Friday, February 18, 2011

East Asian intelligence

Pupils studying for the Chinese civil service exam.

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.

Hays, J. (2008). Chinese Education,

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.


Steve Hsu said...


You might be interested in how the civil exam system was imported to France and England from China in the 19th century:

... French education was really based on the Chinese system of competitive literary examinations, and that the idea of a civil service recruited by competitive examinations undoubtedly owed its origins to the Chinese system which was popularized in France by the philosophers, especially Voltaire.

... Amusingly, 19th century British writers opposed to the new system of exams referred to it as "... an adopted Chinese culture"

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...


This somewhat goes against your earlier thesis, because the situation was worse for poor men then you laid out.

Chinese men were polygamous legally, if they could afford it. I have a Chinese friend, my age, (mid-30's) whose great-grandfather had three wives, he is from Taiwan.

So for a poor man or just a modest man there was major competition for women. You have stated previously this was inherently bad for society.

Also, keep in mind that infanticide in China is not solely due to the one-child policy. It was recorded by Europeans in Qing Dynastic times.

So potentially less women to go around and many rich men snatching them up (usually older men with younger girls as 2nd and 3rd wives, as in Africa, Middle East).

Tod said...

John Derbyshire:" Anyone who has read stories from the premodern period of China's history knows that the guy who gets the girl — who ends up, in fact, with a bevy of "secondary wives" who are thereby denied to less intellectual males — is the one who has aced the Imperial examinations and been rewarded with a District Magistrate position"

Chinese and Koreans have got big heads; both have high average IQs. Unless examinations have led to the head size increasing the high IQ in China and Korea may not be all down to examinations.

The Japanese did not have an offcial exam system for long "Japan also used the Chinese Imperial examination system as a model in the Heian period; however, the influence affected only the minor nobility and was replaced by the hereditary system during the Samurai era."
Moreover the Samurai era was not one where the state had a monopoly over violence. Miyamoto Musashi killed dozens sometimes by leaping out the bushes (not a western style duel).

Yet the Japanese are at least as clever as the Chinese

Tod said...

Aaron at Mangan's says that the verbal part of IQ tests is the most g loaded. Chinese/asians only have better test scores because they're better at rotating figures. (That is a masculine trait and Asians have very low digit ratios).

You've switched feet on celibacy:-

"In pre-modern Europe, literacy was valued in several high-prestige non-religious occupations, i.e., personal secretaries, notaries, law clerks, etc."

Anonymous said...

Re: G loadings of verbal abilities and Asian performance, just from googling around: - this psychometrics blog has a factor analysis on data from the WISC IV that shows a g factor that is indeed most strongly weighted on verbal ability. - describes performance on the WISC IV with a section on ethnic groups

"The WISC IV normative sample is based on 2,200 children from 11 age groups (each one year wide), with an equal number of males and females in each group, and an ethnic breakup that matches the March 2000 US Census data very closely. There were 5 levels of parental education, and 4 geographical areas covering the whole United States and Hawaii. Sattler classifies the sampling method as "excellent." Of note, there were only 1,100 in the norming sample for Arithmetic....

Asian-American children scored 3 points higher than Euro-American children...
PRI and PSI are 5 points higher than VCI and WMI for Asian-American children...

Something to keep in mind:
VCI accounts for 62% of variance in g
PRI accounts of 45% of variance in g
WMI accounts for 43% of variance in g
PSI accounts for 23% of variance in g"

It looks to me like the areas with the strongest advantage for Asians aren't strongly related to g or to information (under verbal VCI above) or arithmetic (under working memory WMI), so I would be surprised if they had a much higher g, rather than an elevated processing speed and perceptual reasoning ability. Which advantages look a lot like "Hanzi advantages" actually. It might be that the exam culture Frost describes was pretty much "consumed" by the difficulty of the characters, so selection was not on general intelligence as such so much as on mastering an exceedingly complex writing system. - describes the four different facets of the test (in more detail).

On the other hand, Asians apparently have the most pronounced advantage on the Raven's Matrices, which is supposedly very g-loaded (there are various numbers bandied around on the internet). Although that seems surprising to me as the (also non-verbal reasoning) PRI section in the WISC (where Asian advantage apparently comes from) is not very g-loaded at all (the matrix reasoning subtest on the WISC which is modelled on the Raven's Matrices has a relatively high loading, but not stellar).

Anonymous said...

Two questions:
References to high “Asian IQ” seem to refer habitually to China, Korea, and Japan in relation to the IQ to ALL Europeans.
I have read in several places that average IQs for some northern European ethnicities are as high a 108.
What happens when the comparison becomes more specific, say Japan to Scandinavia, or China, Korea, and Japan to northern Europe?

