Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Imperial exams and human capital

The dangers of rent seeking and the educational signaling trap. Although the imperial examinations were probably g loaded (and hence supplied the bureaucracy with talented administrators for hundreds of years), it would have been better to examine candidates on useful knowledge, which every participant would then acquire to some degree.

See also Les Grandes Ecoles Chinoises and History Repeats.
Farewell to Confucianism: The Modernizing Effect of Dismantling China’s Imperial Examination System

Ying Bai
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Imperial China employed a civil examination system to select scholar bureaucrats as ruling elites. This institution dissuaded high-performing individuals from pursuing some modernization activities, such as establishing modern firms or studying overseas. This study uses prefecture-level panel data from 1896-1910 to compare the effects of the chance of passing the civil examination on modernization before and after the abolition of the examination system. Its findings show that prefectures with higher quotas of successful candidates tended to establish more modern firms and send more students to Japan once the examination system was abolished. As higher quotas were assigned to prefectures that had an agricultural tax in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643) of more than 150,000 stones, I adopt a regression discontinuity design to generate an instrument to resolve the potential endogeneity, and find that the results remain robust.
From the paper:
Rent seeking is costly to economic growth if “the ablest young people become rent seekers [rather] than producers” (Murphy, Shleifer, and Vishny 1991: 529). Theoretical studies suggest that if a society specifies a higher payoff for rent seeking rather than productive activities, more talent would be allocated in unproductive directions (Acemoglu 1995; Baumol 1990; Murphy, Shleifer, and Vishny 1991, 1993). This was the case in late Imperial China, when a large part of the ruling class – scholar bureaucrats – was selected on the basis of the imperial civil examination.1 The Chinese elites were provided with great incentives to invest in a traditional education and take the civil examination, and hence few incentives to study other “useful knowledge” (Kuznets 1965), such as Western science and technology.2 Thus the civil examination constituted an institutional obstacle to the rise of modern science and industry (Baumol 1990; Clark and Feenstra 2003; Huff 2003; Lin 1995).

This paper identifies the negative incentive effect of the civil exam on modernization by exploring the impact of the system’s abolition in 1904-05. The main empirical difficulty is that the abolition was universal, with no regional variation in policy implementation. To better understand the modernizing effect of the system’s abolition, I employ a simple conceptual framework that incorporates two choices open to Chinese elites: to learn from the West and pursue some modernization activities or to invest in preparing for the civil examination. In this model, the elites with a greater chance of passing the examination would be less likely to learn from the West; they would tend to pursue more modernization activities after its abolition. Accordingly, the regions with a higher chance of passing the exam should be those with a larger increase in modernization activities after the abolition, which makes it possible to employ a difference-in-differences (DID) method to identify the causal effect of abolishing the civil examination on modernization.

I exploit the variation in the probability of passing the examination among prefectures – an administrative level between the provincial and county levels. To control the regional composition of successful candidates, the central government of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) allocated a quota of successful candidates to each prefecture.3 In terms of the chances of individual participants – measured by the ratio of quotas to population – there were great inequalities among the regions (Chang 1955). To measure the level of modernization activities in a region, I employ (1) the number of newly modern private firms (per million inhabitants) above a designated size that has equipping steam engine or electricity as a proxy for the adoption of Western technology and (2) the number of new Chinese students in Japan – the most import host country of Chinese overseas students (per million inhabitants) as a proxy of learning Western science. Though the two measures might capture other things, for instance entrepreneurship or human capital accumulation, the two activities are both intense in modern science and technology, and thus employed as the proxies of modernization. ...
From Credentialism and elite employment:
Evaluators relied so intensely on “school” as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms – in fact, evaluators tended to believe that elite and, in particular, super-elite instruction was “too abstract,” “overly theoretical,” or even “useless” compared to the more “practical” and “relevant” training offered at “lesser” institutions – but rather due to the strong cultural meanings and character judgments evaluators attributed to admission and enrollment at an elite school. I discuss the meanings evaluators attributed to educational prestige in their order of prevalence among respondents. ...


aseuss said...

It is clear in retrospect that the most important aspect of these imperial examinations was not the content itself, but the fact that they enforced a system of government rooted in meritocracy. So, even if China was slower than other Asian nations (notably Japan) at adopting modern science, it held on to this cultural emphasis on meritocracy through decades of war and revolution in the 20th century. So the system and, especially, the cultural belief in such a system, survived to the present day, which has seen the fastest period of economic growth in world history. This would have almost inconceivable without a strong educational system and civil service rooted in a meritocratic exam system--a Confucian legacy.
As for the "useless" Confucian learning contained in the old imperial exams, well, it is no more "useless" than studying Shakespeare and Voltaire; such liberal studies are not incompatible with more practical pursuits like medicine and engineering. Don't forget that the Japanese, who quickly absorbed modern science and technology, did not abandon their classical learning (much of it inherited from the Chinese), which was required of all university graduates. The Japanese were proud of their own traditions and were keen on protecting them; they simply superimposed Western learning on traditional curricula. The Chinese were far less successful in doing this, perhaps because the nation was occupied and/or in a state of revolution or war from the 1830s on; building modern educational systems is probably the furthest thing on your mind when British, French, Germans, and finally the Japanese themselves, are breathing down your throat.

David Brown said...

"... better to examine candidates on useful knowledge ..." useful knowledge —> speed-up of technological progress —> ultimate outcome? obsolescence of human brain? useless better than useful?

dxie48 said...

Theoretically the curriculum for the imperial exam was quite wide

"The curriculum was then expanded to cover the "Five Studies": military
strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography,
and the Confucian classics."

For example a question on astronomy

"one question asks why the calendar had to be revised frequently; another asks why solar eclipses recorded in the Five Classics only occur on the first day of the month, while those recorded from the Han dynasty onward only occur on the last day of the month. (Elman 2000, pp. 468-469)"

Thus the failure was the failure of the examiners who set the questions.

dxie48 said...

More imperial exam questions

This one strikes me as very up-to-date,


Far western countries’(Europe) foreign policy often use the name of
“protection” but end up gaining a lot of benefits. Please use examples
from the past century to prove this."

aseuss said...

By saying that the most important aspect was meritocracy, I am not ignoring the content of these exams. Your point about the curriculum being wide reflects another issue--the content changed considerably over the centuries (indeed, one could say ages, since the exams were around for nearly 2000 years). The content was originally narrow, covering topics like Numbers, Calligraphy, Songs, Rites, but then was expanded to included things like medical arts and laws. Significantly, Wang Anshi in the 11th century pushed for an emphasis on more practical subjects like military science and engineering, but he was essentially put aside. But content was broadened generations later. So it went back and forth. The upshot is that, even while subjects and emphases between practical and theoretical subjects shifted over the ages, the Chinese maintained their belief in a society anchored in meritocracy. So, through all the tumult of 19th century, when it seemed that "old" ways weren't doing them any good, they kept the exams or at least the belief in them. The fact that they didn't upgrade their curricula like the Japanese might have been unfortunate at the time, but the essential idea--that exams enforce a meritocracy--was maintained, and serves the Chinese up to this day. Meritocracy might seem basic, but it wasn't even incorporated into Western governments until relatively recently. In fact, it was during that tumultuous 19th century that Europeans, especially the British, studied China's imperial exam system and adopted the concept. And it's clear if you look at various countries today that meritocracy isn't the main principle. By the way, thanks for that Reddit imperial exam question you posted below. Speaking of the use of the word 'protection', doesn't that remind you of the Confucian concept of Rectification of Names? Confucius hated the idea of government messing with language to skew the truth. So, that Confucian learning really did come in handy!

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