Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.
19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae. Public Domain and Anna Webber/Getty Images

TikTok star Addison Rae caused a sensation on social media last week for something other than her dance moves. Rae posted a tweet that included a picture of her holding an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) microphone before a match between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier. Her caption read: “I studied broadcast journalism in college for 3 whole months to prepare for this moment.”

The seemingly innocuous tweet received thousands of angry responses, many from students or recent journalism school graduates expressing dismay that Rae had apparently taken one of the scarce jobs in their field. As one Twitter user wrote, “i got a 33 on my ACT and was a national merit semifinalist, spent thousands of dollars and hours of hard work to receive a bachelor’s degree from the best journalism school in the country, was commencement speaker, and applied to 75+ jobs to be unemployed.” The tweet received over 100,000 likes and thousands of retweets.

TikTok star Addison Rae caused a sensation on social media last week for something other than her dance moves. Rae posted a tweet that included a picture of her holding an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) microphone before a match between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier. Her caption read: “I studied broadcast journalism in college for 3 whole months to prepare for this moment.”

The seemingly innocuous tweet received thousands of angry responses, many from students or recent journalism school graduates expressing dismay that Rae had apparently taken one of the scarce jobs in their field. As one Twitter user wrote, “i got a 33 on my ACT and was a national merit semifinalist, spent thousands of dollars and hours of hard work to receive a bachelor’s degree from the best journalism school in the country, was commencement speaker, and applied to 75+ jobs to be unemployed.” The tweet received over 100,000 likes and thousands of retweets.

The internet produces no shortage of cheap drama, but outrage on this scale suggests something deeper. Understanding why Rae’s joke inspired so much outrage depends on appreciating the tensions between those who achieve fame and fortune in the marketplace and those who seek the climb the career ladder in a declining empire with narrowing paths to success.

To really grasp why everyone was mad at Addison Rae, in other words, you have to know the story of the late Qing dynasty’s civil service examination system.


Successive dynasties ruling what would become modern China found it difficult to recruit and monitor honest, or at least effective, officials. Relying on provincial networks risked splitting the empire; relying on centralized personnel risked alienating powerful regional interests. The solution, or at least part of it, was competitive examinations.

For a thousand years, rulers used examinations to choose the governing class—although the extent and nature of the undertaking shifted significantly over time. By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and its successor, the Qing (1644-1911), the process had somewhat stabilized—into a difficult and lengthy one. At the first stage, millions of literate men took the local entrance examination at one of 1,300 counties. If they succeeded, they could take successively more challenging examinations to attain distinction, with the top examination symbolically given by the emperor himself.

The tests were mentally and physically arduous. To achieve the provincial degree, the second-highest rank, required those who had already passed the lower examination to visit the provincial capital and sit for three examinations over the course of a week, in a process held only once every three years. Exam-takers were sequestered in a cell in a vast compound during the examinations. Only about 5 percent—1,500 students—would pass and proceed to the next stage. Benjamin Elman, a leading scholar of the imperial examination system, estimates that only 1 in 6,000 test-takers would succeed at every level of the process.

The examination system attracted ambitious men of all ages by the millions. Some few received official posts for themselves and elite status for their families. Many more simply failed. Even those who succeeded did so only after spending decades of their lives preparing for the examinations. Frustration with preparing for and failing the civil service examination became a recurring theme in literature and popular culture. Even the winners—the rare few who seized the top ranks in the imperial examinations—were scarred.

For the empire, of course, the tests offered immense benefits. Educational systems everywhere are systems of social control, and a testing apparatus on an imperial scale was a core method of molding society as well as the government to fit the needs of the imperial court. The standardized test created standard elite language, culture, and, crucially, expectations.

The examination system developed an idea of merit that could be graded, ranked, and selected to ensure the highest-quality servants for the government. The basis for this ranking was, in some ways, arbitrary: the mastery of a classical literary and philosophical tradition, especially canonical Confucian texts. By the late Qing, reformers scorned this obsession, and some later English-language critics have done so as well. But there’s nothing any more arbitrary in basing the selection of officials on their ability to interpret texts concerned with law, governance, and moral uprightness than in the traditional British equivalent (studying classics at the University of Oxford or Cambridge) or the contemporary American version (a law degree from Yale University).

To be sure, reliance on the system meant that, by the late Qing period, Chinese officials were confronted with problems hardly conceived of in Confucian classics—but on the other hand, vanishingly few U.S. policymakers have degrees in science or foreign languages, and yet they nevertheless make decisions regarding nuclear weapons, biotechnology, and international trade.

Success in the examination path and career success were, at least in theory, linked. This idea of merit as the basis for bureaucratic career advancement proved to be enduringly conservative. The examination system simultaneously created an elite and linked the basis for advancement to success according to the examinations administered by earlier successes. Even those who gained wealth through commerce—an officially disdained activity but one impossible to ignore—sought to turn lucre into prestige by purchasing the best preparation for the examinations for their sons. For the empire, again, this was a success. As Elman observes, “reproduction of well-trained and loyal Confucian officials remained the prime concern.”

