- The Class of 1761: Examinations, State and Elite in Eighteenth Century China
There are two major strengths of Iona Man-Cheong's account of the 1761 palace examination. First, she deftly uses the documents from that event to show how the examination system worked. Second, she describes in detail what the system meant for the state, the bureaucracy, and the "class of 1761." Her findings in each respect are not unique, but she does reiterate that the civil examinations in practice represented an overlap of throne, bureaucracy, and family interests. Her book thus tells us a great deal about a few of the 214 men who passed the 1761 examination. It also tells us a bit about the larger pool of 5,059 provincial graduates who took the 1761 metropolitan test that led up to the palace examination. In the main, this book is about the 4.3 percent who survived the former and went on to take the latter.
There are also many specific strengths of the book that deserve mention. First, Man-Cheong carefully describes the role of special examinations (enke) under the Manchu rulers and how these extra tests solidified the image of the Qing throne as the beneficent patron of its literati subjects. Second, she also carefully reviews the content of the top policy answers for the palace examination, which were presented to the Qianlong emperor for his personal review. Third, she describes in detail how the avoidance laws for civil examinations worked to defuse the special interests—affinal ties and collateral kin—that both candidates and examiners brought to these examinations. She focuses on the threat of unfairness in the selection process posed by the "insiders" then serving in the Grand Council (Junji Chu), and she shows how the Qianlong emperor tried to ensure the fairness of the selection process. In particular, her account documents how the avoidance system could work against Southern literati like Zhao Yi, who was a minor functionary in the Grand Council at the time he took the 1761 palace examination. Fourth, she shows how the newly established but poorly understood court examination (chao kao), which followed the palace examination, was used from 1723 to establish rankings for immediate appointments into the Hanlin Academy. Fifth, and finally, she ties the political careers of the "class of 1761" to their subsequent civilian and military roles in the Manchu government.
Man-Cheong explains how the civil officials of 1761 played an important part in the subsequent military expansion of the Qing realm during the mid-Qianlong era. She points to a new political constellation that evolved under the Qianlong emperor that enabled Han Chinese officials to serve the Manchu multicultural state in both military and civil affairs. Graduates of 1761 such as Zhao Yi and Sun [End Page 184] Shiyi gained valuable experience in the Burma campaigns (1766-1770). Their careers overlapped with the annexation of Tibet (1790-1792) and the White Lotus uprising (1796), but they also faced hardships when assigned to Qing campaigns in Annam (1788-1789) and aboriginal revolts in Taiwan (1787-1788).
The most controversial claim in this volume, which is emphasized in chapter 5, "Paths to Glory," is that the civil examinations created a proto-national esprit de corps among the palace graduates. The "virtual space of the archive state" not only recorded the results and the trials men faced in rising up the Qing ladder of success, but it also shaped the officials who were chosen, and unified them through disciplinary training. This training elaborated a collective identity under a centralized imperial state that eventually became the "nation-state of modern intelligentsia" and contributed to modern Chinese nationalism.
Man-Cheong continually reads the terminology of the "nation" (guojia 國 家) into her account of Qing imperial institutions such as the civil examinations. This view is plausible but problematic. In her account of the 1761 palace essays, for example, she assumes (inspired by Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities") that when the 1761 palace...