Zhou Confucianism? Ming Quality Control?

In an absolutely fascinating article on the modern petition redress system1 focusing on attempts by regional officials to prevent petitions from reaching a national office, the Financial Times sidebar, “Confucian Accountability” says

China’s petition system dates back to the Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago. It embodies a Confucian tradition that idealises an authoritarian yet benevolent ruler who puts the concerns of his subjects above the interests of corrupt officials.

There’s the obvious point, that the Zhou dynasty predates Confucianism by a half-millenium or more. Confucius never dealt with the issue of petitions2, nor can I recall any pre-Han thinker postulating such an active (and literate) role for commoners. All of them, though, put the welfare of the people and the state above that of individual (especially dishonest) officials. One of the principle concerns of the more institutionally-minded figures (Mozi, Xunzi, Hanfeizi) is how to pick honest officials, and root out (or work around) dishonest ones, but none of them argue for violating the chain of command, even in extraordinary circumstances. They want a monitoring system which works well in normal circumstances, not something which encourages disorder.

The sidebar continues

After the 1911 republican revolution, petitioning was abolished by the Nationalist government. The Communists reinstated it soon after their 1949 revolution.

Experts say petitioning remains basically unchanged from the system in place 500 years ago in the Ming dynasty, when the formal evaluation of government officials began to take into account the number of petitioners who travelled to the capital from their region.

Since the Nationalist government was a democratic/republican system, presumably petitioning wouldn’t be necessary. I’m a bit surprised that the article didn’t take a slightly more critical approach to the idea that petitioning was a normal process over the last sixty years and only recently has started to break down. I can’t imagine that petitioning for redress in the era of Mao or Deng wasn’t fraught with danger for the petitioner, from the problem of unauthorized travel to the assumption that Party officials are always in the right. The responses that the article describes — detention, harassment, false imprisonment under the guise of mental illness — are classic Communist party tools for handling dissension, used widely in the Soviet Union as well as in China.

The last point in the sidebar — the use of petitions as a metric of administrative quality — is central to the article: the extralegal attempts by local officials to suppress petitions and petitioners is rooted in systemic self-protection, the avoidance of the appearance of trouble. Modern transportation technology, as the article notes, makes travel easier for petitioners, and has contributed to the rise in numbers. But, of course, the nature of modern society is such that it is also much easier to identify, track, monitor petitioners now than it was even fifty years ago, much less five hundred. The problem of danson minpi (“honoring officials, despising the people” as the Japanese put it) was intense during the latter half of the 20th century in China: the scaling up of suppression efforts to match the scaling up of petitions is pretty much par for the course, but the information environment is very different now, and the question of government legitimacy more intense.


  1. via, where the discussion quickly veered into the surreal, with participants unsure whether China’s petition system made it a more responsive and fair political system than the republicanism of the US.  

  2. One of the many issues Confucius never dealt with.  

7 Comments

  1. Johnathan,

    Yes the article is a interesting but a little odd. “Olden times” is not a term most historians use. You may find it odd that they are tracing this back to the Zhou, which is obviously wrong, but then if you go to China and ask about something someone will always trace it back to the Zhou, if not the Xia. Jonathan Ocko wrote an article on the Qing appeal system, at in the first paragraph suggests that a system of commoner appeals goes back to the Sui, although the idea of appealing cases goes back to the Qin at least.

    Has anyone done anything on petitioning in Japan? I know some of the Meiji radicals got in trouble for petitioning directly to the emperor, which would suggest that the custom was still alive there, although not the law.

    Ocko, Jonathan K. “I’ll Take It All the Way to Beijing: Capital Appeals in the Qing.” The Journal of Asian Studies 47, no. 2 (May 1988): 291-315.

  2. There’s no real tradition of petitioning the Emperor, that I know of, before the Meiji; aside from the centuries of irrelevancy, the Emperor isn’t really a strong administrative head, nor are the peasants all that mobile (when they were, they responded to difficulty by absconding, not petitioning). There is a tradition of petitions to daimyo lords, but since the penalty for presenting a petition directly instead of working through the chain of command was death, it’s not what you’d call a common feature of the age. There were some cases where petitions to daimyo were presented through lower magistrates, too.

  3. I think we have to distinguish between the normal process of appealing decisions up the chain of command and petitions which go directly to the imperial offices.

    One of the things which I’ve always found fascinating is the process of ensuring honesty and diligence on the part of bureaucrats: the petition system is a stopgap, but the (actually ancient) office of the censorate and the vermillion letters of the Qing were both the kind of normal systems of control which the Maoist system has so manifestly lacked. (I know Sun Yatsen did propose keeping the censorate, but I don’t know of Chiang did.)

  4. I am way over my head here, but isn’t the Control Yuan (檢查院) supposed to be the ROC equivalent of a censorate?

  5. The current ROC Constitution included (and still includes) the right to petition when it was ratified in 1947. Not sure about earlier Nationalist constitutions. I would bet the the FT did not check.

  6. The current ROC Constitution included (and still includes) the right to petition when it was ratified in 1947. Not sure about earlier Nationalist constitutions. I would bet the the FT did not check.

    The Control Yuan is indeed a modern version of a censorate.

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