The strangest thing that jumped out at me in the second half of the book is that young men who passed the imperial exams felt more loyalty to the people who passed them than the people who taught them. The mindset seems to be that people who passed them recognized their merit* and gave them the ticket to success, whereas their teachers merely performed their duty in their job, as part of a transaction.
On the other hand, the concept of loyalty to the exam system, and identification with it, that is something that I get. These men felt loyal to the academic system that they came up in, and one result is a back-and-forth political battle between men who gained influence through the exam system and bureaucracy, and men who gained influence by other paths. The winners of the high-stakes exam system would struggle amongst themselves, but unit against external threats. We see similar things today, and one could argue that my defense of sages on stages and skepticism of educational reform is in part a psychological response to perceived attacks on the legitimacy of the academic system that I have succeeded in. Of course, I have tried to articulate my stance in other terms, and defend it by appeals to more factors than just "Well, it worked for me." Nonetheless, I acknowledge that a reasonable person might make that inference.
One important thing to note about China's exam system is that it emerged from the efforts of Sui and Tang emperors to fight back against the aristocracy. They wanted public servants drawn more broadly from the population, with loyalty to the national good rather than their own families, and they wanted the best talents that they could find. It was a noble idea, and it had some noble features, being nominally open to almost anyone irrespective of birth (with a few narrow exceptions for men whose fathers or grandfathers had been involved in certain disreputable lines of business, e.g. brothels). Also, they made a genuine and energetic effort to keep the system honest, working hard to fight cheating rather than accept it as something to be expected and forgiven in the sons of privilege, and the public outcries against cheating scandals (centuries before modern electronic media made public outcry easy to arouse) testify to the wider population's perception that the system could be a valid one if conducted fairly.
Of course, the emperors failed utterly in their effort to eradicate elite families from the social and political landscape of China. There was turnover when the exam system first started, with some new elite families rising and old elites falling. Nonetheless, the winners were able to pass on advantages to their children, and in time the system became as stratified as any openly aristocratic system. Perhaps the most important lesson is that you cannot select your way out of inequality. Other authors that I've critiqued on this blog have argued that you can't teach your way out of inequality, but I would go farther and say that you cannot select your way out of it either. If you want to advance people from disadvantaged backgrounds you have to explicitly select them and promote them. You cannot simply pick some other criterion, nominally neutral or perhaps even favorable, and trust that competition will not emerge to reinforce the advantages of having advantages.
I mean, even a Communist revolution failed to eradicate class distinctions in a nominally meritocratic society! How could we expect better interview questions or admissions essays to accomplish that goal in a capitalist society? If we want to address disadvantage we should look squarely at disadvantage and explicitly make allowances, not look at education as a proxy for whatever it is that we actually want (or claim to want).
*Yes, say what you will about merit and meritocracy, but that's how they saw it, and I'm trying to describe the mindset.