One conundrum of human biodiversity is the high mean IQ of East Asians, specifically Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese. On average, they outclass all other human populations on IQ tests, which were originally designed by and for Europeans. This intellectual success is matched by the economic success not only of East Asian societies but also of their overseas communities, often in the face of severe discrimination (Hsu, 2011; Unz, 1980).
Recently, people have been seeking the cause in the exam culture of East Asian societies, e.g., “tiger moms” who push their children to prepare, prepare, and prepare for success on school exams.
This exam culture is not recent. Its roots can be traced back to Confucius and the introduction of the imperial civil service exam, first in China and then in other East Asian societies.
Confucius is credited with organizing China’s first educational system and setting up an efficient administration system, based on the careful selection of a bureaucracy that helped the emperor and other leaders rule. Members of the bureaucracy were trained in special schools and chosen for their jobs based on their the proficiency on a civil service exam that tested their knowledge of Confucian texts. Before Confucius’s time the only schools in China were ones that taught archery. (Hays, 2008)
Emperor Wu of Han started an early form of the imperial examinations, in which local officials would select candidates to take part in an examination of the Confucian classics, from which he would select officials to serve by his side. Beginning in the Three Kingdoms period (with the nine-rank system in the Kingdom of Wei), imperial officials were responsible for assessing the quality of the talents recommended by the local elites. This system continued until Emperor Yang of Sui established a new category of recommended candidates for the mandarinate in AD 605. For the first time, an examination system was explicitly instituted for a category of local talents. This is generally accepted as the beginning of the imperial examination system. (Wikipedia – Imperial examination)
East Asian exam culture and Confucianism
Was this factor strong enough to raise the mean level of intelligence? One objection is that the Chinese civil service exam was only partially adopted by Korea and Japan. Yet mean IQ is similar in all three societies.
This objection ignores the broader emphasis on education in all East Asian societies. China, Korea, and Japan have long been “exam cultures,” even if we exclude the civil service exam. This exam grew out of values that were embedded in Confucianism and present throughout East Asia:
Confucius regarded government and education as inseparable. Without good education, he reasoned, it was impossible to find leaders who possess the virtues to run a government. “What has one who is not able to govern himself, to do with governing others?” Confucius asked. Under Confucianism, teachers and scholars were regarded, like oldest males and fathers, as unquestioned authorities.
The basic principal behind Confucian education is that if you work hard, endure and suffer as a young person you will reap rewards later in life. The strategy of Confucian education, used in China for centuries, is to memorize the moral precepts in the hopes that they will rub off and improve the character of the person who memorizes them and makes him or her more moral. Teachers have traditionally been held in high esteem and their power and control has been regarded as almost absolute. (Hays, 2008)
Did only a small minority participate in the Confucian exam culture?
Candidates who passed all three levels of the civil service exam, the “Mandarins,” were a tiny minority. This leads to an objection raised by Greg Cochran: the Confucian exam culture was too limited in extent to have any selective impact.
This objection implies that social benefits went only to the Mandarins. Yet social benefits accrued even to people who passed the first level (i.e., at the local prefecture). Such passage provided exemption from labor service and corporal punishment, government stipends, and admission to upper-gentry status (Britannica, 1998).
