Fateful rite of passage: Charismatic ratification of elite merit in China’s National College Entrance Exam

Zachary M. Howlett


This article argues that China’s National College Entrance Exam, the Gaokao, provides routinized charismatic ratification of elite merit and state authority. In his writings, Max Weber differentiates between original and routinized charisma. Whereas original charisma disrupts social orders, routinized charisma legitimizes them by preserving a spark of the extraordinary and the divine. Based on long-term ethnographic research in Chinese high schools, this article examines a mode of charisma preservation that Weber ignored: routinized fateful rites of passage like the Gaokao. Despite being routinized, such events are chancy, their outcomes contingent and undetermined. This indeterminacy is indexed by magical concepts like fate and luck, which lend charismatic authority a divine imprimatur. This analysis illuminates the importance of indeterminacy in understanding the compulsion of charisma, contributes to understanding the dialectical interplay between original and routinized charisma, and explains the Gaokao’s magical-charismatic role in preserving the moral authority of China’s ruling elite.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/719267