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Insight | The Making of Bad Gentry: The Abolition of Keju, Local Governance and Anti-elite Protests, 1902–1911

November 3, 2021

Before the abolition of Keju, local elites collected surtaxes that financed local public goods, but they were supervised by the state and could lose their candidacy for higher status if they engaged in corrupt behavior. This prospect of upward mobility (POUM) gave them incentives to behave well, which the abolition of the exam removed. Using a difference-in-differences strategy, Professors Weng Xi and Zhou Li-An and their coauthors from Peking University and University of Hong Kong find that prefectures with a higher POUM before the abolition experienced more incidents of anti-elite protests after the abolition. Forthcoming inThe Journal of Economic History, a top journal in the field of economic history, this paper investigates the impact of the abolition of the civil service exam on rural local governance in early 20th century China.

The Making of Bad Gentry: The Abolition ofKeju, Local Governance and Anti-elite Protests, 1902–1911

Editor's notes:

In the first half of the 20th century, with the expansion of world capitalism and the modernization of China, the local gentry took a lot of benefits from the peasants, and the governance of the local gentry decayed rapidly. The positive image of the traditional gentry as "virtuous, educated, and respectful" quickly deteriorated into "the bad gentry", which provoked widespread resistance and anti-elite protests in the countryside. How exactly did the change occur? In a recent paper entitled "The Making of Bad Gentry: The Abolition of an Exam, Local Governance and Anti-elite Protests, 1902-1911", Professors Weng Xi and Zhou Li-An and their coauthors explore the important impact of the abolition of the imperial examination system in the late Qing Dynasty on the deterioration of local elites' governance. Using a series of scientific methods, they show that the abolition of the exam system disrupted the traditional career path of local elites and spawned social instability, which also created the conditions and laid the groundwork for the modern Chinese revolution.

The abolition of the imperial civil service exam (Keju) in 1905 was an important contributing factor to the decay of local elites in rural areas. Before the abolition, most local elites were "lower gentry" who had passed the county exams and held the title of Shengyuan. They could anticipate the prospect of upward mobility (POUM) if they could pass the provincial exam and obtain the title of Jurenor even pass the national exam to be awarded the higher title of Jinshi (Chang, 1955). Before moving to higher levels, local elites were subject to the supervision and evaluation of local governments in their jurisdictions; they could be stripped of their titles for misconduct or corruption (Hsiao 1967). Thus, the huge opportunity cost motivated the "lower gentry" to act with integrity. However, the end of the exam system disrupted local elites' traditional career paths and incentive structures. The gentry could only get higher status after achieving modern education in urban areas (Esherick, 1976). Those still engaged in local affairs in rural areas were no longer under the supervision of the local government, so the incentive to be corrupt arose (Duara, 1991). Especially in areas that once had better promotion prospects, the opportunity cost of corruption before the abolition of the imperial examinations was higher, so after the abolition of the exam, the corruption would be more severe, and the resistance provoked would be stronger.


The paper uses a prefecture-level dataset from 1902 to 1911 to test the linkage between the abolition of the civil service exam and the deterioration of local governance in rural areas and explore the potential mechanisms underlying this relationship, measuring the deterioration of local governance in rural areas as the incidence of anti-elite protests and measuring the POUM for local elites with a passers-candidates ratio. Applying a difference-in-differences (DID) method, the paper finds that a greater POUM for local elites is associated with a greater increase in the frequency of anti-elite protests following the abolition of the Keju exam in 1905. A one-standard deviation increase in the POUM is associated with 0.114 more incidents of anti-elite protests, which is nearly one-half of the sample mean of the dependent variable. Event-study estimation shows that anti-elite protests in prefectures with different POUM evolved in similar trends prior to the exam abolition, satisfying the parallel-trend assumption.

