Benjamin A. ELMAN

Detail from the eighth-century painting Literary Gathering, by Tang dynasty artist Han Huang. Ink and color on silk. One component of the civil service examination was the writing of an “Eight-Legged Essay” that adhered to rigorous structure and exactitude. One slip of the pen in the formation of a written classical Chinese character was cause for failure.

The civil service examination system, a method of recruiting civil officials based on merit rather than family or

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