China is … a despotic state, whose principle is fear. Perhaps in the earliest dynasties, when the empire had not so large an extent, the government might have deviated a little from this spirit; but the case is otherwise at present.

(Charles De Secondat Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws)

During the Manchu dynasty … [t]he people had little direct relation to the emperor beyond paying him the annual grain tax— nothing more. Consequently, the political consciousness of the people has been very weak. The people did not care who was emperor. As soon as they had paid their grain tax they considered their duty as citizens done. The emperors wanted only the grain tax from the people and were not interested in anything else they did … We can see from this that the Chinese people have not been directly subject to the oppression of autocracy …

(Sun Yat-sen, The Three Principles of the People)

Despotism is one of the most enduring characteristics of China’s political system. From the founding of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC to the personal dictatorship of Xi Jinping, autocracy has been the country’s governing principle for thousands of years.

However, the nature of China’s imperial despotism is often misunderstood, and a clear distinction between traditional Chinese autocracy, Western absolute monarchism, and modern totalitarianism, is generally overlooked.

In the present article, we shall analyse the peculiar features of China’s imperial system, specifically the synthesis of autocracy and laissez-faire. In a future article we shall examine the similarities and differences between imperial China’s autocracy and Communist totalitarianism.

Court audience given by Emperor Qianlong, Forbidden City, Hall of Supreme Harmony, second half of the 18th century (unknown artist, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Qin Dynasty and the beginning of China’s imperial despotism

During the so-called Warring States Period (戰國時代, pinyin: Zhànguó Shídài), which lasted from 403 BC to 221 BC, ancient China consisted of seven kingdoms that fought against one another for supremacy. The seven states were:

  • the State of Wei (魏), which comprised the northern part of present-day Henan Province and the southern part of present-day Shanxi Province;
  • the State of Zhao (趙), which comprised the southern part of present-day Hebei Province and the northern part of present-day Shanxi Province;
  • the State of Han (韓), which comprised the northwestern part of present-day Henan Province and the southern part of present-day Shanxi Province;
  • the State of Qi (齊), which comprised the most part of present-day Shandong Province;
  • the State of Yan (燕), which comprised the northern part of present-day Hebei Province and the western part of present-day Liaoning Province;
  • the State of Chu (楚), which comprised the areas of present-day Jiangsu Province, Anhui Province, Hubei Province and Hunan Province;
  • the State of Qin (秦), which comprised the areas of present-day Shaanxi Province, Sichuan Province and the eastern part of Gansu Province (Ming, 2011, p. 5).
(by Philg88 via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most characteristic features of ancient China was the general consensus that developed around the ideology of monarchism. Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, the Chinese-speaking world never experimented with political systems that allowed for popular participation.

Monarchism was an all-encompassing ideology promoted by Chinese intellectuals of various schools of thought. The two most influential philosophies of China, Confucianism and Legalism, may have disagreed on the methods and moral principles of rulership, yet both of them concurred that the State could only be governed by a single individual. (Pines, 2012, p. 48)

Confucians emphasized the ruler’s virtue and role as a moral leader. Confucius’ Analects state:

The Master said, “One who rules through the power of Virtue is analogous to the Pole Star: it simply remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars” …

The Master said, “If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations (zheng) and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame. If, however, you guide them with Virtue, and keep them in line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves.”

(Confucius, 2003, p. 8)

We can see that Confucius did not believe in a tyrannical government that punished and terrorized its subjects. Rather, he espoused a view of “enlightened despotism” in which the ruler was to be imbued with high moral principles. Although this notion may sound idealistic, we shall see that Confucian thought became one of the cornerstones of Chinese imperial governance following the tyranny of the first emperor.

Confucius’ philosophy revolved around the principle of filial piety and family ideology. Consequently, he regarded government as a patriarchal institution:

Ji Kangzi [chief minister of the kingdom of Lu] asked, “How can I cause the common people to be respectful, dutiful, and industrious?”

