China Government Basics

What your textbook didn’t tell you

Not an Aristocracy:
The form of government adopted in late Imperial China, unlike most of the world at that time, was not an aristocracy. An aristocracy is a form of government in which political authority resides in the living bodies of aristocrats and can only be transferred through aristocrats. Political authority is conceived and exercised as privileges possessed by members of the aristocracy and nobility. In Europe, the aristocracy consisted of the lords, who were the first-born males within a noble lineage. The other boys in that lineage would be noble, but not lords. Nonetheless as members of the nobility they could exercise political authority as magistrates or other functionaries. Wealthy men sometimes could buy or marry their way into noble status, or an aristocrat might appoint a commoner to a post, but in general “the nobility were the main, indeed, the overwhelming source of [administrative] personnel. The old idea that the modern State rested on teams of bureaucrats of middle-class origin who had studied Roman law has been largely discredited. On the contrary, it is now abundantly clear that monarchy depended, in the seventeenth century and beyond, on partnership with the established social elite [i.e., the nobility].”

Hamish Scott, “’Acts of Time and Power’: The Consolidation of Aristocracy in Seventeenth-Century Europe, c. 1580-1720,” German Historical Institute London Bulletin Vol. XXX, no. 2 (November, 2008), 3-37, p. 4.

In fact, in 17th and 18th century England, the word “nobility” was the generic term for the “authority” exercised by magistrates or other political functionaries.

In medieval China (3rd to 10th c.), a similar kind of system developed, with political authority residing mainly in the bodies of noblemen belonging to high status families. That system, and its eventual collapse in China, was described and analyzed by the Song polymath Shen Kuo (1031-1097):

Scholars like to rate one another’s status according to family. Although this practice has existed since ancient times, [in China] it has never been dominant. It was when the (non-Chinese dynasty) of the Wei took command of men that they determined status on the basis of lineage, but even they could not entirely determine everyone’s status in this manner. It is only the non-Chinese people in all directions who rely entirely on lineage to determine status, noble or common. For example, in India there are two noble lineages; all the others are ranked as commoners . . . beneath these there are four lineages of poor people, craftsmen and the like. All other nations are just like this. The monarch and ranking ministers are all of the same kind of lineage (i.e., noble). If a man is not of noble descent, the people will not obey him, while among the commoners, even if one should have talent or merit, he is perfectly happy to remain subordinate to the nobility . . . In China this custom was practiced (from Wei times, 4th c.) until the end of the Tang when the system gradually collapsed. Shen Kuo (1031-1097), Mengxi bitan (Notes from the Stream of Dreams), 3 vols. (Yangzhou: Guangling shushe, 2003), vol. 3, 24.115B-116A

Shen Kuo recognized that political authority outside of China typically took the form of aristocratic privilege based on inherited family status. He also recognized that a similar system persisted in China from roughly the fourth century through the end of the Tang (10th c), what many now see as China’s medieval period. Finally, he clearly recognized that the political system in China during his lifetime–the Song dynasty–was not an aristocratic system. He was right about this, just as he was right about political authority as understood outside of China. So if Song (Ming, Qing) China was not an aristocracy, how was political authority understood and exercised?

The standard term for political authority in Song, Ming, Qing China was zhi. Zhi referred to the authority situated within an office under the state, not in the body of a nobleman. This concept of authority immediately presupposes a distinction between the office and the officer. The authority resided in the office, while the officer exercised that authority for a specified period of time (usually three years) and within defined limits, or jurisdiction. This is virtually the same understanding of political authority as informed the American system of government for most of its history.

The separation of office and officer was founded on the more fundamental distinction between public and private. The state was principally concerned with an officer’s performance in his public capacity. For this reason the state did not concern itself with private matters such as the officer’s ethnicity, religion, lineage, family status, friends, or his favorite books or foods, and so all such information was excluded from the civil service examinations by making the test anonymous. The candidate’s name was replaced with a number and the entire answer sheet copied by a scribe so that the candidate’s calligraphy would reveal nothing about his background.

At the same time, the state was adamant that an officer should not use his public (gong) office for private benefit (si). The Song historian Zhang Ruyu (active late 12th, early 13th c.) wrote an encyclopedia on Chinese government discussing basics of fiscal administration, personnel issues, and theories about legitimate and illegitimate government. We know that students preparing for the civil service examinations consulted this book regularly, so it is evident that Zhang’s views were mainstream. He maintained that officials, no less than the emperor, had an obligation to act so as to benefit the taxpayers. If they used their office to benefit themselves, then they would be abrogating their public obligation and “the whole thing would be a lie!” Maintaining the public/private distinction, then, was a standard that transcended official or social rank, even the rank of emperor.

