IMPERIAL CHINESE BUREAUCRACY
The Chinese established the first meritocracy—a bureaucracy based on skill and education rather than birth, property and bloodlines. This system was considered key to Imperial China's success and longevity. Emperors and kingdoms came and went but Chinese civilization remained in place as a result of the well-organized administrative system run by scholars-bureaucrats.
The Chinese civil service is at least 2,500 years pld. It is largely based on principals set down by Confucius in the 6th century B.C. See Confucianism, Religion
The Emperor needed the Confucian bureaucrats to administer his realm and the Confucian bureaucrats needed the Emperor for employment and legitimacy but there was always tensions in their relationship. The bureaucrats feared the despotic tendencies of the Emperor and the Emperor feared the bureaucrats would turn on him and favor the people rather than him.
Many Confucian bureaucrats operated as local leaders. They served as links between the masses and the Emperor and often functioned as landlords and tax collectors. When times were good the system worked well but when times were bad—as a result of corruption, natural disasters or war—the relations between the bureaucrats, the people and the Emperor became strained. Sometimes the system collapsed and a period of disorder and chaos persisted until strong leadership emerged and the system could be restored.
Under this system China changed very little. The government was unresponsive and unrepresentative of the people and was concerned with control and order. It had little contact with the people it ruled. Many would say the same situation exists today.
Mandarins in China
The scholar-bureaucrats who ran the Chinese imperial government were known in the West as Mandarins (a term coined by the British). They were China's best and brightest, and served the Emperor in the imperial court and as imperial magistrates and representatives in the hinterlands.
Mandarins worked hard: 10-day work weeks and work days that often started at 5:00am. They oversaw the regulation of trade, managed the money supply, maintained security in the provinces, and settled legal disputes. Mandarins were well rewarded for their work. They enjoyed lavished banquets several times a week and often lived in luxurious homes with their own concubines and entertainers.
During the Qing dynasty, members of the court and the bureaucracy displayed their rank with decorative patterns and precious metals and gems worn on their costumes. The formal over-robe worn at court by a first degree civil servant, for example, was embroidered with a crane while that of a second degree civil servant was embroidered with a golden pheasant. The clothes of lower ranked officials were decorated with embroideries of other animals.
Status for high officials was also indicated by the number of porters that carried their sedan chairs. During the Qing Dynasty officials of the top seven levels used sedan chair carried by four porters. Princes were transported in ones carried by eight. The Emperor and his mother were allowed 24. Generals and other military leaders were not granted this privilege.
Confucianism in the Imperial Era
Confucianism originated and developed as the ideology of professional administrators and continued to bear the impress of its origins. Imperial-era Confucianists concentrated on this world and had an agnostic attitude toward the supernatural. They approved of ritual and ceremony, but primarily for their supposed educational and psychological effects on those participating. Confucianists tended to regard religious specialists (who historically were often rivals for authority or imperial favor) as either misguided or intent on squeezing money from the credulous masses. The major metaphysical element in Confucian thought was the belief in an impersonal ultimate natural order that included the social order. Confucianists asserted that they understood the inherent pattern for social and political organization and therefore had the authority to run society and the state. [Source: Library of Congress]
“The Confucianists claimed authority based on their knowledge, which came from direct mastery of a set of books. These books, the Confucian Classics, were thought to contain the distilled wisdom of the past and to apply to all human beings everywhere at all times. The mastery of the Classics was the highest form of education and the best possible qualification for holding public office. The way to achieve the ideal society was to teach the entire people as much of the content of the Classics as possible. It was assumed that everyone was educable and that everyone needed educating. The social order may have been natural, but it was not assumed to be instinctive. Confucianism put great stress on learning, study, and all aspects of socialization. Confucianists preferred internalized moral guidance to the external force of law, which they regarded as a punitive force applied to those unable to learn morality. [Ibid]
“Confucianists saw the ideal society as a hierarchy, in which everyone knew his or her proper place and duties. The existence of a ruler and of a state were taken for granted, but Confucianists held that rulers had to demonstrate their fitness to rule by their "merit." The essential point was that heredity was an insufficient qualification for legitimate authority. As practical administrators, Confucianists came to terms with hereditary kings and emperors but insisted on their right to educate rulers in the principles of Confucian thought. Traditional Chinese thought thus combined an ideally rigid and hierarchical social order with an appreciation for education, individual achievement, and mobility within the rigid structure. [Ibid]
“While ideally everyone would benefit from direct study of the Classics, this was not a realistic goal in a society composed largely of illiterate peasants. But Confucianists had a keen appreciation for the influence of social models and for the socializing and teaching functions of public rituals and ceremonies. The common people were thought to be influenced by the examples of their rulers and officials, as well as by public events. Vehicles of cultural transmission, such as folk songs, popular drama, and literature and the arts, were the objects of government and scholarly attention. Many scholars, even if they did not hold public office, put a great deal of effort into popularizing Confucian values by lecturing on morality, publicly praising local examples of proper conduct, and "reforming" local customs, such as bawdy harvest festivals. In this manner, over hundreds of years, the values of Confucianism were diffused across China and into scattered peasant villages and rural culture. [Ibid]
Chinese Civil Service Exams
Civil servants were recruited and promoted through a series of examinations. These tests were, theoretically at least, open to anybody and were responsible for a considerable degree of social mobility. Success could bring privileged status and wealth to even the most humble born.
