Office Purchase & Status in Qing China


A review of Power for a Price: Office Purchase, Elite Families, and Status Maintenance in Qing China, by Lawrence Lok Cheung Zhang.

A recent Op-Ed on Chinese meritocracy places the imperial examination system as second only to Confucius in terms of historical importance. It goes so far as to claim that China’s “political meritocracy was institutionalized by means of the imperial examination system… Whatever the flaws of the system, it did provide a minimal standard of talent selection and allowed for a modest level of social circulation.” (“What America’s flawed democracy could learn from China’s one-party rule” in The Christian Science Monitor, July 24, 2012 [link]). The argument that the examination systems allowed for a high degree of social mobility first appeared in Ho Ping-ti’s famous 1964 study The Ladder of Success in Imperial China. Scholars rushed to respond to Ho. Robert Hymes and John Chaffe both demonstrated that elite families tended to stay elite, and Benjamin Elman has recently written at length on the cultural importance of the system. All of these arguments refined and contributed to Ho’s initial research. Despite their differences, they still argued that the examinations, whether or not they created social mobility, were the primary means of entry into government service. Lawrence Lok Cheung Zhang’s dissertation, Power for a Price: Office Purchase, Elite Families, and Status Maintenance in Qing China, challenges this model. His dissertation demonstrates that wealth, more than education and exam success, guaranteed political advancement during the Qing dynasty .

Through surveying the personnel files of over 1,600 Qing officials, Lawrence Zhang found that many of the officials, perhaps 50%, used office purchases (juanna) to assure faster promotion or to obtain official positions for themselves or members of their family (p. iii). Regardless of whether they were non-degree holders, lower degree holders, or jinshi, nearly every category of elite found a use for office purchase. Because of the pervasiveness of office and degree buying, Zhang argues that those who purchased office “came from the same socioeconomic class as those who passed the examinations” and were, in fact, generally as qualified as their more credentialed examination peers (27). He supports his argument on the primacy of wealth through meticulous use of data from personnel files from the Board of Personnel, an extant account of the 1798 office selling campaign, and sources from Changshu County, Jiangsu. In addition, he argues that the only reason we have remained uninformed about the office buying is because of the screen of rhetorical “symbolic violence” surrounding the practice of office purchase. In contrast to the idealized examination system, office purchase was widely condemned (30). This condemnation continued into the modern period, when scholars such as Xu Daling, author of one of the only full length studies of office purchase to which Zhang is responding, argued that office purchase contributed to dynastic collapse. Zhang proves that this condemnation, which was derived from Qing period attacks on office purchase, does not match the reality. [See  Xu Daling, Qingdai Juanna Zhidu (The Office Purchase System of the Qing Dynasty). Beijing: Hafo Yanjing Xueshe, 1950.]

Power for a Price consists of four chapters and an introduction and conclusion. Chapter one provides a general overview of the institutional changes in the system of office purchases during the Qing. It also examines the impact of revenue generated by office sales on government income, and details regulations surrounding office purchases. Two types of regulations, “currently implemented normal regulations” and “temporarily implemented regulations,” determined the actual process of office sales. “Current” regulations were usually in effect, but when the government needed to increase revenue in times of social upheaval or warfare, further “temporary” regulations would increase the number of offices available. In 1758, when only the “regular” regulations were in effect, 18% of the state’s tax income came from office sales. In 1755, when “temporary” regulations were in effect, office purchases accounted for 39% of national income (64). The total amount of revenue generated by office sales, as well as its continued practice throughout the Qing, leads Zhang to conclude that selling offices was the result of “a structural deficit built into Qing government finances ”(86).

Chapters two and three form the empirical basis of the study. In chapter two Zhang examines large amounts of data from personnel files from the Board of Personnel and the 1798 Regulations for the Aftermath of the Incident of Sichuan and Hubei. Through rigorous statistical analyses of these two sources, Zhang finds that officials and gentry of all levels actively participated in strategic office purchases. The data from the higher ranking figures from the Board of Personnel (files were only kept on official who reached the level of Prefect) indicates that some degree holders used purchases to gain promotion whereas others who bought their initial positions never made a purchase after entering the system. The sales data from the Registry, with its 10,978 buyers, gives a markedly different picture. Most buyers were only interested in lower level posts, and many of the buyers were very young. The pattern of purchase clearly shows that offices were a family investment. This is especially with Manchu Bannermen, who overwhelmingly purchased offices for their children (152).

In chapter three, Zhang brings us to Changshu County, Jiangsu, to analyze the complex office buying habits of a number of different lineages. He finds that more highly esteemed lineages, such as the Jiangs and Wengs, purchased offices more aggressively than the middle and lower gentry. The Jiangs generally purchased office for lineage members who failed to pass the exams. The Wengs purchased office for family members who were already juren, increasing their chances of securing an official position. Middle and lower gentry did occasionally purchase offices, but it is clear that office purchases were a rationally pursued investment. Lacking the liquid capital of more elite lineages, it was not always desirable for lower gentry to invest thousand of taels in placement on a waiting list.

The final chapter of this dissertation discusses perceptions of office purchase, which tended to be as complex and varied as the practice itself. In this section Zhang responds to earlier scholarship on office purchase. He shows that the anti-purchase arguments of the Qing influenced later understandings of the system, but argues that even if officials who advanced through office purchase were somehow less qualified, “the Qing government was willing to pay for the financial gains and political effects that the system could deliver” (267). In concluding this work, Zhang demonstrates that wealth and socioeconomic status bound the bureaucracy to the state. Individuals who purchased degrees came from the same households as most jinshi, and many jinshi used their purchasing power to advance their careers. In the end, the success and endurance of the Qing regime and its bureaucratic elite seems to come down to money.

Primary Sources

Archival material including personnel files from the Board of Personnel, and extant account of the 1798 office selling campaign
Genealogies from Changshu County, Jiangsu
Published collections of statecraft writing and memorials

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2010. 314 pp. Primary Advisor: Philip Kuhn.

Devin Fitzgerald
Ph.D. Candidate
East Asian Languages and Civilizations
Harvard University


Image: Chouxiang shili 籌餉事例

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