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Chapter 5 Pathways to Ming Government
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Chapter 5
Pathways to Ming Government

For the young men from the city and countryside of T'ai-ho seeking employment, and every one of them sought employment of some kind, government was, without question, the firm of choice.

Not that government necessarily paid well. For the lowest civil service grade, wei ju liu , or "not yet in the current," the annual salary was thirty-six shih , about enough to feed a family of ten or twelve when paid in full. However, other living expenses besides food had to be met as well. A son or younger brother successful in the quest for office could sometimes find himself in serious debt. Yet while it was possible to earn much more in estate management or commerce, no other career could offer what Ming bureaucracy could offer: status; honor; extrastatutory income from gifts and other emoluments; literary fame; the opportunity to meet the best minds and talents of China; certain service exemptions; authorization to wear the caps, robes, sashes, and silk badges of a select elite; and a chance to immortalize oneself and honor one's ancestors, to right wrongs and create benefits for the great masses of China, and to leave one's mark in the annals of civilization. Many young men from T'ai-ho, and from all over Ming China, devoted their lives to the goal of one day becoming civil officials.

The aspirants were many, but the available positions few. Regular civil service officials held one of eighteen ranked positions, from 1A at the top down to 9B, plus the rank wei ju liu (actually the nineteenth grade) at the bottom. Exactly how many such positions were open, or


filled, at any one time is impossible to say, but some total figures exist, supplied by grand secretaries who were probably privy to reliable information. Wang Ao, grand secretary from 1506 to 1509, counted 20,400 civil positions; Chu Kuo-chen, who held the same position from 1623 to 1625, reported 24,683 (1,146 in Peking, 558 in Nanking, and 22,709 in the rest of the realm).[1] The mandarin segment of civil government (that is, excluding some 55,000 clerks) thus had about the population size of a small city.

T'ai-ho produced at least 1,668 men who qualified themselves for official position during the 276 years of the Ming era. An explanation is in order as to exactly what that figure means. It means that on the basis of the earliest extant county gazetteer, that of 1579, and later gazetteers of the Ch'ing period, it is possible to identify, by address and by the year or reign-period of their qualification, 1,668 men. The true total must be somewhere around 2,000 because (1) 229 men are listed in the gazetteers without date, or by name only, and cannot be further identified; (2) data for the years 1580-1644 is incomplete; and (3) easily dozens of men identified as men from T'ai-ho County, Kiangsi, appear as local officials in gazetteers from other parts of China but are otherwise unknown. A national roster of officials dating to the 1630s lists eighteen men from T'ai-ho, but only four of them are listed in the T'ai-ho gazetteers; and since this particular roster omits all government teachers and princely officials, perhaps twice as many T'ai-ho men actually were in office at that time.[2] Although 1,668 is unquestionably an undercount, they are men whose identities (and, in many cases, lives) are known for certain, and it is with them that I wish to deal here.

T'ai-ho was but one of over a thousand counties (hsien ) in Ming China, and it was a matter of great local pride that it succeeded as well as it did, especially in the fifteenth century, in placing so many of its men in imperial government. As many as 1,668 men are known because the magistrates and their assistants at county headquarters kept a perpetual list of all the locals who qualified themselves for office. It must also be emphasized that the common-descent groups and lineages endeavored to do the same thing for their members. The channel through which a man qualified himself for office and the highest post to which he rose in his official career became integral parts of his personal identity, and a proud entry in the genealogical records, where ancestors' offices, real or honorary, were invariably mentioned. If a dead person had ever held an office, the headline on his engraved tombstone inscription always stated it.


Besides gravestones (especially the mu-piao , whose whole text was in view for anyone to read), small monuments to deceased native sons who had been officials could be found all over T'ai-ho city and the countryside, more than two hundred of them by late Ming times, singly or in various family or other groups. In addition there were two great temples built and maintained at imperial government expense, one in memory of Grand Secretary Yang Shih-ch'i (1365-1444) and the other in honor of Ou-yang Te (1496-1554), who had been a minister of rites and a renowned exponent of the thought of Wang Yang-ming. All this shows that Ming bureaucracy made a strong and shaping imprint upon local society. Participation in that bureaucracy helped to define the local elite and contributed to the formation of a local hierarchy of prestige, not solely because of the downward force exerted upon those who were not in the bureaucracy but also because of the inducements participation offered to encourage men to rise up.

The 1,668+ officials T'ai-ho County produced in the Ming provide an opportunity to explore the larger world of Ming bureaucracy, particularly with respect to such issues such as the significance of the different channels through which it recruited its manpower; how the experience of having come up through a particular channel affected one's career prospects; and how these things changed over the course of the Ming.

The channels of recruitment were several, the differences among them wide; and which path one took had certain consequences for one's personal status and identity, in life and afterwards.

Around the year 1600, Kuo Tzu-chang (himself an eminent official) wrote a preface to the genealogy of the Hsiao lineage of Huang-kang (Phoenix Hill Ward, township 25), who were not a particularly distinguished bunch. In it, he listed by name and by path of entry all Hsiao who had by that time become Ming officials: two men who had won the highest degree, the "metropolitan" degree (chin-shih ); fourteen men who held the "provincial" degree (chü-jen ); seven men who had achieved office by way of "recommendation" (chien-chü, cheng-pi ); twelve men who had taken one or another "tribute" (kung ) route through one of the two imperial colleges; three more who had taken other routes through the college; and four men who had been promoted to officialdom from the ranks of the national clerical service (yuan, li-yuan ).[3] That makes forty-two in all (fifteen of them are missing in the county lists). The Huang-kang (Phoenix Hill) Hsiao men were scarcely


visible in the great aggregate of Ming bureaucracy; yet it was men like them who constituted the great mass of Ming bureaucrats and made the greatest contribution to establishing the whole presence of the bureaucracy in the life of the nation.

But just what did having entered through these different channels mean to the individuals who followed them? What larger strategic purposes did the Ming state have in mind when it established this and that track for its new recruits? Why so many tracks? (The Phoenix Hill Hsiao genealogy shows five broad categories.) These are complex questions. It seems most convenient to discuss these tracks, and to give some account of the men who entered upon them, principally in order of the kinds of pools of eligibles that each track drew upon and secondarily with respect to each track's relative prestige. Through a given track one was said to "graduate" (ch'u-shen ), and each path created its own special "credential" (tzu-ko )—to use the official jargon of the time. The pool of potential recruits through the recommendation channel was for a while the largest of all, and I would like to discuss it and its place in the scheme of things first.

Recommendation (Chien-Chü)

The recommendation route into Ming government was an important channel of opportunity for roughly the first century of Ming rule; its prestige value was extremely variable, and it drew men up directly into government from the population at large. Recruitment by recommendation was a favorite tool of the dynasty's founder, Ming T'ai-tsu (the Hung-wu emperor, r. 1368-98). Local officials everywhere were required actively to hunt out the best and most promising men from the population at large and nominate them for employment. Typical categories under which searches and recommendations were made included "those worthy and good, square and upright"; "those possessing talent and virtue"; "those versed in the classics and refined in behavior"; and so on. After having been screened by the personnel authorities in the capital, the nominees were then assigned either to administrative positions or to government teaching positions. Not everyone passed the screening, as T'ai-ho man Tseng Ts'un-shan found out; recommended for talent at the age of forty-nine, perhaps sometime in the 1430s, he came to the capital, got nothing, and so went back to T'ai-ho empty-handed.[4] (Overall rejection rates are unknown.)

The recommendation route was an important channel of opportu-


nity for roughly the first century of Ming rule. Some 416 known T'ai-ho men were selected for service through this channel from the inception of the Ming down to the closure of the channel early in 1459.

During Ming T'ai-tsu's reign, recommendation was mainly a means for recruiting new administrative officials (of 123 T'ai-ho men so recruited during his reign, 70 percent entered administration). From the Yung-lo era (1403-24) onward, however, priorities changed, so that nearly 75 percent of the recommendation men (212 of 287) were taken into government teaching service. (After recommendation was shut down in 1459, the task of supplying teachers was shifted to the chü-jen and the sui-kung , or county students sent as "tribute" to the imperial colleges.)

