Formal education entered Chinese society as an adjunct to imperial power. For over 1,000 years dating from the Han Dynasty ( 202 B.C.--A.D. 220), emperors built a system of selection whereby aspirants passed examinations to attain high official positions. The Examination System tested knowledge of Chinese literary classics rather than technical information of practical use in governing. It also created a dependable corps of loyal defenders of the emperor.
Architects of the system created a complex progression of steps that might be ascended successfully over several decades into middle age. The number of official posts to be filled did not grow greatly. Between 1585 and 1850, for example, China's population more than doubled from 200 million to 425 million but only about 20,000 posts were available. 1 Many more passed the examinations than for whom posts could be found. This larger number of degree holders constituted a reservoir for assignments in local and regional governments. Elderly degree holders could retire to their home village and take up teaching duties in the local school.
The Examination System fed on the same social elite that it helped to perpetuate and expand. To garner the literary knowledge necessary for success on the tests required long years of study, and this was not possible without extensive leisure. Accordingly, as Eberhard observed, "the examination system cannot be expected to have contributed much to upward social mobility." 2 The Sung Dynasty ( A.D. 960-1279) was the first in Chinese history to experience a mature Examination System. "The number of degree holders at any given time during and after the Sung had always been minuscule," wrote Lee, "constituting, for exam-