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Review: The Ladder of Success in Imperial China(何炳棣《明清社会史论》)

 Review: The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911


I. Social Ideology and Social Stratification

In this chapter, the author said that the basic antithesis consists of two fundamental oppositions. On one hand, society is necessarily hierarchical. On the other hand, a hierarchical society cannot survive indefinitely unless its inherent injustice is substantially mitigated if not entirely, a concept which transcends feudal boundaries.[1]

As an old saying goes: Those who labor with their minds rule others. Those who are ruled sustain others, and those who rule are sustained by others. The officialdom was the exalted rulers. Below the ruling officialdom the nation at large was customarily classified into ssu-min(四民),shih(cholars,), nung(peasants,), kung(artisants,) and shang(merchants,). In this part, the author focuses on the analysis of their differences.

The traditional Chinese state was at once a Confucian and a “physiocratic” state. Through an examination of historical social realities, it was found another picture which was different from the traditional common impression that Chinese society traditionally looked down upon and discriminated against artisans and merchants. [2] The article gives four illustrations to prove that money in Ming-Ch’ing China was not in itself an ultimate source of power.

II. The Fluidity of the Status System

The author specifically discussed the lack of effective legal barriers preventing the movement of individuals and families form one status to another and the statistics implying initial occupational and horizontal mobility and the permeability of the Confucian social ideology.

It was said that all these hereditary statuses broke down in the course of time and throughout a span of five and a half centuries the legal barrier to occupational mobility was more apparent than real. During the early Ming period, although special hereditary statuses were more strictly maintained, the imperial government and officials were in general lenient and sympathetic toward members of such statuses who had aspiration and ability.[3]Early Ming rulers and officials in general lacked the determination literally to enforce them.[4]

Most of chin-shih of the entire Ming period did not come from families of registered.[5]The major of the Chinese lived on the land and many officials came from farming households, keng-tu, or ‘plough and study’. However, their family members encouraged them to study hard. The general direction of their social mobility was toward the elite, and the merchant element in such families became less and less important.[6]The tradesman was more likely than peasant or artisan to pursue basic studies if he had social ambition because his profession required a certain degree of literacy. So, the social distinction between officials and rich merchants was more blurred than at any other time in Chinese history except for the Mongol Yuan period[7]and the correlation between wealth and academic success was good[8]. The author also found another interesting social phenomenon that in Ming-Ch’ing times many officials and their families were engaged in trade.

III. Upward Mobility: Entry into Officialdom

In this chapter the author classify these three types of higher degree holders(chin-shih, chu-jen and kung-sheng) into four categories, category A, B, C, D.[9] ‘Category A accounted for 30.2 percent of the total candidates, Category B for 12.1 percent, and Category C for 57.7 percent. The sum of Categories A and B, which by definition represented candidates from commoner families, was 42.3 percent.’[10] So the composition of the officialdom was constantly in a state of flux and it difficult for top-ranking families to maintain their exalted status in the long run.[11]

IV. Downward Mobility

In this chapter, the author chooses the histories of four clans as illustrations of the general processes of social leveling and explains the environmental, educational, institutional, and economic factors which had a bearing on downward mobility. From the histories we can see that long-rang downward of high-status families could take place because of any one of the following factors: ‘failure to provide children with a proper education, the competitive nature of the examination system which was based in the main on merit rather than on family status, the limit yin privilege of high officials, the mode of life and cultural expressions of the leisured class, and the progressive dilution of wealth due to the absence of primogeniture’.[12]


V. Factors Affecting Social Mobility

In the chapter five, the author analyzes the institutionalized and noninstitutional factors which had an important bearing on social mobility in Ming-Ch’ing times. There are many factors: examination and state schools, community schools and private academies, sundry community aids for examination candidates, the clan system, printing, wars and social upheavals, demographic and economic factors.


VI. Regional Differences in Socioacademic Success and Mobility and

VII. Recapitulation and Conclusion

In the chapter six, it was thought that ‘the north was more than adequately protected from the advanced southeast by the Ming broad regional chin-shih quota and especially by the post-1702 provincial quota system.’[13]Among northern provinces Hopei benefited the most from the quota systems and from the fact that Peking was the national capital.

