 11:56 AM:
since it was heavily weighted toward testing knowledge it was not testing intelligence very well. A test of puzzle-solving skills would have been far more effective, less expensive, and accessible to a much larger proportion of the population.
Far more effective at what, though?  Such people would change things.  If you are trying to maintain harmony and stability, more knowledge and less innovation is probably just the thing you want.

If you want to look at the results of intelligence unfettered by knowledge, see Marxism and contemporary American academia.

DirkY said at December 5, 2012 1:13 AM:

Joe: Taiwan got the cream of the Chinese crop: those who has reason to flee communism. You can't judge all Chinese based on their considerable accomplishments. You'd think most Cubans are white and wealthy judging from the first waves of immigrants from a communist revolution.

China is not just poor because of communism, it was poorer than Japan well prior to the 1940's, despite being blessed with more natural resources. It was China's massive rural poverty that made communism attractive to the country, much like Russia. Rural Japan, like rural England or USA or France, simply never had such level of widespread extreme poverty.

The Japanese had the intelligence and industrial capabilities in 1905 to defeat a European power, and were still on par in 1940, when their air and navel technology was comparable to the West. China still isn't able to design world class products like Japan, Korea, and the West.

Joe said at December 5, 2012 10:55 AM:

The vast majority of Taiwanese people are natives who don't descend from KMT troops or capitalists fifty years ago, most trace their families back a couple hundred years to Fujian immigrants who represented typical Chinese. China was poorer than Japan back then, but if you go further back, they were richer a few hundred years ago. But with the extreme differences in political economy, that doesn't mean much. China isn't making world class products today, but they're in spitting distance of it. Only a few decades ago, they made the cheapest stuff you could buy. But today, some of their technology is almost there. Look at Haier refrigerators, or read online reviews of ZTE phones. Or realize that all the computers and smartphones we use today are actually made there, although they have some foreign assistance. Did you know china had working streetlamps hundreds of years ago?

Luke Lea said at December 5, 2012 4:51 PM:

To say nothing of the exclusive emphasis of rote learning over intelligent analysis. Beginners memorized how to write and pronounce texts the meaning of which they could not understand. At least Talmudic students tried to make arguments. There was also a long tradition of cheating and bribery. Even those who passed the highest examinations depended on court favor to actually land an office -- which they then began to exploit on the most lavish scale imaginable. What the examination system was good at was assembling a small bureaucracy (10,000 members) to administer taxation and local law enforcement over an enormous population and geographical area. Office holders were shifted around but never served in their home districts or provinces. Loyalty was always to the center. They were a privileged elite and jealously guarded their privileges. The were treated like kings, approaching towns and cities in divan chairs with large retinues banging on drums and gongs. The Chinese have always been very noisy. Not sure why.

Steve Sailer said at December 6, 2012 4:53 PM:

10% is not a small number to recruit competent leadership from. An organization that was plagued by too small a pool to recruit from was the British Army, with high ranking officers restricted to coming from about the top 20,000 of society (to avoid military coups), and usually not the smartest of that 20,000. The Brits were very lucky to get the Duke of Wellington, and he didn't have much help.

The Royal Navy was more meritocratic and more competent.

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