Scholar-officials, also known as Scholar-gentlemen, Scholar-bureaucrats or Scholar-gentry (Chinese: 士大夫; pinyin: shì dàfū) were civil servants appointed by the emperor of China to perform day-to-day governance from the Han dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, China's last imperial dynasty. After the Sui dynasty these officials mostly came from the scholar-gentry (绅士 shēnshì) who had earned academic degrees (such as xiucai, juren, or jinshi) by passing the imperial examinations. The scholar-officials were schooled in calligraphy and Confucian texts. They dominated the government and local life of China until 1911. Unlike the gentry of England or Europe, their status was based on merit and was official, not social.
Since only a few could become court or local officials, the majority of the scholar-gentry stayed in villages or cities as social leaders. The scholar-gentry carried out social welfare measures, taught in private schools, helped negotiate minor legal disputes, supervised community projects, maintained local law and order, conducted Confucian ceremonies, assisted in the government's collection of taxes, and preached Confucian moral teachings. As a class, these scholars claimed to represent morality and virtue. The district magistrate, who by regulation was not allowed to serve in his home district,depended on local gentry for advice and for carrying out projects, giving them power to benefit themselves and their clients.
The system of scholar-officials and imperial examinations was adopted and adapted by several tributary states of China, in particular the Ryūkyū Kingdom (Okinawa), which sent students to China on a regular basis, and maintained a center of Chinese learning at Kumemura from which administrators and officials of the kingdom's government were selected.
The entire premise of the scholarly meritocracy was based on mastery of the Confucian classics. This had important effects on Chinese society.
Theoretically, this system would result in a highly meritocratic ruling class, with the best students running the country. The examinations gave many people the opportunity to pursue political power and honor — and thus encouraged serious pursuit of formal education. Since the system did not formally discriminate based on social status, it provided an avenue for upward social mobility regardless of age or social class.
However, even though the examination-based bureaucracy's heavy emphasis on Confucian literature ensured that the most eloquent writers and erudite scholars achieved high positions, the system lacked formal safeguards against political corruption, besides the Confucian moral teachings tested by the examinations. Once their political futures were secured by success in the examinations, high-ranking officials were often tempted to corruption and abuse of power. Moreover, the relatively low status of military professionals in Confucian society discouraged similar efficiency and meritocracy within the military.
References and further reading
- Elman, Benjamin A. (2009), "Civil Service Examinations (Keju)", Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire, pp. 405–410
- Esherick, Joseph and Mary Backus Rankin (1990). Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520067630.. Free online text.
- Max Weber, The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (1916; transl. 1951)
- Jerry Bentley and Herb Ziegler. Traditions and Encounters - A Global Perspective on the Past.
- Zhang, Zhongli (1955). The Chinese Gentry; Studies on Their Role in Nineteenth-Century Chinese Society. Seattle,: University of Washington Press.
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- Late Qing China: Reform and Rebellion (1898 -1900)
- Reunification and Renaissance in Chinese Civilization: The Era of the Tang and Song Dynasties