Developing an Expertise Culture

The Emergence of Expertise: Professional Cultures and the Development of Occupations

Rui Magone

examination_image.jpg

The examination halls of Beijing, erected in the Ming dynasty and expanded through the end of the 19th century. Drawing by Zhao Hong. In: Shuntian fuzhi (Shuntian prefectural gazetteer). 1885 edition, juanshou: illustration nr. 4

This project searched for the implicit and explicit signs of the incorporation of practical knowledge into the examination system. Focusing mainly on the Ming period while including for comparative purposes the two dynastic cataclysms (Yuan, Qing) on its fringes, the project highlighted three principal questions:

  1. Residualism: as the civil service examinations were open to the entire male population of the empire, both in terms of accessibility and frequency, but had at the same time dauntingly low quotas of success at all competiton levels, it became inevitable for repeatedly failed candidates, by far the large majority among the examinee population, to offer, expand, diversify, adapt or even radically alter their professional expertise in order for them to be able to make a living (and eventually finance further examinations).
  2. Immunity and networking: examination graduates at all competition tiers were granted certain important privileges, specifically tax exemption and impunity, which merchant and artisan lineages tried to access by strategically infiltrating the examination system with their own offspring. Protected by examination success and its obvious benefits, including access to specific networks, lineages were able to expand their professional expertise, both in terms of quantity and quality.
  3. Historiography: on a theoretical level, the project aimed to show that the two contrasting views of Chinese society: a mobile meritocracy or a rigidly defined social structure, was artificially established by the so-called "modernization narrative," which was first elaborated by Max Weber, later fleshed out in different versions by May Fourth, Marxist and Harvard School historians, and finally radically revised to ultimately little avail.