Chinese meritocracy

David Brooks’s interesting column about Chinese meritocracy mentions only briefly something vital: that this is a very old Chinese tradition. More than a thousand years ago, in the Song dynasty, China began to be ruled by a fully meritocratic civil service -- fully meritocratic in the sense that admission to the ruling cadre was determined solely by success in rigorous and carefully monitored examinations. Few who took the exams passed them, even though a candidate could try again as many times as he wished. There are records of men in their seventies taking and in some cases passing the exams, and some men who had no interest in actually serving the country took them just for the honor of the thing: successful examinees even got to wear distinctive styles of clothing. Many members of the civil service came from poor backgrounds, and indeed this was a reason for initiating the examinations: the second Song emperor said, “We are concerned that hearts clothed in coarse fabrics may contain the qualities of jade, and the fact remain unknown.” This system lasted for hundreds of years with great success and relatively little corruption; what’s happening in China today is a kind of renewal or restoration of it. Whether it’s a faithful restoration I have no way of knowing.