As administrators, T'ai-ho's recommendation men ended their careers in posts with the median rank of 8A; that is, half achieved posts ranked 8A or higher, and half 8A or lower. A typical 8A post was that of county vice magistrate. Thus while a handful of recommendation men did well, it is evident that the dynasty used that channel principally as a means of recruiting manpower for the very lowest levels of civil bureaucracy.

There was a time very early in the Ming when even those recommended for government teaching posts could hope to advance into the higher levels of civil bureaucracy. Early in the Ming, promotion chances were not as fixed and predictable as they later became. A good example of what was possible early but not later is provided by T'ai-ho's most famous native son, Yang Shih-ch'i, originally recommended and appointed a lowly county-level assistant instructor of wei ju liu rank, who eventually ended up at the very top of the civil service as grand secretary and became one of the great statesmen of the early Ming dynasty.

Though recommendation led only to the lowest administrative posts, or to the backwaters of the government teaching service, its abolition constituted a serious setback for many young men of T'ai-ho. The cumulative figures make that clear. From 1400 to 1464, an average of ten T'ai-ho men entered government through all channels every year. From 1465 to the end of the dynasty, however, the annual average dropped by half, to five men per year. Thus when recommendation ended, the other channels did not expand commensurately.

From a national standpoint, the diminution of official opportunity in T'ai-ho was surely justifiable, given the fairly constant size of Ming government and the competition of men from some 1,145 county-level units like T'ai-ho all across China. In the Hung-wu era (1368-98),


when far more T'ai-ho men entered office by the recommendation path than by any other, the total annual average of new recruits through all channels was only around six per year. Thus over the years 1400-64, T'ai-ho's rate of ten per year was excessive, and what happened after 1464 was something on the order of an equitable downward readjustment.

It is no accident that so many T'ai-ho men entered government in the first half of the fifteenth century. Several T'ai-ho men occupying the very highest central posts in Ming government saw fit to extend patronage and protection to their county compatriots. The greatest patron was Yang Shih-ch'i. When Yang died in office in 1444, his place as grand secretary was assumed by a T'ai-ho protégé of his, Ch'en Hsun (1385-1462). In 1451, Ch'en was joined as grand secretary by yet another T'ai-ho man, Hsiao Tzu (d. 1464). T'ai-ho man Wang Chih (1379-1462), earlier a grand secretary, and long influential, in 1443 became minister of personnel. The grip of a handful of men from one county in China on the controlling levers of Ming government was quite extraordinary.

It could not last; and indeed, it did not survive the great palace coup of 1457, a critical event that has been well described in Philip de Heer's The Care-Taker Emperor .[5] Grand Secretaries Ch'en Hsun and Hsiao Tzu and Minister of Personnel Wang Chih were all dismissed in the aftermath of that coup, which restored Ying-tsung to the throne and inaugurated the T'ien-shun reign-period (1457-1464).

In fact, the presence of too many T'ai-ho men in government, and the recommendation channel through which so many of them came into government, came under political attack not long after the death of Grand Secretary Yang Shih-ch'i. In 1451, for example, the emperor was prompted by the censorate to order more stringent screening procedures at the provincial level for new government teachers coming up through a too wide recommendation route.[6]

In 1453, censors broadened the attack on the route by making a case of Grand Secretary Ch'en Hsun's distant cousin, T'ai-ho man Ch'en Yung (1400-56). The allegation was that cousin Ch'en Yung had attended the T'ai-ho County school as a registered student, or sheng-yuan , but had been expelled for poor performance. After he was expelled, he took up tutoring for a living. In 1430, an assistant instructorship opened up in Ch'ang-chou Prefecture, in what is now Kiangsu Province. From Ch'ang-chou an emissary was sent to T'ai-ho with a gift and an invitation for Ch'en Yung to assume the position. Not by coincidence,


surely, the chief instructor (rank 9B) in Ch'ang-chou was none other than Ch'en Yung's brother-in-law, Yü Hsueh-shih.

Ch'en Yung first proceeded to Peking, where the recommendation was viewed favorably by the Ministry of Personnel, and then he was duly appointed. A friend got Wang Chih to write Ch'en a personal message, a kind of testimonial and letter of introduction.

After completing his nine-year term, Assistant Instructor Ch'en went again to Peking, this time for the required review and evaluation of his performance. A pleasant surprise! The Ministry of Personnel took him out of educational service and placed him in administration, as first a probationary, then a regular, investigating censor (7A).

In 1446, Ch'en's work as censor was favorably reviewed, and he was promoted to assistant surveillance commissioner (5A) of Chekiang Province. His work there involved overseeing tax shipments and directing antibandit militia, and for effectively discharging those tasks, his salary was raised.

On April 2, 1453, he was promoted to administration commissioner (2B) of Fukien Province, surely for him the capstone of an unexpectedly successful career as a recommendation man. But it was not to be. On April 9, the roof fell in on him. Lin Ts'ung, chief supervising secretary of the Office of Scrutiny for Personnel, an alert watchdog in such matters, blocked the appointment on the grounds that Ch'en Yung was an expelled sheng-yuan who had become an assistant instructor through special connections; that as a government teacher he should never have been brought into administration; and that he was too shallow a personality to manage successfully the new task assigned him. Grand Secretary Ch'en Hsun was unable to help him; he was forced from government, and he died three years later.[7]

It was one thing to try to confine recommendation men to low teaching posts; but there was in addition a desire on the part of some Ming officials to get rid of the recommendation channel altogether. In 1456, in a long brief he composed for the emperor, Grand Secretary Ch'en Hsun tried to hold together the crumbling status quo on behalf of his fellow locals. He explained to the emperor that T'ai-ho County was heavily populated and that it lacked enough commerce, crafts production, or farmland to occupy all its young men. Consequently, as many as 20 or 30 percent of its men made their living as primary tutors in the classics in family schools all over China. Given the tight quota restrictions on the provincial examinations, only a handful could ever hope to pass, which was why so many sought recommendations to become gov-


ernment assistant instructors. It was most unfair, argued Ch'en, that so many in government hated these men and considered them "filth" (fen-t'u ), when no less a man than Yang Shih-ch'i had risen precisely through that route. Actually, confided Ch'en, the issue was not just a supposed surfeit of recommended assistant instructors from T'ai-ho; the real issue was that all the other officials out there hated everyone from T'ai-ho, himself included.[8]

The specific issue that prompted Ch'en Hsun's brief was the question whether newly recommended assistant instructors should go directly to the Ministry of Personnel (where Wang Chih was then minister) for evaluation and assignment, or whether they should be tested first at the Han-lin Academy, where, presumably, a large number would be weeded out. Ch'en demanded that they go directly to the ministry. The emperor had already ruled in Ch'en's favor on this issue a year earlier.[9] This time he responded to Ch'en's plea with a wave of the hand. He told Ch'en it was just too minor a matter to be so suspicious about.

But Ch'en Hsun's suspicions were on target; and when recommendation was abolished in 1459, the official justification was that the recommendees were ambitious men of inferior quality.[10] It may have indeed been the case that the pool of good young free-lances suitable for recommendation as teachers had dried up as more and more youth sought to enroll in the county Confucian schools (ju-hsueh ) under the liberalized quotas that were in place by the mid-fifteenth century.

Clerical Promotion (Li-Yuan)

Recommendation, while it lasted, was used to recruit men from the population at large, not from the special pool of county students (sheng-yuan ). The only other channel into regular bureaucracy for which the sheng-yuan did not serve as the recruitment base was the li-yuan channel, which drew from the body of government clerks. In the early sixteenth century, a total of some fifty-five thousand clerks were reported to have been employed at every level of government; their jobs are specified in detail in chapter 7 of the Ta Ming hui-tien (Collected ordinances of the Ming) of 1587.[11] The rule was that after nine or so years of satisfactory service, clerks were promotable to the lower (7B or below) grades of regular bureaucracy, just where depending upon the rank of the office they had served their clerkships in.

