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  • The Punishment of Examination Riots in the Early to Mid-Qing Period1
  • Seunghyun Han (bio)

The examination boycott (or riot), known as bakao or zukao, was one of the strategies employed by Ming and Qing examination elites to express their discontent and threaten local officials. When apprentice candidates (tongsheng) or licentiates (shengyuan) gathered for an examination administered by local officials or provincial education commissioners, they would try to force the officials to accede to their demands by withdrawing from the examination.2 The term examination candidates or elites used in this article refers to these apprentice candidates or lower-level degree-holders.

Bakao action appeared often in the late Ming and early Qing periods, and was deemed a serious threat to local administration by early Qing emperors. It was not until the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, however, that the alarming surge in examination riots was dealt a serious setback. These two emperors reprimanded and severely punished the examination candidates as well as the magistrates who made conciliatory gestures toward those involved in these examination boycotts.

This article attempts to further our understanding of the disciplinary measures directed toward collective protests from the early to mid-Qing period, with a particular focus on the government’s policies concerning examination boycotts. This paper argues that the Qing government’s approach to these [End Page 133] boycotts during the Jiaqing reign experienced a seismic shift, departing significantly from the strident tone under the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors. This change in attitude continued into the later nineteenth century, leading to a rapid growth in the number of examination boycotts and the increasingly prominent political and social role of lower degree-holders in Qing society.

This article will begin by examining three issues that shed light on the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors’ responses to examination riots: the forms of punishments handed out to protestors and how these changed over time; how the emperors measured the responsibility of local officials and protestors; and how they envisaged the roles of provincial education commissioners in disciplining the behavior of examination candidates. The second part of the paper will compare the policies of Yongzheng and Qianlong with those of emperors in the early nineteenth century, and examine the historical context in which a shift in imperial policies took shape. The focus of this study will be on examination boycotts, but I will also discuss other forms of collective action led by lower-level degree-holders.

The present study is an exploration into how the early nineteenth-century Qing rulers responded to the changing political environment and endeavored to stake out new relations with officialdom and the Han local elites in the Qing empire. As much as the policies to crackdown on examination protests under the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors epitomized the pressing need of their reigns—to curtail the power of Han examination elites, particularly in Jiangnan, that was deemed a serious threat to their rule—, so did their reorientation under Jiaqing reflect the efforts to address a grave challenge of the day: the deterioration of bureaucratic discipline. The result of this readjustment in the imperial stance toward examination protests was substantial and far-reaching, as it created a milieu that catered to the ascendance of Han political activism.

Such a conclusion defies a simple characterization of the early nineteenth century as a time of incipient dynastic decline, and imbues a new agency to the rulers of the period, as well as calling attention to the ascendant power of local elites.

Yongzheng’s Policies toward Protest by Examination Elites

By the late Ming, collective action had become an important channel for the examination elites to voice their political opinions.3 Such protest, however, [End Page 134] was frowned upon by early Qing rulers. Two brutal government crackdowns on Jiangnan literati, who were seen as particularly threatening, in 1661—referred to later as the “Laments in the Temple” case (kumiao an)” and the “Tax Arrears” case (zouxiao an)—temporarily curbed the efflorescence of such protests.4 However, such disturbances mushroomed once again by the late Kangxi period.5

Under the Yongzheng emperor, the Qing state adopted a harsher and more systematic approach toward collective action among examination elites. During...


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