In 130 BCE, the Chinese emperor Han Wudi came up with a new idea for how to choose government bureaucrats. He established a civil service of Confucian scholars, known in English as mandarins, who earned their positions by passing a standardized examination. The system still favored those from privileged families who could afford to give their sons* a formal education. But at least in theory, getting a government job in imperial China now depended on what you knew instead of who you knew or what family you were born in.
In Wudi’s day, the examinations tested candidates’ understanding of the tenets of Confucian moral and ethical thought on which Han dynasty government was based–the equivalent of asking candidates for jobs in the United States government to pass a test on the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Federalist papers. Over time, the examinations became more and more divorced from the realities of government. By the Manchu dynasty of the seventeenth century, candidates were tested on their knowledge of Chinese history, their ability to compose poetry, and the quality of their calligraphy.
Wudi’s civil service exams controlled who got a government job in China from the seventh century CE through 1905, when the system was abolished in response to pressure from a new western-educated elite. The west didn’t adopt the concept until the nineteenth century. In 1853, the British East India Company was the first European power to use competitive examinations as a means of reforming an increasingly corrupt system in which positions were acquired through patronage and purchase. The East India Company consciously copied the Chinese exam system, creating a class of “new Mandarins”.
Other western governments, faced with the hazards of civil service based on “who you know”, thought Wudi’s idea that government employees should pass a test proving their fitness for government service was a good one. The United States entered the game in 1883, after a disgruntled would-be federal employee assassinated President James Garfield. Civil Service exams controlled who got a job in the United States civil service until 1978, when the general civil service examination was abolished. Today, civil service exams are still required for jobs requiring a specific set of skills, such as air traffic controllers and intelligence agency linguists.
* Just to put this in context: roughly 2000 years later Clara Barton was one of only FOUR women to work for the United States Federal government in the years just before the American Civil War. At the time, plenty of people thought the presence of women in government jobs was a sign that the system of patronage had gone awry.
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