Scholar-officials, also translated 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. These officials mostly came from the well-educated men known as the scholar-gentry (绅士 shēnshì). These men had earned academic degrees (such as xiucai, juren, or jinshi) by passing the rigorous imperial examinations. The scholar-officials were schooled in calligraphy and Confucian texts. They dominated the politics of China until 1911.
Since only a small fraction of them could become court officials, the majority of the scholar-gentry stayed in local villages or cities as social leaders. The scholar-gentry carried out social welfare measures, taught in private schools, helped decide 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 represented morality and virtue. Although they received no official salary and were not government officials, their contributions and cooperation were much needed by the district magistrate in governing local areas, and received contributions from the imperial dynasty as well.
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.
- 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.
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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