The Master said, “Oversee them with dignity, and the people will be respectful; oversee them with filiality and kindness, and the people will be dutiful; oversee them by raising up the accomplished and instructing those who are unable, and the people will be industrious.”

(Confucius, 2003, p. 14)

While Confucian thinkers believed that the ruler needed to lead the people by virtuous behaviour, the Legalists held the view that human beings were inherently evil and would corrupt the state if the ruler did not control them through strict laws and punishments.

As Fu (1996) explained:

The central theme of the Legalists’ political philosophy is the supremacy of authority and centralization of power in the sovereign. They advocated the total subordination of the common people to the ruler and the domination of the state over society. The Legalists conceived of law primarily as a penal tool the ruler uses to maintain his governance over his subjects and propounded the rule by law, not the rule of law.The works of the Legalists are thus mainly concerned with the maintenance and consolidation of the power of the ruler. The Legalists believed that in the pursuance of this goal political action of the ruler should never be constrained by ethical norms or deflected by moralistic considerations. For this reason, China’s ancient Legalists were the real precursors of the modern “realists” (Realpolitik).

(Fu, 1996, p. 12)

The Book of Lord Shang, one of the foundational texts of Legalism, states:

A weak people means a strong state and a strong state means a weak people. Therefore, a country, which has the right way, is concerned with weakening the people. If they are simple they become strong, and if they are licentious they become weak. Being weak, they are law-abiding; being licentious, they let their ambition go too far; being weak, they are serviceable, but if they let their ambition go too far, they will become strong …

If the people live in humiliation they value rank; if they are weak, they honour office, and if they are poor, they prize rewards. If the people are governed by means of punishments, they enjoy service, and if the people are made to fight by means of rewards, they scorn death. Therefore, if, in war, one’s army is efficient, one is called strong.

If the people have private honours, they hold rank cheap and disdain office, if they are rich, they think lightly of rewards. Orderly people are ashamed of humiliations, and if they are made to fight by means of punishments, they will fight; if in fighting people are afraid of death and behave in a disorderly manner, the result will be that soldiers and farmers will be lazy and the country weak.

Farming, trade, and office are the three permanent functions in a state. Farmers open up the soil, merchants import products, officials rule the people. These three functions give rise to parasites, six in number, which are called: care for old age, living on others, beauty, love, ambition, and virtuous conduct. If these six parasites find an attachment, there will be dismemberment …

If the law is crooked, order turns into disorder; if reliance is placed on virtue, there is much talking; if government measures are numerous, the state is in disorder, and if there is much talking the army is weak. But if the law is clear, government measures are limited; if reliance is placed on force, talking ceases; if government measures are limited, the country enjoys orderly administration, and if talking ceases, the army is strong. Therefore, in ruling a great country, it becomes small and in ruling a small country, it becomes great.

If the government takes such measures as the people hate, the people are made weak, and if it takes such measures as the people like, the people are made strong. But a weak people means a strong state and a strong people means a weak state. If the government takes such measures as the people like, they are made strong, and if strong people are made even stronger, the army becomes doubly weak; but if the government takes such measures as the people hate, they are made weak, and if weak people are made even weaker, the army becomes doubly strong.

(Shang, 1963, pp. 303-308)

Prior to 403 BC Chinese kings already enjoyed a wide range of powers and prerogatives, such as commanding troops, performing religious rituals, constructing public works, and diplomacy. But it was during the Warring States Period that the kingdoms began to centralize power in earnest in order to strengthen dynastic rule. (Pines, 2012, p. 46)

In 453 BC, the powerful State of Jin had been partitioned into three states by the three “scheming ministers,” the heads of the lineages of Wei, Zhao and Han. These new states were determined to avoid the same political disintegration that they had caused to the State of Jin. They therefore established a “ruler-centred” government in order to eliminate all possible political adversaries. (Pines, 2012, p. 47-48)

The centralization of power in the hands of the monarch was aided by Confucianism, Legalism and other schools which provided an ideological justification for the consolidation of autocratic rule.