My second question concerns distribution:
average IQ in Germany (i.e. among ethnic Germans) is quite high, probably as high as any Asian country.
I grew up in New York and Boston, and my experiences were conditioned by the somewhat fevered intensity of the Jewish intelligentsia of the American Northeast. I have lived in Germany for a long time, and have never encountered that kind of intellectual intensity here.

(I defended my dissertation recently at an Ivy University in the US, and realized with a jolt that of the 6 people sitting around a table, 3 were Jewish, I am half Jewish, and the other two were unknowns).

My impression of Asian intelligence is that it is similar to German intelligence: high averages, high conscientiousness, a lot of discipline, but very little humor, inventiveness, originality, or eccentricity (I translate German arts and humanities etc. related texts into English for living, mostly by German doctorates, and I am rarely NOT bored).

Is the distribution of Northeast Asian intelligence perhaps relatively flat, i.e. like German intelligence in relation to Jewish intelligence?

I would be curious to know the Asian/European, German/Jewish ratios of IQs above 130, 140, etc.

Tod said...

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

Yes, if almost all men and women want to marry. But I dare say there have always been quite a lot of men and women who were not terribly interested and the intelligent ones among them would tend to be massively overrepresented in religious orders. How attractive would a religious order would be to the average young man or woman very interested in the opposite sex.

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.

I strikes me that the oldest son would usually be able to get married while the youngest son would be left to take care of his elderly parents and the farm. But would the parents only have the number of sons who could afford to marry? If they did that they would be left to work the farm alone in their old age.

I think the wily Chinese peasants would tend to have an extra son to provide for their old age.

bruce said...

But China was governed by eunuchs, it also had celibate Buddhist monks. This should be to about a similar degree that western society's intelligencia were celibate. This should invalidate western celibacy as a possible factor in observed differences.

Tod said...

I'm overdoing it with comments but, what about the daughters of the poorest families? They would often be sold by their parents and become maids/concubines of the wealthy landlords(secondary wives as Derbyshire puts it.)

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...


No, actually the oldest son was like the roman Patrafamilia, he ran the family when the father died, and it was his job to take care of the parents. Young siblings were not responsible for taking care of the family but we often answerable to older siblings. You are right that older sons were likely to marry though.

Tod said...

Dragon horse, yes the head of a family with a farm might have 'three generations under one roof'. Strike the mention of a farm as that would make a family comfortably off. I was thinking of landless peasants and the youngest son of a poor family.

What would be the status of the children a secondary wife had with a landlord? Would they get an education?

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...


You ask a couple of good questions. My guess is poor families could not afford tutors, so they would not get education on average. There are stories in China (numerous) of the "poor rural kid" who became emporer, a general, high ranking court official, etc. However, I'm guessing that was few and far between (Generals didn't tend to have education and unlike in the West were looked down on as "base").

I would also guess, basing this on my general knowledge of Chinese people and history (which I came no particular expertise, just life experience) that they would favor the boy they think is smarter, not necessarily the eldest. Chinese people are quite pragmatic in this way unlike the Medieval European, who rarely passed over the oldest son.

Peter Frost said...


Interesting. There is a current of Sinophilia in French culture that held up China as a perfectly functioning society. But I didn't know about this aspect. Thanks!

Dragon Horse,

Polygyny has serious social effects when it becomes "general" (20 to 40% of all marriages). At that level, most young men are frozen out of the marriage market and male-male rivalry for mates becomes intense.

China, like most Eurasian societies, has typically had polygyny rates of less than 10%, and usually less than 5%.


I think the main factor of selection is not the imperial exam per se, but rather the underlying exam culture (reverence for teachers and scholars, widespread tutoring and schooling, favoritism within families for sons who show talents for learning classical texts, etc.)

Tod and others,

I think there are qualitative differences in intellectual ability that are poorly captured by IQ tests. IQ testing is not very good at measuring intellectual "stamina" e.g. ability to read and understand lengthy texts over a prolonged period of time without taking a break.


As I remember (I don't have the references at hand), IQ is in the 105+ range in parts of northern Europe. I suspect these pockets of high IQ are associated with the cottage industry zones of early "proto-capitalist" Europe (e.g., the Low Countries, Lombardy, parts of Germany, much of England, Ulster, Scotland).


Today, Catholic monks and priests are disproportionately asexual or homosexual. This was less so in the past. When Catholicism collapsed in Quebec (early 1960s), many priests renounced their vows and married. The ideological environment had changed.

Tod said...

On reading a bit more (HERE). It seems that yes, a high proportion of poor men could not get married. Secondary wives could never become main wife even if the MW died. However the greatest sin for a man was to fail to produce a son. (The average elite couple waited 6 years for a son). Given the Confucian emphasis on filal piety an elite man whose only son was with a secondary wife (often from a poor family) would surely have provided him with an education. That must have attenuated the IQ raising effects of the culture.

Severn said...

This intellectual success is matched by the economic success not only of East Asian societies ....

The per capita GDP of China is $7,500.

