chapter  27
Traditional Government in Imperial China: A Critical Analysis (Ch’ien Mu, 1895–1990)
Pages 6

Ch’ien grew up in the village of Wusih in Kiangsu Province during the last years of the Ch’ing Dynasty, which collapsed in 1912. The

family was poor and his father died early on. His mother could not get him into the village school until age 12. An able, diligent student, he impressed his teachers. Encouraged but still poor, the family, with difficulty, saw him through Middle School. His omnivorous reading in Chinese literature and history was done at home. He soon became a teacher in 1912 without attending college. In

the 1920s he taught history in Chinese colleges on the strength of his knowledge and talent and did so in the midst of civil war. He experienced nearly four decades of contemporary Chinese history in the Republic under Chiang Kai-shek, many of them fraught with danger, until the latter was expelled from the mainland by the communists in 1949. At the time, Ch’ien made his way to Hong Kong, where he co-founded New Asia College, and in 1967 relocated to Taiwan. In due time, as his reputation peaked, he was awarded honorary doctorates by Yale University and the University of Hong Kong. Ch’ien authored nine books on Chinese history and philosophy

and many articles, no less than 99 between 1924 and 1962. He opposed the New Culture Movement that flourished in the 1910s and 1920s after the Chinese Republic failed to solve China’s problems. Leaders of the movement rejected Confucian ideas and culture as backward and antiquated. They argued for a new China founded on Western standards, such as egalitarianism and democracy, rationalism and modern science, similar in spirit to Fukuzawa Yukichi’s diagnosis and prescription for traditional Japan (see essay 28 in this volume). Ch’ien holds that traditional China and the Confucian way were an enduring if mixed success worthy of study by modernizing societies, a notable departure from the common Western view that China was static, backward, and reactionary for centuries. China’s political development differed from that of ancient Greece

and Rome. Greece was dominated by the city state, small in territorial scope and population, with a common culture, thus lending itself to democratic government. Rome’s empire presided over a diversity of ethnic groups behind a façade of Republican forms developed in a city state. China was huge in extent, as it is now, with a relatively homogeneous population living in thousands of villages. An electoral system was out of the question. The practical route of government was “imperial succession through inheritance as an unavoidable institutional device” (2). The traditional system of government was complex and sophisti-

cated, with a balance between autocracy represented by the emperor and his entourage and ethically oriented Confucian officials who were

selected on merit by an examination system. Sometimes the relationship would shift too much to one side, but the usual outcome was for it to swing back into balance. Over many centuries the Chinese system was refined and improved. Its greatest achievement was relative stability of China’s civilization from the T’ang (618-907) to the Ch’ing (1644-1912), which involved many adjustments in government organization and bureaucratic practice, including relations of the emperor to the imperial system. Ch’ien responds to a common belief that Chinese imperial government was static and autocratic for centuries until finally overthrown: “Those who have not studied Chinese history often have the impression that China did not change for two thousand years and those who know little about traditional Chinese government tend to dismiss it as unenlightened despotism. These widely held opinions are patently false” (35). Although without notes and with only a short bibliography of English works, his book provides a wealth of detail, including innumerable technical terms in Chinese with Romanized versions, that suggest a wide grasp of primary sources. Out of some 26 dynasties that arose after the unification of China

in 221 B.C. by the warlike state of Ch’in, five of the greatest are subjects of Ch’ien’s analysis-the Han, T’ang, Sung, Ming, and Ch’ing, which account together for more than 1500 years of Chinese history: “ … an analysis of Han institutions will best reveal the pattern of traditional government in China, though this pattern was always in flux. Two key elements in this pattern proved decisive for Chinese history. The first was the relationship between the Imperial House and the central government, and the second that between the central government and various units of local administration” (1). Labels changed, but the mutual relationship endured. The imperial household related to government through a

Chancellor. The Emperor and the Chancellor each had a Secretariat with different functions. The Emperor’s broke down into six “Masters” for clothing, food, head gear, feasts, baths, and writing. The Chancellor’s was comprised of 13 “Bureaus” for appointment and employment of officials, their promotion and dismissal, revenue for the imperial household, government memorials, litigation under civil law, weights, measures, and other standards, transportation of troops, bandit suppression, criminal executions, military service and weapons, granaries, coinage and state iron and salt monopolies, and maintenance of records. Obviously the Chancellor had more control over administrative affairs than the Emperor: “Actual power in the Han Dynasty … legally resided not in the Imperial House but in the

office of the Chancellor. He acted as the real head of the new central government … The entire tradition of political institutions in China had been characterized strongly by this early separation of powers” (5). In later imperial history this pattern of separation continued with

variations. Of the issues discussed by Ch’ien-government organization, fiscal policy, military affairs, the examination system-we shall concentrate on recruitment of officials by examination. The ideal was recruitment of the most talented, learned, and virtuous men in the empire to run the government. The system that developed had ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, successes and disappointments, but stabilized the Chinese empire for centuries:

Nowadays it is fashionable for Chinese to look back with disdain on the traditional examination system noting the many abuses it became prone to. But we must not overlook the amazing soundness of its underlying theoretical assumptions. We should not take a modern institution such as popular election for public office as a basis for criticizing a system that functioned effectively for over a thousand years. Even in modern Western-democratic countries, election affects only a minority of government officials. The vast majority are chosen through a civil service examination system that can be traced back to the great Chinese tradition.