Chinese Imperial Officials guān huàn

For thousands of years China has had an advanced, professional civil administration, long before any other nation on earth. To become an official was the dream of many Chinese as it was the one sure route to esteem and a quiet, wealthy and cushy life. When the European missionaries first came to China they were greatly impressed by this meritocracy, back home the corrupt system of personal patronage was the only way to acquire a position of power.

To be appointed to a government post in the Imperial civil service a candidate had to show proficiency in the public examinations (we have a whole section dedicated to the examination system). The open and fair examination and administration system impressed the Europeans so much that soon enough these ideas began to be copied back home.

Jiangxi, opera
Jiangxi Opera performance. Actors in the costumes of Imperial officials Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Intensive education

Boys, perhaps as young as eight years old would learn by heart the basics of the written language from such books as the Three Character Classic and Thousand Character Classic. Already they were set apart from the mass of illiterate people. Their education then took in mathematics with numerical problems to solve. Even a bright student would need to study up to the age of 30 to prepare for the top level of examination. However the examinations selected not just on knowledge but also on acceptance of the philosophic orthodoxy. Novel interpretations of the Classics rarely won favor and so the system stultified intellectual inquiry and development. Schools and academies passed on knowledge to the next generation of officials.

Having an official in the family was a distinct advantage as they could give guidance on examination questions likely to come up and which answers were expected. Working in the house of an official was also a good way to learn all about how to become an official and so a job working there was a prized opportunity. Officials were supposed to be recruited on merit through the Imperial examination system but many still did receive appointment due to family connections and bribery. Someone from a humble background of a little known family was very unlikely to pass the three stages of examination without the backing of a powerful patron.

Kowtowing before the magistrate. Official session at a Chinese Yamen, Guangzhou, pre-1889. Image available under a Creative Commons license


Once they passed the examinations the successful scholars would join a pool of courtiers awaiting an appointment and there undertake menial duties. Once appointed they entered a probationary period. A report appraising junior officials was written so that their performance could be assessed. Their grade determined their stipend and they were paid in grain, coin and silk depending on circumstances.

Officials aspired to jobs in central government and, may be in time, even run one of the great nine ministries of state. Most senior appointments were for just three years, this was important as it did not allow enough time for the official to set up a local power base.

Han dynasty civil service

In Han dynasty times appointments began to be made on merit rather than patronage. Twenty orders of seniority were created and only the top 'marquis' grade was hereditary. Twelve of the grades were intended for scholar-officials not the aristocracy. If an official committed a crime they lost their post and became an ordinary member of the public again and their immediate family could be used as slaves. At this time about 1% of population lived as 'property' of an owner, a slave owner had limited rights over their slaves but there was no mechanism to become a freeman.

Ming tombs, statue, sacred way
Statue on the way of souls towards the Ming tombs near Beijing. This is one of a pair of facing statues representing an official waiting to deliver his reports to the emperor. The reports would be in the form of vertical ideogramic script brushed onto a number of wood or ivory tablets. Available under a Creative Commons License

Tang dynasty civil service

By the Tang dynasty the last vestiges of the old feudal system had gone. The aristocracy consisted of the large imperial family who ruled over vast estates. It had nine levels of nobility with the top three reserved for the royal family (1st class prince or king ( wáng); 2nd class prince or king and 3rd class duke). The salary for each grade was fixed to the tax due for a number of families (10,000 families for the top grade; 300 for the lowest). The Emperor could appoint ordinary people to the bottom six grades as a reward for service.

The nine levels of nobility were mirrored by nine levels of civil administration ( jiǔ pǐn), appointed on merit. The founding Tang Emperor Taizong set up a re-invigorated examination system to root out patronage and nepotism. Such posts were much sought after as both the aristocracy and senior officials were exempt from taxation. Officials had little local power and independence, it was a very centralized system and is aptly described as numerous villages ruled by the Emperor - a very flat power pyramid. Some emperors took it upon themselves to select candidates for even junior positions far away.

The Emperor met with a Council of State every day usually in the early morning to discuss matters of the day. There was also a Cabinet or Inner Chancery. Beneath these two bodies were six ministries (civil service, revenue, rites, defense, justice and public works).

