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Meritocracy in History


The ultimate prize

Long long ago, in the ancient China, the Imperial Court would hold civil service examinations opened to all scholars in China regardless of one’s background. This was one big event, many had studied for years, gone through at least two  rounds of trials, bankrupted their families, just to attend the examination, because selected finalists would usually be offered governmental posts.

The Grand Prize, the Numero Uno– “Zhuang Yuan” (First Scholar), if he is young and handsome, might even have a princess betrothed to him, becoming part of the royal family, attaining great fame and wealth, living happily ever after.

Errr… Is this a fairy tale? No, it is not, except the marrying the princess part. However…

Substantial number of First Scholars were from the nobles and rich merchants. Why? Well, even if we disregard corruption and assume fair competition, the rich would still have an edge over the poor, that is, they could afford to hire good tutors for their sons.  Furthermore, the rich kids did not have to work and could spend their entire time studying if they decided to.  Having said that, once in a blue moon, an exceptional talent would emerge from the poor, who, against all odds, attained the highest honour.

Is this a fair system? Yes, if you compare it against Nepotism, Cronyism, and other “ism”, however, the odds were still stacked greatly against the poor due to the cost– behind every success story, there were probably thousands (if not millions) of undiscovered talents buried in the rice fields.


A little snippet from the village:

According to the family annals, the Mule’s Great-Great Grandfather observed his sons from young, and selected 3 lucky ones to concentrate on studies, that is, the rest of the brothers would have to plough the fields, worked as mules to support the 3 smarter kids. The Mules’ Great Grand Father was one of the lucky ones, and eventually attained the status of Xiu Cai. If not because of the civil service examination being abolished in the late Qing Dynasty… the Mule might be holding a bird cage, walking the street with a big entourage, teasing girls and bullying the old folks, as seen on TV.


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