The fact that by Ch’ing times Category A percentages of the majority of provinces had sharply declined, particularly in the culturally advanced southeastern provinces testifies to the increasing disadvantage of the poor and humble in competing against their social superiors.

In short, the author wrote ‘the smaller population and unusual circumstances of the Ming period brought about substantial mobility rates for the whole country, most of all for the southeast, which was culturally ready to take full advantage of opportunities. The greatly increased population of Ch’ing times sharply reduced the mobility rates of the majority of the provinces, particularly those of the southeast’[14].


Professor Ho’s research on social mobility in Ming and Ch’ing times covers as it does a period of nearly half a millennium and explores systematically a far wider range of Chinese sources than has been used by other scholars who have dealt with the subject. There are 38 tables, 27 detailed case histories in this book. Professor Ho uses many materials on his research. He not only uses the systematic statistics, such as chin-shih teng-k’o lu(进士登科录)t’ung-nien ch’ih-lu(同年齿录)  and san-tai chin-shih lu-li pien-lan (三代履历便览), etc, but also realizes the importance of various types of qualitative evidence, such as, biographies, genealogies, social novels, comments of contemporary observers on social, clan, and family affairs, the existence of various institutionalized and noninstitutional channels, etc.

However, maybe there are some views should to be discussed further.[15]First, if he only analyzed the candidates’ father and grandfather, but did not analyzed the influence of other people, such as his uncle, is this right? The clan is very important for one to study and progress in the traditional society. Maybe his uncle was a, chu-jen and taught him lots of knowledge. 

Second, he neglected the influence of the Mongol Yuan’s examination system. During the Mongol Yuan, there were only 16 imperial examinations and it only got 1139 chin-shih at all (12.8/year), and it was only one of seven or eight of the number of chin-shih in Ch’ing. The number of people who got high degree was very small in Mongol Yuan, so the families in which there were people in high degree were also little, maybe the rate of these family is one of ten of the number of families which had people in high degree in Ch’ing.[16]



1. Does the author should consider the influence of the clan system?

2. Is there an important influence of Mongol Yuan’s examination system over Ho’s research? 

[1] Ping-ti HoThe Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911Columbia University Press, (NY, 1962), p.1.

[2] Ibid, pp.42-43.

[3] Ibid, p.65.

[4] Ibid, p67.

[5] “entire Ming period who gave their family statuses, only 160, or less than 7.1 percent, came from families of registered scholar status. There were 7,915 candidates of special statues ranging from army officer, medical official, and rich family down to garrison soldier, salt producer, and artisan”, Ibid, p.71.

[6] Ibid, pp.77-78.

[7] Ibid, p.82.

[8] Ibid, p.85.

[9] “Category A consists of candidates whose families during the three preceding generations had failed to produce a single holder of the elementary degree, let alone any office or official title. Category B consists of candidates whose families during the three preceding generation had produced one or more sheng-yuan but no holder of a higher degree of office. Category C consists of candidates whose families during the three preceding generations had produced one or more holders of higher degrees or officers. Category D, which is a subdivision of Category C, consists of candidates whose families within the three previous generations had produced one or more high officials, that is, officials of the third rank and above.” Ibid, pp.107-108.

[10] Ibid, p.111.

[11] Ibid, p.121.

[12] Ibid, p.165.

[13] Ibid, p.236.

[14] Ibid, p.242.

[15] If you want to see more papers about Chinese social mobility, you can read the two papers: E. A. Kracke, “Family vs. Merit in Chinese Civil Service Examinations Under the Empire,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 10.2 (1947), 103-123. Robert M. Hartwell, “Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750-1550,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 42.2 (1982), 365-442.

[16] 沈登苗:《也谈明代前期科举社会的流动率——对何炳棣研究结论的思考》,《社会科学论坛》(学术评论卷),2006, 9期。


Review: The Ladder of Success in Imperial China(何炳棣《明清社会史论》) - 半省堂 - 1