A society in which examination success is more important than actual learning, in which it is not what you know but who you know, in which the social status of a tiny metropolitan minority is demonstrated by highly public displays of wealth, and where the social elite get away with trashing their surroundings. Sounds familiar?
Welcome to the latter half of the Tang dynasty (618-907), when virtually everything else about society was radically different from anything we now readily understand. Halfway through the Tang - often regarded as the greatest of the Chinese dynasties - catastrophic rebellions fragmented political authority and left everything in flux. Nothing would ever be the same again. The examination system, just three decades old at the start of the Tang, was one crucial institution by which the social-political elites of the empire tried to maintain their status in a changing world.
Oliver Moore's book explores this process via the nostalgic view of the annual examination cycle compiled by Wang Dingbao, himself an examination graduate, in a privately produced work written just after the end of the Tang, which may have been used as a model by Wang's new employers.
The Chinese examination system was supposedly copied by the 19th-century British Civil Service in hopes of developing a meritocracy but, as Moore makes clear, there was nothing meritocratic about the late Tang exams.
State-run schools nominally aimed to widen participation, but the system proved hard to maintain in the aftermath of rebellions, and elite preferences shifted to the avenue of local recommendations for which the prerequisite was high social status, and the schools never recovered.
Each year only 30 candidates passed the top exam, the jinshi , but these graduates were destined to run the empire. They undertook a seasonal round of ceremonies and celebrations designed to display and thereby cement their crucial and highly personalised relationships with the sponsors who had vouchsafed their suitability for the exams, the examiner they had persuaded (not necessarily by the quality of their exam script) to pass them, and their cohort of fellow graduates - but not, significantly, with the emperor or the institutions of the empire.
The activities Wang describes took the form of ritual in lives governed by ritual performance. Moore has mined a complex text to offer insight into the codes and procedures with which participants had to be familiar if they were to be a social - and correspondingly a political - success. Instead of bringing a bottle of wine and saying the right things about the right topics, Tang graduands had to have memorised the Classics and be able to recite their genealogies, produce poems on demand and avoid taboo names on the fly. Not surprisingly, the strain could become too much, and Moore treats us to the vivid image of drunks trading insults in a colloquial Chinese far removed from the formal language of the exams.
Contrary to what we might expect, these were not just Confucian rituals or even Confucian at all. Moore argues that the chief source of examination ritual was in fact Buddhism (with some influence from Daoism), pointing to its master-disciple relationships and the imagery of robes and bowls, found also in the most important of the graduands' ceremonies. Perhaps most interestingly, he ties the graduands' annual round of activities into a wider pattern of ritual observance and celebration involving the greater part of the urban population, and this may offer the most fruitful directions for further research.
Exam ritual ties into the bigger picture as an illustration of the post-rebellion Tang imperium attempting to reassert its authority and failing even among these elites who should ostensibly have been its strongest supporters. Moore reveals the tension between state-sanctioned rituals and those valued by the candidates themselves, seeing this as symptomatic of state efforts to shift allegiance back to the centre.
Wang's text, by giving us perspectives from the candidates themselves, allows Moore to argue that the late Tang state was not actually in charge of even so central an institution as the examinations, although imperial authority began to recover remarkably quickly after the dynasty finally fell.
New books on the Tang are much rarer than they ought to be, and Moore is to be thanked for adding such a meticulous textual/contextual study to their number, although Brill's prices and a lack of editorial oversight will inevitably limit the audience to China specialists and bold comparativists interested in the formation of clerical classes, and religion and ritual in everyday life.
But the book would make a terrific website. It includes a 70-page appendix, summarising the contents of Wang's Statements. Currently this is keyed rather distractingly into the main text with numbers in bold that cry out to be web links.
Wang's work is full of lively anecdotes that instruct even as they entertain. How welcome it would be if they could be shared more widely.
Naomi Standen is lecturer in Chinese history, Newcastle University.
Rituals of Recruitment in Tang China: Reading an Annual Programme in the Collected Statements By Wang Dingbao (870-940)
Author - Oliver J. Moore
Publisher - Brill
Pages - €407
Price - 135.00
ISBN - 90 04 13937 0