Ancient History & Civilisation


The submergence of the individual—Self-government—The village and the province—The laxity of the law—The severity of punishment—The Emperor—The Censor—Administrative boards—Education for public office—Nomination by education—The examination system—Its defects—Its virtues

The most impressive aspect of this civilization was its system of government. If the ideal state is a combination of democracy and aristocracy, the Chinese have had it for more than a thousand years; if the best government is that which governs least, then the Chinese have had the best. Never has a government governed so many people, or governed them so little, or so long.

Not that individualism, or individual liberty, flourished in China; on the contrary, the concept of the individual was weak, and lost him in the groups to which he belonged. He was, first of all, a member of a family and a passing unit in a stream of life between his ancestors and his posterity; by law and custom he was responsible for the acts of the others of his household, and they were responsible for his. Usually he belonged to some secret society, and, in the town, to a guild; these limited his rights to do as he pleased. A web of ancient custom bound him, and a powerful public opinion threatened him with ostracism if he seriously violated the morals or traditions of the group. It was precisely the strength of these popular organizations, rising naturally out of the needs and voluntary cooperation of the people, that made it possible for China to maintain itself in order and stability despite the weakness of law and the state.

But within the framework of these spontaneous institutions of self-government the Chinese remained politically and economically free. The great distances that separated one city from another, and all of them from the imperial capital, the dividing effect of mountains, deserts, and unbridged or unnavigable streams, the lack of transport and quick communication, and the difficulty of supporting an army large enough to enforce some central will upon four hundred million people, compelled the state to leave to each district an almost complete autonomy.

The unit of local administration was the village, loosely ruled by the family heads under the eye of a “headman” named by the government; a group of villages gathered about a town constituted a hien, or county, of which there were some thirteen hundred in China; two or more hien, ruled together from a city, constituted a fu; two or more fu formed a tao, or circuit; two or more tao made a sheng, or province; and eighteen provinces, under the Manchus, made the empire. The state appointed a magistrate to act as administrator, tax-collector and judge in each hien; a chief officer for each fu and each tao; and a judge, a treasurer, a governor, and sometimes a viceroy, for each province.127 But these officials normally contented themselves with collecting taxes and “squeezes,” judging such cases as voluntary arbitration had failed to settle, and, for the rest, leaving the maintenance of order to custom, the family, the clan and the guild. Each province was a semi-independent state, free from imperial interference or central legislation so long as it paid its tax-allotment and kept the peace. Lack of facilities for communication made the central government more an idea than a reality. The patriotic emotions of the people were spent upon their districts and provinces, and seldom extended to the empire as a whole.

In this loose structure law was weak, unpopular, and diverse. The people preferred to be ruled by custom, and to settle their disputes by face-saving compromises out of court. They expressed their view of litigation by such pithy proverbs as “Sue a flea and catch a bite,” or “Win your lawsuit, lose your money.” In many towns of several thousand population years passed without a case coming into the courts.128 The laws had been codified under the T’ang emperors, but they dealt almost entirely with crime, and attempted no formulation of a civil code. Trials were simple, for no lawyer was allowed to argue a case in court, though licensed notaries might occasionally prepare, and read to the magistrate, a statement in behalf of a client.129 There were no juries, and there was scant protection in the law against the sudden seizure and secret retention of a person by the officers of the state. Suspects were finger-printed,130 and confessions were sometimes elicited by tortures slightly more physical than those now used for such purposes in the most enlightened cities. Punishment was severe, but hardly as barbarous as in most other countries of Asia; it began with cutting off the hair, and went on to flogging, banishment or death; if the criminal had exceptional merits or rank, he might be allowed to kill himself.131 There were generous commutations of sentences, and capital punishment could in normal times be imposed only by the emperor. Theoretically, as with us, all persons were equal before the law. These laws never availed to prevent brigandage on the highways or corruption in office and the courts, but they coöperated modestly with custom and the family to give China a degree of social order and personal security not equaled by any other nation before our century.132

