Chinese Bureaucracy, 2
So in talking about how all states end up surrendering real power to the permanent bureaucracy, I thought it interesting to look at the example of China, which has the oldest and most well structured permanent bureaucracy of all. The previous post was on how the Chinese Empire started as a mostly hands-off affair where the Emperors let most daily decisions of government to their ministers, but little by little they assumed more power, until by the Ming Dynasty they assumed personal rule.
Next clip is about the lower levels of government. Who got to be a bureaucrat?
In Ancient China, if you wanted to enter the state bureaucracy, well at the beginning it was all hereditary succession. Which in common parlance means, dragon breeds dragon, phoenix breeds phoenix, and the children of rats dig holes. So that’s how it was, the position was inherited every generation. The ruler was like that, and all officials were also like that. Get to the Spring and Autumn period, especially in the Qin state, they had this incentive system to motivate the commoners. If you tilled your land well, you could become an official. At war, those who killed more people could become officials. Those who cut the head of an enemy in the battlefield, would rise one level in the bureaucracy by every head they cut. One head, one level up. Another head, another level up. So why was Qin so strong at war? Well if you’re fighting the Qin, your head to them isn’t a head. Cut one head, rise one level. And a level means, better salary, housing, land, livestock, wife and children. All yours. So they’ll go after you to get that head.
The Qin awarded performance in the battlefield, and unified the country. Yet their empire lasted 15 years, 2 generations. So the Han Dynasty had to rethink how to rule. To beat a country isn’t the same as to rule a country, you can’t just rely on violence. During war you can rely on blood-minded warriors, but to rule a country you need scholars. But how do I know which scholar is good and which is no good? You need a system to guarantee the quality of the officials. How to do so? Well, local elections. Officials in the provinces would look for good people and promote them to the bureaucracy.
What did they look for exactly? First they looked for talent. And second they looked for morals, if you were filial and frugal. Now given that this relied on people suggesting people, well there’s potential for fraud. Talent can be more or less objectively measured. But morals? How do you know if I’m filial and frugal? If I’m not a bureaucrat I’m pretty much forced to be frugal, what am I gonna be corrupt with? And filial virtue is even harder to measure. How do you know if I’m filial? You’re gonna come to my house to inspect? See how I kneel on the ground and wash my father’s feet? Oh, good kid, very filial. You can’t see the bruise dad got after I kicked him yesterday though.
So all this was very hard to measure, and as a result, all this suggestion method, in the end, all those promoted up ended being the children of the higher officials. Not rich people, but high levels of the bureaucracy. Yuan Shao had 3 ministers in 4 generations. Was it hereditary? No, that system was abolished. So how could they have 3 counts in 4 ministers? Well they kept promoting people of their family. Grandpa Yuan An was Chancellor, controlled all the levels of power, had disciples all around the empire. So when promoting someone, who dares not to promote Great Yuan’s son?
Later during the Wei-Jin period, it got even worse. In that time all those promoted were from the great families. The biggest were the 4 Big Families: Wang, Xie, Yuan, Xiao, grabbed the levels of power in all Southern Dynasties. In the North they were the Cui, Lu, Li, Zheng, grabbing all power. Not even the Emperor could rival them.
So the Sui Dynasty’s Yang Jian, he was a Yang, not a member of the Great Families. So he changed the whole system. This choosing officials by birthright is thing no good. So he set the fairest system of all: an exam. Everybody’s equal before the score numbers. This was the start of the Chinese system which lasted 1300 years, the Imperial Examination.
Everybody’s equal before the score numbers. Did people cheat? Yes. But without the exam, everybody is cheating. There’s no fairness at all. People did cheat at the exams, but the methods of cheating were much less sophisticated than what people use today to cheat in exams. Say, some people would fit a small scroll inside their clothes. So the Court had a good idea, before the exam you all get naked and change into this Exam clothes. But the scholars thought it humiliating. “It’s not like each of us is going to cheat, you can’t just assume we’re all criminals.” So what did they do? The Court thought a good one. They set that before the exam, everyone had to go pray to Confucius. And surely before going to pray to the Great Sage, you obviously should bathe, and show your earnestness. So before going to the exam hall, they’d go to the public bath. Then officials would search through your clothes, look for any hidden paper. Once they stopped searching, they’d order the water to stop. Then they’d all come back and wear their clothes again. No humiliation now, huh? Bathing is good, right? If you’re poor, you get a free bath, you should be happy.
So there were many ways of preventing cheating. During the Song Dynasty, they hid the names in each exam. Like they do today when they send this closed envelopes. And they not only hid the names, they copied the exams! The examiners never saw the actual handwriting on any exam. A whole group of officials were in charged of copying by hand every exam, 10 exams per official. So the exams that the examiners see all have the same handwriting. The purpose of course is to avoid examiners promoting their own students. They know their students’ handwriting, they taught them.
There were lots of these sort of tricks. So under those circumstances, of course some incidents of cheating happened, but it was very hard. There’s one example, Qin Hui calls the chief examiner to his house. The examiner dares not refuse the call of the Chancellor, so goes. Once he gets there, the old man is busy so the examiner waits in the library. He waits and waits, and gets very bored. Thing is there are no books on the room, what kind of library is that? So he looks all around trying to find some amusement. All he can see is a piece of paper on top of the table. Being a scholar he’s used to reading things, and being bored he’s compulsively drawn to the paper. So he grabs the paper, and sees there’s a piece of text on it. So he reads it once. The old man still doesn’t come. So he reads it again. The old man still doesn’t come, so he reads it a third time. And so on until he almost quite memorized the whole thing, he’s read it so many time he can recite it backwards. After several hours of wait, a relative of Qin Hui comes, and apologizes: “The Chancellor has been summoned by the Emperor, he won’t be able to see you today, please go home.” The examiner didn’t think twice about it, yeah well Chancellors are busy people, so he goes home.
Days later the Imperial Examination is going on, so they pick up the exams, all those standardized copied exams, and they read him. Then he gets one exam, and huh? “This text is exactly the same as that piece of paper I read on the Chancellors house!” Now see how smart the Chief Examiner is. It’s not easy to get to be Chief Examiner. So he understood, “so that’s why the Chancellor had me waiting all that day in his library and forced me to read this text. OK then, we got a winner then.” Then he opened the envelope with the name, and there it is, Qin Hui’s grandson.
So see, the great evil minister Qin Hui, who could kill Yue Fei, betray his country, when it came to the Imperial Examination, he had to go through all this trouble to influence the Chief Examiner. He was afraid the Chief Examiner might not buy the whole thing, and if he hadn’t bought it, there’s nothing Qin Hui could have done about it. Sure he could have dealt with the Examiner himself, but he had no way of declaring the exam void and making his grandson win. That’s we say this system was, relatively speaking, quite fair.
The examination system itself was alright, it was very fair in those times. The problem lied in what questions are asked. In the Song Dynasty the exams were about policy. See how Wen Tianxiang exams have remained to this day, mountains of words criticizing imperial policy. Then came Zhu Yuanzhang, whose culture was rather limited. If the applicants wrote too well he might not understand it, he couldn’t read that many letters anyway. So what he did was limit severely what entered the exam. Only the classic books, and only the interpretation of Zhu Xi. That way it’s easy to posit the questions, the exam gets easier; it fossilized people’s thought.
So over time, people stopped taking the exam seriously. Some examiners just decided the winners by looking at the handwriting. You write nicely, you win. Your handwriting sucks, you’re out. The famous Kang Youwei, when he was Liang Qichao’s teacher, he was a Xiucai [Level1] , while Liang Qichao was a Juren[Level2]. At his age he wasn’t even a Juren. Why? Because he had bad handwriting.
So how did he become a Juren later? This is probably legend, but they say the Chief Examiner got his exam, and his first reaction was “what the hell is this crap” and he threw it away. Then he went to the toilet. There was nobody else in the room. Then a servant came in to pour some tea, and he found a scroll in the floor. The servant can’t even read, so what did he know. He got the scroll, opened it, put a paperweight on it, and left. After the servant’s gone, the examiner comes back from the toilet, not seeing the servant. So he comes into the room and “Huh? I threw away this scroll… How come it’s on my desk, and even with a paperweight on it? This must be some heavenly sign, let’s take a look then. So he reads the paper, and wow, great piece, exam passed. So Kang Youwei’s title of Juren came through the piss of the examiner. They say that after Kang Youwei became famous all he did was give away scrolls of his writing to anyone, just to screw them with his bad handwriting.
So later when people started to reconsider the Imperial Examination, the issue wasn’t much the system itself, but what’s the content of the exam. Originally you need it deep wisdom of things ancient and new. Then it changed into cherry picking pieces from a handful of books. During the more than 1000 yours that the Examinations went on, the cultural level of the officialdom was extremely high. Including the Emperor, all had to be cultivated. If you aren’t well read, and it slips at Court, the ministers will laugh at you. Obviously this doesn’t mean all Emperors were of very high culture. There were plenty of thuggish, awful emperors. Especially in the Ming.