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China and Inner Asia
In Session: A Cultural Study of "Shame" in Late Imperial and Modern China
1: From Shame to Strategy: Gambling on the Civil Service Examinations in Nineteenth-Century Guangdong
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Drake University, United States
The Civil Service Examination system in China was intended as a way to allow the most talented men to rise through the officialdom and serve in the government from the 10th century to 1905, which played a key role in the formation of Chinese gentry class and allowed one to label Chinese society as meritocratic, as opposed to the aristocratic society of early modern Europe. Weixing (“surname guessing” 闈姓), an organized gambling game where bets were placed on surnames of candidates would pass the exams, has often been described as the opposite: people assumed that surname betting was merely based on luck and did not require much thought. From this view, gambling, especially weixing, was non-meritocratic or even anti-meritocratic in the Confucian sense. Based on a close reading of weixing game rules from gazetteers, memories, and the observation of British civil officer G.T. Hare in the 1890s, this paper continues to challenge the moral discourse and political accusation about the “shameful” gambling in Guangdong. If the examinations represented a functional meritocracy among the elite in imperial China, betting on the examinations showed a surprisingly similar form of merit-based promotion among common people during a transitional period: studying the exams without participating in them, collecting information while accepting contingencies--with a potential to earn more short-term profits than the real exam takers.