The Chinese civil service exam was essentially a test of knowledge of Confucian texts. For 2000 years, up until 1905, the heart of the exam was a regurgiation of the Four Great Books and Five Classics, including Confucius's Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. Test takers were given a certain amount of time (sometimes six weeks) and they were supposed to write everything they knew. Ideally, the students with the best scores were chosen for the best positions in the bureaucracy.
There were local, provincial and palace exams and they covered a number of topics, including poetry, philosophy, politics and ethics. Passing was said to be more difficult than getting into Harvard. Stephen West, a Chinese literature professor at Berkeley told U.S. News and World Report, "The magnitude of their accomplishments was impressive. It would be as if a Henry Kissinger was a gifted poet. Or if W.H Auden was also a superb government policy specialist."
Confucian Examination System
In late imperial China the status of local-level elites was ratified by contact with the central government, which maintained a monopoly on society's most prestigious titles. The examination system and associated methods of recruitment to the central bureaucracy were major mechanisms by which the central government captured and held the loyalty of local-level elites. Their loyalty, in turn, ensured the integration of the Chinese state and countered tendencies toward regional autonomy and the breakup of the centralized system. The examination system distributed its prizes according to provincial and prefectural quotas, which meant that imperial officials were recruited from the whole country, in numbers roughly proportional to a province's population. Elites all over China, even in the disadvantaged peripheral regions, had a chance at succeeding in the examinations and achieving the rewards of officeholding. [Source: Library of Congress]
“The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values. Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations passed them and received titles, the study, self-indoctrination, and hope of eventual success on a subsequent examination served to sustain the interest of those who took them. Those who failed to pass (most of the candidates at any single examination) did not lose wealth or local social standing; as dedicated believers in Confucian orthodoxy, they served, without the benefit of state appointments, as teachers, patrons of the arts, and managers of local projects, such as irrigation works, schools, or charitable foundations. [Ibid] In late traditional China, then, education was valued in part because of its possible payoff in the examination system. The overall result of the examination system and its associated study was cultural uniformity--identification of the educated with national rather than regional goals and values. This self-conscious national identity underlies the nationalism so important in China's politics in the twentieth century. [Ibid]
Preparation for the Chinese Civil Service Exams
Preparations for the test usually began around age five when young boys were taught to bow respectfully and recite lines from classical texts. The most promising teenagers were sent to study under masters in the Chinese capital. They were taught poetry, essay writing and Confucian scholarship.
Many students failed. In the year 998, only two students passed the highest, or jin-shi, test. Scholars sometimes cheated on the civil service exams by writing down answers on a special shirt worn under their robes. There are also many stories in Chinese literature of promising students who failed the test because they were corrupted by women and alcohol.
The notion that the Confucian system was based totally on merit and lacked a hereditary element is not true. Children of merchants, landowners and families with money had an advantage in that their parents could hire tutors to teach them how to properly write Chinese characters and study Confucian texts. Once they attained their position, Confucian gentlemen made sure their sons studied the classics and prepared for the exams.
Mandarins and the Chinese Emperor
The highest position in the scholar-bureaucracy was occupied by the prime minister, who, because he had risen by merit from the common people, was viewed as "a check on the whims of the Emperor and on the influence of the palace clique." During the Ming dynasty the power of the emperor was strengthened by giving him the power to dismiss any prime minister who opposed him.
Messages sent with the bureaucracy were sealed memorials delivered at lightning speed. They took the form of communications between officials of equal rank, bonds, communications between government offices, statements, dispatches, memorials to the Throne, registers, career records and other documents. It was a Chinese tradition that senior mandarins make their views known by praise or condemnation of a piece of literature; it was a favorite tactic of Mao's.
Practitioners of Confucian values, the Emperors and the ruling class thumbed their noses at the merchant class and rebuffed Western attempts at trade.
Image Sources: 6) Mandarin. All Posters.com http://www.allposters.com/?lang=1 Search Chinese Art ; 7) civilservice exam wikipedia; 8) exam cheat sheet. Columbia University; 9) Qing official hat, Columbia University;
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated August 2012