The T'ai-ho gazetteers list 109 men who were li-yuan , which is an undercount (missing, for example, are the four li-yuan produced by the


Hsiao lineage of Phoenix Hill). The civil service ranks that T'ai-ho's 109 listed li-yuan achieved range from 5B to wei ju liu . The median position they achieved ranked 9B, which is the worst for any of the recruitment channels.

The li-yuan credential was not held in respect. The Yung-lo emperor placed the entire category under official discrimination in 1411 by refusing to appoint a li-yuan nominated for the 7A post of censor because, he insisted, all li-yuan were simply after personal advantage and knew nothing of moral right or of the "big picture" (ta-t'i ).[12] In 1428, the Hsuan-te emperor ordered a selective purge of officials holding the li-yuan credential and denied promotions to the rest. He also ordered a partial purge of li-yuan "with cap and belt on half salary awaiting official appointments." The li-yuan struck him and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy as often "crude" (pi-wei ) in appearance, corrupt, or insufficiently literate.[13]

Waiting lists of clerks qualified for official appointments could grow long. Occasionally, government showed such men a bit of compassion. An official of the Ministry of Personnel indicated in 1495 that there existed a backlog of 33,900 and that the usual wait for all these men was thirteen or fourteen years, by which time many were no longer employable. His suggestion was to grant all of them retirements "with cap and belt," that is, with the status of retired officials.[14] In 1571, the Lung-ch'ing emperor lifted the native-place avoidance rule for the very lowest civil service posts (including that of granary commissioner, 9B, a typical li-yuan slot) because many men that low in the hierarchy simply could not afford the out-of-province travel and relocation costs.[15]

But the stigma remained. In 1576, the young Wan-li emperor, or someone acting in his behalf, denied a request from the Ministry of Personnel to promote a li-yuan from assistant magistrate (9A) to magistrate (7A), on the grounds that no exclerk was qualified enough.[16] Before 1469, it had been the rule to punish government students who failed or misbehaved by expelling them and forcing them to take government clerkships (though, somehow, Ch'en Yung escaped that rule). This was reckoned an effectively humiliating punishment because of the "status difference" (ti-wei hsuan-ko ) separating students from clerks. Yet certain students, who were seen as evil, considered such demotion an opportunity. Some young and bright students reportedly flunked deliberately in order to get jobs as clerks. That had to stop, and so the emperor ruled that thenceforth the students would simply be expelled rather than be made clerks.[17]


Thus the li-yuan constituted something of a despised subcaste in the bureaucracy, morally and intellectually tainted by their training and their experience as clerks, consigned to the lowest positions, and liable to have their individual merits overriden by their caste stigma in promotion cases.

Some T'ai-ho people clearly shared these official attitudes. Yang Shih-ch'i's mother was one. In the 1380s, Yang Shih-ch'i was a poor boy, and as he remembered it all many years later, a neighbor who was doing very well as a clerk had liked and pitied young Yang and had sent a servant to ask his mother if he could take him on as an apprentice. Yang's mother had resolutely refused and insisted that her son continue his Confucian studies.[18] Young Wang Ching-hsien (1365-1420, from Yung-chiang Ward, township 49) was asked to fill a vacant clerkship by the T'ai-ho County magistrate. His mother, too, refused to let him accept, poor as the Wangs were at the time. The magistrate was impressed and appointed Wang a government student.[19] Obviously, status anxieties preyed upon these exemplary mothers of T'ai-ho. It seems that the decision to direct a boy into a clerical job was made early in his life, the price of that decision being his having to give up further Confucian education.

T'ai-ho's li-yuan list provides home addresses, which show that the 109 li-yuan came from fifty-seven different families, with none producing more than six. Even the most prominent and successful of T'ai-ho's lineages produced a few. But twenty-six came from obscure families, many with city addresses, whose only "output" during the Ming was that one single li-yuan .

One of the very few li-yuan mentioned individually in the literature is Hsiao Ssu-ching of Yen-chuang Ward (township 64). He was a prefectural clerk sometime during the Yung-lo era (1403-24). When his term expired, he went to Peking for reassignment and was made a document handler for General Chang Fu, earlier a top Ming commander in Vietnam. Following that, he was sent to the Ministry of Justice to learn its document system, and after a year at that, the Ministry of Personnel finally appointed him a vice magistrate (8A) in Hunan. Wang Chih, at the time a Han-lin official, knew Hsiao and had once visited his home in Yen-chuang Ward. When Hsiao's brother was about to return home from a visit to Peking, there was a going away party. The guests wrote a collection of poems, for which Wang wrote a preface. Hsiao Ssu-ching seems to have lacked a Confucian education, but Wang said in his preface that although Hsiao knew law well, he was not legalistic.[20] It ap-


pears that despite all the official prejudice, Hsiao Ssu-ching socialized well with his official betters. If as a category the li-yuan were despised, as individuals they might be treated quite differently.

Hsiao Lung-yu (no relation to Hsiao Ssu-ching) is also listed as a li-yuan . In the Chia-ching era (1522-66), he ended up somewhere as a county vice magistrate. His immediate ancestors were wealthy city people. He became a clerk because his father died young, and he thought studying law would be the best way to establish himself. (He is mentioned in the literature because he later regretted that decision, preferring to involve himself in local philosophical circles.) His career was not distinguished. After a term of service as a government clerk, he paid a sum of money to the Ministry of Works, received a cap and belt indicative of official status, was put on a waiting list for an official vacancy, and went back home to T'ai-ho. There a kinsman of his stepmother's interested him in Wang Yang-ming's philosophy, and he became a member of a study circle that Hu Chih organized in 1549. Then for ten years or so he served as a personal aide to Lo Hung-hsien of Chi-shui County (north of T'ai-ho), who was one of the leading Confucian thinkers of his time. When the Ministry of Personnel finally informed him of a vacant vice magistracy, he was reluctant to take it: "All I'll be doing is running around, getting abused and humiliated for the sake of some tiny salary," complained Hsiao. "I know for sure [the higher officials] won't accept me, and I won't do what I'll have to do for them. Rather than cringe, I'd rather stay as one of your disciples, following in your footsteps, walking through the woods and valleys, discussing things, internalizing them, and getting something for oneself from that, as a way of repaying you." Urging Hsiao to go, Lo Hung-hsien advised him that a vice magistrate's job did not lie outside the Confucian Way and that Hsiao should accept the challenge, despite the hardships.[21]

County Students (Sheng-Yuan)

All the other recruitment channels drew in one way or another upon the sheng-yuan . Young men in T'ai-ho had available to them both the county school and the larger prefectural school in Chi-an. I have found no information about how the choice was made as to which school a young man should attend and no indication that the county school was in any way inferior to the prefectural school.

T'ai-ho's county school was established in 1370 with a teaching cadre


consisting of an instructor and two assistant instructors. All the instructors were local appointees until 1404, and the all the assistants were local until 1438.

The original sheng-yuan quota was twenty. All twenty sheng-yuan received stipends. The annual stipend was not ungenerous: ten shih of rice annually, about enough to feed three people, plus certain service exemptions for the student's family. (Starting in 1610, the stipend was paid in silver, at a rate of 6 ounces per shih. )

T'ai-ho's first sheng-yuan class was selected by the local officials on the basis of the recommendations made by the new teaching cadre, made up of local men. According to Yang Shih-ch'i (never himself a sheng-yuan ), the first class of boys, aged fifteen or older, varied widely in character: half of them got into trouble and came to a bad end, and of the rest, only a few eventually became officials.[22]

By 1401, the original quota was doubled by the addition of a category called added students, who received service exemptions but no stipends. Ch'en Hsun later remembered that there had been forty sheng-yuan in the T'ai-ho County school in the years he attended it, 1401-14. He also recalled a further ten or so men who, though not sheng-yuan , regularly had taken the provincial exams anyway.[23] To accommodate an evidently growing population of exam takers without school affiliation, a final ring of supplementary students was authorized in 1447, with no quota restrictions. School rosters from the Ming have not survived, and so the creation of an unrestricted student category makes it impossible to know exactly how many sheng-yuan there were in all at any given time; but indications are that the numbers swelled. By 1470, the T'ai-ho County school was cramped, moldy, and falling apart, and a major rebuilding effort ended in the enlargement of the main hall, lecture halls, library, student housing, and kitchen.[24]