Poised precariously above these teeming millions sat the emperor. In theory he ruled by divine right; he was the “Son of Heaven,” and represented the Supreme Being on earth.* By virtue of his godlike powers he ruled the seasons and commanded men to coordinate their lives with the divine order of the universe. His decrees were laws, and his judgments were the final court; he administered the state and was the head of its religion; he appointed all officials, examined the highest contestants for office, and chose his successor to the throne. Actually his powers were wholesomely limited by custom and law. He was expected to rule without contravening the regulations that had come down from the sacred past; he might at any moment be rebuked by a strange dignitary known as the Censor; he was in effect imprisoned by a ring of counsellors and commissioners whose advice it was usually expedient for him to accept; and if he ruled very unjustly or unwell he lost, by common custom and consent, the “mandate of Heaven,” and might be violently deposed without offense to religion or morality.

The Censor was head of a board whose function it was to inspect all officials in the administration of their duties; and the emperor was not exempt from this supervision. Several times in the course of history the Censor has reproved the emperor himself. For example, the Censor Sung respectfully suggested to the Emperor Chia Ch’ing (1796-1821 A.D.) a moderation in his attachment to actors and strong drink. Chia Ch’ing summoned Sung to his presence, and angrily asked him what punishment was proper for so insolent an official. Sung answered, “Death by the slicing process.” Ordered to select a milder penalty, he answered, “Let me be beheaded.” Ordered to select a milder penalty, he recommended that he be strangled. The Emperor, impressed by his courage and disturbed by his propinquity, made him governor of the province of Ili.134

The imperial government had come to be a highly complex administrative machine. Nearest to the throne was the Grand Council, composed of four “Great Ministers,” usually headed by a prince of the royal blood; by custom it met daily, in the early hours of the morning, to determine the policies of the state. Superior in rank but inferior in influence was another group of advisers called the “Inner Cabinet.” The work of administration was headed by “Six Boards”: of Civil Office, of Revenue, of Ceremonies, of War, of Punishments, and of Works. There was a Colonial Office, for managing such distant territories as Mongolia, Sinkiang and Tibet; but there was no Foreign Office: China recognized no other nations as its equals, and made no provisions for dealing with them beyond arrangements for the reception of tribute-bearing embassies.

The weakness of the government lay in its limited revenues, its inadequate defenses, and its rejection of any instructive intercourse with the outside world. It taxed the land, monopolized the sale of salt, and impeded the development of commerce by levying, after 1852, a duty on the transit of goods along the main routes of the country; but the poverty of the people, the difficulty of collection, and the dishonesty of the collectors kept the national revenue at too low a point to finance the naval and military forces that might have saved China from invasion and shameful defeat.*Perhaps the basic defect was in the personnel of the government; the ability and honesty of its officials deteriorated throughout the nineteenth century, and left the nation essentially leaderless when half the wealth and power of the world were joining in an assault upon its independence, its resources and its institutions.

Nevertheless those officials had been chosen by the most unique, and all in all the most admirable, method ever developed for the selection of public servants. It was a method that would have interested Plato; and despite its failure and abandonment today it still endears China to the philosopher. Theoretically, the plan provided a perfect reconciliation of aristocracy and democracy: all men were to have an equal opportunity to make themselves fit for office, but office was to be open only to those who had made themselves fit. Practically, the method produced good results for a thousand years.

It began in the village schools—simple private institutions, often no more than a room in a cottage—where an individual teacher, out of his own meager remuneration, provided an elementary education for the sons of the prosperous; the poorer half of the population remained illiterate.137These schools were not financed by the state, nor were they conducted by the clergy; education, like marriage, remained, in China, independent of religion, except in so far as Confucianism was its creed. Hours were long and discipline was severe in these modest schoolhouses: the children reported to the teacher at sunrise, studied with him till ten, had breakfast, resumed their studies till five, and then were free for the day. Vacations were few and brief: there were no lessons after noon in the summer, but to atone for this leisure to work in the fields there were school sessions in the winter evenings. The chief instruments of instruction were the writings of Confucius, the poetry of the T’ang, and a whip of clinging bamboo. The method was memory: day after day the young students learned by heart, and discussed with their teacher, the philosophy of K’ung the Master, until almost every word of it had sunk into their memories, and some of it into their hearts; China hoped that in this joyless and merciless way even a peasant lad might be turned into a philosopher and a gentleman. The graduate emerged with little information and much understanding, factually ignorant and mentally mature.*

