Social Mobility in the Tang Dynasty: The Growing Significance of Imperial Examination and Decline of Aristocratic Family Pedigree, 618-907 CE

Fangqi Wen, Ohio State University
Erik Haixiao Wang, New York University
Michael Hout, New York University (NYU)

Social scientists have conducted extensive research on intergenerational mobility in modern industrial societies. Due to data limitations, we know little about social mobility in the premodern period. 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. We utilize this dataset to document a grand transformation in Chinese history---the transition away from an aristocratic society. Our statistical analyses disentangle the relationships between competing socio-political variables and one's career outcome, and establish two patterns: (1) the effect of family pedigree on career achievement in the bureaucratic system declined over time, and (2) passing the Imperial Examination (Keju) had become an increasingly important predictor of one's career achievement. These findings extend the traditional sociological theories on 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 suggest 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’ career success became increasingly determined by personal certifications.

See paper

 Presented in Session 122. Exploring Pathways to Progress: Social Mobility, Occupational Transitions, and Cultural Influences in Historical Contexts