In the early years of the Ming, and as late as 1404, new sheng-yuan seem to have been recruited by recommendation of the instructors and assistant instructors.[25] Even the students themselves could make recommendations. In 1401, an investigating censor came to T'ai-ho, and, upon discovering that there were only sixteen added students instead of twenty, ordered each of the stipend students to recommend one candidate. Stipend Student T'ang Liu (1367-1406) made an effective representation on behalf of his nephew Lung Ts'an (1384-1447), whom he wanted to take on in an informal master-disciple relationship.[26] Ch'en Hsun was recommended by Stipend Students Hsiao Hsing-shen (1380-


1429) and Yü Hsueh-k'uei (1372-1444), the son-in-law and the son, respectively, of the older sister of Ch'en I-ching (d. 1410), a minor official who was in turn Ch'en Hsun's father's first cousin. They were all fond of the talented Ch'en Hsun (who would become top-ranked chin-shih in 1415 and later a grand secretary). Their recommendation was accepted, and Ch'en Hsun became an added student.[27]

Though sometimes called the bachelor's degree, sheng-yuan status was not strictly speaking a degree at all, as were the chü-jen or chin-shih degree, but an appointment. Teaching cadres and stipend students, early on, made recommendations, but they could not appoint new sheng-yuan . Appointments could only be made by administrative officials: the magistrate, the prefect, and, after 1436, the regional education intendants.

Ch'en Hsun spent four years as an added student, without stipend. His family was fairly well off under his older brother's management, and the expense was affordable. In 1403 there was an opening, and the teaching cadre wanted Ch'en to take the vacated position, which carried a stipend. "However," noted Ch'en's biographer, "the private regulation of the school was that all who filled such openings had to pay a large amount to recompense the man who vacated the slot; but Ch'en was ashamed to buy the stipend, and so he declined, on the excuse that he hadn't yet tried the provincial examinations, and dared not accept the offer just yet." After failing his first try at the exams in 1405, however, Ch'en did become a stipend student. He may have avoided the fee; at least, when he vacated his slot upon passing the provincial exams in 1414, he declined payment from any of the several men vying to assume the vacated stipend.[28]

How large were these unauthorized fees paid in order for an added student to become a stipend student? To whom were they paid? The answers to these questions are not clear, but the problem was national in scope. In 1456, it was noted at court that most provincial degree winners were added students, not stipend students, for the reason that stipends were awarded by bribe, not by merit.[29] In 1468, Supervising Secretary Ch'en Hao (a Willow Creek Ch'en, no relation to Ch'en Hsun) proposed that, since the charge was often made that youths who entered the county schools of China did so mainly in order to escape service obligations, it would be best to terminate all such exemptions. The Ministry of Rites considered Ch'en Hao's proposal but refused to recommend it, on the grounds that it would "violate the old system" to


do so. The emperor agreed and endorsed the ministry's position.[30] Until the end of the Ming, hints of corruption continued to hover about the national Confucian student body.

Yet, early in the Ming at least, there were occasional expulsions of sheng-yuan . The case of Ch'en Yung has already been noted. The early rule that expelled sheng-yuan must become clerks was sometimes enforced. For some reason not stated, the censorial authorities expelled Tseng Shih-jung from the T'ai-ho school. "Everyone who knew Tseng" felt the expulsion to have been unjust. Yang Shih-ch'i consoled poor Tseng with the thought that becoming a clerk was perhaps not such a bad fate after all.[31] It was indeed a bad fate for Ch'en Meng-hsing (1356-90), a grandson of Yang's maternal uncle and tutor, Ch'en Mo. Young Ch'en was devoted to his grandfather and was a good student, but his classmates thought him unsocial and arrogant; and they hated him enough to engineer his expulsion. Owing to the recent death of his beloved grandfather, Ch'en Meng-hsing went into mourning and refused to take the provincial exams. His classmates argued that the death of a grandparent was not a valid reason not to show for the exams; their argument carried, and in 1389 Ch'en was expelled. He then went to Nanking to receive his obligatory clerical assignment, but a year later he died, of severe depression.[32]

As the sheng-yuan population expanded all over China in the fifteenth century and later, some court officials proposed to conduct wholesale purges of their numbers. There was a proposal in 1468 to abolish the unrestricted supplementary student category altogether. Ch'en Hao successfully argued against it. His point was that some localities (including, presumably, his own home county, T'ai-ho) had many more talents than forty, and it would be disastrous simply to cut them off. They should be tested rigorously, however, to make sure they were indeed qualified.[33]

That was not quite the end of the matter. In 1494, and again in 1504, the Hung-chih emperor demanded a national purge of aged, sick, and unqualified sheng-yuan . On the earlier occasion, some officials interpreted the imperial order to mean the categorical abolition of all supplementary students. Certainly T'ai-ho was in an uproar. T'ai-ho County student Chou Shang-hua (1476-1520) wrote his friend Hu Hsing-kung (1469-1527) asking him what he thought of the impending purge. Hu Hsing-kung (who was Hu Chih's grandfather) was not a sheng-yuan ; he could not afford it because he had to support his mother,


wife, and four children on his income as a private tutor. Hu replied that the edict could not mean an all-out purge because in large counties (like T'ai-ho), with upwards of a thousand students, 90 percent of the students would be forced out, and many of the best of the victims would have to emigrate to smaller counties where they might successfully compete for the available quota slots. It was an abuse that so many of the sheng-yuan were sons of officials, and that their aim in life was simply to avoid service duties and raise themselves up from the common masses, but, according to Hu Hsing-kung, the fault for that lay with the education intendants who let them enroll. Hu urged the revival of the recommendation system, which had, after all, been aimed at commoners just like himself.[34]

One source of the problem of sheng-yuan inflation was that more than one official authority had the power to make appointments. Ch'en Hao raised this problem in 1468, but he could not get the court to agree that all appointment powers should be placed in the hands of the provincial education intendants (the counterargument was that the provincial administration and surveillance commissions had to help out because there were too many local schools for the intendants to manage unaided).

Ch'en Feng-wu (1475-1541, from T'ai-ho; no relation to Ch'en Hao or Ch'en Hsun) was intensely involved in just this issue, as education intendant in Hukuang and then Shansi, in the years 1504-10. Strict and conscientious, Ch'en reportedly expelled all irregularly appointed sheng-yuan from their schools. In a memorial of 1510, which the emperor approved, he acquired full control over the Shansi sheng-yuan ; no other provincial-level official was allowed to interfere in appointments and evaluations.[35]

That seems to have been an exceptional arrangement. Nothing like that happened in Kiangsi Province, where T'ai-ho was located. Around the very time Ch'en Feng-wu secured his powers in Shansi, Kiangsi Education Intendant Li Meng-yang, owing to his great popularity among the Kiangsi sheng-yuan and his defiance of the attempts of other provincial officials to interfere with him or with the sheng-yuan , was put on trial and forced to retire in 1514.[36]

In the sixteenth century and later, it appears that a boy wishing to become a sheng-yuan had to qualify for appointment either by taking a test or by having someone influential nominate him. It appears that the teaching cadre no longer had a role to play in this respect. A case


in point is Ch'en Ts'an (d. 1546), who declined an offer by his uncle (Ch'en Ch'ang-chi, who had just won his chin-shih degree in 1538) to recommend his appointment. "I have to make my own way," he insisted, "otherwise I won't have done it as you did it." Indeed, he soon got the sheng-yuan appointment on the basis of the high quality of his writing.[37]

Yang Tsai-ming competed in a boys' exam (t'ung-tzu shih ) in 1528, when he was fourteen years old. The magistrate and education intendant both agreed on giving him the highest grade, and they appointed him a sheng-yuan then and there.[38] In 1483, when he was eighteen years old, Lo Ch'in-shun found himself one of "seven or eight hundred" T'ai-ho aspirants to sheng-yuan status; an exam was given, and Lo was one of the 25 percent who passed.[39] Kuo Tzu-chang's (1543-1618) father took him to take the sheng-yuan test when he was only twelve years old. The county magistrate, though impressed, advised his father to take him home and have him study some more. At age fourteen, Kuo took the test again, and, after passing further tests with the prefecture and with the education intendant, was accepted as a county sheng-yuan . Other T'ai-ho boys, Kuo's friends and later his official colleagues, passed those same exams: Yang Yin-ch'iu (1547-1601) at age ten; Lung Tsung-wu (1542-1609) at age fifteen.[40] Yet even exams were not free of a perception of corruption. Tseng Ch'iu-t'an (of Moon Hill Ward, township 32) took one such exam in the sixteenth century, and "when he saw that people were passed on the basis of bribes, he quit in indignation, and never came forth again. He studied in his family's library, never regretting having given up [an official career]."[41]

It should be noted that Kuo Tzu-chang was first appointed a supplementary student. He spent seven years in that category and graduated to added student upon passing an exam given by the education intendant. Two years later, he passed another exam and in the following year, 1567, was finally made a stipend student. Kuo was talented and energetic, but for lack of data, it cannot be said whether his progress through the sheng-yuan hierarchy was fast. Lo Ch'in-shun spent only nine years altogether as a sheng-yuan , but Lo was, when he started, four years older than Kuo had been.

