Social Mobility in Ming China: Evidence from Twelve Thousand Chin-shih Data

January 2017
Working Paper

The civil service examination system in imperial China, theoretically based on individual merit rather than family background, has played a central role on recruiting government officials and political elites for over a thousand years. Detailed family background records of the top exam-passing literati, Chin-shihs, enable us to estimate the effect of family background on examination outcomes. We find that family backgrounds have a strong and positive effect on examination outcomes, and the effect is still marginally outstanding for those from really high social status. Comparing the effects on different exams also suggests that human capital accumulation may not be the only channel that leads to the result.

  • Challenge the conventional wisdom that civil service exam was meritocratic.
  • Use detailed data of past 3 generations to estimate the effect of family background on tests.
  • Multi-staged examination structure provides chances to partially control for ability.