The base of the exam pyramid broadens even further if we include everyone who prepared for the first level. If the 3rd level graduates were a fraction of the 1st level ones, the latter were likewise a fraction of all Chinese children who studied with a view to taking the exam. Test-taking, selection, and elimination occurred even at this early family stage:
Preparations for the test usually began around age five when young boys were taught to bow respectfully and recite lines from classical texts. The most promising teenagers were sent to study under masters in the Chinese capital. They were taught poetry, essay writing and Confucian scholarship. (Hays, 2008)
One could object that this system, though theoretically open to everyone, was biased toward the middle and upper classes. The poor were underrepresented, and yet they made up the bulk of China’s population:
The notion that the Confucian system was based totally on merit and lacked a hereditary element is not true. Children of merchants, landowners and families with money had an advantage in that their parents could hire tutors to teach them how to properly write Chinese characters and study Confucian texts. Once they attained their position, Confucian gentlemen made sure their sons studied the classic and was prepared for the exams. There are similarities in this respect with European societies. The main difference, however, is that Europeans who studied Latin and classical literature were, until the end of the Middle Ages, mostly monks who abstained from reproduction. (Hays, 2008)
China’s poor, however, were a population sink. As Unz (1980) points out: “In each generation, the poorest 10-15% of the population either failed to reproduce or produced only a negligible fraction of the successor generation.” This point emerges in ethnographic accounts:
How could any man in our village claim that his family had been poor for three generations? If a man is poor, then his son can’t afford to marry; and if his son can’t marry, there can’t be a third generation. (Crook and Crook, 1959)
Further down the economic scale there were many families with unmarried sons who had already passed the customary marriage age, thus limiting the size of the family. Wong Mi was a case in point. He was already twenty-three, with both of his parents in their mid-sixties; but since the family was able to rent only an acre of poor land and could not finance his marriage, he lived with the old parents, and the family consisted of three members. Wong Chun, a landless peasant in his forties, had been in the same position when he lived with his aged parents ten years before, and now, both parents having died, he lived alone. There were ten or fifteen families in the village with single unmarried sons. (Yang, 1958)
The ranks of the poor were constantly being replenished with downwardly mobile individuals from the middle and upper classes.
Security, relative comfort, influence, position, and leisure [were] maintained amidst a sea of the most dismal and frightening poverty and hunger — a poverty and hunger which at all times threatened to engulf any family which relaxed its vigilance, took pity on its poor neighbors, failed to extract the last copper of rent and interest, or ceased for an instant the incessant accumulation of grain and money. Those who did not go up went down, and those who went down often went to their deaths or at least to the dissolution and dispersal of their families. (Hinton, 1966)
This all sounds a lot like the scenario described by Clark (2007) for English society before the 20th century. Ron Unz says as much in a personal communication:
Overall, the model is pretty similar I think to what that Clark fellow wrote about England. However, I think the degree of genetic pressure in each generation was enormously greater, fenjia [division of land among sons] caused automatic downward mobility each generation, and I think the system remained in place for several times longer than the few centuries Clark claims for England.
Clearly, the higher mean IQs of East Asians cannot be solely or even mainly attributed to the Confucian exam culture. The main cause was the establishment of a State society, its monopoly on the use of violence, and its creation of an orderly, rules-based society. Reproductive success depended on being able to play by the rules.
The rules, however, were formalized in the teachings of Confucius. One’s knowledge of these teachings became a proxy for one’s ability to succeed in East Asian society. More generally, it became a proxy for intellectual performance, all the more so because one had to memorize Chinese characters (a minimum of 10,000 for functional fluency) and understand an archaic form of the language. Thus, Confucian exam culture might explain some of the differences between European and East Asian intellectual performance.
But why did this exam culture develop in East Asia and not in Europe? Greco-Roman society similarly valued study of classical literature and proficiency in archaic Greek and Latin (as opposed to the contemporary Koine Greek and Vulgar Latin). With the advent of Christianity, however, classical “pagan” literature became viewed with suspicion. Emphasis shifted toward study of the Bible, and such study usually involved entry into celibate religious orders. Insofar as academic success was linked to heritable predispositions, the overall impact of natural selection would have been negative.
Britannica (1998). Chinese civil service, vol. 3.
Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.
Crook, D. and I. Crook (1959). Revolution in a Chinese Village, Ten Mile Inn, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Hinton, W. (1966). Fanshen, Monthly Review Press.
Ho, P.T. (1959). Aspects of social mobility in China, 1368-1911, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1: 330-359.
Hsu, S. (2011). (2011). Sociobiological implications of the (historical) rural Chinese economy? Information Processing, February 16.
Unz, R. (1980). Preliminary notes on the possible sociobiological implications of the rural Chinese political economy, unpublished paper.
Yang, C.K. (1958). A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.