Glimpses of student life in T'ai-ho are few and far between. The sheng-yuan of the 1390s are pictured working very hard at their studies. Yin Ch'ang-lung (ca. 1369-ca. 1417) "was very serious-minded and exceptionally intelligent, having benefited from the Ch'eng brothers' regi-


men of self-cultivation through seriousness. By day he studied for tests, and at night he stayed in the Tz'u-en Buddhist temple in [T'ai-ho's] City East, intoning texts by lamplight until midnight, then rising at the first bell at dawn."[42] Wang Chih recalled studying with junior members of the Tseng family of T'ai-ho's North Gate. He remembered how the boys' mother assigned them an empty room to study in and had a bondsman supply them with tea and lamps.[43]

There was periodic impromptu testing. Ch'en Hsun's is the only case known in detail. In 1402, the T'ai-ho magistrate set a poetry theme for the sheng-yuan , asking them to expound upon the lines "clouds follow the morning sun; the moon rises over the library." In 1403, a prose test was given in Chi-an Prefecture, on the theme "ending in seriousness." In 1404, Ch'en and three other students went again to Chi-an, where the assistant surveillance commissioner held a mock provincial exam. Another such official held an impromptu test in T'ai-ho in 1408. In 1409 and 1410, an administration vice commissioner came to the county and held tests for the students. In 1413, an assistant administration commissioner came and presided over an oral exam.[44]

Thus it seems the officials who tested the junior sheng-yuan were of lower rank than the officials who tested the senior sheng-yuan . Hierarchy among the sheng-yuan can also be seen in the fact that in 1408, by which time Ch'en Hsun had gained a reputation for the brilliance of his exams, he was appointed "school guest" (shu-pin ) by the county instructor, with the responsibility of helping to teach the twenty added students.

There is no information available about student life during the period from the early 1440s to the sixteenth century, by which time the size of the T'ai-ho student population had ballooned from around one hundred (counting all three levels of students) to some many hundreds, perhaps a thousand. Some of the students led intense and complex intellectual lives which took them far from their original moorings in the strict need to meet examination requirements. So much can be seen from what Hu Chih tells of himself and his classmates during the years 1533-43, when he was a T'ai-ho county sheng-yuan . Some students actively engaged themselves in local issues; others conducted raging arguments over literary models and literary criticism; yet others formed philosophical groups for the purpose of exploring the new Confucian ideas of Wang Yang-ming. All of this activity seems distant indeed from student life a century and a half before.[45]


Provincial Degree Holders (Chü-Jen)

The hope of all sheng-yuan —and it did not matter whether they were stipend, added, or supplementary students, all were equally eligible—was to pass the triennial provincial examinations for the chü-jen degree. Winners of that degree then proceeded in the following year to the national capital (Nanking until 1421, Peking thereafter) to attempt the metropolitan and palace examinations for the chin-shih degree, which was, by far, the best credential of all. But first, the provincial hurdle had to be cleared.

Over the course of the Ming, altogether eighty-nine examinations were given in the Kiangsi provincial capital, Nan-ch'ang. During the first century of Ming rule, T'ai-ho candidates did exceptionally well. After that, they did worse and worse.

It makes an interesting exercise to compare the performance of the T'ai-ho men to that of the average candidate, as far as the latter can be determined.

Over the course of the 276 years of the Ming dynasty, 555 T'ai-ho men, sometimes after several tries, passed the Kiangsi provincial exams (89 others achieved the chü-jen degree under other provincial quotas).

The triennial chü-jen quota for Kiangsi was set at forty in 1370 and was raised to fifty in 1425, sixty-five in 1440, and ninety-five in 1453, where it stayed for most of the rest of the Ming.

There were ninety-one government schools in Kiangsi: seventy-seven county schools, thirteen prefectural schools, and one subprefectural school. It was the main purpose of all of them to prepare sheng-yuan for the provincial examinations.

If everything had been equal, then no more than one or two candidates from any one school would have passed in any given year. At least at the outset, however, things were unequal, because under the forty quota, 30 percent of all the Kiangsi chü-jen were T'ai-ho men. Under the fifty quota, 12 percent were. Under the sixty-five quota, 10 percent were T'ai-ho men. But under the ninety-five quota, as the years wore on, T'ai-ho's advantage grew less and less; by around the middle of the sixteenth century, less than 1 percent of the Kiangsi chü-jen were from T'ai-ho, a figure that is right about where a pure law of equal opportunity would put it.

When the quota was raised to ninety-five in 1453, the unrestricted supplementary student category had already been six years in existence, and after that time, the supplementary students gradually in-


creased T'ai-ho's sheng-yuan population to several hundred, perhaps a thousand. What chance, then, under these circumstances, did any one sheng-yuan from T'ai-ho have of ever achieving his goal of passing the provincial examinations?

It is possible to frame a crude answer to that question. Let us assume a population of one thousand T'ai-ho sheng-yuan of equal ability. Let us assume that an average sheng-yuan had a tenure of ten years, an assumption that gives him three chances at the provincial exams. There were ninety-one Kiangsi schools whose sheng-yuan were in the competition. The majority consisted of schools in counties smaller than T'ai-ho, so let us assume that the average body of Kiangsi sheng-yuan was five hundred, which gives a provincial total of 45,500. It is known that not all were certified to go to Nan-ch'ang in any given year. In fact, in 1456, more than 2,000 were. In 1534, more than 3,000 were. In 1558, there were more than 4,300 candidates, and in 1627, more than 5,300.[46] Thus, every three years, something like 10 percent of the provincial student body underwent the exams. Something on the order of ten T'ai-ho students, then, would have gone to Nan-ch'ang in any given examination year, or three hundred in a ten-year period. Thus the probability of a given T'ai-ho sheng-yuan even taking the exam was less than one in three (because some students took the exam more than once). The probability that any of the three hundred who took the exams might pass one of them, given a quota of ninety-five and a turnout of, say, thirty-five hundred each time, was something like one in thirty-six. Thus, the chance that any T'ai-ho student might take and pass the chü-jen exam was very small indeed, perhaps less than one chance in a hundred, assuming all had equal abilities and none was given special consideration. (Parameters and assumptions such as these, are, of course, always fair game for further experimentation.)

There is no doubt but that competitive pressures were intense. An official report of 1571 related news of a riot in the Kiangsi provincial capital of Nan-ch'ang by 40,000 (surely an error for 4,000) sheng-yuan who had just failed the exams. A rumor that one of the examining officials had played favorites fueled their outrage, and some sixty students were trampled to death in the melee.[47]

Of T'ai-ho's 653 chü-jen (counting those who took their exams outside their home province), 201 (or about 30 percent) went on to pass the metropolitan and palace exams and become chin-shih . That left a resi-


due of 452 men who failed one or more times at the national level but ended up on the so-called B-list as fu-pang chü-jen , men with a kind of second-class credential for office holding.

Chü-jen management was something of a continuing problem for central government. The Hsuan-te emperor (r. 1426-35) tried to push them all into government teaching. The Cheng-t'ung emperor (r. 1436-49) was at first willing to let those who did not want teaching posts to enroll in one of the imperial colleges, but later, in an effort to improve teaching quality, he forced all but the youngest (aged twenty-four or below) to take teaching positions.[48]

The T'ai-ho data show that, indeed, from early in the Ming down to the Ch'eng-hua era (1465-87), 70 percent of the chü-jen began and ended their careers as government teachers. But assignment policy changed, and from the Ch'eng-hua era on, 80 percent of T'ai-ho's provincial graduates ended their careers in administration rather than in teaching. This shift was effected in two ways: more of the men were sent to the imperial colleges for administrative training (where they were treated as a class apart from and above the regular tribute students); and chü-jen were regularly promoted from government teaching into regular administration. At least fifty-three T'ai-ho chü-jen benefited from the latter policy.

T'ai-ho men who qualified as chü-jen had much better careers than those who qualified as chien-chü or li-yuan , categories discussed earlier. As administrators, the highest bureaucratic ranks the chü-jen achieved range from 3A to 9B, with 6B being the median. (An example of a 6B post would be a subprefectural Vice magistrate.) That compares very favorably to the medians of 8A and 9B, respectively, for officials holding the chien-chü and li-yuan credentials.

The Chin-Shin

Fifty-six percent of the 201 men from T'ai-ho who achieved the chin-shih degree during the Ming dynasty did so after more than one try. This phenomenon is evident from a comparison of the median age at which men won the chin-shih degree with the median age of those who won only the chü-jen degree. The ages of thirty-two T'ai-ho chü-jen degree winners are known: they range from eighteen to forty-five, with a median age of twenty-seven. The known ages of ninety-one T'ai-ho chin-shih range from nineteen to fifty-three, with a median age of thirty-one.


The competition for the chin-shih degree was quite stiff, though only half as stiff as the competition for the chü-jen degree. Government set the triennial national quotas at between one hundred and four hundred, usually around three hundred, depending upon then current estimates of manpower needs at the elite levels of government. Usually, slightly less than 10 percent of the examinees passed each time the exam was given.[49] That compares to the z percent to 4 percent of Kiangsi chü-jen candidates who passed the provincial exams, and chü-jen pass rates elsewhere were comparable, or lower.

Within the general national chin-shih quota, government established regional subquotas in an effort to prevent any one region of the country from becoming too dominant. In 1436, for example, within an overall quota of one hundred, the ratio of southerners to northerners to people from central China was 60:30:10. In 1508, for a quota of three hundred, north and south absorbed the center and were then equalized at I50:150, a move which further diminished the chances of well-prepared candidates from a comparatively rich and populous southern province like Kiangsi.[50] There were yet further limits on how many men offering any one text as his classic of choice might pass. Thus T'ai-ho man Hsiao Luan (1399-1458, from South Creek Ward, township 59) failed the chin-shih exam of 1436 not because he wrote a bad exam but because he was one of too many offering the Book of Documents as his classic of choice to be tested on. As a B-list chü-jen , then, Hsiao was compelled to take a teaching post.[51]

Men from T'ai-ho fared extraordinary well at the national exams over roughly the first half of the fifteenth century. From 1404 to 1451, seventy-two T'ai-ho men passed the seventeen exams given. From 1454 to 1499, forty-five passed the sixteen exams given. But as the years rolled on, things got worse and worse for T'ai-ho, as of course they did also at the provincial exam level. From 1502 to 1550, thirty-four passed the seventeen chin-shih exams given. From 1553 to 1598, twenty-one passed the sixteen exams given. And from 1601 to 1642, sixteen passed the fifteen exams given. The fading visibility of T'ai-ho men on the national scene mirrors the declining fortunes of Chi-an Prefecture and of Kiangsi Province as a whole in the national competition, as men from the southeastern coastal regions gradually assumed complete dominance over them.[52]

But in the early fifteenth century, things were good indeed. In the examination of 1421, Yang Shih-ch'i was chief examiner. There were three thousand candidates, and the chin-shih quota was two hundred.


Seven T'ai-ho men made it. The B-list quota was three hundred, and nine T'ai-ho men made that. There were twenty-five hundred outright failures; of them, only four were from T'ai-ho.[53] In 1427, two thousand candidates, fifty (!) of them from T'ai-ho, gathered in Peking, hoping to make the one hundred quota set for that year. Six T'ai-ho men succeeded in achieving their chin-shih degrees. That year there was a B-list quota of 470, but how many T'ai-ho men made it is not stated.[54] These were, obviously, inordinate success rates for a single county, and there is; no reason to suppose that they could have been sustained forever.

The bureaucratic careers of men holding the chin-shih degree were better by far than the careers of those who entered government service through other channels. The highest official positions obtained by chin-shih degree winners from T'ai-ho ran the gamut from grade 2A to 9B (one man demanded a prefectural instructorship, 9B, for personal reasons), with 5A as the median rank attained. (Vice prefect, assistant surveillance commissioner in the provinces, and bureau director in one of the six ministries in the capital were typical 5A posts.)

Tribute (Kung)

What happened to those who failed the examinations? It was the destiny of all but a tiny minority of sheng-yuan to fail repeatedly at the provincial exams. After repeated failures, many sheng-yuan just quit, but it was possible for some, through testing or through seniority or perhaps through bribery and special connections, to advance to the rank of stipend student. For county-level units of government like T'ai-ho, the number of stipend students was restricted to twenty. Stipend students were placed on a waiting list for the annual tribute (sui-kung ) through which they were sent up one or two at a time either to the northern imperial college in Peking or to the southern one in Nanking. After 1441, the usual rule was for counties to send up one tribute student every two years; subprefectures two every three years; and prefectures one every year (Nationally, all schools sent up some 855 annual tribute students every year.)[55]

The plan, not always followed consistently, was for those sent up through the tribute channel to spend ten years as imperial college students (chien-sheng ), then three years in job training (li-shih ), usually as document drafters and checkers. At that point, the imperial college students were considered qualified for appointment to a range of low-level positions in administration, or as teachers in the national Confu-


cian educational service. Actually, residency requirements for chien-sheng were often waived; and job-training stints were shortened or lengthened, depending on the size of the chien-sheng backlog and the current level of the government's need for the clerical work that the students performed.

Over the course of the Ming, T'ai-ho produced over 404 men who qualified themselves for office through annual tribute to either of the imperial colleges as sui-kung chien-sheng . What was their fate? Thirteen of them died before ever receiving an appointment. Eight retired unappointed, but with the cap and belt of official status. What happened to ninety-three of them, mostly of the Wan-li period (1573-1620) and later, is unknown owing to missing records. Of the remaining 290 men, 172 (60 percent) entered and remained in government teaching service, mostly at ranks lower than those of the chü-jen . Over half the chien-sheng who were appointed teachers were never promoted beyond the lowest rank of assistant instructor. Those 118 chien-sheng appointed to administrative posts eventually achieved offices whose ranks ranged from 4A down to wei ju liu . The median rank was 7A, clearly above the median ranks of the li-yuan (9B) and the recommendation men (8A), and just as clearly below those of the chü-jen (6A) and the chin-shih (5A).

I would like to take a moment to say something about government teaching because so many of T'ai-ho's chü-jen and chien-sheng were appointed to teaching positions, rather than to administrative ones. In fact, a total of 514 T'ai-ho men, recruited from virtually every pool except the li-yuan , spent their entire careers as government teachers. That constitutes 30 percent of all the T'ai-ho men who qualified themselves for office during the Ming, which is a substantial number and an important component of the collective experience of T'ai-ho society with the larger world of Ming governance.

Confucian schools were established in each of some fifteen hundred prefectures, subprefectures, and counties in China, as well as in a further number of military guards communities and regional princely establishments scattered about the realm. Just counting the regular civil units of government, there were, until the sixteenth century, some 5,244 teaching posts available: 1,564 instructorships and 3,680 assistant instructorships. (During the sixteenth century, some 612 assistant instructorships were abolished).[56]


The educational function of government was treated quite separately from administrative function, and the former lay distinctly beneath the latter in prestige. The highest local teaching post, that of prefectural school instructor, was ranked 9B, the same as the lowest regular rank in the administrative hierarchy. All other local teachers were ranked wei ju liu (effectively grade 19). The capstone of the teaching service was the imperial college staff, in Peking and Nanking, where there were altogether sixty-five positions, ranging from wei ju liu to 6A, for directors of studies. The college staffs were recruited mainly from chü-jen with good records as local teachers, but the deans (or rectors, 4B) were typically chin-shih appointees from regular administration, not former teaching officials at all. Rectors aside, government teachers were seldom promoted into administration. They were also issued insignia that displayed their inferiority to administrative officials at the same grade.[57]

Teaching may have been a respected function in Ming China, but that respect was clearly not shown in pay or prestige for the official teaching hierarchy. Out in the localities, government teachers were required to produce a given number of chü-jen per year and were penalized in various ways if they failed to do that.[58] Even early in the Ming, when education was not quite yet the dead-end service it eventually became, Yang Shih-ch'i noted that educational posts were considered "cold jobs" (leng chih ), i.e., out of the bureaucratic mainstream, and were definitely not the first choice of the majority of T'ai-ho's ambitious young men.[59]

As much as 25 percent of the manpower of Ming civil bureaucracy was destined in fact to prepare sheng-yuan to become teachers of other sheng-yuan , who in turn prepared sheng-yuan yet elsewhere to become teachers to yet other sheng-yuan , and so on and on, in endless loops that, over time, snaked their way this way and that through the whole country.

To return to the chien-sheng , many of them were eventually appointed government teachers—to prepare sheng-yuan to pass the very provincial exams that they had, by definition, failed at themselves. It is little wonder their prestige was low.

Ming records are replete with expressions of concern about how to clear the huge backlogs of sui-kung chien-sheng awaiting their first official appointments. Little could be done about the matter. The T'ai-ho data, though thin, support the assertions of Ming government itself


that the tribute students were old men by the time they at last became officials.[60]

There was, for example, Tseng Jen (1459-1543), from a prominent and successful lineage, the Tseng of Yueh-kang (Moon Hill Ward, township 32). Ou-yang Te remembered him well and wrote his epitaph. When Ou-yang Te became a sheng-yuan , at the age of fourteen (ca. 1510), Tseng was already fifty-one and well known locally as an authority on the Book of Changes in the orthodox Ch'eng-Chu interpretation, and he had already been a stipend student for some years. Though he always did well on the school tests conducted by the education intendants, he kept failing the provincial exams. Ou-yang Te shot right by him, achieving his chü-jen degree in 1516 (at the age of twenty) and his chin-shih in 1523. In 1523, poor old Tseng was sixty-four years old and still a county stipend student. Then in 1525, recalled Ou-yang,

Tseng was placed first on the county sui-kung list, and [his classmate] Lung Chin was placed second. The tribute rule was to test two men from each county, with the better of the two getting the selection. The education intendant tested them, and decided that Tseng's writing was the better, and that therefore he should be selected for tribute. But Tseng declined, on the grounds that Lung Chin's writing was not necessarily worse than his own, and, besides, Lung was the older. [So grateful was Lung, of Kan-chu Ward] that he called Heaven's blessings down on Tseng in the presence of everyone, and that made Tseng famous: as "Master Tseng of T'ai-ho, who yielded his slot as sui-kung ."[61]

Three years later, Tseng himself finally got his reward and became a chien-sheng , at the age of sixty-nine. At some later date, he was made assistant instructor at a Confucian school in an educationally backward part of Kwangtung Province and was said to have done well there. He retired with enough vigor left to help enlarge his ancestral temple and lend grain.[62] He died at eighty-four. Lung Chin, old as he must have been, also lived long enough to be appointed an assistant instructor.

These appear to be extreme cases, but clearly the waiting time for those on the list of expectant sui-kung could at times be measured in decades. But there were ways to circumvent the bottleneck of the student tribute system; of these, purchase was by far the most common.

Purchase of chien-sheng status was known, euphemistically, as "regulation tribute" (li-kung ). Central government openly established this purchase system for the first time soon after the security crisis of 1449, when the Mongols captured the emperor and held him hostage. It was reinstituted intermittently after that, at times when government found


itself short of revenues. At least eighty-one T'ai-ho sheng-yuan took advantage of Ming fiscal crises to buy their way around the formidable logjam of the annual tribute system.

In 1517, a silver payment schedule was issued for those who wished to become li-kung . Stipend students were asked to pay zoo taels, added students 280, and supplementary students 340.[63] In 1537 these schedules were reissued and eligibility was extended to include failed sheng-yuan (price not noted). A price list of 1550 made official positions available to all chien-sheng who wanted to leap to the front of the waiting queue (a grade 7 post in the capital went for fifty taels, and one in the provinces for thirty).[64]

Sales of chien-sheng status were, to be sure, susceptible to terrible abuse; but sales offers seem to have been made mainly to men who were probably qualified anyway. Nevertheless, from the official documents and discussions recorded in the Veritable Records , it is clear that the li-kung were resented by their sui-kung classmates and heavily discriminated against by the upper classes of officialdom, and thus they constituted yet one more despised bureaucratic sub-caste, rather than a den of moneyed privilege.

The T'ai-ho evidence shows that, indeed, the li-kung were treated worse than the sui-kung were. Virtually all li-kung were appointed to low-ranking administrative positions. The median rank at which they ended their careers was 8A, marginally below the 7A median for sui-kung .

Who were the li-kung ? It goes without saying that they came from wealthy T'ai-ho families. Interestingly, almost all of them came from academically successful families. Thirty-three li-kung were the sons or grandsons of prominent officials. It appears safe to say that, at least in T'ai-ho, the opportunities provided by the Ming state to buy preferment attracted not crass parvenus but the luckless or restless sons of the socially respected upper crust.

The lives of some half dozen T'ai-ho li-kung are known in some detail. One was Yang Ch'un-sheng of T'ai-ho city. These Yang were eminent and successful indeed, being descendants of Grand Secretary Yang Shih-ch'i. Yang Ch'un-sheng was the fourth of five sons of Yang Tso, who had won his provincial degree in 1525 and had ended his career a subprefectural magistrate (5B) in the 1540s.

Ch'un-sheng was bright, and his kin confidently expected him to succeed at least as well as his father had done. But as an added student in


the T'ai-ho County school, he failed four times at the provincial exams, and so he paid a required sum and became a li-kung .

At the imperial college in Nanking, he proved an excellent student, and so was permitted to take the provincial exams for the southern metropolitan area that were held in Nanking. Three times he failed at those. At the age of forty-two, Yang had failed seven times in twenty-one years, and on the basis of examples he had read about in the Han dynastic history, he decided he could still achieve something worthwhile as a li-kung . How else could he even begin to satisfy the expectations his family had placed upon him? So he took "a substantial sum of money" and proceeded to Peking to buy a post from the Ministry of Personnel. His wife, Mme Tseng, a wholesaler in rice and salt back in T'ai-ho, provided the money. Alas, Yang died en route of a fever that same year.[65]

Wang I-chueh (1532-83, of Nan-fu Ward township 61) also had intellectual credentials in addition to money. His relatives included uncles who were chü-jen ; officials; scholars; and devoted followers of the thought of Wang Yang-ming and Chan Jo-shui. Wang seems to have been a bit impatient. He became a sheng-yuan at age twenty-three, and three years later he bought into the Peking imperial college as a li-kung . At twenty-nine, he made a payment to the Ministry of Personnel and was then assigned the post of assistant office manager (8A) in the Directorate of Imperial Parks. After his nine-year term expired, he went home to manage lineage affairs and, from time to time, to attend Hu Chih's lectures on Confucianism.[66] His example shows how money could oil the frozen gears of official selection and placement.

For a favored few sheng-yuan , a special route into the imperial colleges was available: this was the yin (protection privilege) route, which one could take if one's father or grandfather had risen high enough in Ming bureaucracy. Upon promotion to a position ranked 3 or better, officials were permitted to nominate a son, sometimes also a grandson, for admittance into one or the other of the imperial colleges (in a few cases early in the Ming, the yin privilege led to a direct official appointment, bypassing the colleges).

