The Scholar-Official Class

Essential Question

Why were the scholar-officials class and the “merit” system of government important to China?

Song Dynasty of Good Government

The Song dynasty improved the system by which people went to work for the government. The workers that formed a large bureaucracy or a body of unelected government officials in China were the scholar-officials class. Scholar-officials were highly educated scholars and acted as government officials. A few of these people worked in the imperial court, but most of them served as local government leaders. Their duties included teaching at private schools, supervising community projects, maintaining law and order, conducting ceremonies, assisting in tax collection, and overseeing imperial social welfare programs. In essence, anything that the emperor needed to be done in a town, the scholar-officials were responsible for taking care of it.

In order for a scholar-official to join the bureaucracy, they needed to pass the civil service examinations. To become a civil servant, a person, (present or noble) had to pass a series of written examinations. The examinations tested students' grasp of Confucianism and related ideas. Because the tests were so difficult, students spent years preparing for them. Only a very small fraction of the people who took the tests would reach the top level and be appointed to a position in the government. Because the number of available posts did not change, a candidate’s chances of passing reached as low as 1 in 333. The civil service examination system helped ensure that only the most talented and intelligent people could work in the government. However, not just anyone could take the test. The exams were only open to people who had been recommended for government service already. As a result, wealthy or influential families continued to control the government.

Next once a scholar-official received a job they served in it for seven years, then to prevent corruption, they were moved to another job. If a scholar-official did a good job they would be promoted or if they did a bad job they would be demoted to a less important job or dismissed. This idea to base promotions on performance is known as the merit system. The idea that ability was more important than one's family was a groundbreaking idea.

Candidates for the civil service examinations had a strong incentive for studying hard. Scholar-officials were elite members of society. They performed many important jobs in the government and were widely admired for their knowledge and ethics. Their benefits included high-paying jobs, considerable respect, and reduced penalties for breaking the law. Many also became wealthy from gifts given by people seeking their aid.

The civil service examination system had important effects on Chinese society. Another side effect of the exam was it reduced the power and wealth of nobles since their family was not guaranteed high-paying government jobs because of who they are related to. Last, the exam reduced corruption by replacing the old system where local officials picked their own workers based on family connections and bribes rather than merit.

Comic Strip

I'll do it tomorrow.pdf

Discussion Questions

  • How did the Song dynasty change China's government?

  • What was a scholar-official?

  • Explain Why would people want to become scholar-officials?

  • Evaluate Do you think civil service examinations were a good way to choose government officials? Why or why not?

Activity 1: What were the reasons why the Song Dynasty was a period of good government?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities