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Administration of officials in ancient China offers valuable lessons

LIANG XIAO | 2019-11-14
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A detail of a 16th century painted scroll shows students taking the imperial examination. Photo: BEIJING PALACE MUSEUM


The administration of officials is an important part of governance, including how to select officials with both political integrity and governance capacity and how to train and prepare them, as well as how to motivate and supervise them when they are in office. In the long history of China, we have accumulated a wealth of thought and institutional norms for the administration of officials, which offer valuable reference for today.
Virtue is prominent
The traditional thought regarding the administration of officials holds that officials should be appointed based on competence and capability. 
In the chapter “Exaltation of the Virtuous I,” Mozi pointed out that “the exaltation of the virtuous is the root of government.”
In the chapter “Gong Sun Chou I,” Mengzi said that “if a prince hates disgrace, the best course for him to pursue, is to esteem virtue and honor virtuous scholars, giving the worthiest among them places of dignity, and the able offices of trust.”
In the chapter “On the Regulations of a King,” Xunzi also proposed that “if a King desires to establish his fame and meritorious accomplishments, none is as good as advancing the worthy and bringing the capable into one’s service.”
In the pre-Qin period (prior to 221BCE), Confucianism, Mohism and Legalism had different doctrines, but they shared the same view on choosing the virtuous and capable to govern. From the Han Dynasty (206BCE–25CE) onwards, the selection and appointment of officials was institutionalized and a system for training and educating future officials was developed. However, becoming an actual official was still more possible through recommendations than through examinations at the time.
In the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420), Chinese officials were ranked according to the relative prestige and importance of their duties. Officials worked their way up through a nine-rank system with one being the highest. Appointments were primarily based on merit and family connections as well as recommendations from powerful friends, which gradually led to corruption and clan politics. 
In the Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907), the imperial examination system was installed to root out patronage and nepotism and to select those who have knowledge of government affairs and the Chinese classics, especially those on Confucianism, to serve as officials. The imperial examination system was in use until the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). 
Nonetheless, the selection of officials in ancient China put great emphasis on virtues such as honesty, reverence, filial piety, brotherly affection and empathy. 
In the chapter “Wei Zheng” of The Analects, Confucius said, “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.” The most important virtue is how one conducts himself, because “when a prince’s personal conduct is correct, his government is effective without the issuing of orders. If his personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders, but they will not be followed,” as it is further explained in the chapter “Zi Lu.”
The administrative ability of officials was undoubtedly important, but candidates had to present themselves as worthy and upright. In the Han Dynasty, filial piety and integrity were the utmost moral standards. Since the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Confucian classics were required in the imperial examination system. Confucians value morality, which was a way of insisting that the selection of officials should put morality first. 
In addition, in the official assessment system, morality was also of primary concern. Many emperors issued edicts and admonishments and wrote official proverbs to cultivate official ethics.
Capacity to govern
Traditional thought regarding the administration of officials also stresses the administrative ability of officials and the training of officials in government affairs, which has run throughout the history of China.
Hanfeizi, drawing upon the bitter lessons of many armchair strategists in history, pointed out that senior officials in important positions must undergo long-term training and have first-hand experience at the grassroots level. In a certain sense, the recommendation system in the Han Dynasty was to select people who understood the lower class and the social reality to be officials. 
Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (r. 140 BCE–88 BCE) established the imperial college. When the imperial college students graduated, they were divided into two grades according to their examination results. The upper would serve as central government officials and the lower would return to their hometowns as local officials, who also had the chance to return to the center of power through recommendations based on merit while gathering first-hand experience in local regions. 
The imperial examination system never simply aimed to select officials with knowledge of cultural subjects. There was extensive emphasis on current policies and the examination of students’ political views on the national economy and people’s livelihood. In order to become a real official, candidates had to pass the strict selective examination of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Among all the tests, the most important one was the handling of cases according to the law. This was actually a kind of administrative training before the official took office. After taking office, officials were required to be regularly assessed, and only those who excelled could be promoted. All these measures were different forms of training officials’ administrative ability.
In traditional thought regarding the administration of officials, it is necessary to form a strict and meticulous assessment and supervision system. The former served to assess officials’ ability and achievements and the latter to check and supervise whether officials broke the law. 
In the chapter “On Establishing Right Policies,” Guanzi pointed out that “A sovereign should be prudent with three things: The first is that the virtues of court officials do not match their powers; the second is that the achievements of court officials do not match their salaries; the third is that the abilities of court officials do not match their positions. These three most important factors are the innermost causes leading to the order or chaos of a state.”
In practice, the assessment system developed continuously in the feudal society and established a relatively complete standard in the Tang Dynasty. At that time, the assessment of morality included righteousness, integrity, fairness, diligence and kindness while the assessment of the administrative ability of officials contained 27 specific aspects of work. This system was inherited by successive dynasties.
China’s censorate system had a long history. Its main job was to provide oversight of the bureaucracy. It was charged with notifying the emperors of any misbehavior among officials. Over time it evolved an elaborate structure that included provincial branch offices to investigate officials outside of the capital.
Lessons to learn
In China’s feudal society, the institutional design and practice for the administration of officials was rich and meaningful, but it did not stop corruption, which is what made the span of Chinese history inevitably fall into the cycle of prosperity and chaos. Technically, this was determined by the political and institutional nature of feudal societies. 
The core objective of traditional thought and practice regarding the administration of officials was to ensure that officials have both the morality and ability to serve the public after examination, training, assessment and supervision. However, the feudal regime itself was a “family business,” with the imperial power as the biggest private power. 
From the perspective of the structure of the political system, the imperial power was supreme. The effective implementation of the traditional bureaucracy needed to rely on the emperor at the center of the political power and his virtue and ability to govern the public. Therefore, when the emperor made great efforts to govern, Chinese officials could be honest and the society could be prosperous and stable. Once the emperor was incompetent, the officials would take advantage and become corrupt at the cost of people’s livelihood, plunging an empire to chaos. 
The traditional official administration contained many valuable elements. For example, the elaborate anti-nepotism system in the traditional bureaucracy is a good reference for modern society. To put it simply, officials should avoid appointing their relatives, and they should also avoid holding positions in their hometowns. 
China has a long history and a vast territory. How to effectively manage such a country is a major issue. The traditional thought and practice regarding the administration of officials in China thus offers important governance experience and lessons for today.
Liang Xiao is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Marxism under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
edited by YANG XUE