From Confucius to Air Traffic Control

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.

Image credit: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo

Ashoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India

I recently blogged about Chandragupta Maurya, who created an empire out of the chaos that followed Alexander the Great's invasion of India. Chandragupta was an empire founder, but the real empire builder in the Mauryan dynasty was Chandragupta's grandson, Ashoka, who ruled from 269 to 232 BCE. Although he was a successful warrior, who expanded the boundaries of his empire , Ashoka is best known for his conversion to Buddhism.

In 261, Ashoka led a brutal expedition against the neighboring kingdom of Kalinga (modern Orissa). Sickened by the loss of life, he converted to Buddhism and proclaimed his conversion to his subjects in a series of inscriptions engraved on rocks and pillars throughout his kingdom, the 3rd century BCE equivalent of billboards. In the so-called "Ashokan edicts"*, which appear to have been written by the emperor himself, he outlines his new dedication to "moral conquest" in place of military campaigns and rules for running a Buddhist kingdom.

In pursuit of his Buddhist ideals,  Ashoka banned the animal sacrifices that were an important part of the Vedic religion, reduced the consumption of meat in the palace, and replaced the royal pastime of hunting with pilgrimages to Buddhist holy places. Despite his support of the Buddhist principle of ahimsa (non-violence) at a personal level, Ashoka never wholly embraced pacifism; he guaranteed the peace of his enormous empire with an army that included 600,000 foot soldiers, thirty thousand cavalry and nine thousand war elephants.

When modern India gained its independence in 1947, the new state chose the cluster of four lions that serve as the capital on the Ashokan pillar at Sarnath as its emblem. The choice was intended as a statement of India's commitment to religious tolerance within a secular state.

*You can read a translation of the edicts here.

Image credit: mkistryn / 123RF Stock Photo

From Here to Timbuktu

A Spanish image of Mansa Musa

Timbuktu has been in the news lately as a result of growing control by Islamic extremists, whose narrow interpretation of sharia law has led to the destruction of Muslim tombs, innocent people lashed in the streets, and thousands of refugees fleeing their homes.

It's a good time to remind people of a time when Timbuktu was celebrated as a center of learning and wealth.

Founded in the eleventh century at the point where the Niger River flows northward into the Sahara, Timbuktu was perfectly located to become a trading center between the Islamic states of north and west Africa. Caravans traveled south across the Sahara carrying silks from Persia, steel from Damascus, and, most precious of all, books; the caravans traveled north again laden with gold, ivory, and salt.

Over time, the city attracted not only merchants, but scholars. By the fourteenth century, Timbuktu wasn't just importing books but creating them. The city was home to a vibrant book copying industry. Commentaries written by the scholars of Timbuktu were read in Cairo and Mecca. Timbuktu was a college town, with three universities and 180 Quranic schools. Students traveled from all over the Islamic world to study there, often making up a quarter of the city's population.

Timbuktu entered the European imagination in 1324, when the city's ruler Mansa Musa went on pilgrimage to Mecca. The West African king was a big spender, with an apparently inexhaustible supply of gold. So much that the precious metal's value dropped in every city he passed through. (Contemporary estimates for how much gold he carried with him ranged from one hundred camels carrying gold to a thousand camels carrying one hundred pounds of gold apiece.) He built a mosque everywhere that he stopped for the Friday prayers. He paid for every service in gold and gave lavish gifts to his hosts. Beggars lined the streets when he passed in the hope of catching gold nuggets that meant they would never have to beg again.

Not surprisingly, Mansa Musa's princely display of wealth caught the attention of the Venetian and Genoese merchants resident in Alexandria. They quickly sent word home about the king of Mali and his golden capital of Timbuktu. Soon trading firms from Granada, Genoa, Venice and the Flemish markets of the north established posts in North African towns like Marrakech and Fez, hoping to trade European manufactured goods for Saharan gold.

European merchants trading with Timbuktu through North African middleman, but never saw the city itself. In fact, the first European traveler did not arrive in Timbuktu until 1828, several hundred years after its glory days. Timbuktu became short hand in the west for "really, really far away"--a distant place at the edge of civilization.

This post originally appeared in Wonders & Marvels.