Guangxi, Liuhou, gateway
Liuhou Park, Guangxi was constructed in 1906 to commemorate the scholar Liu Zongyuan of the Tang Dynasty


Five ranks of nobles were instituted. The Chinese had a novel system of hereditary, a son inherited a grade one level lower than his father. This prevented the system accumulating more and more people at the top. It gave the incentive for the son to serve the emperor well in the hope he would soon be promoted back at least to his father's grade. However the family of Confucius was exempt from this rule and maintained the highest rank. The ranks were Duke gōng jué; Marquis hóu jué; Earl 伯爵 bó jué; Viscount zǐ jué and Baron nán jué. There was also the position of Viceroy 总督 zǒng dū who had full civil and military control over a province or group of provinces. Each province would also have a treasurer; a grain superintendent; a salt superintendent (salt was a government monopoly and useful source of tax) and a chief judge.

The administration was divided into ministries that covered the whole nation: finance; rites; defense and justice. There was no independent judiciary so there was no chance for an individual to raise an official complaint against the government. Six ministries administered the prefectures zhōu (282 in the Qing dynasty) and under them counties xiàn. A group of villages (typically a 'county') was administered by a magistrate dì bǎo or zhī xiàn living in his yamen . There were 1,477 magistrates in the Qing dynasty. A magistrate was the person responsible for maintaining peace and justice as well as collecting taxes in a district. He would have various deputies to help him and each village would have a headman to represent the populace.

The Qing Imperial Service

However the system over the centuries became corrupt and inefficient. It remained heavily centralized with limited local autonomy. The system had by then accumulated 98 different grades of official. To make fun of this over complex system a board game Shēng guān tú was played which was similar to ‘snakes and ladders’ where players rolled dice to try to reach the top grade. (Zhuàng yuán chóu was another game named after the top graded official). An official came to be paid barely enough to live on and so in order to maintain a decent standard of living he took bribes and a cut of all the taxes within his jurisdiction. The low salary may have discouraged neglect and indolence but it did lead to corruption - particularly by inventing local taxes. This was a significant factor in the downfall of the Qing, the system of control had become too corrupt to rigorously institute the necessary reforms. The examination system had also become tainted with rich families able to buy qualifications for their sons.

In the Qing the Imperial Administration (called Nèi wù fǔ ) the Manchu nobles held the top posts became very powerful and corrupt. Their sole source of income was the Imperial budget and hundreds were paid to do the job of one person. The officials understood their predicament and successfully resisted reforms to reduce the expenditure and the size of the Imperial household. Officials came to expect to take a sizable proportion of all money that passed through their hands. Everyone colluded with the system to inflate Imperial costs and take their cut. They acted in self interest rather than the best interests of the emperor or the country.

The import of cheap, strong British opium had a devastating effect on the Imperial Civil Service because the officials became hopelessly addicted to it and so had the effect of paralyzing administration. (A hard-hitting satire on the woeful state of late Qing dynasty at this time ‘Cat Country ’ was written by the reformist writer Lao She in 1933).

Zhongnanhai, government
Xinhua Gate is the main ceremonial gate into the Zhongnanhai complex of government buildings, Beijing. The sector is located just to the west of the Imperial centre of government the Forbidden City. Image by Bgabel available under a Creative Commons license . The current government of China follows ancient precedent and style.

Women officials

There was also a strict hierarchy of female officials who served at the Imperial Palace. By the Tang dynasty there were 19 grades of women drawn from the large number of concubines and their female servants; this was necessary as only castrated male eunuchs were allowed to reside in the Forbidden City. Their duties can be broadly described as domestic service: beauty preparation, seamstresses and food preparation.

Battling corruption

Such a centralized and hierarchical system of government needed independent oversight. In China the judiciary is not independent from government so an unjust action made by the state could not be corrected in the courts. From the earliest days of control (Qin dynasty) a system of censors was introduced to perform this function of independent assessment and investigation. They formed a separate department of state: the ‘Court of Censors’ who oversaw justice and the work of other officials and even the Emperor. They were known as ěr mù guān ‘Ear and eye officials’ and wrote reports that were sent direct to the Emperor.

The censors had a tough job; they would make enemies of the people they exposed as corrupt. Often their targets would be Imperial eunuchs and with their special relationship with the Emperor may be powerful enough to sway the Emperor against the reports by the censors, as in the case of Yang Lien (d. 1625).

The censors were often called upon to analyze disasters and help formulate future policies. There was a long history of officials trying to conceal calamities and using bribes to stop the true situation reaching the Emperor's attention. However it was often the case that the censor's criticisms came out long after the event and so had little value in quickly putting things right and it was a bold man to censor the actions of the Emperor as although the censor could not be put to death he could be demoted. The head of the censors was the Yù shǐ dà fū or later Dōu chá yuàn. An official would only spend a short time as a censor and would not be appointed to his local region so he could act without bias to his family or friends.