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The strongest state during the Warring States Period was the Qin Kingdom, which began to establish its military and administrative superiority from around 351 BC. Incidentally, it was Lord Shang, the author of the aforementioned Legalist classic, who helped Qin attain its status as a great power.

Lord Shang was a young nobleman who defected from the state of Wei and moved to Qin. After gaining the trust of the Qin ruler, Lord Shang initiated a series of reforms to strengthen the absolute power of the king and increase the efficiency of the government. He abolished all hereditary feudal ranks, replacing them with a system based on personal merit. He promoted the adoption of strict laws that were carved in stone and sent out to every part of the kingdom. He instituted severe punishments to deter people from violating the laws, such as cutting off the nose or feet of convicts or boiling them in a cauldron. Peasants were allowed to buy and sell land in order that low taxation could raise production. (Ropp, 2010, p. 20)

The ascent of Qin to a position of pre-eminence continued under the reign of Ying Zheng, who in 246 BC became King of Qin at the age of thirteen. King Zheng’s chief minister, Li Si (李斯), was a Legalist, like his predecessor Lord Shang.

King Zheng, aided by the reforms of Li Si, succeeded in building up an authoritarian state, and in defeating his neighbours one after another until, in 221, he unified ancient China and created the first imperial dynasty. Zheng assumed the title Qin Shi Huangdi (秦始皇帝; literally, First Sovereign Lord of Qin). Until the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, all rulers of the empire used the title Huangdi.

After the founding of the unified empire, the Legalist tenets were implemented throughout the Qin domain. The currencies of the former states were replaced by Qin currency. Weights and measures were standardized. The Qin style of writing was adopted as the official imperial system. The Qin state built over 4,000 miles of roads to connect all parts of the empire. Hundreds of thousands of labourers were conscripted to build palaces and infrastructure like the ambitious Grand Canal. The Great Wall was erected on the northern and western border.

Li Si initiated the division of the empire into thirty-six administrative commanderies (郡; jun), which were themselves broken up into counties (xian; 縣). Each commandery and county was administered by a civil official, a military official and an inspector, all of whom were under the direct authority of the central government.

Another important reform was the strategy of self-policing aimed at turning the people into law-enforcers. The Qin state divided the population into groups of five and ten families, and each group was made responsible for the behaviour of everyone of its members. If anyone in the group committed a crime, the entire group was punished, unless they reported the crime themselves. (Ropp, 2010, pp. 21-22; Fu, 1996, p. 19)

Despite its unprecedented level of power, the Qin Dynasty had a weakness. Its Legalist policies were so cruel and tyrannical that they ultimately alienated vast sections of the population, including many intellectuals, especially Confucians, who had been repressed and marginalized by the emperor.

Indeed, though it unified China and established a system that constituted the foundation of an empire that ended only in 1911, the Qin Dynasty itself lasted only from 221 BC to 207 BC, and it only had two emperors.

The Legalists believed that harsh government and absolute rule would ensure a strong state. But in fact, the lack of humanity of the Qin caused it to lose popular support. It was, indeed, one of its strict rules which precipitated its downfall.

According to the Qin draft system all male peasants were required to register at the age of 21. Many of them were then recruited to serve in the military for two years between 23 and 56 years old. Reporting late for military duty was a capital offence.

In 209 BC, about 900 peasants were conscripted to serve in the frontier troops stationed in Yuyang (near present-day Beijing). But because of a storm, their march was delayed. Two of the peasants, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, convinced their fellow recruits to rise up against the Qin Dynasty in order to escape the capital punishment. This was the so-called Dazexiang Uprising, which set in motion a series of rebellions that would culminate in the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty and the founding of the Han Dynasty, which ruled for over 400 years (from 206 BC to 220 AD).

In the work The Faults of Qin, Jia Yi (賈誼), a Confucian scholar and author from the early Han Dynasty, described what he regarded as the mistakes of the first imperial rulers. Jia Yi, like many other Confucian literati, denounced the Qin state’s cruelty and tyranny as the reason for its swift downfall.

