A Longevity Mechanism of Chinese Absolutism
45 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2020 Last revised: 13 Aug 2020
Date Written: July 8, 2020
A counterpart of what is known as “European exceptionalism”—political stability and institutional arrangement that enabled modern economic growth and political development—is a “Chinese anomaly.” This anomaly takes the form of a sharp contrast with pre-modern Europe: Chinese imperial rulers stayed in power longer than their European counterparts but this political stability was accompanied by a high level of institutional stasis. In this paper, we argue that a well-known Chinese institution, the civil service examination (CSE) system, contributed to China’s imperial longevity. We utilize detailed historical data on individual CSE performance to demonstrate the longevity-contributory mechanisms of CSE—constraining access to power by aristocrats and other wealth-holders. We argue that a key to unpacking the so-called “Chinese anomaly” is to understand the role of bureaucracy in political development in China and potentially in other regions.
Keywords: historical political development, bureaucracy, absolutism, China
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