The Life of an Official in China

Once appointed, the life of an official was heavily constrained. Typically an official would be sent to a series of remote provinces for terms of three years. Both the remote location and limited term were crucial measures to limit corruption. An official would not take his parents with him when taking up the post, as he may have conflicting demands from father and Emperor - a dilemma for anyone following the Confucian philosophy. Officials were often moved between departments and rarely had a career in just one form of administration. An official would not have local contacts to tempt him into making decisions and appointments based on personal patronage, the limited tenure also combated corruption as his successor would likely report any misdemeanors of his predecessor.

In Imperial China there was mass of legislation to control every aspect of the administration of the system. Families were considered responsible for administrating justice themselves without state intervention.

Jiangsu, Suzhou, Sui dynasty, garden
Classic Chinese garden in Suzhou of Song dynasty style. An administrator's private garden.

A job as an official offered a rare secure income, respect of the community, exemption from conscription for public work construction projects and military service. On retirement a lump sum bonus was issued or in rare cases a final salary pension continued to be paid.

The work was not arduous with ample time to pursue scholastic hobbies such as calligraphy, poetry, weiqi and music. Most evenings would be spent with friends and some alcohol. On the spur of the moment members of the group would recite a poem, draw some calligraphy, play some music or paint a picture. The work would be collaborative with others pitching in a contribution. A guiding principle of officialdom was that if the correct appointments have been made then the whole system should work like clockwork with little need for effort to maintain it. The first Chinese visitors to Europe were surprised by the relentless hard work of officials and politicians there which contrasted to the more laid back life in China. Westerners considered that the motto for a Chinese official must surely be ‘Go Slowly’.

Magistrates and their Yamen

The magistrate would be housed in the Yamen in a town or city. It contained accommodation for the official and his family, reception rooms, a law court and often prison cells. For a detailed insight into the life of a member of a scholarly family in late Ming dynasty, Jonathan Spence's Return to Dragon Mountain is an excellent resource. It describes the life of the Ming historian Zhang Dai . A magistrate was the chief instrument of government in his fiefdom with responsibility for civil and criminal justice as well as collection of taxation. He was responsibile for the appointment of the heads for each township - the next level of administration. He corrected ‘wrongs’ but had no role in supporting people’s ‘rights’. He was ‘the’ local authority and might be better described as ‘judge’ rather than ‘magistrate’. He was investigator, prosecutor and judge. People would be in great peril if they ignored his commands - they would have to appeal to a far away provincial overseer or the Imperial capital to seek redress. He employed trusted servants only answerable to himself that typically followed him to other appointments - they were not locally recruited. He could pass the death sentence but this would need confirmation from the emperor before it could be carried out.

Administration of justice was sophisticated. The central administration would send out edicts hunting for particular 'criminals' as early as the Qing dynasty (1730s) a painting of the likeness of the felon would be copied and distributed to all magistrates in a district.

To make sure everyone knew the laws, the articles of laws would be read out twice a month in the market square. Ignorance of the law was not a valid defense. One of the proclamations warned people that turning to the law should be there last resort. If anyone had a serious issue there was a gong in the yamen's courtyard that they could bang to bring out the magistrate to hear their story.

Gathering taxation was perhaps the most onerous of his responsibilities. The system was complex and had all sorts of scams that would be used to avoid paying the due amount. A magistrate would need to spend time discovering true tax liability and chasing up those slow to pay up. Tax in the Qing dynasty was both on land and people with complex allowances that could be used for tax evasions. A magistrate was also responsible for collecting tax for special purposes - for example maintaining the Imperial road service (both the physical road surface and the horses). There were also national and regional initiatives for things such as flood prevention, it was not a straightforward job.

Magistrates were the lowliest form of local official. They had passed the examinations but not achieved the top grade to serve at the capital. Many would retake the examinations several times to be promoted to the next rung. They would aspire to be quickly promoted to oversee a number of magistrates at the prefecture level ( zhōu). If they prospered at the prefecture level they may be promoted to serve at the provincial level and perhaps become provincial governors.

If an official was censured by the Emperor he would lose his post, and sometimes his life, but quite often the emperor would commute a death sentence to exile to a remote province such as Xinjiang, Guangdong or Hainan. At the end of the period of exile the Emperor would send him a ring. If it was a complete solid ring, they were forgiven and could restart their career, if, however it was a broken ring then his career was at an end.

house, Qing dynasty, family
A Mandarin's House, Beijing. 1874. [Note how women and children occupy the upper floor, men the ground floor]. Image by Google Cultural Institute from The J. Paul Getty Museum available under a Creative Commons license .