[The Qin emperor] discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the writings of the hundred schools in order to make the people ignorant. He destroyed the major fortifications of the states, assassinated their powerful leaders, collected all the arms of the empire, and had them brought to his capital at Hsien-yang where the spears and arrowheads were melted down to make twelve human statues, all in order to weaken the people of the empire.

After this he ascended and fortified Mount Hua and set up fords along the Yellow River, strengthening the heights and precipices overlooking the deep valleys. He garrisoned the strategic points with skilled generals and expert bowmen and stationed trusted ministers and well-trained soldiers to guard the land with arms and question all who passed back and forth.

When he had thus pacified the empire, the First Emperor believed in his heart that with the strength of his capital within the Pass and his walls of metal extending a thousand miles, he had established a rule that would be enjoyed by his descendants for ten thousand generations. For a while after the death of the First Emperor the memory of his might continued to awe the common people. Yet Ch’en She, born in a humble hut with tiny windows and wattle door, a day laborer in the fields and a garrison conscript, whose abilities could not match even the average, who had neither the worth of Confucius and Mo Tzu nor the wealth of T’ao Chu or I Tun, stepped from the ranks of the common soldiers, rose up from the paths of the fields and led a band of some hundred poor, weary troops in revolt against the Ch’in. They cut down trees to make their weapons, raised their flags on garden poles, and the whole world in answer gathered about them like a great cloud, brought them provisions, and followed after them as shadows follow a form. In the end the leaders of the entire east rose up together and destroyed the House of Ch’in.

Ch’in, beginning with an insignificant amount of territory, reached the power of a great state and for a hundred years made all the other great lords pay homage to it. Yet after it had become master of the whole empire and established itself within the fastness of the Pass, a single commoner opposed it and its ancestral temples toppled, its ruler died by the hands of men, and it became the laughing stock of the world.

Why? Because it failed to rule with humanity and righteousness and to realize that the power to attack and the power to retain what one has thereby won are not the same.

(De Bary, Chan, & Watson, 1960, Pp. 151-152)

The Qin Dynasty had risen with the help of Legalist thought, but the tyranny it established proved to be unbearable to the people, leading to revolts. Legalism was discredited by the terror of the first two emperors, and the collapse of the dynasty served as a reminder to future Chinese rulers that law and punishment were not a solid basis upon which imperial power could rest.

Qin Shihuang had declared Legalism to be state ideology. In 213 BC, he allegedly ordered the burning of the books of all major philosophies with the exception of the Legalist texts. A year later, he had 400 Confucian scholars burnt alive.

Paradoxically, the cruelty of Legalism helped Confucianism prevail in the long term.

Autocracy and Laissez-faire: How the Han Dynasty synthesized Legalism and Confucianism

The Qin and the Han Dynasties can be credited for laying the foundations of the imperial system that lasted until 1911.

The Qin state unified the empire and created a bureaucracy as well as centralized rulership. However, its harsh laws and lack of humanity alienated the people, causing its demise.

After leading a successful uprising against the Qin, in 202 BC Liu Bang (劉邦), a peasant who had risen up in the ranks of the Qin army, became the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, assuming the imperial name Gaozu of Han (漢高祖). (Wright, 2001, p. 50)

The Han Dynasty was confronted with the dilemma of how to maintain the unity of the empire brought about by its predecessor, while at the same time strengthening its institutional and moral foundations so as to avoid a renewed disintegration of the state.

The major accomplishment of Gaozu and his successors was to build up by peaceful means what the Qin had attempted to achieve through terror. They did so by turning to Confucianism as a philosophy that would provide an ethical, humane ideology to the empire, and a moral, lofty justification for autocratic governance.

