06:59 AM

Even in medieval China, education was a key to career success

Study finds similarities with social mobility in modern U.S.

If you tell your children that education is the key to success in life, you may have something in common with Chinese parents from the 7th to 9th centuries.

A new study finds that between 618-907 CE, young men’s career success in China’s Tang Dynasty was increasingly tied to how well they performed on a competitive examination called the Keju (the Imperial Exam) – and much less on their ancestral origins and family pedigree.

The results counter the view that the central role of education in social mobility is an invention of modern, industrialized societies, said Fangqi Wen, lead author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

“Even before industrialization, the credentials of education played an important role in equalizing opportunities for young men in medieval China,” she said.

Fangqi Wen“It was no longer necessary to grow up in an aristocratic family to have career success.”

Wen conducted the study, published yesterday (Jan. 18, 2024) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with Michael Hout, professor of sociology at New York University and Wen’s dissertation adviser; and Erik H. Wang, assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Politics.

The study was possible because in medieval China, elites were buried with tomb epitaphs, stone slabs inscribed with biographies of the deceased.  And they truly were biographies.

The epitaphs were very detailed and highly standardized.

“This information, to some extent, mirrors what would have been included in a contemporary social mobility survey,” Wang said.

For this study, the researchers analyzed digitized data from 3,640 epitaphs of this time period.

The epitaphs contained career history, including the last career position the deceased held before they died; the highest positions held by their fathers and grandfathers; whether they passed the Keju examination; and information that indicated whether they descended from aristocratic families in medieval China.

Results showed that in the early period of the study – before 690 – the Tang society could still be regarded as aristocratic.

“Passing the Keju during early Tang had no effect on career advancement,” the authors said. “Bloodlines mattered and exam success did not.”

But Chinese social structure changed dramatically after 690.  The aristocracy no longer dominated, and coming from an aristocratic family no longer improved a man’s position in the bureaucratic system.

But passing the exam did help.

Passing the competitive exams could, after 690, land a man in an office at least one full rank higher than that achieved by an otherwise comparable man who had not passed the exam, results showed.

 “Education is central to our understanding of intergenerational mobility,” Hout said. “Many think it was a 20th-century development. But, as we can see from centuries-old data, there are phenomena linking origin, education and careers very much like contemporary patterns.”

Although education became more important than bloodlines, that didn’t mean it no longer mattered who young men were born to as far as career advancement was concerned, Wen said.

“The advantages of coming from aristocratic bloodlines gradually declined, but a father’s position was always important,” she said.  “That effect is pretty consistent over the entire three centuries that we examined in the study.”

In that way, Wen said, medieval China was very much like modern U.S. society, which does not have aristocratic families that pass along their advantages – but where having wealthy and educated parents still matters a lot for their children’s success.

“Maybe your family name, and your ancient family history doesn’t matter that much, but your father and grandfather’s status still matters a great deal,” she said.

Share this