TikTok star Addison Rae caused a sensation on social media last week for something other than her dance moves. Rae posted a tweet that included a picture of her holding an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) microphone before a match between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier. Her caption read: “I studied broadcast journalism in college for 3 whole months to prepare for this moment.”

The seemingly innocuous tweet received thousands of angry responses, many from students or recent journalism school graduates expressing dismay that Rae had apparently taken one of the scarce jobs in their field. As one Twitter user wrote, “i got a 33 on my ACT and was a national merit semifinalist, spent thousands of dollars and hours of hard work to receive a bachelor’s degree from the best journalism school in the country, was commencement speaker, and applied to 75+ jobs to be unemployed.” The tweet received over 100,000 likes and thousands of retweets.

The internet produces no shortage of cheap drama, but outrage on this scale suggests something deeper. Understanding why Rae’s joke inspired so much outrage depends on appreciating the tensions between those who achieve fame and fortune in the marketplace and those who seek the climb the career ladder in a declining empire with narrowing paths to success.

To really grasp why everyone was mad at Addison Rae, in other words, you have to know the story of the late Qing dynasty’s civil service examination system.

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