The Han did not entirely discard Legalism, which, while too cynical and brutal to be the only philosophical underlying principle of the state, provided important practical strategies and methods for implementing authoritarianism. Furthermore, Daoism and ying-yang theory were also partly incorporated into the new state ideology. Thus the Han created a synthesis of Chinese thought that preserved monarchism while mitigating its most violent and oppressive aspects. (see De Bary, Chan, & Watson, 1960, pp. 146-156)

During the reign of the first emperor, the state had issued a plethora of regulations affecting almost every aspect of society. After the fall of Qin, the size of government was reduced and the absolute power of the emperor was limited by “checks and balances.” This objective was accomplished through the new doctrine of “nonaction” (無爲), or “effortlessness,” and through delegation of power by the ruler to his ministers and the bureaucracy.

According to Confucian thought, the emperor should not personally deal with administrative matters in the government, but rather delegate those to ministers who, at least in theory, were supposed to be chosen on merit. The emperor ought to be the highest moral authority in the state, leading the people by virtue. (Guo, 2002, p. 75 ; De Bary, Chan, & Watson, 1960, p. 156)

The following excerpts from the Huainanzi (淮南子) and the Chunqiu Fanlu (春秋繁露), two of the most important philosophical texts of the early Han period, shed light on how Chinese intellectuals of that era viewed the role of the emperor:

The craft of the ruler consists in disposing of affairs without action and issuing orders without speaking. The ruler remains still and pure without moving, impartial without wavering. Compliantly he delegates affairs to his subordinates and without troubling himself exacts success from them. Thus though he has his plans in his mind, he allows his counselors to proclaim them; though his mouth can speak, he allows his administrators to talk for him; though his feet can walk, he lets his ministers lead; and though he has ears to hear, he permits the officials to remonstrate with him. Thus among his policies are none that fail and among his plans none that go awry. . . .

When the ruler gives ear to affairs of government he is pure and enlightened and without delusion. His mind is empty and his will weak. Therefore his ministers gather about to assist and counsel him, and whether they be stupid or wise, worthy or unworthy, there are none who do not exhaust their talents for him. Only then may he proclaim the rites that will be the basis of his rule. Thus he rides upon the power of the multitude as though it were his carriage, drives the wisdom of the multitude as though it were his horse, and though he traverse dark plains and steep roads, he will never go astray.

The ruler of men hides himself far away in the depths to avoid heat and dampness, dwells behind many closed doors to escape rebels and evildoers. He knows neither the shape of the villages about him nor the form of the hills and lakes far away. Beyond his curtains-of-state his eyes see no farther than ten li, his ears hear no more than a hundred paces, and yet there is nothing in the whole world that he does not comprehend, for those who come to report to him are many, and those who survey for him are numerous …

The power to achieve success or failure lies with the ruler. If the measuring-line is true, then the wood will be straight, not because one makes a special effort, but because that which it is “ruled” by makes it so. In the same way if the ruler is sincere and upright, then honest officials will serve in his government and scoundrels will go into hiding,

(Huainanzi 9:1a, 6b-7a; 9:8b-9a, quoted in: De Bary, Chan, & Watson, 1960, Pp. 158, 161)

Heaven holds its place on high and sends down its blessings, hides its form and shows forth its light. Because it holds a high position it is exalted and because it sends down blessings it is benevolent (jen). Because it hides its form it is holy and because it shows its light it is bright. Thus to hold an exalted position and practice benevolence, to hide one’s holiness and show forth light, is the way of Heaven. Therefore, he who acts as the ruler of men imitates Heaven’s way, within hiding himself far from the world so that he may be holy, and abroad observing widely that he may be enlightened. He employs a host of worthy men that he may

(Chunqiu Fanlu, Sec. 18, 6:5b-6a, quoted in: De Bary, Chan, & Watson, 1960, p. 158)

The Chinese imperial system as a hybrid form of government

We have explained how the Qin Dynasty built up a despotic regime, and how the Han Dynasty resorted to Confucianism and other Chinese ideologies to create a more humane version of autocratic rule.

