A Longevity Mechanism of Chinese Absolutism

By Yasheng Huang and Clair Yang

A distinguished body of literature emphasizes the importance of premodern political institutions in Europe—especially feudalism, representation, and parliaments—in paving the way for executive constraints on the crown,[1] which in turn led to enhanced political stability in Europe,[2] and eventually democracy [3] and modern economic growth.[4]

A counterpart of this “European exceptionalism” is a “Chinese anomaly.” Imperial China enjoyed remarkable longevity and stability. In terms of longevity, the Chinese imperial system was established in 221 BCE, and it retained many of its founding features well into the 19th century. Following Rome’s collapse, most of its traditions were lost to later European regimes, but all Chinese dynasties were designed on a similar structure modeled on the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), including those established by foreign ethnic groups. In terms of stability, our data documented a significant increase in ruler duration in China and a remarkable decrease in the probability of Chinese rulers being deposed during the 7th to 10th century, with magnitudes even greater than the changes in stability indicators of Europe during the same period. Further investigation shows that the increase in Chinese political stability is mainly due to a decrease in intra-elite conflicts rather than that in conflicts between elites and commoners.

If executive constraints are credited as sources of political stability, it is a puzzle that Chinese political system endured for so long without having developed any institution that fostered executive constraints. In Europe, the rising ruler tenure coincided with a dynamic evolution of the political system toward representation. This is in sharp contrast to the Chinese pattern of political development—prolonged ruler tenure and consolidated absolutism on top of an extreme stasis of the political system itself. The Chinese political development in general and regime stability in particular, thus, must be rooted in factors orthogonal to the framework developed by the early literature rooted in European experience. In a recent article forthcoming in The Journal of Politics, we attempt to identify one potential mechanism in Imperial China that might have contributed to the longevity of the Chinese absolutist system.

A critical difference between pre-modern Europe and China was the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy only arose in Europe after the late 17th century contemporaneously or in the wake of democratic consolidation, while in China, bureaucracy occurred before the 10th century and critically conditioned China’s path of political development. The milestone development of China’s bureaucratic development is the civil service examination (CSE) system, first appeared in late 6th century. CSE institutionalized exam-based meritocracy. Both Europe and China attained regime stability during the medieval era—as measured by ruler tenure—but did so through dramatically different mechanisms. European rulers were frequently deposed by the nobility in medieval time and they responded by creating power-sharing arrangements, such as parliaments, to resolve conflicts. In comparison, imperial China embarked upon an alternative path of conflict resolution, by scaling bureaucracy, establishing exam-based meritocracy, and institutionalizing political mobility. The rise of bureaucracy in China, roughly concomitant with the rise of executive constraints in Europe in timing, may have provided an alternative solution to the problem of intra-elite conflicts.

The CSE was established in China during the Sui dynasty (580-618), expanded and formalized during the 7th to 12th century, and in continued operation for more than a millennium until its abolition in 1905. Eligible male subjects could take part in the CSE, which consisted of three written exams held every three years first in the provinces and then in the national Capital. The top 100 to 300 candidates would be awarded with an honorary degree and positions in the imperial government. At its peak during the 15th to 16th century, the CSE produced about 50% to 70% of government officials depending on the year, followed by purchase which made up 20% to 40% and inheritance only 1%.[5] In a companion paper, we provide macro-level evidence showing that the scale of the CSE, in China as well as in some other East Asian countries, was positively associated with stability indicators, such as ruler duration, and negatively associated with the probability of rulers being deposed.[6] The main purpose of this paper is to explore the mechanism through which the CSE could have contributed to the longevity of ruler duration and, by extension, to the longevity of Chinese absolutism.

Based on detailed historical data of 12,752 exam candidates from the Ming dynasty, 1368 to 1644, we provide micro-level evidence that CSE fulfilled an important political control function. The CSE implemented strict anonymity at the lower level to minimize the impact of family background on political access, and it discriminated against wealthy families at the higher level when determining power allocation at the top of the political hierarchy.

Using number of wives to approximate the family wealth of a candidate and the father’s position for his political connection, our results demonstrate a surprisingly insignificant coefficient of family background on exam performance at the first two levels of CSE. This is evidence of the “meritocracy argument” by some historians that CSE extended political access to commoners and restricted political reproduction within the elites, especially as compared to aristocratic inheritance. Most interestingly, our results on the highest level of CSE shows a negative coefficient of family wealth on exam performance, suggesting that CSE could have intentionally discriminated against wealth holders. In this way, CSE curbed access to power on the part of those best positioned to threaten the safety and legitimacy of the throne—wealthy families and landed gentries.

We argue that CSE contributed to the aforementioned decline in intra-elite conflicts in imperial China by inducing a relatively high level of political mobility and preventing the rise of a powerbase who derived strength from a source independent of the crown, such as land, wealth, or inheritable positions. In this way, the Chinese imperial bureaucracy promoted political stability and consolidation of absolutism at the same time. Understanding this effect of imperial bureaucracy sheds light on the longevity and stability of Chinese absolutism, and provides an interesting perspective on the question of the Political Divergence between the East and the West (Stasavage, 2020).


[1] North, D. C., & Weingast, B. R. (1989). Constitutions and commitment: the evolution of institutions governing public choice in seventeenth-century England. The journal of economic history49(4), 803-832.

[2] Blaydes, L., & Chaney, E. (2013). The feudal revolution and Europe’s rise: Political divergence of the Christian west and the Muslim world before 1500 CE. American Political Science Review107(1), 16-34.

[3] Stasavage, D. (2020). The decline and rise of democracy. Princeton University Press.

[4] Acemoglu, D., Naidu, S., Restrepo, P., & Robinson, J. A. (2019). Democracy does cause growth. Journal of political economy127(1), 47-100.

[5] Ho, P.-T. (1962). The ladder of success in Imperial China: Aspects of social mobility, 1368-1911. Columbia University Press.

[6] Yang, C., & Huang, Y. (2021). The Great Political Divergence. Working paper. Available at SSRN 3869265.


  • Clair Yang is Assistant Professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is also an affiliated fellow at the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. Her research centers around the political economy of development and the interaction between institutions, business, and politics. Her current project studies the historical development of state capacity and its implication for long-run economic growth. She received a PhD in Economics from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University in 2016.

  • Yasheng Huang is the Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management and Faculty Director of Action Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Between 2013 and 2017, he served as an Associate Dean in charge of MIT Sloan’s global partnership programs and its action learning initiatives. His previous appointments include faculty positions at the University of Michigan and at Harvard Business School. He was named by the National Asia Research Program as one of the most outstanding scholars in the United States conducting research on issues of policy importance to the United States interests in Asia. His book Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State was cited by The Economist as one of the best books of 2008 and a pick of the pile in economics and business.

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