Read Qu Tongzu's "Local Government in the Qing Dynasty"


This is an excellent material to understand how local government was managed by officials in the Qing Dynasty. The structure is clear, the content is concise, and there is no unnecessary information. The author, Qu Tongzu, is the grandson of Qu Hongji, a prominent minister in the late Qing Dynasty.

The clear structure can be seen from the table of contents. It starts with a brief introduction to the government at the prefecture and county level, then proceeds to discuss the officials at these levels. It further explores the selection and responsibilities of the four major assistants to the officials, namely the "shuli" (book clerks), "yayi" (court attendants), "chang sui" (personal attendants), and "mu you" (secretaries). Finally, it discusses the most important source of government revenue: taxation, as well as the gentry class closely related to local administration.

Among them, I gained a lot from the part about the officials and the four major assistants. Perhaps it is because of the author's systematic and comprehensive approach in describing their selection, appointment, treatment, and corrupt practices. Or perhaps it is because these are real individuals, and my previous understanding through TV dramas or books was limited. Through this book, I was able to gain a more comprehensive understanding.

There are a few points worth noting:

  1. The regular salary of prefecture and county officials was not high: 45-80 taels per year. Even with the later introduction of "yanglian yin" (money for cultivating integrity) ranging from 500 to 2000 taels per year, it was still not enough to cover the daily expenses of the office.
  2. Prefecture and county officials could not serve in their home provinces. Faced with unfamiliar environments, they had to heavily rely on local book clerks, but they also needed to be constantly vigilant against cunning book clerks who might engage in corruption - after all, book clerks were not paid a salary.
  3. Most of the personnel among the four major assistants belonged to the lower class, such as the "bukuai" (constables) and "chang sui" (personal attendants). The lower class individuals were not eligible to participate in the imperial examinations and their status even affected their "san dai" (three generations). It raises serious doubts about whether certain systems today are still following Qing Dynasty practices...
  4. "Mu you" (secretaries), also known as "shi ye" (teachers), held a higher status and even prefecture and county officials had to respect them, otherwise they would resign and leave at any time. They received the highest treatment, and their income was even higher than that of prefecture and county officials, as prefecture and county officials often had to spend money to deal with superiors or meet other expenses.

From the book, it can be understood that the salaries of local officials or staff members were basically insufficient to cover their expenses. Therefore, the exercise of power would give rise to so-called "lou gui" (vulgar rules), which were ugly rules. As long as there are interactions with people and processes, vulgar rules cannot be avoided. There are thousands of vulgar rules, and they have even become the main source of income for book clerks, court attendants, and others. This is why certain positions, although belonging to the lower class, are still fiercely contested.

The court officials naturally know about these vulgar rules that extend beyond their reach, but they have no choice because they don't have much money to pay these grassroots officials. They can only rely on them to find solutions, and the only solutions they can think of naturally involve exploiting the common people - as long as it does not threaten their rule, the court officials don't care. Therefore, when faced with "harmless" behavior, they turn a blind eye. Of course, as time goes on, these vulgar rules become more rampant and even pose a threat to imperial rule. It is only then that the emperor starts to take measures to rectify the situation. One famous and effective policy is the "huo hao gui gong" (returning surplus funds to the public), which indeed reduces vulgar rules.

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