But what kind of government resulted from the synthesis of various intellectual movements? Was the Chinese empire an authoritarian state where the emperor had unlimited power? Or was it a benevolent government where the ruler provided a moral example to his subjects without resorting to brutal methods?

The answer is that the Chinese empire was both. The Qin and the Han developed a hybrid system in which there was an inherent and constant tension between absolute rule and checks and balances that were put in place to prevent the rise of another Qin Shihuang.

We can understand this best by looking at the last imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

During the Qing Dynasty, the emperor, venerated as the Son of Heaven, was in theory the absolute ruler. However, there were a number of checks on his power.

First of all, one of the most interesting aspects of Chinese rulership was the notion that the state did not belong to the emperor, but to the people, and that the emperor was only entrusted with a mandate to govern for the common good. (Hsieh, 1925, p. 24)

For this reason, when Empress Dowager Longyu issued the Abdication Edict on behalf of the infant Qing emperor Puyi on 12 February 1912, she stated that “according [to the teachings of the sages] the country is the possession of the People (天下爲公).”

One of the corollaries of the popular sovereignty doctrine was that the people had an inherent right to rebel against a tyrannical ruler. The right to rebel was not formalized in law, but it was implicitly accepted. It was used as a justification by insurgents who attempted to overthrow a dynasty. (Hsiao, 1960, p. 709)

Second, emperors were supposed to conform to ritual propriety and were partly bound by precedents set by their predecessors. (Rowe 2012, p. 36)

Third, the Chinese empire developed a professional and highly sophisticated bureaucracy, which diluted the direct power of the emperor. There was the “inner” administration, located in the capital, and the “outer” administration, which refers to the local bureaucracy in the provinces.

The highest office in the imperial administration was that of the Grand Secretariat, the most coveted of all government posts. (Rowe 2012, p. 33)

Below the Grand Secretariat were the so-called Six Boards: the Board of Revenue, of Civil Office, of War, of Criminal Justice, of Public Works, and of Rites.

The Board of Civil Office was tasked with assigning posts in the bureaucracy. The Board of Rites, a distinctly Confucian feature of imperial administration, was in charge of imperial rituals, protocol, and etiquette, as well as of overseeing the civil service examinations and, in general, of supervising the moral conduct of the bureaucracy. The Board of Rites also managed the tribute system, which was synonymous with imperial foreign policy until the clash with European powers forced Beijing to adapt to Western diplomatic standards. (Rowe, 2012, p. 34)

Another important institution of the administration was the Censorate. The censors (御史 Yushi, literally: imperial historians) were initially tasked with recording the emperor’s speeches and censoring his actions in order to hold him to high standards. (Hsieh, 1925, p. 87)

Gradually, however, as the centralization of the state progressed, the focus of the Censorate shifted from the emperor to the bureaucracy. The main duties of the Censorate were the supervision of government officials of all ranks, the evaluation of their performance and personal conduct. Censors had the power to impeach officials, to audit the accounts of the Board of Revenue and the provinces, they oversaw the proper implementation of rituals and etiquette as well as imperial examinations.

The censors also transmitted all documents from the Grand Secretariat or the Council of State, made a copy of each document except for those classified as “secret”, examined and archived them, and reported mistakes to the emperor. The censors came to be regarded as imperial spies in the administration, as the “eyes and ears” of the emperor. (Hsieh, 1925, pp. 88-91)

Nevertheless, the censors partly retained the power to criticize the ruler, as shown by an edict issued by Emperor Taizong in 1627:

The Censorate is a Court of critics of the Government. The censors are to criticize my negligence of duty, dismissal of the loyal and able, appointment of the unfit, promotion of the unserviceable and demotion of the meritorious. If the princes and ministers neglect their work, indulge in wine and woman, love pleasure, take property from the people without due compensation, show contempt in court ceremonies, or carelessness in dress or be absent from audience under the pretense of sickness, the Censorate shall investigate and report. . . . . If the six departments decide things wrongly or falsely report the decision of an undecided affair; the censors shall make them known to me. If an appeal is made to the Censorate, it shall decide whether it should be made known to me. It shall check its own members from receiving bribery.