The separation between office and officer meant that any qualified man could exercise political authority; it was not necessary to be noble, or even to belong to a high status family. This greatly expanded the talent pool for government service. At the same time it placed constraints on the exercise of authority by magistrates. Unlike nobility, Chinese officers had no intrinsic authority, and so they could be demoted or otherwise punished if they abused their power. This was an essential requirement if the government was to provide basic rights and protections for the taxpayers.

Separation of Court and State:
Just as the late imperial system distinguished between officer and office, public and private, so did it also distinguish between Court and state. Jürgen Habermas associated the emergence of legally separate individuals (taxpayers or citizens as opposed to nobility and feudal dependents) with the separation of court and state. In the eighteenth century he maintained, along with the gradual decline of the church and nobility, the “polarization of princely power acquired visible form in the separation of the public budget from the private household property of the feudal lord . . . institutions of public power became autonomous vis-a-vis the privatized sphere of the princely court.” In other words, individuals can arise as independent legal entities—taxpayers or citizens—only if there is a formal distinction between public affairs, matters concerning the state, and private life—everything else.
Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, trans., Thomas Burger, with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: the MIT Press, 1992), 233

A similar process had occurred in China. After the 10th century the state had its own budget and administration separate from the court. Taxes based on income were paid to the government, not to the emperor. The court had its own income derived from taxes on luxury goods such as wine and furs. These taxes, by nature, were voluntary, whereas income taxes, which went to the state, were mandatory. The Song historian Zhang Ruyu regarded this innovation as “a beautiful idea” because it enabled the state to stabilize its budget without encroachment from the throne. As a consequence, this institution set definite limits on imperial power.

Under the state, the administration was divided into ministries (Finance, Personnel, Public Works, Military, etc.) that operated, for the most part, separately from the emperor. Most political decisions were made within the ministries and, therefore, originated with state officials, were composed by state officials, deliberated by state officials, and executed by state officials. Most officials were chosen, promoted and demoted by the Ministry of Personnel (libu), not by the emperor.

The emperor had two roles, a private one as head of the court, and a public one as head of the cabinet and chief executive in the state administration. The cabinet generally consisted of the chief ministers of the ministries plus the emperor, and sometimes other officials as well. Most policy documents originated with officials from within the ministries. These would be submitted to the emperor, after which they would be deliberated by the cabinet, amended, passed, or rejected. If passed, the emperor would issue the policy as an edict. If there was disagreement within the cabinet, or if an officer at or above the rank of magistrate objected, a committee of experts could be appointed to investigate the facts, after which a report would be submitted and the issue discussed again in light of new evidence. The emperor presided over debates within the cabinet but often had to follow the will of his top officials.

Early modern Europeans who wrote descriptions of China’s political system often failed to understand the separation between court and state because no such formal separation existed in most European countries. Generally speaking European monarchs could grant official titles to their favorites at will, stacking the government in their favor, for there was no formal civil service examination in European countries. As a result European travelers assumed that, in China as in Europe, most decisions made at the highest level originated with the monarch. This error has come down to us as the almighty Chinese emperor myth.

Checks in China’s Administration:
One of the earliest English-language texts to address the use of government checks systematically is Le Stourgeon’s Universal History, translated from the French in 1732. That work described China’s systemic, reciprocal controls as “checks”, identifying as Chinese practice much that would be familiar in any modern administration: periodic, written reports; term limits; the exclusion of wealth or “parentage” in assessing qualification for office; fixed salaries, and regular reviews followed by promotion or demotion. More than fifteen years prior to Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748), he noticed a separation of powers in China’s government. For instance, while the Ministry of Military Affairs might be ready for war, the approval of the Ministry of Finance was necessary in order to fund it (anticipating one of the checks formerly typical of the American system). Le Stourgeon observed, moreover, that these checks applied up, as well as down the chain of command.

Le Stourgeon described large-scale structural checks such as the separation of powers, but Song statesmen had designed into the political system many more checks operating at multiple levels. Perhaps the most important check within the political system was the Department of Investigation, an entire branch of government designed to detect and correct abuse of power within the administration. Officers in this department at every level of administration were charged with preventing officialdom from exploiting the populace. Circuit inspectors periodically inspected an officer’s budget records and court records, and reviewed the living conditions within the prisons. In this system it was government, rather than the taxpayers, that was under constant surveillance.