The details of exam administration showed that control trumped merit at key points. Applicants from the wealthier southern provinces proved to be enduringly more successful in the examinations, portending the ultimate domination of the civil service by one region. Officials set quotas ensuring that southern candidates could never take more than a set percentage of the highest degrees.

Yet official solicitousness extended only so far. Preparing for the examinations required decades and mastery of what, for many test-takers, was essentially a foreign language—the Mandarin vernacular. Few poor students could afford the study necessary to do well in even the lowest-level examinations. And yet there was no sustained or extensive movement to make preparation for the exams easier or more accessible to lower social classes. In theory open to all, the competitive testing regime systematically favored the wealthy and the connected—who thus had more reason to continue to support it.

It was always possible to circumvent the system somewhat, by means of money and connections, and it eventually broke down altogether. Decreasing standards at the lower levels of the examinations led to credential inflation, meaning that even high-level degree recipients could not find jobs keeping with the status they supposedly deserved. A need for government revenue led to the development of the “irregular” route for advancement, in which offices and degrees could be purchased rather than earned. Between 1830 and 1912, only 32 percent of Qing officials had actually passed the examinations—though many of them were bannermen, the Manchu elite who had their own routes to power. The humiliations of the Qing before Western powers fed criticism of the regime. But the aspiring elite remained deeply invested in the system. The economists Ying Bai and Ruixue Jia found that its formal abolition in 1905 dashed would-be elites’ hopes of joining official ranks and pushed them toward discontent and, in 1911, revolutionary activity.

One major blow had come from inside. Frustrated exam-takers could turn on the system that had rejected them, fomenting local dissent or worse. The most notable example was Hong Xiuquan, an exam-taker from a village in Guangdong, who passed the local examinations easily but failed the prefectural examinations in Guangzhou. There, he encountered foreign ideas, including Christianity. After two additional failures, Hong became ill and fell into a dayslong delirium. After a fourth failure, an enraged Hong interpreted his dreams as visions prophesying his own empire, led by himself, the younger brother of Jesus. His theology, anti-Qing sentiments, and a deep pool of the socially discontented would lead to the Taiping Rebellion, a devastating blow to Qing power and the deadliest war of the 19th century.

The parallels between how the examination system related to Chinese society and the American system of credentialing through its education system take a moment to appreciate. The American system is not quite as centralized or transparently ranked; a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League school opens more doors than a master’s degree from a regional public university, for instance. Befitting a plural society, top-ranked American students also pursue more varied goals than service in the imperial court, although a disproportionate share end up working in finance.

Nevertheless, both systems are rooted in their own meritocratic myths, and American elites—and aspirational elites—are no less invested in those myths than Chinese exam-takers were in their system. Aspirational elites in the U.S. system similarly face a gap between how the system is supposed to work—through transparent merit—and the difficulty of translating their credentials to a career.

In the late Qing period, discontented literati without jobs expressed their bitterness at a system that failed them through pamphlets, essays, and posters. The discontented, underemployed American literati now do so on Twitter. And so the controversy surrounding Addison Rae dramatizes the political tensions caused by incompatibility between what a system promises those who play by its rules and what it actually rewards.

The idea that a commoner who hadn’t gone through that official hazing route would achieve a distinguished place would be outrageous to milling crowds of disaffected Chinese exam-takers. We can even imagine one of them sitting to write, “I earned my juren degree, was a finalist for a jinshi degree, spent thousands of taels and decades of hard work, and am nevertheless unemployed.”

Rae, in other words, is blameless (at least in this regard). Rather than spending her career trying for conventional measures of success—a college degree, perhaps a master’s in journalism from Columbia University or a doctoral degree in political science—she instead sniffed out a route to success better suited to her day. That mixture of aspiration, cleverness, and hard work commands an audience of 80 million followers on TikTok.

In doing so, Rae made herself the target for the frustrations of those who thought they were succeeding in the American version of the examination system. For an aspiring journalist, probably thousands of dollars in debt, the future seems bleak. Federal statistics show that the number of jobs in that field is projected to plummet by 11 percent over the next several years, and those who do find work will find it hard to pay back student loans. Similar bitterness plagues academic Twitter, where the overproduction of doctoral degrees has left a highly educated class with ample spare time and cultural capital to express their grievances. The frustrated take to social media to denounce someone who demonstrates that their entire theory of success is wrong.

Such outrage amounts to little as long as it targets individuals. Only outrage mobilized and joined to political action can pose a challenge to the system. Yet occasionally movements can seize on the frustrations of the wannabe bourgeois. Political leaders interested in shoring up the foundations of American rule could learn from the Chinese Empire about the risks of keeping too many aspiring professionals frustrated. In the long run, buying off some literati can be a lot cheaper than quelling their rebellions.

Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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