(quoted in: Hsieh, 1925, p. 91)

Fourth, imperial examinations and the pre-eminence of Confucian thought created a bureaucratic and ideological machinery which a single ruler could not easily alter or replace. The class of scholar-officials imbued with Confucian tenets was indeed one of the most enduring factors in the stability of the empire throughout the centuries.

Fifth, the vast empire was governed by a relatively small bureaucracy. In 1800 there were only around 20,000 official posts in the empire for a population of about 400 million. (Rowe 2012, pp. 150, 152)

Given its limited resources, the Qing state was not interested in regulating every aspect of society, but it rather had a “laissez-faire” approach when it came to its relationship with local communities.

Sixth, the imperial government allowed for a high degree of local autonomy as long as the people paid their taxes, caused no trouble, and did not question the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty. The empire established a system of local self-policing in order that the people may act as law-enforcers. Emperors usually mustered the oppressive tools of the state only when they were confronted with rebellions and open defiance of imperial authority.

On a day-to-day basis rural communities were supposed to police themselves through the so-called baojia system. The following document issued in 1708 explains how the baojia system worked:

Each household is given a placard on which the official seal is affixed.The names and number of adult males are written on it. In case anyof them go away, their destination is recorded; in case any come intothe households, the places from which they come are ascertained.It is forbidden to take in strangers and suspicious characters, unlessa thorough questioning of them has been made. Every ten householdsset up a p’ai-t’ou [placard-head], every ten p’ai a chia-t’ou, and everyten chia a pao-chang…. Hostels keep registers for the purpose of checking [the guests] and paper placards are also given to templesand shrines. At the end of each month, the pao-chang submits a kan “chieh [willing bond], giving assurance that everything has been wellin the neighborhoods, which [kan-chiek] is sent to the official con-cerned for inspection. Whoever fails to comply will be punished.

(Hsiao, 1960, pp. 44-45)

During the Qing Dynasty, the baojia system was placed under the authority of the Board of Revenue for purposes of taxation and surveillance. As mentioned above, one of the most important functions of the baojia was law-enforcement. Each member of a baojia was required to report to the baojia head any person guilty of a crime, and the baojia head would then report the crime to local authorities. Failure to do so would bring punishment on the entire 10-household unit, thus increasing the pressure on individuals to comply with the law. (Hsiao, 1960, p. 45)

Self-policing was reinforced by Confucian ideology, whose pervasiveness in imperial China cannot be overstated. In the Confucian society of the empire, the individual existed as a member of his or her family, so that from childhood individuality was subjected to a strictly hierarchical order based on age, gender and social position. The cornerstone of Confucianism was the concept of filial piety. Family ideology was used by the state to consolidate imperial authority, as the emperor was portrayed as the “father” whom the subjects-children had to defer to and obey. That was a notion which the common people could easily understand, since it reflected on a large scale the hierarchical family structure that they personally experienced and to which they conformed.

Local communities were eager to avoid trouble with the authorities and tried to resolve disputes among themselves. As Freedman (1958) stated:

the structure and ideology of government in China encouraged the exercise of local autonomy in the sense that, provided enough taxes were delivered up and violence and sedition were not apparent, the local community was expected to look after its own affairs. The low ratio of bureaucrats to population would have made it a virtual impossibility for the state to intervene effectively in a wide range of local affairs, even if the theory of government had promoted such an intervention. In fact, bureaucrats were discouraged from meddling in the life of the communities in their charge. In the second place, lineages were eager to guard their internal quarrels from the gaze of the world outside, and in attempting to keep their own peace in their own way they were abetted by a judicial system which, while in theory it might treat the individual at law on the merits of his case, in practice would normally be willing to accept the opinions of his influential lineage fellows against him in his suit. In this fashion the magistrate’s court was a mechanism which the lineage could use as a sanction against its recalcitrant members, either by invoking its direful judgment in an extreme case or by withholding its own support from a member who, against its wishes, went to law.

