The Qing dynasty office purchase system (juanna), which allowed individuals to pay for appointments in the government, was regarded in traditional Chinese historiography as an inherently corrupt and anti-meritocratic practice. It enabled participants to become civil and military officials while avoiding the competitive government-run examination systems.
Lawrence Zhang’s groundbreaking study of a broad selection of new archival and other printed evidence—including a list of over 10,900 purchasers of offices from 1798 and narratives of purchase—contradicts this widely held assessment and investigates how observers and critics of the system, past and present, have informed this questionable negative view. The author argues that, rather than seeing office purchase as a last resort for those who failed to obtain official appointments via other means, it was a preferred method for wealthy and well-connected individuals to leverage their social capital to the fullest extent. Office purchase was thus not only a useful device that raised funds for the state, but also a political tool that, through literal investments in their positions and their potential to secure status and power, tied the interests of official elites ever more closely to those of the state.
With exacting research and sweeping vision, Lawrence Zhang has offered the most sophisticated study yet written of how the Qing state and Chinese society negotiated the path to office. By showing that the examination system can only be understood in relation to office purchase, Power for a Price becomes one of those rare books that genuinely transforms our understanding of late imperial China.
Lawrence Zhang's book is the most important study of Qing-dynasty official recruitment and elite formation to appear within the last twenty years. Zhang demonstrates that, as part of the strategic portfolio of many of the era's most successful officials and lineages, the purchase of degrees, offices, and shortcuts to appointment complemented Confucian education and examination success. Far from being the stigmatized last resort of exam failures in the desperate last decades of the dynasty, direct purchase of degrees and offices in fact constituted a regular, approved practice right through the Qing, providing a steady source of revenue (not unlike the sale of bonds) that enabled the imperial state to tap private wealth by promising repayment through future appointment. Far from being a betrayal of social mobility, the relatively low price of the lower degrees and offices made purchase a far more realistic route to upward mobility than examination alone, which tended to reinforce and reproduce elite status. This book will be required reading for all historians of China.
- 328 pages
- 6 x 9 inches
- Harvard University Asia Center
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