Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): Social Structure

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Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): Social Structure




Examination System. The recovery of Chinese rule over the country during the Ming period (1368-1644) led to the reinstitution of the civil service examination system, which used three levels of examinations. Preliminary examinations were held at the county level to select and grant qualified scholars a degree called xiucai (flowering talent). This degree honored a scholar’s intellectual achievements and included him in the privileged class of the gentry, who were exempted from labor service and corporal punishments. Xiucai holders could further enter the second level of examinations, held at the provincial capitals every three years. During the several-day-long tests the candidates were confined in rows of tiny cells at the examination field to write essays on Confucian classics. Less than 1 percent of the candi-dates passed the examination, earned a degree called ju ren(recommended men), and were allowed to proceed to a third level of triennial metropolitan examinations held at the capital, Beijing. Successful candidates who obtained the highest academic title, jinshi (presented scholar), could take the final examination at the court, presided over by the emperor him-self, which then determined the official ranking and government post of the jinshi holders.

Merits and Defects. The civil service examination system in the Ming period was strictly regulated to prevent possible defaults and partiality. Names of candidates were concealed, and sometimes the candidates’ papers were copied to ensure anonymity. Provincial examiners were dispatched from the capital. The examinations were managed by the Minister of Rites, rather than the Minister of Personnel, who supervised government officials. Overall, officials selected through this system had mastered the Confucian classics. This universal training helped to foster a unified bureaucracy that strengthened the centralization of government. Meritocracy also provided hope, though slim, to millions of Chinese men, who normally would not otherwise have had a chance to advance and be part of officialdom. Yet, the civil service examinations, centered as they were around Confucian classics, favored candidates whose training was through book learning and not practical application. The lengthy period of preparation also meant that only wealthy students could afford to prepare for these exams.

Gentry Class. Chinese degree-holders of all ranks have been known as shen shi (officials and scholars). The English term “gentry” has been used to define this class. In the con-text of Chinese society, however, the meaning of gentry was broadened to include both office-degree holders and landlords, from whom the degree holders often originated. These men were entrusted with the responsibilities of maintaining order and peace; they were the unofficial extension of the government at the local level. Therefore, both office holders and landlords were perceived as the privileged gentry class.


Lu Kun, governor of Jiangxi during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), defined the code of gentlemen in his book, Groanings. The following are some of his suggestions:

He should hide a large portion of whatever goodness he might have and thus cultivate his “ethical profoundness.” Likewise he should conceal to a great extent the shortcomings of others and thus enlarge his “magnanimity,” Patience is essential to planning, and a peaceful mind is a prerequi-site to the management of affairs. Modesty is the most important item in the preservation of one’s life, and tolerance and forgiveness should be the basic attitude towards others. To cultivate his mind, a gentleman should not be unduly concerned with such things as affluence or poverty, life or death, constancy or change.

Every event has its reality, every word its abode of beatitude, and every object the reason that sustains its existence. Likewise there are ways that make man a man; the purpose of education is to learn these ways. A gentleman learns them whenever and wherever he is, constantly and tirelessly. He will not cease to learn until he knows them all and knows them well.

Source: Lu Kun, Groanings, in The Essence of Chinese Civilization, edited by Dun J. Li (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1967).

Gentry Characteristics. The gentry class formed the backbone of Chinese Confucian government. This class thus performed administrative responsibilities without official appointment. They helped collect taxes and raise

funds for local public works, such as building and repairing dikes and roads; handled local disputes over property or conflicts that were the result of individual personali-ties; maintained Confucian culture by establishing and sponsoring local schools and temples; organized charitable institutions for orphans, widows, and disabled people; provided relief during natural disasters; and formed a militia to defend their wealth and the community. These administrative, cultural, and social activities were encouraged and recognized by the government. Official recognition, together with economic privileges, gave the gentry influence, prestige, and power over the bulk of the population—small landowners and tenant farmers. While most of the gentry restrained themselves with Confucian virtues and morals, a great many also abused their power and influence and became local despots who exploited and squeezed the local people. These actions deepened the social conflict between landlord and tenant classes and at times even incited social upheaval.


Wm. Theodore de Bary, Self and Society in Ming Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970).

John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Ray Huang, 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

Charles O. Hucker, The Ming Dynasty: Its Origins and Evolving Institutions (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1978).

Robert B. Marks, Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China (Cambridge 8c New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Mote and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 7, The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Witold Rodzinski, A History of China, 2 volumes (Oxford & New York: Pergamon, 1979-1983).

Shih-shan Henry Tsai, Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).


Italian missionary Matteo Ricci, who was in China trom 1583 to 1610, observed carefully the social lives of the Chinese. The following excerpt is from his journal.

When relatives of friends pay a visit, the host is expected to return the visit, and a definite and detailed ceremony accompanies their custom of visiting. The one who is calling presents a little folder in which his name is written and which may contain a few words of address depending upon the rank of the visitor or of the host. . . . These folders or booklets consist of about a dozen pages of white paper and are about a palm and a half in length, oblong in shape, with a two-inch strip of red paper down the middle of the cover,,. one must have at least twenty different kinds on hand for different functions, marked with appropriate titles. . . . Men of high station in life are never seen walking in the streets. They are carried about enclosed in sedan chairs and cannot be seen by passers-by, unless they leave the front curtain open. . . . Carriages and wagons are prohibited by law. . . . People here travel more by boat than we in the West, and their boats are more ornate and more commodious than ours. . . . Sometimes they give sumptuous dinners aboard their yachts and make a pleasure cruise of it on the lake or along the river.


Matteo Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew

Ricci, 1583-1610, translated by Louis J. Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953), pp. 61-62, 80-81,