Rise of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the sixteenth century, Chinese officials and scholars known as the shenshi, or gentry, rose through the examination system. The gentry class functioned as the backbone of the governing structure during the rise of imperial China.

Summary of Event

The Chinese degree holders of all ranks have been known in Chinese as shenshi, “officials and scholars.” In English, the term “gentry” has been used to refer to this class; sometimes they are also referred to as the Chinese scholar-official class. In the context of Chinese society, however, the meaning of shenshi is broader, including both office-degree holders and landlords. The landlords, from which class the degree holders often originated, were entrusted by the government with the responsibilities of maintaining order and peace and functioned as unofficial extensions of the government at the local level. Therefore, both officeholders and landlords were perceived as the privileged class of gentry. Shenshi Shenshi

China’s examination system and its official gentry class first came into existence during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The development of a commercial economy and civil service examinations during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) promoted a much broader social bracket of gentry class. By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);governing structure , the gentry class performed administrative responsibilities without official appointment, thus forming the essential and effective governing structure of traditional China.

The Tang continued the government schools and examination system of the previous dynasty. The specialized national schools were established in the capital. The Ministry of Rites held examinations for students from the government schools and for nominees by the local governments. There were two chief academic degrees, one called xiu cai (flowering talent) for current political issues, the other called jin shi (presented scholar) for letters—the most prestigious degree and the primary passage to officialdom. The Tang examination system helped create a bureaucracy of merit that selected by and large the most talented of the land to run its bureaucratic machine. Furthermore, the examination system fostered an intellectually unified nation, because all who desired the degree and the subsequent imperial appointment would have to acquire the same classical education. Education;China

Commercial development during the Song Dynasty brought profound social and cultural changes. It is believed that Song China transformed the highly aristocratic society of the early Tang into a nearly non-aristocratic, more egalitarian society. Unlike the old aristocracy, the new gentry class depended much less on their agricultural land and its production, and their commercial activities became a significant part of the gentry’s family economy. A great number of gentry resided in cities and towns, and the high culture of city was at the center of their social life. The economic wealth of the gentry was translated into political power, which they acquired through education and by passage of the civil service examinations that granted them government offices.

Thus, on the surface the gentry class seemed to have obtained political prominence more from their intellectual achievements than from their economic wealth. Consequently, the gentry rose as the reputable social group and the backbone of the bureaucratic governments throughout the Chinese history.

While the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) practiced racial discrimination and class oppression, it also tried to soften hostilities toward the Chinese, especially Confucian scholars. Kublai Khan (or Khubilai) gave orders to protect the Confucian temples and restore Confucianism as the official philosophy. He also exempted Confucian scholars from taxation and encouraged them to serve in his court. Taxation;China

The recovery of Chinese rule over China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) reinstituted the civil service examination system. During the Ming, there existed three levels of examinations. The preliminary examinations held at the county level would select and grant to qualified scholars the xiu cai, or flowering talent, degree, which honored a scholar’s intellectual achievements and included him in the privileged class of gentry who were exempted from labor service and corporal punishments. Holders of the xiu cai could enter the second level of examinations, held at the provincial capitals every three years. During these examinations, which lasted several days, the candidates were confined in rows of tiny cells at the examination field to write essays on Confucian classics. Less than 1 percent of the candidates passed the examination and earned the ju ren, or “recommended men” degree, to proceed to the third level of triennial metropolitan examinations held at the capital, Beijing. There, successful candidates would obtain the highest academic title, the jin shi or “presented scholar” degree, and these metropolitan graduates took the final examination at the court, presided over by the emperor himself. The palace examination then determined the official ranking and government posts of the jin shi holders.

The civil service examination system during the Ming Dynasty was strictly regulated to prevent possible defaults and partiality. The names of candidates were concealed, and sometimes the candidates’ papers were copied to ensure anonymity. The proctors of the provincial examinations were dispatched from the capital. The examinations were managed by the Ministry of Rites rather than the Ministry of Personnel, which supervised government officials. Overall, officials selected through the examination system had mastered knowledge of the Confucian classics, and this universal training helped to foster a unified government bureaucracy that strengthened the centralization of government. The system of meritocracy also provided hope, though very slim, for millions of Chinese men who otherwise would never have had a chance to climb the ladder to become part of Ming officialdom. Confucianism

On the other hand, because the civil service examinations centered on the Confucian classics, candidates were encouraged to develop their book knowledge at the expense of practical issues. The lengthy preparation of the Confucian classics also meant that only those with substantial economic resources could afford the long period of study required to do well. The system thus favored the wealthy over the poor.

Significance

In many ways, and certainly at the local level, the shenshi or gentry class formed the backbone of the Chinese Confucian government, performing administrative responsibilities without official appointment. They helped the government to collect taxes and raised funds for local public works such as the building and repairing of dikes and roads. They handled local disputes over property or conflicts resulting from the clash of individual personalities. The gentry also maintained Confucian culture by establishing and sponsoring local Confucian schools and Confucian temples. They organized charitable institutions for orphans, widows, and the disabled, and they provided relief during natural disasters. They even formed militias to defend their wealth and the local community.

These administrative, cultural, and social activities were mostly encouraged and recognized by the Ming government. This official recognition, together with the gentry’s economic privileges, gave them great prestige and power over the bulk of the population, who were made up of small landowners and tenant farmers. While most gentry restrained themselves with Confucian virtues and morale, a great many abused their power and grew into local despots, exploiting the local people. Such corruption among some of the gentry deepened the social conflict between the landlord class and the tenant class, and at times even incited social upheavals.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huang, Ray. 1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. A prizewinning work by a distinguished scholar, detailing the ritualistic and practical sides of Ming court politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hucker, Charles O. The Ming Dynasty: Its Origins and Evolving Institutions. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, the University of Michigan, 1978. Initially written in 1970 for inclusion in The Cambridge History of China, this monograph presents Ming institutional history with clarity and factual accuracy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marks, Robert B. Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Offers exhaustive coverage of the economic conditions of South China during the imperial age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. A comprehensive and impressive work on imperial China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, Frederick W., and Denis Twitchett, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1. Vol. 7 in The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A collection of essays written by eminent scholars on various aspects of Ming history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. Provides a detailed description of the Chinese empire during the Ming Dynasty, including government, economy, and international relations.

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