Of thirty-four T'ai-ho sons and grandsons granted the protection privilege in the Ming, twenty-three eventually got official positions, all but one in administration. The median final position reached by these men was 7A, the same as that for the sui-kung chien-sheng .

In the colleges, the yin men were designated as kuan-sheng , or "offi-


cial students." It is apparent that, like the sui-kung , they could expect to spend many years actually or nominally present in the colleges before a post was assigned them. College matriculation dates are often known from entries to that effect in the Veritable Records . The dates of first appointments are sometimes known from other sources, mainly gazetteers. In the case of four men, both years are known, and these show that these particular men spent from fourteen to twenty-nine years languishing as kuan-sheng .

On November 11, 1496, the emperor endorsed the petition of Chang Ta (1432-1505, from Hsiu-ch'i, at T'ai-ho City West), at the time chief minister (3B) in the Court of Imperial Entertainments in Nanking, to have his son Chang Yin admitted into the imperial college under the yin rules. So Chang Yin enrolled, and there he stayed, until 1525, when at last he was appointed vice magistrate (8A) of little T'ai-p'ing County in Chekiang Province, whose gazetteer notes, laconically, that "because his salary came by inheritance, he tended to be insubordinate, and for that reason he was [soon] dismissed."[67] (Other T'ai-ho yin men seem to have bent better to bureaucratic discipline.)

This chapter has tried to sketch out the story of the experience of T'ai-ho men with the world of Ming government, and the moment has now come to offer some broader perspectives on issues that the discussion has raised. One issue is the nature of Ming bureaucracy. Another issue is regional and local competition for office. A third issue is the larger implications for local society of the results of that competition.

The local T'ai-ho data reveal certain things about the nature of Ming bureaucracy that might not be so easily found out by studying that bureaucracy from a purely national perspective. For one thing, the data show the crucial importance of credentialing in recruitment and in promotion.

It is possible to see how credentialing—getting recommended, winning a degree, entering the imperial colleges, etc.—was not so much an arbitrary creation as a cultural and institutional adaptation to the mathematical laws of hierarchy.

To demonstrate that idea, one needs only to know the total size of Ming civil bureaucracy (twenty to twenty-five thousand) and then to estimate the number of hierarchical levels that it contained. A case can be made for some five to nine levels; the choice is not crucial to the essence of the matter. If five, then we place the emperor on level one; 12


grand secretaries and chief ministers, say, on level two; 144 other important central officials on level three; 1,728 provincial and prefectural officials on level four; and 20,736 local, educational, etc. functionaries on level five. (This configuration results from the choice of twelve as the average number of direct subordinates controlled by any immediately higher official.) The total number of men in this theoretical hierarchy comes to 22,611—very close to the actual size of Ming bureaucracy.

All things being equal, what are any one man's chances of promotion into a vacant higher-level position from a lower level in this theoretical bureaucracy? Exactly one chance in 20,736 for those on level five, one chance in 1,728 for those on level four, and so on up the ladder. There are some further features to be noted. There ten times as many men on the lowest level (20,736) than there are on all the other levels added together (1,885). The higher a person stands in the hierarchy already, the better his chances for (further) promotion are. If one assumes seniority to be the only qualification for promotion and an average career to be twenty years long, then a man on level five in this hierarchy will spend about 92 percent of his career there and 8 percent of it (or less than two years) on level four. (If level one, the emperor's position, were open to everyone for promotion on the same basis, then everyone would serve as emperor for about half an hour!)[68]

In this light, one can understand credentialing as an adaptation to the intractable realities of promotion in hierarchical systems. The Ming established a complex series of fast and slow tracks, and we have seen just what these were and have identified them as fast or slow on the basis of the median rank of the final post the men who entered them achieved. Demeaning as it may have been, slow-tracking was the method seized upon by a highly competitive society for justifying the lowering of the expectations of the vast majority of its officials and for reducing competition for scarce positions in the upper bureaucratic echelons. (It may also be noted that the chin-shih credential, which opened the fastest track, was itself differentiated into fast and slow tracks, depending largely upon one's final ranking [1-100, 1-300, etc.] in the palace examinations.)

Also at issue is the question of the places of Kiangsi Province, Chi-an Prefecture, and T'ai-ho County in the national competition for office. Ho Ping-ti's The Ladder of Success in Imperial China pointed out long ago how, with respect to the output of chin-shih , Kiangsi Province led the nation in the fifteenth century, only to lose out to Chekiang in the sixteenth, and to fall even further behind in the seventeenth. Ho's study,


now a classic, also noted that during Kiangsi Province's fifteenth-century heyday, Chi-an Prefecture played an absolutely dominant role, both among Kiangsi prefectures and among all other prefectures in the realm; and that as Kiangsi's place among the provinces of China fell lower and lower, Chi-an Prefecture's place among the prefectures of Kiangsi did exactly the same.[69]

Ho professed himself unable adequately to account for the extraordinary socioacademic success of Chi-an Prefecture in the fifteenth century. It cannot be adequately accounted for here either, because (1) the question demands further research from a national perspective and (2) there were no prefecture-wide institutions through which common efforts toward turning young men into chin-shih might have been exerted. In addition, there was little sense among the prefectural elites that they were prefectural compatriots above and beyond all other possible modes of self-identification. The sense of county citizenship was stronger by far than any sense of being from the same prefecture or from the same province.

However, to continue Ho's paradigm of rise and decline in the output of chin-shih , it can be shown that as Kiangsi declined relative to the rest of China, and Chi-an declined relative to the rest of Kiangsi, T'ai-ho County also declined relative to the other eight counties that constituted Chi-an. Chin-shih degree winners from T'ai-ho were some 25 percent of the prefectural total from the time of the Ming founding down to the mid-fifteenth century; then their place declined slowly relative to that of competitors from the other Chi-an counties through the sixteenth century; finally it plunged to the 10-15 percent range in the first half of the seventeenth century—about where the principle of equal opportunity dictates it should have been all along.

Kiangsi men and Chi-an men of the sixteenth century were themselves aware of their declining place in the national scene, and Kiangsi man Lo Ch'i (1447-1519) thought he could explain it. He noted that when Szechwan Province bloomed in the Northern Sung, Kiangsi was obscure and far behind. Then later in the Sung, Kiangsi in turn burst forth all of a sudden. In the early Ming, Kiangsi was the cultural center (the Tsou-Lu ) of China, but in later years it "lost sixty to seventy percent of its former fame," being regularly outperformed by other provinces. Lo's explanation was that the unpredictable motions of the cosmic process, the "spiritual energy [exuded by the] mountains and rivers" (shan-ch'uan chih ch'i ), were responsible for these shifting for-


tunes. But he thought Kiangsi would some day rise again; one must just keep working hard, and wait.[70]

Finally, what does the competition for office in Ming civil bureaucracy reveal about the society of T'ai-ho, its common-descent groups and lineages in particular?

It is possible to identify T'ai-ho's more than 1,668 Ming officials with some 328 different common-descent groups and lineages.[71] If one considers each such lineage as a unit of production, competing against all the other units for the sale of its products to the Ming state, then one can see that success was by no means evenly distributed among the units.

The 328 units sort down into three or four giant firms, a hundred or so firms of middle to small size, and a huge number (204) of tiny operations, producing only one or two officials each over the whole course of the Ming. The biggest producer of all, by far, was the Ou-yang group, of Shu-chiang Ward (township 61), with 125 officials, including fourteen chin-shih . Next biggest was the Wang of Nan-fu Ward (also township 61), with fifty-eight officials, including four chin-shih . The three largest firms produced almost as many officials (236) as did the smallest two hundred and four (259).

When all 328 units are taken as members of a competitive elite, it is evident that T'ai-ho's elite was dominated by an oligarchy of unusually successful common-descent groups and lineages. And it bears keeping in mind that beneath this entire "oligopolized" elite lay a "gray" area of unknown size whose families produced no officials, though they tried; and a "white" area, again of unknown size, whose families never entered the competition at all.[72]


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