A Chinese scholar generation who worked in the American universities were among the first ones to conduct a systematic study of the local Chinese elites and defined the elites as gentry and also went ahead to differentiate them from the Western elites. The scholar were concerned with the period of the late imperial which were the Ming dynasty between 1368 and 1644 and the Qing dynasty between 1644 and 1911 and were focused on the relationship between the gentry and the state bureaucracy.
The role of the gentry as mediators between the people and the bureaucrats was stressed by Chu Tung-tsu, which guaranteed a legal protection to access local officials who shared the training and Confucian culture. The gentry were explicitly treated as the local elites by Chu. Chang Chung-li describes the gentry’s social position as being fiscal with legal privilege since they have favors in corporal punishment immunity and land taxation rates plus their functions in public works, education, tax collection, cultural leadership and local defense. Chang also addresses the stratification question in the gentry and provides an enormously valuable estimate for the gentry’s class size in the mid period of Qing.
Chang separated the gentry into lower and upper strata. The upper gentry were about 125,000 people retired and active military and civil officials who had earned the “jinshi” and “juren” degrees and therefore qualifying for regular office appointment while the lower gentry were about 865,000 people, who were either not qualified for regular appointment or had purchased the degree. The degree holding size with their immediate families was therefore about 1,000,000 individuals who represented about 1.3% of the entire population of the Chinese.
Ho Ping-ti focused on social mobility question into the elite after noting the Chinese society hierarchical organization. He helped to explain the gentry class persistent dominance when he hypothesized that considerable mobility into the elite mitigated the intrinsic prejudice of the hierarchical order. When analyzing “jinshi” degree holder’s background, he concluded the gentry were open to new blood and stressed on the irresistible authority of bureaucracy and the capacity of the state to control the main conduits of social mobility. Robert Marsh also in his in-depth study of 572 Qing officials concluded that there was important flow in out of the bureaucracy which involved a tiny population of the Chinese population.