Weixing: The Art of Guessing--Understanding Risk and Meritocracy in Late-Qing China

En Li, Drake University

Weixing (“surname guessing”) was a highly organized gambling practice where money was bet on surnames that would pass the civil service examinations in China. The civil service examination was a major way for the Chinese state to select officials from all over the empire and for commoners to climb the social ladder between the tenth century and 1905. This paper focuses provides a close reading of the game rules from gazetteers, memoirs, and the observation from G.T. Hare, a British official in Singapore in the 1890s. Going beyond moral discourse and political accusations in edicts and memorials and viewing the game from the gamblers’ perspective, this paper unfolds the inner world of weixing by researching surnames in the nineteenth century—like the gamblers would have done. Compared to all other lottery types, weixing was more like a horse race than a lottery of pure chance; it required more nuances than many other simple “lotteries.” People were able to investigate surnames and develop betting strategies, which helped to move the game beyond an irrational bet in these people’s minds. If the examinations showed a functional meritocracy among the elite in imperial China, betting on the examinations showed a different form of meritocracy among common people during a transitional period: studying the exams without participating in them, taking risk while controlling risk—potentially with even more profitable return than the real exam takers. The approach radically changed people’s understanding of the civil service exams during their last moments in Chinese history.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 262. Public Finance and Data in Chinese History