EDITOR’S NOTE: As civil service examinations have been underway in China this month, discussion in China’s media has turned to such issues as discrimination in testing and what record exam attendance says about politics and opportunity in the country. When written testing began last Sunday in Anhui province, more than 100,000 candidates scrambled for the opportunity to fill just 5,352 civil service vacancies. In the following editorial, Zhang Ming thinly masks a point about the political backwardness reflected in the popularity of civil service exams with a discussion of officialdom in Chinese history.
For many years now in China, launching off on a career in officialdom has been a dream cherished by the social elite. “Against learning, all else is of inferior quality,” the emperor once said, and lingering behind this sentiment was the idea that learning was the path to serving the official court. Of course, in ancient times the threshold for serving as an official was extremely high, and whether a post was obtained through recommendation by this or that dignitary or through success in taking the civil service examination, the process was grueling. Added to this was the fact that there were a fixed number of official positions, so even pulling strings was no use unless one had some sort of special dispensation from the emperor himself. All of this meant that officials were bigwigs, and they were few and far between.
By the end of the dynastic period in China, however, things were different, as the official court became divorced from its own principles. The late Qing dynasty was a prime example. The official examination had long been part and parcel of officialdom in China, but in the chaos of the Taiping Uprising, the imperial government found itself in desperate need of cash, and all you had to do was open up your purse to get an official’s cap on your head. There was a flood of official caps being offered, and even though official quotas weren’t raised people were lining up to pay for reserve positions (候补官) in the provinces, waiting in the wings for an opportunity.
Buying your way into an Intendant of Circuit position (道台) was no problem — if you forked out enough money and had sufficient contacts to back you up, you could work your way in before too long. Getting a prefectural magistracy was possible too. At most you would have to wait three to five years to get there.
But county magistracies and various assistant positions were tough to get into, and without the right connections you could wait eight or ten years without any luck. The people paying for a chance to get into these posts were all middling types, even from insignificant families. Many of this ilk had even borrowed money to get onto the waiting lists, with the idea of paying back their loans with interest once they had nabbed an official post to profit from. But some wasted away the years without even seeing an opportunity come along, barely able to keep food on the table.
Demand generated supply. Many on the official waiting lists didn’t have the ready cash to get in by the back door, so a whole industry emerged to supply loans to officials in waiting. These people would issue loans to waiting officials, providing them with the cash they needed to get a foot in the door.
These loans didn’t need to be repaid, but the issuers staked a claim to private advisory roles in fiscal and secretarial matters within the official yamen, particularly those clerical positions that were most lucrative, so that they could themselves earn back the principals they had loaned out.
As for these clerk positions, those officials who had posts by paying their way in through the reserve system had no say whatsoever. Those high-level officials who had the say in giving you your post, a commissioner, governor or viceroy, would always have their own people to recommend to you, and you had not choice but to accept them. Because these clerks too were on the make.
So as soon as you were settled in your official post, after a year, or three to five years at the most, those clerks recommended to you had to be used as they were lined up before you. If it was really impossible to make use of someone’s services, then you had to at the very least offer them a sinecure. Those officials in waiting who had no money to work with and who wouldn’t borrow the funds necessary to buy their way into the system could only await death in the provincial capital, freezing to death if not starving.
It goes without saying that these reserve officials had to repay their own expenses as well, and pay back what they borrowed. With such a hefty need to dredge up money as soon as they nabbed their positions, one can easily imagine how well they served as officials. Even if an official imagined they could act with principal this was completely impossible. So official corruption in the late Qing dynasty reached a level of rottenness that was impossible to turn back. At root this was because China at the time — although there was the minimal impact of the self-strengthening movement — was still a traditional society, where workers, peasants, scholars and merchants could never profit as well as officials could.
If Chinese merchants didn’t cozy up to Westerners they cozied up to government officials. In the long run, the advantages incurred by merchants paled against those enjoyed by officials. In sum, it was a system in which officials had the upper hand in all things.
After political reforms to the Qing court [before the fall of the dynasty] things were somewhat improved. There were more opportunities, and not just for officials. Schools could be run as businesses. Scholars could engage in business, or could teach — and if that didn’t work out, they could always join the army. Below the county level there were autonomous organizations, various chambers of commerce, institutes and peasants associations, all of which needed capable people. More importantly, there was the media, and there were civic organizations, so officials big and small who had a mind to indulge in corrupt practices now faced greater risk.
Unfortunately, political reforms were short-lived. After the Xinhai Revolution, the state of affairs in which officials had the upper hand was never fundamentally changed. When the door to officialdom is no longer so crowded, China will be that much closer to becoming a modern nation.
This is a translated and edited version of an article appearing in the November 19 edition of The Beijing News.