Political success and the growth of descent groups: the Shih of Ming-chou during the Sung

Richard L. DAVIS

Copyright © 1986 by The Regents of the University of California.


When, in the early years of the dynasty, the Sung (960-1279) government set out to make examination success the chief criterion in its selection of civil servants, it paved the way for profound social change. The hereditary elite of the past, commonly referred to as the "aristocratic families" or "medieval oligarchy," in time gave way to a class of professional bureaucrats, men whose social status derived largely from bureaucratic service and not vice versa. The government's objective was to have a civil service founded upon individual merit, in which the loyalty of its bureaucrats could be firmly secured. The influence of family background on career success, therefore, had to be minimized. To this end, the government strove to make education widely accessible by developing an empire-wide network of public and private school. Massive expansion of the bureaucracy and the size of the educated class, a surge in the number and size of urban areas where the highly educated and the scarcely educated could interact, the wealth generated by an unprecedented level of commercial activity, and the challenge this represented to the former dominance of land as a source of economic security and political influence - these were but a few of the many factors that made the Sung elite far more diverse and the Sung civil service far less of an oligarchy than in the past.