Then, the paper uses a simple game-theoretical model between lower gentry and commoners to explore the mechanisms through which the abolition of exams increased anti-elite protests, convincing a more corrupt gentry is more likely to fail the performance evaluation by the state due to commoner's protests and lose the opportunity to obtain a higher status, which is proved by a series of evidence. First, areas with a higher POUM before the abolition experienced a significant increase in protests, particularly those induced by surcharges and those targeting local public services explicitly financed by surcharges (e.g., modern primary schools) after the abolition. Second, POUM had a greater impact in prefectures subject to stricter government monitoring, measured by proximity to Beijing and access to a telegraph network, and in regions with a stronger presence of clan organizations and more temples, which facilitated collective action by commoners. Regarding the selection mechanism, for prefectures with a greater POUM, there was a larger outflow of rural talent into modern institutions in urban areas, reflected in the increase in enrollment in modern military colleges and secondary schools. Lower gentries who engaged in rural public service in 1909 were more likely to come from below-average kinships relative to those who did not, implying a lower-quality pool of local elites in rural areas.


First, it adds to a large literature on the economic, social and institutional causes of the deterioration of local governance in the late Qing era, which paved the way for the Chinese revolution in the republican era. This aspect has already been studied in detail by previous researchers. The paper complements these studies by showing that the collapse of the exam system disrupted local elites' traditional career path and triggered the problems of moral hazard and adverse selection in local governance.

Second, this paper contributes to the recent literature on the political economy of the Chinese imperial civil exam (Keju). Some scholars viewKejuas a "ladder of upward mobility" for commoners from a humble background, which was crucial to maintaining social stability (Ho 1962; Elman 1991; Bai and Jia, 2016; Chen, Kung, and Ma 2020). This paper focuses on the effect of the exam abolition on local elites who were located on the middle of the ladder and demonstrates how the loss of their career prospects of advancing to the upper gentry reshaped their incentives and selection in local public goods provision.

And third, the findings are related to the literature on the role of incentive and selection of political agents in governance (Besley 2005; Dal Bó et al. 2013; Gagliarducci and Nannicini 2013; Khan et al. 2016; Deserranno 2019). The paper suggests that the state's control (monopoly) over social status was important in exerting political control over these elites. Hence it helps to understand how a small bureaucracy could govern a large and populous empire through cooperation with local elites.


In conclusion, the abolition of Keju had a great impact on the changes in the gentry class and social unrest. TheKejusystem was so deeply imbedded into China’s traditional political system that its sudden abolition generated career disruption and social instability via many channels. The paper focuses on one important aspect—local governance in rural areas. The abolition of the exam system disrupted the traditional career path of local elites, which previously provided a modern career path for them. As a result, it triggered both a moral hazard and adverse selection problem on the part of local elites. Besides, this study sheds new light on the roots of the Chinese communist revolution since the rise of "bad gentry" in rural areas set the stage for the Chinese Communist Party to fuel a social revolution. The Chinese Communist Party mobilized angry peasants to fight against local elites and eventually overthrew the old regime ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Perry 1980, 2012). This study helps support the idea that the corruption of the gentry, triggered by the abolition of the imperial examinations, sowed the seeds of radical revolution in modern China.

Link to the paper: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3796884

About the authors

Weng Xi received his Ph.D. degree in economics from University of Pennsylvania in 2011. Prior to that, he received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Peking University, in 2004 and 2006, respectively. He is currently a tenured professor at Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. His research focused on microeconomic theory, in particular, game theory, information economics and organizational economics. His research has been published in top journals such as Journal of Finance, Management Science, Economic Journal, Journal of Economic Theory, International Economic Review, and American Economic Journal: Microeconomics.

Zhou Li-An is a Professor of Applied Economics at Guanghua. Dr. Zhou received his BA and MA in economics from Peking University, and his Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University. He joined Guanghua as an Assistant Professor in 2002 and became a full Professor in 2010. His research interests include political economy, industrial organization, economic development, and the Chinese economy. Dr. Zhou has published papers in economics and management journals including American Economic Review, Review of Economics and Statistics, Journal of Public Economics, Economic Journal, Journal of Health Economics, and Strategic Management Journal. He is also the author of the book Incentives and Governance: China's Local Governments (Cengage Learning, 2010).