China’s civil service examination system as a form of power sharing

In Mu Chien’s book Traditional government in imperial China: A Critical Analysis (中国历代政治得失), he argues that the civil examination exam was a way for the Chinese emperors to share their political power with the masses.

This sounded weird at first insight. Chinese emperors had absolute political in their hands. Why do they have to share their power, then?

A ruler always makes sure the elite class is on his side. The personnel selection system is often used as a way for the emperor to share power with the elite class and thus consolidate the base of their legitimacy. From a society in which social position and political power were based largely on kinship credentials, China was transformed into a meritocracy in which social prestige and political appointment depended mostly on classical examinations to establish legitimate academic credentials (Elman, 1989). For the emperor, producing talented and loyal officials for the state to employ had been the prime concern. Also, by spreading the chances of participating in politics among the masses regardless of their family backgrounds, the emperor promulgated a feeling of equality and empowerment of the poor.

The emperor also created many organs to limit the personnel power of the chief ministers. If the central government officials were equipped with too much power to appoint lower ranked officials, they would create clans and influence the emperor’s actual decision power in important country-level matters. Moreover, since China had a vast territory, transmission of information was cumbersome. With excess power in hand, the central officials could establish barriers between the emperor and the local officials and skew the information in their favor. The Song emperor proliferated personnel management organs by creating Council of Merit Rating (考課院) which was later renamed the Council of Administrative Personnel (審官院). The Council of Administrative Personnel was again divided into two parts — Eastern Council (東院) for civilian officials and Western Council (西院) for military officials. The complex personnel arrangements made the Chief Ministers no longer have the complete authority over appointment of lower ranked officials. Therefore the power of the emperor was enhanced.


Chien, Mu. Traditional government in imperial China: A Critical Analysis. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1982.

Elman, Benjamin.A. 1989. “Imperial Politics and Confucian Societies in Late Imperial China: the Hanlin and Donglin Academies,” Modern China 15(4): 379-418.


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