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Benjamin A. ElmanCivil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China

Harvard University Press, 2013

by Carla Nappi on March 9, 2014

Benjamin A. Elman

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[Cross-posted from New Books in East Asian StudiesBenjamin A. Elman‘s new book explores the civil examination process and the history of state exam curricula in late imperial China. Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China (Harvard UP, 2013) is organized into three major sections that collectively provide a careful, deeply researched, and elegantly written account of the Ming and Qing exam systems. Part I looks at the construction of “Way Learning” from its Southern Song institutionalization as a form of mainstream classicism through its emergence as political orthodoxy during the early Ming. Part II considers the consequences (both positive and unintended) after 1450 of an empire full of well-trained civil exam failures, and Part III traces the many ways that the civil exams were transformed in response to changing times. There are gripping stories along the way, from a history of early Ming exam curricula that’s traced in blood, to the examination dreams of a rising cult figure who would launch the Taiping Rebellion. Though set in late imperial China, Elman’s narrative also has wide-ranging implications for thinking about education and examinations today.

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