Social Mobility in the Tang Dynasty as the Imperial Examination Rose and Aristocratic Family Pedigree Declined, 618-907 CE
16 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2023 Last revised: 6 Apr 2023
Date Written: March 13, 2023
Social scientists have conducted extensive research on intergenerational mobility in modern industrial societies. We know little about social mobility in the premodern period, as, until now, we had little data on premodern societies. In this study, we construct a dataset from 3,640 tomb epitaphs of males in China's Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), which contain granular and extensive information about the ancestral origins, family background, and career histories of the deceased elites. Our statisitcal analysis of the resulting data yields evidence of a grand transformation in Chinese history---the transition away from an aristocratic society. We establish three patterns: (1) the effect of family pedigree on career achievement in the bureaucratic system declined over time, (2) passing the Imperial Examination (Keju) became an increasingly important predictor of one's career achievement, and (3) father's position always mattered. These findings extend sociological theories of educational attainment and social mobility by showing that competitive exams could be equalizers even before industrialization. We also contribute to resolving a longstanding debate among historians on the nature of social mobility in the Tang. Our results cast doubt on recent research that portrays the medieval Chinese aristocracy as self-perpetuating during this era, and reaffirm earlier works that suggested a chronic decline of the aristocracy via the rise of Keju. The Tang Dynasty, according to the data, was indeed a critical period in Chinese history. The advantage of ancient great houses gradually vanished and individuals' educational achievement became increasingly important for their career success.
Keywords: Intergenerational mobility, historical mobility, aristocracy, China, medieval, bureaucracy
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