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Political, Social, and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China

  • Benjamin A. Elman

Most previous scholarship about the civil service examination system in imperial China has emphasized the degree of social mobility such examinations permitted in a premodern society. In the same vein, historians have evaluated the examination process in late imperial China from the perspective of the modernization process in modern Europe and the United States. They have thereby successfully exposed the failure of the Confucian system to advance the specialization and training in science that are deemed essential for nation-states to progress beyond their premodern institutions and autocratic political traditions. In this article, I caution against such contemporary, ahistorical standards for political, cultural, and social formation. These a priori judgments are often expressed teleologically when tied to the “modernization narrative” that still pervades our historiography of Ming (1368–1644) and Ch'ing (1644–1911) dynasty China.

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