One lesson from the Tang Dynasty: the wealthy always find a way to control things.

I’ve been reading an excellent history of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled most of China from 618-907, during which time China experienced a Renaissance in literature and the arts, especially poetry.  It’s China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty by Mark Edward Lewis.  

Many books pad their pages past the direct subject to one degree or another.  For example, one writer will relate her factual tale with her reaction to it, another will reference the rock music and movie stars popular at the time.  Lewis’s padding adds richness to his story.  He projects the narrative both backward to the dynasties before the Tang and forward to the dynasties afterwards, especially the Song and Ming.  The result is a wonderful encapsulation of all of Chinese history, which of course gives an added level of meaning to the story of the Tang.

What I love about reading history is the many parallels I find to our current society and situation.  I have written before, for example, about the similarities between the United States in the post-War era and Spain in the 16th century under Phillip II.

Here’s the most interesting parallel between Tang and our current society that I’ve come across so far:  It was during the 300-year reign of the Tang that examination replaced coming from a wealthy family as the primary means of attaining a good government job.  We could call it the ascendancy of the meritocracy and it sounds a little like what happened in the United States beginning with establishment of the civil service in the 1880s.  The SAT and other standardized tests have in many ways become a similar gateway to a promising career that the examination system was in Imperial China.

And yet by the end of the Tang, virtually all the good government jobs were filled by the children of the wealthy.  How did it happen that a meritocracy developed that resulted in rewarding the rich rather than the inherently talented?  Lewis says (pages 203-204) that:

  • The wealthy were more able than others to spend a lot of money preparing their children for the exams. 
  • The exams were given only in the expensive and often faraway capitals, which put a financial burden on the poor students and their families, but not on the wealthy.
  • The little public education that existed in China eroded with the growth of the importance of the examination.  Convenient for the wealthy, who were also starting to pay fewer taxes, we learn elsewhere in the book
  • Many of the examiners knew the families of the wealthy applicants taking the exams.  Let’s call it the Imperial Chinese version of being a legacy at an Ivy League university.

Sounds familiar.  I imagine all the nicely situated but not super-wealthy Tang-era  families churning with anxiety as they tried to keep up with the wealthy in preparing their children for the examinations and ingratiating themselves with the examiners.  Do you think the mothers compared the benefits of the various private tutors over tea at the local Qĭ-Jiă (Star-buck in Chinese according to one online dictionary)? Do you suppose that among the voluminous output of poetry during the Tang there were guides to studying for the examination?

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One comment on “One lesson from the Tang Dynasty: the wealthy always find a way to control things.
  1. paul says:

    Perhaps some things never change. But then again, perhaps some things can and do change. Got to keep trying to make it happen, at the least.

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