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February 11, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright February 11, 2008 Kate Merkel-Hess. Used by permission.


After Jeremiah Jenne recently posed a question about “the most important Chinese historical figure most people have never heard of,” I got to thinking about the vast expanse of Chinese history that is so often neglected in favor of the (admittedly sometimes more-relevant) post-49 events. In chronological order, here are my five nominations for Chinese historical events I wish were more often talked and written about. What events make your list?

1. The An Lushan Rebellion

Led by the rogue general, An Lushan, the civil war that riled the Tang Dynasty from 755 to 763 caused death by violence and famine of over ten million people. But the An Lushan Rebellion is not on this list because of its high death toll. The rebellion also destabilized the Tang political regime and the aristocratic clans who supported it, reshaping a system that relied heavily on pedigree for advancement. Histories of China’s imperial exam system often note that it existed (in some form, though off-and-on) beginning in the Han. But until the An Lushan Rebellion, hereditary position mattered more than merit. In the post-rebellion upheaval, however, the state centralized the process of appointing officials, a process that would become increasingly regulated and transparent in the following centuries (and particularly with the reforms of Zhu Xi in the 12th century). Until the end of the Qing (and beyond, but that’s another story), most officeholders were, indeed, from the wealthy families that could afford to support their sons as they studied decades for the exams (exam passers were often in their 40s or even older), but there was the possibility—and some famous examples of—poor men who rose to high position. China’s meritocratic officialdom—the world’s first meritocracy—had enormous ramifications for the bureaucracy itself, but its greatest impact was to create a national elite culture whereby well-educated men from around China, despite linguistic tradition or family background, participated in a shared intellectual tradition. Notably, this intellectual life took deepest root in the wealthy southern Yangzi Delta, an area whose population and economy grew rapidly after the An Lushan Rebellion as a direct result of the southward migrations that resulted from the rebellion’s upheaval. The nouveau riche landlords who emerged in this area found the revised exam system a particularly effective way to convert their wealth into officially-recognized status.