A 15th-century portrait of the Ming official Jiang Shunfu. The decoration of two egrets on his chest are a " mandarin square", indicating that he was a civil official of the sixth rank.

Scholar-officials, also known as literati, scholar-gentlemen or scholar-bureaucrats (Chinese: 士大夫; pinyin: shì dàfū) was a collective name of scholars serving as government officials and prestigious scholars in the society, and it also can represent the special social class formed by these groups of intellectuals.

Scholar-officials work in government were politicians and government officials appointed by the emperor of China to perform day-to-day political duties from the Han dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, China's last imperial dynasty. After the Sui dynasty these officials mostly came from the scholar-gentry (紳士 shēnshì) who had earned academic degrees (such as xiucai, juren, or jinshi) by passing the imperial examinations. Scholar-official was the elite class of imperial China. This is a highly educated group of people and generally good at literatures and arts, and they were schooled in calligraphy and Confucian texts. They dominated the government administration and local life of China until the early-20th century.[1]

Origins and formations

Origins of Shi(士) and Da fu(大夫)

Scholar-official as a concept and social class firstly appeared during the Warring States period, before that Shi and Da Fu were two different classes. Before in the Western Zhou dynasty, the Duke of Zhou divided the social classes into: King, feudal lords, Da Fu, Shi, ordinary people, and slaves. Thus Da Fu was originally a higher class than Shi, Da Fu were people who from the aristocracy and served as officers, Shi were people from the social class between Da Fu and ordinary people and they only can serve as low-level officials in feudal China.

During the Warring States period, with the annexation wars between states and the rise of bureaucracy, many talented peoples from the Shi class contributed a great work to their lords. Shi became more influential and Da Fu gradually evolved into an official position in the bureaucracy not a hereditary peerage. Therefore, Shi and Da Fu gradually been mentioned together and became Scholar-official(士大夫 Shi Da Fu).

Interaction with Confucianism

Confucianism is the core of traditional Chinese culture and the theoretical basis for maintaining the feudal autocratic monarchy system.[2]

Confucius is one of the most famous Chinese philosophers and educationists, he lived during the late Spring and Autumn period. Confucian school of thoughts became the mainstream of traditional Chinese society, and Confucian education also became the mainstay of selecting officials and most levels of administrations in the society. Some other famous philosophers from Confucian school lived during the Warring States period also have significant influences such as Mencius, Xun Kuang, Yan Hui, Zeng Shen and Kong Ji. Later, there was Dong Zhongshu from the Han Dynasty. Their philosophical ideas and books laid the foundation of Confucianism.

During Song and Ming Dynasties, Confucian philosophers combined Daoism and Buddhism thoughts to produce Neo-Confucianism school, further enrich the Confucian ideological system, and directly promoted the prosperity of the scholar-officials class, also formed the unique moral integrity of the scholar-officials and had a huge impacted on the Chinese literati of later generations.

Important philosophers from Neo-Confucianism: Cheng Yi, Cheng Hao, Zhu Xi, Zhang Zai, Zhou Dunyi from Song Dynasty, and Wang Shouren from Ming Dynasty.

Talent Selection Systems in Ancient China

The traditional Chinese official selection systems are the institutional basis of the formation of scholar-officials.

Ancient Social Classes

The feudal social structure divided ordinary people into four categories, made scholar-officials at its top level, this structure is another important institutional basis of the formation and prosperity of scholar-officials.

Order of Four Occupations: scholar-officials, farmers, artisans and craftsmen, merchants


Han Dynasties to Northern and Southern dynasties (202 BC—589 AD)

Using the Recommendatory System and Nine-rank System to select governments officials and candidates were popular during this long period, scholars-officials during this period usually from those prominent clans.[3] For example, the Zheng clan of Xingyang, Xie clan of Chen Commandery, Cui clan of Qinghe, Cui clan of Boling, Wang clan of Langya, Wang clan of Taiyuan, Lu clan of Fanyang... These clans were prominent in having Confucian scholars and high-ranking government officials, male family members serve as official for generations, some clans or families appeared several chancellors. They formed a huge network through political marriages with each other or imperial family, and also formed a monopoly on education and government officials.[4][5]