It was on the basis of this education that China established—first tentatively under the Han, then definitely under the T’ang, dynasties—its system of examinations for public office. It is an evil for the people, said China, that its rulers should learn to rule by ruling; as far as possible they should learn to rule before ruling. It is an evil for the people that they should have no access to office, and that government should be the privilege of an hereditary few; but it is good for the people that office should be confined to those who have been prepared for it by ability and training. To offer to all men democratically an equal opportunity for such training, and to restrict office aristocratically to those who proved themselves best, was the solution that China proposed for the ancient and insoluble problem of government.

Therefore it periodically arranged, in each district, a public examination to which all males of any age were eligible. It tested the applicant in his memory and understanding of the writings of Confucius, in his knowledge of Chinese poetry and history, and in his capacity to write intelligently on the issues of moral and political life. Those who failed might study more and try again; those who succeeded received the degree of Hsiu ts’ai entitling them to membership in the literary class, and to possible appointment to minor local offices; but more important than this, they became eligible—either at once or after further preparation—for the triennial provincial examinations, which offered similar but harder tests. Those who failed here might try again, and many did, so that some men passed these tests after eighty years of living and studying, and not a few died in the midst of the examinations. Those who succeeded were eligible for appointment to minor positions in the national service; and at the same time they were admitted to a final and especially severe examination at Peking. There in the Examination Hall were ten thousand cells, in which the contestants, cribbed and confined, lived with their own food and bedding for three separate days, while they wrote essays or theses on subjects announced to them after their imprisonment. The cells were unheated, uncomfortable, ill-lighted and unsanitary; only the spirit mattered! Typical tests were the composition of a poem on the theme: “The sound of the oars, and the green of the hills and water”; and the writing of an essay on this passage from the Confucian Classics: “Tsang Tsze said, ‘To possess ability, and yet ask of those who do not; to know much, and yet inquire of those who know little; to possess, and yet appear not to possess; to be full, and yet appear empty.’” There was not a word in any of the tests about science, business or industry; the object was to reveal not knowledge but judgment and character. Those who survived the tests were at last eligible for the higher offices in the state.

The defects of the plan grew in the course of time. Though dishonesty in taking or judging the tests was sometimes punished with death, dishonesty found a way. The purchase of appointments became frequent and flagrant in the nineteenth century;138 an inferior officer, for example, sold twenty thousand forged diplomas before he was exposed.139 The form of the trial essay came to be a matter of custom, and students prepared themselves for it mechanically. The curriculum of studies tended to formalize culture and impede the progress of thought, for the ideas that circulated in it had been standardized for hundreds of years. The graduates became an official and intellectual bureaucracy, naturally arrogant and humanly selfish, occasionally despotic and often corrupt, and yet immune to public recall or control except through the desperate resort of the boycott or the strike. In short, the system had the faults that might be expected of any governmental structure conceived and operated by men. The faults of the system belonged to the men, not to the system; and no other had less.*

The merits of the system were abundant. Here were no manipulated nominations, no vulgar campaigns of misrepresentation and hypocrisy, no sham battles of twin parties, no noisy or corrupt elections, no ascent to office through a meretricious popularity. It was a democracy in the best sense of the term, as equality of opportunity for all in the competition for leadership and place; and it was an aristocracy in its finest form, as a government by the ablest men, democratically selected from every rank in every generation. By this system the national mind and ambition were turned in the direction of study, and the national heroes and models were men of culture rather than masters of wealth.* It was admirable that a society should make the experiment of being ruled, socially and politically, by men trained in philosophy and the humanities. It was an act of high tragedy when that system, and the entire civilization of which it formed the guiding part, were struck down and destroyed by the inexorable forces of evolution and history.

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