Imperial exams and human capital

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

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. …

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.