Sui-Tang Dynasties(581—907)

Officially established the Civil Service Examination in 587, during Sui and early Tang period the scholar-officials selection is a combination of Civil Service Examination and hereditary positions from family. The sixth emperor of Tang Wu Zetian who was well known as the only female emperor in ancient China reformed and improved the Imperial Examination system, and after Emperor Wu's reform gradually came into being as the today's concept scholar-officials and intellectual class.[6] Emperor Wu established the Metropolitan Exam and people passed it called Jinshi (metropolitan graduates, highest degree), people passed the Provincial Exam called Juren (provincial graduates).[7] In this way government could select scholar-officials by examining their poems and essays writings, intellectuals who passed the exam will serve as officials, these group of peoples generally good at Confucian texts and some Buddhist texts.[8] Many famous Tang poets were the scholar-officials, such as Du Mu. However, because Tang Dynasty is a rapid changing period for the final formation of the structure and composition of scholar-officials, there are some ambiguity of the usage of the words "scholar-officials": according to the Old Book of Tang, scholars/intellectuals (who passed the imperial exam) without official position only can be called as Shi 士; according to the New Book of Tang, as long as they are scholars, whether official or not they can be called as scholar-official.[9]

Song Dynasty (960-1279)

The Song dynasty was the golden age for scholar-officials. Since the Song dynasty, passing the Imperial Examination had become the major path for people to hold an official position in the government. With the continuous improvements and reforms of Imperial Examination, during the Song Dynasty the bureaucracy completely replaced the aristocracy, and the scholar-officer's polity was completely established.[10][11]Song was the only dynasty in Chinese history provided scholar-officials judicial privilege, due to the influence of the founding emperor of Song Zhao Kuangyin almost all Song emperors showed great respect to intellectuals. If a scholar-official from the Song dynasty commits a crime he couldn't be held accountable directly, an internal impeachment will replace the formal judicial process. If his crime wasn't serious he only needed to be punished by "reprimanding" instead of a criminal penalty.[12]

Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty(1271—1912)

During this historical period, the stereotyped writing of eight-legged essay (八股文) was dominated the Imperial Examination,[13] and scholar-officials from these period were relative couldn't speak and create freely due to the harsh political environments. The influences of the relationship between Imperial Examination and official position are still there, entire society formed a climate: "studying well so as to become an official" 学而优则仕.[14]

In 1905, the Qing government announced the abolition of the imperial examination system, thus the scholar-officials gradually disappeared with it.

Non-governmental functions

Since only a select few could become court or local officials, the majority of the scholar-literati stayed in villages or cities as social leaders. The scholar-gentry carried out social welfare measures, taught in private schools, helped negotiate minor legal disputes, supervised community projects, maintained local law and order, conducted Confucian ceremonies, assisted in the governments collection of taxes, and preached Confucian moral teachings. As a class, these scholars claimed to represent morality and virtue. The district magistrate, who by regulation was not allowed to serve in his home district, depended on the local gentry for advice and for carrying out projects, which gave them the power to benefit themselves and their clients.


Theoretically, this system would create a meritocratic ruling class, with the best students running the country. The examinations gave many people the opportunity to pursue political power and honor — and thus encouraged serious pursuit of formal education. Since the system did not formally discriminate based on social status, it provided an avenue for upward social mobility. However, even though the examination-based bureaucracy's heavy emphasis on Confucian literature ensured that the most eloquent writers and erudite scholars achieved high positions, the system lacked formal safeguards against political corruption, only the Confucian moral[15] teachings tested by the examinations. Once their political futures were secured by success in the examinations, officials were tempted by corruption and abuse of power.

The Princeton scholar Benjamin Elman writes that some criticized the examination elite as hindering China's development over the last century but that preparing for the examinations trained government officials in a common culture and that "classical examinations were an effective cultural, social, political, and educational construction that met the needs of the dynastic bureaucracy while simultaneously supporting late imperial social structure."[16]

With the development of international influence of Civil Service Examination system in ancient East Asia region, Scholar-officials also became an important social backbone of ancient Korea (include Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje), Ryukyu Kingdom, and Vietnam.

See also