The concept of corruption in Imperial times.
The political structure of China in most dynasties was of an all powerful Emperor, who was advised by an extensive well-educated bureacracy who also administered the law and implemented Imperial decrees. To gain a place in that bureaucracy candidates had to study very hard and sit for a public examination. As a system, it likely had some important advantages. The examinations were relatively open. If influential people in a certain district heard of a bright young man, they may well pay for his education with the goal of being able to use his influence if he was succesful. (you can see where that could go).
The Imperial Examination
The origins of the exam system lie in the Han period, but the early scholarly examinations were consolidated during the Sui period, and began to be truly effective under the Tang Dynasty. Between the Tang period and the late Qing, the civil service examinations dropped out of use for short periods and underwent occasional reform. But the content remained remarkably constant. The core texts consisted of the Four Books and the Five Classics, works attributed to Confucius and certain of his disciples, along with a number of approved commentaries.
Until the Guanxu Reforms of 1898, the notorious eight-legged essay, a rigid traditional format, was the mainstay of the exam papers. Rote learning of the Confucian classics was fundamental to success in the exams, and the scholar who obtained the highest degree, the jinshi, would have his memory trained to a tremendous degree. Texts of a total of over 400,000 characters had to be thoroughly memorised if a candidate was to have any hope of progressing to a civil service position, and even at the district level, the pass rate was only 1 or 2%.
Joining the Imperial Civil Service
To obtain a civil service post, a candidate had to pass through several stages, starting with preliminary local exams, and progressing, if successful, through to district, provincial and palace examinations. Exams were held every three years. The district degree was the shengyuan, which entailed exemption from both corporal punishment and the corvee labour dues, the right to wear a scholar's robes, and a small state salary. Essentially, a successful candidate became a member of the gentry.
To obtain a civil service position, a scholar generally required the juren provincial degree, which would take would take years of study, and even a candidate could not reasonably expect to do so before he was thirty. Many candidates who were eventually successful did not achieve office until they had reached a venerable age. The jinshi degrees were prospects for only a very few exceptional scholars. For the very highest ministerial posts, the best examination essays were selected by the Emperor himself.
A Meritocratic Aristocracy
Aristocracy-by-examination had far-reaching consequences. A high degree of national stability was ensured despite changes of emperor and dynasty because the civil service, fuelled by the exam system, could continue independently of the imperial regime. Even China's foreign conquerors, the Mongols and the Manchu, realised the benefits of the examination system. Despite denigrating Han Chinese scholars as the “Stinking Ninth” in their social ranking, the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty retained the system. The Manchu tribesmen who captured Beijing in 1644 to found the Qing Dynasty restored the civil service examinations only two years later, and although they excluded Han Chinese from the highest echelons of the Civil Service, they clearly recognised the adhesive value of the exams in binding the Han intelligentsia to the Qing regime.
Most importantly, the civil examinations provided a conduit for the aspirations of able men from almost any social stratum. While there are a few famous literary instances of women dressing up as men to take the exams, in practice, women were entirely excluded from the system. But amongst men, the exams were generally open to all, with the exception of a few classes such as actors and slaves.
Undoubtedly, success in the examinations was easier for the well-off. In the late Qing period in particular, corruption was widespread; examiners could be bribed, and early stages of the exam process could be skipped for a fee. Tutors, books and brushes all cost money, so poor candidates were at a disadvantage even during periods when bribery was frowned upon. Despite this, many poor scholars did succeed in their ambitions. During the Qing period, over a third of jinshi degree holders came from families with little or no educational background. Nor was the system biased towards the inhabitants of the capital. Degrees were awarded to scholars from throughout China; indeed the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang boasted the greatest number of jinshi graduates.
From a 2002 essay by Justin Crozier, published in China in Focus magazine. (web-link: http://www.sacu.org/examinations.html )
The Emperor often became a figure-head in this system, in which case the bureaucracy just kept on doing what it was supposed to - run the country.
Of course, some of their tasks were more esoteric, as in this painting of scholars in the Northern Qi dynasty collating classic texts.
The above painting is held today in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sinologist John K. Fairbank, in his book, China: A New History (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006) describes the scene,
... the four scholars shown in this detail [the left-hand side of this painting above shown in his book] are at play as well as at work. Although the two seated on the far side of the large wooden platform have their brushes and papers in hand, the foreground pair appear to be smiling and teasing each other with pushing and pulling, while a small boy removes shoes on the right. Two maid-servants have set out cups and heaping dishes and food, but one dish has been knocked over by the playful pair. On the left edge of the platform are still more diversions—a musical instrument, the qin (zither), and equipment for competing at throwing arrows into a vase.
Some may say, were Public Servants ever different? But that would be unfair to many clever men who worked hard in the assigned posts.
The Northern Qi dynasty ruled part of north China for about 25 years in the 6th century CE. History tells us that the State was plagued by corrupt officials.