(Freedman, 1958, pp. 114-115)

According to Steve Tsang (2004), the “best possible government in the Chinese political tradition” had to meet five requirements: “efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people.” (Tsang, 2004, p. 197)

Whether successive imperial dynasties succeeded in fulfilling the highest standards of Chinese governance is a matter of debate. Tsang indeed argues that, paradoxically, it was the British who created the best example of such political model in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the imperial authorities allowed for a high degree of local autonomy, to the extent that the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, whom we quoted at the beginning of this article, claimed that the Chinese had never known Western-style despotism and had enjoyed too much freedom throughout their history.

There were, however, times when emperors asserted their power with the utmost brutality. Violent measures were usually carried out during rebellions and military campaigns.

The imperial legal code listed 10 crimes, the so-called “ten abominations,” which were considered the most heineous of all felonies. It was not a coincidence that the first of the ten abominations was the crime of “plotting a rebellion.” The imperial state indeed suppressed even organizations, such as religions and secret societies, whenever it deemed them too powerful. (Ownby, 1993, p. 37) For instance, in 1753 Qing officials in Fujian Province arrested members of a secret society called Tiechihui on charges of plotting an uprising. (Antony et al., 1993, p. 48)

When in 1787 the commoner Lin Shuangwen, a member of another secret society, the Tiandihui, initiated an anti-dynastic rebellion in Taiwan, the Qing state committed considerable resources to put it down.

In order to suppress the uprising, the regular Taiwan garrison of 12,000 men was not sufficient, so that the imperial government was compelled to send 40,000 additional troops from southern China and to mobilize 50,000 local militia. According to Qing calculations, during the conflict the authorities provided aid to around 650,000 refugees. The total population of Taiwan, according to Qing estimates dating back to 1777, was around 839,000 people. When the rebellion was crushed, Lin Shuangwen was taken prisoner and sent to Beijing, where he was executed. (Ownby, 1996, p. 56)

The Qing state also did not hesitate to use force when it launched military campaigns to conquer new territories and subdue peoples in border regions.

In 1755, emperor Qianlong launched a military campaign against the Zunghar (also spelled Dzungar) people, a group of Mongol Buddhist tribes. The emperor ordered the massacre of all Zunghar captives. In an edict he declared: “Show no mercy at all to these rebels. Only the old and weak should be saved. Our previous military campaigns were too lenient. If we act as before, our troops will withdraw, and further trouble will occur.”

In another edict he stated: “If a rebel is captured and his followers wish to surrender, he must personally come to the garrison, prostrate himself before the commander, and request surrender. If he only sends someone to request submission, it is undoubtedly a trick. Tell Tsengünjav to massacre these crafty Zunghars. Do not believe what they say.”

Generals who exterminated Zunghars were rewarded, while those who merely occupied their land while letting the people escape were punished. When General Chebudengzhabu captured a group of Zunghars, he was ordered to “take the young and strong and massacre them” and award the women as booty. Even young men who surrendered were executed or enslaved on grounds that “their ancestors had been chieftains.” Old, women and children were sent as bondservants to loyal Mongol tribes or to the ruling Manchu. The Zunghars disappeared as a state and a people, and their land was depopulated. It is estimated that around 90 percent of the Zunghars were exterminated. (Perdue, 2005, pp. 283-285)


The Chinese imperial system rested on an inherent contradiction between autocratic rule and laissez-faire. The Qin Dynasty had created a despotic centralized state. That system was maintained by following dynasties, yet mitigated by Confucian morality, local autonomy, and a professional bureaucracy. On the one hand, the emperor was the supreme ruler of the state and could muster considerable resources to suppress rebellions, as well as real or supposed threats to the ruling dynasty. On the other hand, the size of the government was small, and it left the vast majority of the population alone as long as they did not challenge the authority of the state and paid their taxes.


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