Did the End of China’s Examination System Spur Its Revolution?

by Ruixue JIA, with data visualization by Young YANG.

For more than 1,300 years, China used a civil service exam to recruit its elites, including high-level state bureaucrats and a much larger corpus of non-official gentry.

In a paper published in Econometrica, my co-author Ying Bai and I show that after 1905, revolutionaries were more likely to be from prefectures, which are administrative subdivisions of provincial-level divisions with more quotas.

One of the most important institutions in Chinese history, the exam system influenced not only the competence of the bureaucracy but also the circulation of elites, the allocation of talent, and the perception of social mobility among average citizens.

In September 1905, however, the exam system was abruptly abolished, and the primary method for recruiting elites in the late imperial China was changed to a less transparent system. Although scholars have long argued that access to elite status plays a crucial role in determining social order, there currently exists little systematic research into this argument.

In this paper, my colleague and I investigate one important political consequence of the change in elite recruitment: how the abolition of the exam contributed to revolution participation in the late 19th and early 20th century across China, thereby hastening the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Using a differences-in-differences design, the paper compares participation in revolutionary groups before and after the abolition across prefectures with varying quotas for the number of bureaucrats that could be promoted through the system.

The quotas were last set in the mid-1800s and did not change over time (see the interactive map for the spatial distribution of quotas). We also use reports of rebellion in 1911 from a Japanese newspaper to provide cross-sectional evidence that there were more rebellions in prefectures that had more quotas prior to the reform.


quota per capita?
Interactive map for the spatial distribution of quotas

Since the examination provided an important way of upward mobility for commoners, the paper argues the loss of this channel of upward mobility instigated individuals to rebel against the Qing Empire. It also formalizes the interpretation in a simple model of revolution participation and provides further evidence to support the interpretation.

Data used by the paper can be downloaded from the journal website.

Source: Bai, Ying, and Ruixue Jia (2016). “Elite Recruitment and Political Stability: the Impact of the Abolition of China’s Civil Service Exam.” Econometrica 84 (2): 677–733.








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