Generally the merchant class was viewed with disdain while peasants were viewed with more respect as they were the producers. Scholars were perhaps most respected, and many important posts were held by them. The core of my question is were scholars who did not hold posts considered elites? What about men who failed the civil service exams?

I specifically ask the question for the later half of the imperial era and the early modern period but any answer that applies to pre-20th century China is good.

  • 4
    There is a lot of relevant material e.g. in Frank Ching's Ancestors: The Story of China Told through the Lives of an Extraordinary Family. I get the sense that failing in the (esp. entry level) civil service exams bore a heavy stigma (as well as loss of important privileges), and many students tried and retried sometimes into their forties. Those who could not make it could still be highly respected in their local communities or become wandering minor scholars.
    – Drux
    Feb 17, 2013 at 8:50
  • The scholarly class were looked upon with respect from the Confucianists, but I suppose it depends on how you define elites. Merchant families often tried to have their children take the civil service exams, since it was a point of pride to have a relative who took and passed them. Those who passed and were in civil service had their children take the exams as well, that is how meritocracies are built.
    – MichaelF
    Feb 20, 2013 at 13:10
  • I love how the editing process has changed my question so many times that I don't even recognize it. But my original question was " who were the elites in Imperial China"? That is not the equivalent of "man who failed CSE"...
    – grayQuant
    Nov 16, 2013 at 19:10
  • @grayQuant: Actually, I have just re-read your original question - and I think this rendition is quite accurate, with some grammatical errors corrected. The title has been changed from the original because it didn't seem to bear any relation to the actual question. Dec 24, 2013 at 22:11

2 Answers 2


I think it would be more appropriate to ask "what were the social statuses of men who failed the civil service exams?

For this I would point you to the Wikipedia article on Imperial Civil Service Exams

Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations actually passed them and even fewer received titles, the hope of eventual success sustained their commitment. Those who failed to pass did not lose wealth or local social standing; as dedicated believers in Confucian orthodoxy, they served, without the benefit of state appointments, as teachers, patrons of the arts, and managers of local projects, such as irrigation works, schools, or charitable foundations.

It seems as though, especially in your area of interest roughly the Yuan Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, failure of the exams was not viewed with particular disdain. Rather, while failure was obviously not as prestigious as passing the exams, the fact that one had sat for the exams at all was a powerful indicator of relative social standing. Often, study periods for the exams would last several years and consume much of the waking hours of an exam candidate. The very fact that one had been able to afford and then undertake such an expensive and time-consuming endeavor points to relative wealth, intelligence and perseverance.


Through some correspondence with an acquaintance of mine who specializes in Chinese and Tibetan History, I stand by the answer above with one small caveat. Although the exams were difficult to pass the amount of money, time and effort invested in them meant that failure could be a huge loss of face. Many examinees were crushed and became bitter and disenfranchised.

Note also that there were multiple levels of the exams. Think of them as the local or municipal level, provincial level and nation wide level exams. It was statistically much easier to pass the local level exams than the imperial level exams and getting a local certification could make you the local big man on campus.

  • Haven't visited this question in a while, want to share that "Six Tales of a Floating Life" provided a lot of information for someone that wasn't quite an elite.
    – grayQuant
    Oct 3, 2013 at 3:10
  • I have a vague memory of one major rebellion being started by someone who failed the civil service tests repeatedly, and who vowed to make them easier when he won. Perhaps it was the Taiping Rebellion, but if so the link with the Civil Service is about the least weird thing about the whole affair.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 5, 2013 at 18:55

The civil service exam was the main route to upward mobility in China. Anyone who "passed" it who be a candidate for official posts in China. There were several levels, and the higher the level of the pass, the higher the level of eligibility. A person who had passed an exam and held no post was ranked higher socially than a person who had not passed an exam, and held a good post in "private" life, because the first person was eligible to be an official, and the second person wasn't. In parts of Europe, for instance, an academic is held in higher esteem than a businessman, even if the latter is richer.

One such exam passer at the highest level was this man, who happens to be my father's maternal uncle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liang_Shiyi.

A person who didn't pass a civil service exam would revert to his original status, peasant, laborer, merchant, or member of the gentry. For people at the bottom, passing an exam was basically an "all or nothing" proposition, because there were few other avenues of advancement in China.

  • 3
    Are you sure that the people who failed were not accorded any respect? My reading of van Gulick's novels and a smattering of Pu Songling created an impression that people who took the exams but failed were nevertheless accorded some measure of respect, even if they failed repeatedly. As a slightly far-fetched parallel, recall the way Raskolnikov is referred to by almost anyone in Crime and Punishment - "former student" and its clear that the term is one of some respect. In a time and place where very few people studied at all, being even a failed student could be considered respectable. Nov 5, 2013 at 14:51
  • @FelixGoldberg: Let's just say that your "street cred" takes a quantum jump when you pass, and if you fail, you get "points for trying" and maybe a 10% or 20% increment in prestige, but no "quantum jump." But "worst to first" (Boston Red Sox style), is for those who PASS.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 5, 2013 at 15:10
  • But would they be accorded some status of being a learned person? Or might the stigma sink a person even lower?
    – grayQuant
    Nov 16, 2013 at 19:07
  • @grayQuant: It would help a little more than it would hurt. But the operative metric is "a little."
    – Tom Au
    Nov 16, 2013 at 19:08

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