As a small fraction of them could become officials, the majority of the scholar-gentry stayed in local villages or cities as social leaders. The scholar-gentry carried out social welfare measures, taught in private schools, helped decide minor legal disputes, supervised community projects, maintained local law and order, conducted Confucian ceremonies, assisted in the government's collection of taxes, and preached Confucian moral teachings. As a class, these scholars represented morality and virtue. Although they received no official salary and were not government officials, their contributions and cooperation were much needed by the district magistrate in governing local areas, and received contributions from the imperial dynasty as well.
The system of scholar-bureaucrats and Imperial examinations was adopted and adapted by several tributary states of China, in particular the Ryūkyū Kingdom (Okinawa), which sent students to China on a regular basis, and maintained a center of Chinese learning at Kumemura from which administrators and officials of the kingdom's government were selected.
Each student taking the exam arrived at an examination compound with only a few amenities: a water pitcher, a chamber pot, bedding, food, an inkstone, ink, and brushes. Guards would verify the students' identities and search them for hidden printed materials. Each exam taker spent three days and two nights writing "eight-legged essays" — literary compositions with eight distinct sections — in a tiny room with a makeshift bed, desk, and bench. There were no interruptions in those three days, nor were candidates allowed any communication. If someone died during an exam, officials wrapped his body in a straw mat and tossed it over the high walls that ringed the compound.
Civil service exams remained intensely competitive, yet a degree at any level did not ensure government service. Those who only passed the district level exam had a much poorer chance of being a part of the imperial bureaucracy than those who passed the metropolitan level exam. During the Qing dynasty, the empire's one million degree holders competed for only 20,000 official civil service positions. Those who did not get to serve the government spent their careers "plowing with the writing brush" by becoming local teachers or tutors.
The entire premise of the scholarly meritocracy was based on mastery of the Confucian classics, with important effects on society.
Theoretically, this system resulted in a highly meritocratic ruling class, with the best students running the country. The examinations gave many people the opportunity to pursue political power and honor — and thus encouraged serious pursuit of formal education. And since the system did not formally discriminate based on social status, it provided an avenue for upward social mobility regardless of age or social class.
However, even though the examination-based bureaucracy's heavy emphasis on Confucian literature ensured that the most eloquent writers and erudite scholars achieved high positions of responsibility for running the country, it contained no formal safeguard against political corruption besides the Confucian moral teachings that the examinations tested on. Once their political futures were secured by success in the examinations, high-ranking officials were often tempted to corruption and abuse of their powers. Furthermore, the relatively lower social status of the military profession in Confucian society discouraged efficiency and meritocracy within the military.
Nonetheless, since the examinations focused on Confucian classics and neo-Confucian commentaries, the entrenchment of the examination system guaranteed that Confucianism would be at the heart of Chinese education and that Confucians would exert a strong influence on the state with little interruption, thus providing remarkable cultural continuity for Chinese civilization through centuries.