By way of contrast, the Dominican Republic has a per capita GDP of $8,600. Mexico comes in at $14,000.

China has a long ways to go before it can stand comparison with the West, or even with some Second World countries. said...

China, like most Eurasian societies, has typically had polygyny rates of less than 10%, and usually less than 5%

It would be interesting to know from what strata the second/third wife come: the second or third wife of wealthy individuals come from the lower classes (the daughter of the poor peasant) or was from middle/high classes?

Wealthy/powerful people would allow his daughters to become second wife of another wealthy or wealthier individual or first wife of a lesser males?

Genetic selection would be more strong if the poor daughters of poor peasants went to marry peasants only a little more wealthy instead of wealthy people.

On the other side of them medal it is not improbable that more than one peasant wife would not pass over the chance to sleep with a wealthy individual for money or favor, if this could help her to raise her children and help her family. How many out of the wedlock children were there?

Anonymous said...

"low inventiveness", where did he get his Phd from ? University of Southern Mumbai?

Chinese have invented many things long before any European came on the scene.

Gunpowder, paper, printing, compass, sealable bulkheads to name a few.

And the Germans are more or less solely responsible for the rise of Europe over the last 300 years.

Bogus phd man. said...

Maybe, sometimes "low innovation adoption" is mistaken for "low inventiveness". East Asia invented many things, but they never adopted them en-mass. Many of these were brought to Europe and European adopted them in few decades (spectacles, paper, sharpeners, etc.)

How much of this is cultural and how much of this is genetics is debatable.

Anonymous said...

that's just verbal masturbation.

why should China adopt anything for the West, Gunpowder etc was already "adopted" by 100s of millions of east asians centuries before the west even heard of them.

think the truth is 'adoption' is some sort of code for the fake assumption that the high orient needs 'approval' from the west.

read my lips:

" we don't approval, we are unaware of what it is and certainly don't want to need it "

Anonymous said...

"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."

What would happen in a society where everyone was in that situation i.e. where there was not enough surplus to support polygamy and not even enough to provide the social gradations neccessary for sexual selection by bride-price or dowry?

For example a culture like this

- An almost nonexistent social stratification
- Lack of a political elite
- No occupational specialization
- Rudimentary economy, most likely a subsistence or gift economy
- Pastoralists and subsistence farmers

If mate selection wasn't arranged by families simply because there was no surplus to use as the basis for marriage contracts then couldn't mate selection have beome more individual?

If the need for male provisioning was intense then the competition of females for good providers would be intense also and if the lack of surplus meant the family couldn't use financial leverage to compete as a unit in favor of their marriageable females then the females would have to compete as individuals.

Obviously this could apply to hunter-gatherers as well but i wonder if subsistence farming in that band of terriotory following the line of the ice may have followed the same pattern until the climate improved.

Kenichi Yamamoto said...

East asians have high IQ and low PQ.
They often mistake direction with their high IQ because of low PQ.
So, for leaders, people that has low IQ and low PQ is better than people that has high IQ and low PQ.
the power for bad direction is strong in east asia because of their high IQ and low PQ.
Do you know what is happening at Japanese politicians?
It's not only politicians but also the coach of representational soccer team of Japan.
in any case, it is difficult to lead east asians.
So east asians is/was worse than europeans in culture.
I think so.

Tiger mom may be not good model for almost all people.

sry for my bad english.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think it's because of rice. Technical to farm and Glycemic Index of 100. It feeds the brain with sugars. Multiply that by billions of people over thousands of years and voila.

Anonymous said...

Imperial China is monogamy with upper class elite male taking concubines. Almost all concubines came from poor family and had to be submissive to her husband AND THE ONE wife. Wife was the decision maker of the family matter inside the house and control the family finance. The marriage was usually arranged with the same family background as husband. So it is really monogamy with sex slaves for the men. The concubines would not even allowed to attend the important ceremony of the family ancestors....... said...

Imperial China, with elite males polygamy (one wife + concubines = polygamy) allow elite males to obtain more children than poor ones.
The (first) wife and the concubines borne the children of the one male.
It is not important only the children of the wife inherited the estate and nobility titles. If the wife was barren there would be the children of the concubines and, anyway, the children of the concubines had better food, education and chances to find a gainful job or climb the social ladder. This is the same trickle down effect we saw in England.
The difference is in England it was the middle class to trickle down (and up as the nobility died off) where in China it was the nobility/government functionaries to trickle down.

John Engelman said...

Men who passed the Imperial Exams entered the Scholar Gentry. They were expected to have more than one wife and many children. Because they were given generous incomes most of these children survived and reproduced.

In general, urban civilization places more of a premium on intelligence than did the tribal societies which preceded it. Men with the intelligence to become merchants, government officials, money lenders, scribes, and so on usually enter these fields. They become more prosperous than less intelligent men, and have more children who survive and reproduce. Nevertheless, in China the process was more intense.