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3.6: Meritocracy and Bureaucracy

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    Second, Shang Yang replaced the inheritance of state power with meritocratic recruitment. The idea that the best man for a government job should be chosen for it, rather than a person being born with the right to hold a certain government position was not entirely new. Early Zhou Mandate of Heaven propaganda, for instance, claimed that Heaven chose King Wen and King Wu to replace the wicked Shang King Chow because of their merit. Although appointment by heredity was the norm, within the Zhou royal domains (not out in the fiefs) an elite man might be appointed to a government post based on his ability, and promoted on the basis of his accomplishments. As the feudal lords developed their domains economically and their regimes politically, they drew on low-ranking knights who had good ideas to offer them. But most Zhou political power was inherited. It was revolutionary to follow Mozi’s idea that the ruler should reject his kin and other aristocrats, and select totally unrelated, perhaps not even noble, men to govern.

    Third, the new meritocratically-recruited personnel staffed a new kind of state structure. Bureaucracy replaced feudalism. Feudal lords had mainly ruled their domains as they saw fit, unless the Zhou king had specifically forbidden something, and they passed their domains on to their sons. Bureaucrats (or officials), by contrast, could do only what the ruler or his laws specifically instructed. Officials served for limited terms and their descendants did not inherit their positions. Bureaucracy had been invented in the rich and powerful middle-Yangzi area (Hunan) state of Chu. By about 500 BC, in areas he had just conquered, the Chu king had set up 130 units conceived of as “hanging” (xian) from the basic feudal structure: ruled differently from most of Chu under its feudal lord, but not replacing their feoffs. The king of Chu wanted to draw as much grain and military service as possible from the free people (i.e., not serfs) living in the area, so instead of enfeoffing his kinsfolk there, he set magistrates over the people for only short periods. He recruited them from among the knights (shi) who did not have their own land, and dismissed or executed them if they disobeyed him. Much easier than punishing a high-ranking lord with his own land and warriors!

    Other states adopted counties too. Counties enhanced royal power and eroded the power of other feudal clans in three ways. First, they reorganized land the feudal lord took away from aristocratic clans who lost factional battles at court. Second, under the management of knights empowered as county magistrates, counties produced grain and supplied labor directly to the king. By about 350, knights held about two-thirds of the offices in the various states; since they did not have their own land, they could be put in charge of counties. Third, commoners could be lured away from the feudal estates by promises that they would be taxed but not required to do additional labor, or even that their county land would be tax-exempt for a certain time. In fact, some commoners worked their way up into the knightly class – for this period Li Feng translates the term shi as “man of service” to stress that the knights’ developed a shared moral commitment to administration and a shared sense of identity. Confucius came from the shi rank, and some of his shi disciples, like Zengzi, began as commoners. When young, Zengzi grew melons.10

    Shang Yang expanded the Chu model. He organized all of Qin territory into counties (xian), each headed by a magistrate responsible directly to the Qin ruler. Magistrates had to follow Qin laws and administrative regulations, and they served in each place for only a short term, nor did they pass the job on to their sons. Officials managed population registration and taxation, military affairs, and justice – settling disputes and strictly punishing crimes according to the law. The center appointed, dismissed, promoted, or demoted them based on their performance. (Needless to say, the system was not carried out precisely as it appeared on the books. No system is.) Officials replaced the Qin aristocracy in government as ministers, high officers, and advisors, too. After the conquest, Qin put into practice the “law of avoidance,” which prohibited officials from serving in their home areas. The law of avoidance and frequent transfers assured that an official would neither favor his relatives nor be able to use his position to build up a power base that could threaten the throne. After the conquest, some counties were also grouped into commanderies that dealt with military conscription.

    This Chu and Qin invention, called the commandery-county (junxian 郡縣) system, became the cornerstone organizing principle of the Chinese government, carried on by later dynasties in different ways but on the same principles, and adopted by other East Asian regimes as their kings centralized. When Zhou fell, monarchy continued and even gained in strength, but administration purely by those born to a certain rank was over, and some commoners even had a chance hold power as government officials. For the time being…

    This page titled 3.6: Meritocracy and Bureaucracy is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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