Likewise ordinary taxpayers were enlisted in scrutinizing, not their fellow citizens, but the government itself. The Song government established Grievance Offices where taxpayers and officials alike could blow the whistle, anonymously if so desired:

The Grievance Officers (five kinds are listed) receive memorials from civil and military officials as well as from the people. Those that expose faults with policies issued from the imperial court, conflicts between public and private interest, military and security matters, recommend men for appointment, report disasters or new technologies and arts, or dispute the qualifications of officers, should all be presented to the Grievance Officers
Tuotuo, Songshi (宋史 History of the Song dynasty), Yang Jialuo 楊家駱ed., in the book series Zhongguo xueshu leiban 中國學術類編, Taipei: Dingwen Publishing House, 1980. 3782

This document presumes (1) that government, as well as its officials, are fallible and require feedback from the populace so as to correct faulty policies or corrupt practices; (2) that any taxpayer at all had the right to form his or her (yes, women too) own opinion about imperial policy, conflicts of interest, an official’s qualifications, or even military and security matters.

In addition, it was recognized that criminal court proceedings (then as now) offered multiple opportunities for the abuse of power, so multiple procedural rules were put in place to reduce the likelihood of abuse by a judge:

  1. The first procedural check was a list of detailed actions required of magistrates before they could accuse and punish a taxpayer. These procedures included detailed instructions for compiling evidence, including forensic reports and depositions from witnesses or the accused. Moreover careful documentation of all phases of the investigation was required (see the case study Homicide and the Law).
  2. The second check was that the magistrate was required to provide the accused or the losing party with concrete reasons for his judgment.
  3. The third was that the parties in a suit had the right to appeal the case to a higher court, such as a circuit inspector. The latter had judicial authority to review lower court cases.
  4. In cases of capital crimes the magistrate, unlike European magistrates, had no authority to execute anyone. After assembling a compelling and well-documented case, the magistrate could only submit the materials to a higher court, which would review the evidence and decide if capital punishment was warranted. This practice takes it for granted that the accused is presumed innocent; the burden of proof lies with the government.
  5. Taxpayers even had the right to sue a magistrate. Such cases had to be handled by a court with no connection to the county magistrate or his administration so as to avoid a conflict of interest.

Compelling examples of the operation of these checks can be found in the late imperial histories, including an instance recorded in Ming sources. These documents reveal that an apparently deranged county official, in the absence of any credible evidence, tortured several suspects until dead. This was discovered and the supervising officer, following an investigation, charged that the county officer repeatedly violated several levels of laws and institutional constraints, executing punishments in his private capacity and personally murdering the suspects.

It is evident from this description that (1) the evidence had to suit the crime; in this case, there was no credible correspondence between the evidence and the punishment imposed; (2) the investigating officer took it for granted that procedural rules were designed to prevent such abuse; (3) the officer’s authority was understood as limited to actions prescribed by his office zhi. As soon as he stepped over those limits, he lost any authority to act officially and so could only act in his private capacity. Without the logical distinction between public and private spheres of action, dating back to Han times, this kind of legal reasoning would not have been possible.
Tan Jiaqi, “Mengshuizhai cundu suofanyingde wanming guangdong yuzheng quehan ji sifa wenti”, in Zhongguo wenhuayanjiuso xuebao (Journal of Chinese Studies), 57, July 2013, 115-130,reference, pp. 120-122.

In addition to these institutions, the Hanlin Academy was a kind of early modern think-tank designed to ensure that there should be some independent, expert opinion on current policy arising from outside the ministries. The Academy consisted of prominent intellectuals who would write essays and opinions on government and policy issues, but who had no authority to decide upon policy. Their distance from the administration, as well as the prestige of the Academy and its academicians, theoretically permitted the scholars there to arrive at analyses different from those offered by the ministries. The cabinet or other official organs could act on their advice if it seemed compelling.

The Rights of Ordinary Taxpayers:
It is common to assume that taxpayers in early modern China had no rights and that Europeans during that period did. Both assumptions are false. Europeans had something they called “rights” or “liberties”, but these terms referred to the inherited privileges of status groups, not the rights of individuals. These privileges were not universal but varied with lineage and social rank. Generally the privileges of a nobleman would trump those of a commoner, so when it came to matters of judicial practice, commoners often got the short end of the stick, right up through Victorian times.
Carolyn A. Conley The Unwritten Law: Criminal Justice in Victorian Kent (New York, 1991).

