The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China

A Social History of Examinations, New Edition

By John W. Chaffee

Subjects: Asian Studies
Paperback : 9780791424247, 320 pages, January 1995
Hardcover : 9780791424230, 320 pages, February 1995

Table of contents

List of illustrations
List of tables
List of abbreviations
Geographical note
Preface to the Second Edition

Part I

1. Introduction: the examination of life

Two protests
The examination of life
The examination of literature
The historical context

2. The structure of recruitment

The Sung bureaucracy
Recruitment of clerks and the military
Recruitment of the civil service
Patterns of recruitment
Students and chu-jen
The growth of the literati
Recruitment and the social order

Part II

3. For the utmost governance: examinations in the early Sung

Sung examinations and the Confucian tradition
Examinations under the early emperors
Institutional innovations
Qualifying for candidacy
Occupational prohibitions
Residency requirements
Character qualifications
The role of K'ai-feng

4. To be rooted in schools: examinations in the late Northern Sung

The Ch'ing-li reforms
Curriculum changes
Schools and the reformers
The Three Hall system
The legacy of reform
Government schools in the Southern Sung
The spread of academics

5. The failure of fairness: examinations in the Southern Sung

The examinations at mid-course
The special preliminary examinations
The higher examinations
The extent of privilege
The examinations in decline

Part III

6. The geography of success

The rise of the south
Geographical biases
The problem of regional units
The distribution of chin-shih
The unsuccessful regions
Patterns of success

7. Through the thorny gates: the culture of examinations

The terminology of testing
The spread of ceremony
The support of chu-jen
The signs of selection
The beginnings of an examination culture
Examination stories
The problems of youth
The problem of age
With help from the spirits

8. Conclusion

The attempt at meritocracy
Learning and authority
Examinations and society

Appendix 1: Methods of Entry into the Civil Service

Appendix 2: Table 25. Departmental Graduates and Degrees Conferred by Year

Appendix 3: Table 26. Sung Chin-shih Totals by Prefecture Based Upon Lists in Local Histories

Appendix 4: An Evaluation of Local Histories as Sources for Sung Chin-shih Data


List of characters

Local Histories
Other Works in Chinese and Japanese
Works in Western Languages
Recent Works in Western Languages



This book explores the profound cultural impact of the civil service examinations during the period when they first became the primary means of government recruitment.

John W. Chaffee is Chairperson and Associate Professor in the Department of History at State University of New York, Binghamton. He is coeditor of NeoConfucian Education: The Formative Stage, and former editor of the Bulletin of Sung Yuan Studies.


"Chaffee places the increase in size of the elite in a dynamic context, showing the consequences of successive developments over the three centuries of Sung rule. He offers cogent summaries of complex institutional developments, devises imaginative ways to analyze the statistical evidence available, draws careful inferences from anecdotes, and moves comfortably between contemporary Chinese interpretations and his own analyses. I have seldom read a book in which I found so much to admire. " — Patricia Ebrey, American Historical Review

"The Sung was an age of exceptional innovation, and it is in the context of discussion of changes in Sung society that Chaffee introduces his findings. Western historians of China will find in this well-researched volume much to stimulate further reflection on the period. " — T. H. Barrett, Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland