China’s Medieval Tang Dynasty Had a Surprising Level of Social Mobility, New Study Uncovers

January 19, 2024

In studying social mobility in today’s industrialized nations, researchers typically rely on data from the World Economic Forum or, in the United States, the General Social Survey. But examining the same phenomena from past centuries is a more daunting task because relevant statistics are harder to come by. However, a social science research team has now discovered a way to examine professional advancement in medieval China (618-907 CE) by drawing from the tomb epitaphs during the Tang Dynasty. Notably, their analysis shows that education during this period was a catalyst for social mobility. “This information, to some extent, mirrors what would have been included in a contemporary social mobility survey,” adds Erik H. Wang, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Politics.

In studying social mobility in today’s industrialized nations, researchers typically rely on data from the World Economic Forum or, in the United States, the General Social Survey. But examining the same phenomena from past centuries is a more daunting task because relevant statistics are harder to come by. 

However, a social science research team has now discovered a way to examine professional advancement in medieval China (618-907 CE) by drawing from the tomb epitaphs during the Tang Dynasty. These epitaphs contain the ancestral lineages, names, and office titles (e.g., Minister of Personnel, Minister of the Court of Judicial Review, and Palace Deputy Imperial Censor) of the deceased’s father and grandfather as well as the deceased’s career history and educational credentials—ample data points for measuring social mobility across generations. 

Notably, their analysis shows that education during this period was a catalyst for social mobility.

“Epitaphs written in medieval China, including the Tang Dynasty, tend to be highly detailed descriptions of an individual’s life with stylized prose and poems, and they contain granular information about the ancestral origins, family background, and career history of each deceased individual,” says Fangqi Wen, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University. 

“This information, to some extent, mirrors what would have been included in a contemporary social mobility survey,” adds Erik H. Wang, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Politics.

The source of this news is from New York University

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