The assumption that in China before the 20th century the examination system made it possible for men to qualify for appointment as an official based on their talent and without regard to their family background underpins claims that the imperial bureaucracy was meritocratic. However, decades of empirical investigations of the family backgrounds of examination degree holders have yielded conflicting results about the possibilities for upward mobility into educational and bureaucratic elites via the exams. I advance the debate on the role of family background by shifting the focus from exam degree attainment to appointment and promotion as an official. By analysis of examination records and career histories, I show that between 1830 and 1911, men whose patrilineal ancestors held degrees or who had been officials were advantaged not only when it came to the progression from one stage of the examination system to the next, but also when it came to being appointed. For officials who were appointed, I use cumulative official salary over the entire career as a summary measure of their career success that integrates career length and bureaucratic rank at each point in time. I find that for officials, cumulative official salary was strongly associated with family background, even after controlling for exam performance. I contextualize the results on officials who held exam degrees by showing that they were a minority, and that they were outnumbered by holders of purchased degrees and officials appointed on the basis of their hereditary status as affiliates of the Eight Banners. The analysis makes use of data extracted from two portions of the China Government Employee Dataset-Qing (CGED-Q) constructed by the Lee-Campbell Group. Career information for officials is taken from the CGED-Q Jinshenlu (JSL) which now comprises 4,433,600 longitudinally linked quarterly jinshenlu records of approximately 300,000 civil and military officials who held formal appointments between 1760 and 1911. Family background information comes from the CGED-Q Examination Records (ER), which consists of 5,724 and 26,870 tongnian chilu records of Metropolitan (jinshi) and provincial (juren) degree holders respectively and 11,990 records of other degree holders that provide family background and other information. I conclude by discussing how the results confirm, contradict, or complexify previous understandings of the role of family background in exam degree attainment and appointment and promotion of officials in China before the 20th century, and remarks on implications for contemporary debates about the role of standardized examinations in selection processes.
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