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Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China Hardcover – November 1, 2013

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Editorial Reviews


Elman has drawn upon his deep learning regarding the Chinese civil service exams and his broad understanding of late imperial history more generally to create a clear picture of the intellectual and institutional components of the first political meritocracy in world history, its adaptability to changing political challenges of the nineteenth century, and the system's unintended nurturing of literati critics of the state. The capacities and limitations of the late imperial Chinese state took shape amidst the complementary and competing interests of emperor, bureaucracy and literati elites expressed through the examination system. Rarely has intellectual history been so well grounded in cultural history to yield such fundamental insights into a non-Western political system.
(R. Bin Wong, co-author of Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe)

This book, a remarkable feat of synthesis and analysis, is now the best and most comprehensive account we have of 'what was going on inside' the preindustrial world's greatest single experiment in holding civil service examinations. It is also an eloquent and ambitious attempt to revise our understanding of the successes and failures of the empire of China in its last five or six centuries. (Alexander Woodside, University of British Columbia)

The most accomplished scholar of the examination system in China looks at the denouement of the story: the nineteenth and early twentieth century struggles between conservatives and revolutionaries to assign meaning to the history of the examination system, and to claim its legacy. The competing views illuminate not only the sources of our modern assumptions about the form and content of the examinations, but also the meaning given in the modern world to stylized intellectual competition and institutional transformation from within. (Pamela Crossley, author of A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology)

About the Author

Benjamin A. Elman is Gordon Wu ’58 Professor of Chinese Studies at Princeton University.

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