Taxpayers in Song, Ming, and Qing China, irrespective of social class and, at times, even gender, typically enjoyed the following rights (not privileges) in common:

  1. By the late 10th century, tenants acquired equal legal status with landlords. This was widely interpreted to mean that all registered taxpayers should receive equal treatment under the law.
  2. Men and women, even housemaids, could bring civil suits to the magistrate’s court on their own authority.
  3. Men and women of all social backgrounds could bring complaints to the Grievance Offices on almost any matter of public policy or practice.
  4. People could choose their own religion.
  5. Men and women could publish poems or essays on a wide range of topics, including imperial policy.
  6. Men or women could carry fan paintings, mirrors, or display in public paintings relevant of their personal views on topics of political and social import.
  7. Men from a wide range of social backgrounds could exercise political authority as officers if properly qualified.

These rights continued to be available to taxpayers in China through the Ming and Qing dynasties although, in general, the exercise of some rights appears to have been more restricted under Manchu rule. Nonetheless the basic institutions remained whereas, before the late 18th century, early modern Europeans of commoner status did not reliably enjoy any of these rights.

Social Spending:
Late imperial administrations generally assumed that the government had a responsibility to help the vulnerable, giving rise to several large-scale social spending programs, for instance:

  • The attempt to provide education to a broader sector of the population had been a matter of policy since 1043, when all prefectures were ordered to establish publicly supported schools. By 1117, some had established elementary schools for children.
  • Taxation was progressive and based on income rather than social status. Generally speaking, the more you made, the more you paid.
  • Song dynasty poor relief programs “ranged from public granaries and agricultural loans to mass food distribution and health clinics for the poor” (Scogin). By 1107, some government poor houses were providing wet-nurses for infants.
  • Each year, the people would be relieved of taxation or offered aid in districts suffering from natural disasters. The yearly lists still survive in the dynastic histories; a sampling is provided below:

Sample list of disaster selected relief and tax dispensation from the basic annals of Emperors Guang and Ning:

Song History (page) Year Item
698 1190 help homeless of the Lianghuai region find homes
700 1191 release 50,000 bushels of grain to help the poor in the capital city.
702 1192 dispensation of 44,000 bushels of grain tax.
704 1192 encourage the people of Lianghuai to plant mulberry for silk.
704 1192 relieve flood victims of Xiangyang.
705 1193 lend money to Huaixi people (min) to purchase oxen.
705 1193 relieve flood victims of Jiangzhe, Lianghuai, and Jinghu.
706 1193 tax dispensation for Lin’an.
relieve impoverished drought victims from Jiangdong, Jiangxi, and Huaixi.
707 relieve homeless people from the Jiang and Zhe regions.
718 1194 relieve drought victims of liangzhe, huainan, jiangdong, xilu, and remit taxes for all people in those regions.
1195 remit taxes for lianghuai.
720 1196 remit taxes for impoverished flood victims of lin’an,.
1196 Again remit the lin’an poll tax for three years.
721 1197 drought in sichuan, remit taxes.
722 1197 remit next year’s poll tax for the poor people of shaoxing.
724 1198 provide aid for the liumin of liangzhe, jianghuai, jinghu, and sichuan


It goes without saying that none of these laws, procedures, or programs could have operated perfectly at all times, any more than the Civil Rights reforms of the 1960‘s could bring an end to injustice against African-Americans. What is impressive is the degree to which the textual and visual record notes those times when reality fell short of the ideal. We have a rich record of poems, essays, and pictures exposing specific moments when corrupt officials got away with murder, or the circuit inspectors failed to right a wrong. That these whistleblowers were able to publish so often without reprisal from officials bent on protecting themselves, bears witness to the relative openness of public discourse at a time when the very idea of whistle-blowing did not exist in most corners of the world.

The information provided here is based on the following sources:

Hartwell, Robert M.. “Financial Expertise, Examinations, and the Formulation of Economic Policy in Northern Sung China,” in John A. Harrison, ed., China.
Kracke, E.A., Civil Service in Early Sung China (Cambridge, 1968).
Qu Chaoli, A Study of Civil Law in Local Government in Song China, (in Chinese) (Chengdu: Bashu Press, 2003).
Mcknight, Brian E., “Fiscal Privileges and the Social Order in Sung China,” in John W. Haeger, ed., Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China.
McKnight, Brian, Law and Order in Sung China (Cambridge, 1992).
Scogin, Hugh, “Poor Relief in Northern Song China,” Oriens Extremus 25 (1978).
Teng, Ssu-yü, “China’s Examination System and the West,” in Harley Farnsworth McNair, China (Berkeley, 1951), 441-51.
Yu Yunguo, The Department of Investigation during Song Times (in Chinese) (Shanghai: Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press, 2001).
Various sources as cited.

The sources listed above focus on the Song dynasty, that period when the basic institutions of the late imperial order were founded. Despite changes in detail, the general structure of government and many important institutions—such as the civil service examination or the Department of investigation—continued to function during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

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