Traditions associated with Officials

The etiquette of official life was highly regimented, an official would have a carriage, clothes and seal according to strict rules for his grade.

Meeting in the street

A servant would beat a drum or gong to clear the way for the official who followed him. The number of beats of the drum indicated the seniority of the official ranging from 13 for a viceroy to 7 for a magistrate. This allowed other officials to show due deference. A lower ranking official had to stop and make way for any higher ranking official. To avoid having to get out of his sedan chair and formally greet each other an official might hide his face behind a fan.


All senior officials had a seal of office including magistrates residing at their yamens. The emperor had a seal made of jade; viceroys and high provincial officials have oblong seals made of silver and used mauve colored wax. Salt commissioners had copper seals and used vermillion colored wax. Lower officials used square wooden seals chuō jì. During periods of Imperial mourning all seals changed to use blue wax. They were stamped on all dispatches, deeds and important documents, showing that the document had been approved by the appropriate official. This precious item was often left in the safe-keeping of the official's wife, the loss of a seal was a very serious offense which would often lead to sacking and demotion - because of possible fraudulent use of the seal. The seal became potent enough to be viewed as a kind of talisman that could keep evil at bay.


As appointment to a civil service post was such an important goal in life, there are quite a number of symbols that were painted on objects to convey a wish for an appointment as an official.

These include :

Aubergine (end looks like an official’s hat) Bee (sounds same as ‘appoint to high office’); Bell (sounds like ‘high ranking official’); Cinnamon (sounds same as riches); Cockerel (a cock’s comb sounds same as ‘official’); Crane (sounds same as ‘official’); Halberd (sounds same as ‘opportunity’); Lute (one of the scholarly accomplishments); Maple (sounds like ‘confer’); Peacock (Feathers were a badge of office) and Wave (sounds like ‘Imperial court’)

In pictures an official is often associated with the text tiān guān cì fú ‘may the high official grant you good fortune’.

Official's dress in Qing times

Qiao Renjie, Maccartney embassy
William Alexander's portrait of the official Qiao Renjie who accompanied the 1794 British embassy.

In the Manchu (Qing) dynasty there was a strict dress code by which the grade of an official could be quickly and easily determined. Knowing the relative seniority allowed the due protocol to be obeyed. The colored button on top of official's hat was a clear clue as well as the color and design of the coat and belt. A dài was in the form of a leather belt with a metal buckle and to the belt were attached the various accoutrements of the scholar or official: a writing brush, a fan and a purse. The toggles used to fasten the cord holding the item to the belt can be highly ornate (similar to the Japanese netsuke ) and were often made of jade. A 'mandarin square' or bu zi was an embroidered panel across the chest that showed the rank of the official.

The Hierarchy of Chinese officials

1. Transparent red (ruby) or for half-dressed coral

The top button is of fashioned gold, with an oblong bead on top made of red coral. The coat was purple with square plaque on chest and back embroidered with white crane (or qilin for military officials). The belt has four agate pieces with small rubies.

2. Opaque red or full dress flowered coral

The top button is of fashioned gold, with a red coral bead on top of a ruby. Coat has an embroidered golden pheasant (or lion for military officials). The belt has four pieces of gold with small rubies.

3. Transparent blue (sapphire)

The top button of fashioned gold, with clear blue sapphire bead on top. A Peacock plume with one eye. Embroidered panels of a peacock (or tiger, panther for military officials). The belt has four pieces of worked gold.

4. Opaque blue (lapis lazuli)

The top button is of fashioned gold, with lapis lazuri bead on top of clear blue sapphire. Embroidered panels with a goose (or leopard for military officials). The belt has four pieces of fashioned gold with a silver button.

5. Transparent white (crystal)

The top button is of fashioned gold, with clear rock crystal bead on top of rock crystal. Embroidered panels with silver pheasant (or black bear for military officials). The belt has four pieces of fashioned gold with a silver button.

6. Opaque white (stone)

The top button is of white shell, with blue plume. Plaques embroidered with egret (or panther for military officials). The belt has four pieces of tortoiseshell with a silver button.

7. Plain gold

The top button is of plain gold, with another gold button on top of a clear crystal. Embroidered panels of mandarin duck (or panther or rhinoceros for military officials). The belt has four round silver plates.

8. Worked gold

The top button is of fashioned gold, with another gold button on top. Embroidered panels of quail (or rhinoceros for military officials). The belt has four pieces of white horn with a silver button.

9. Worked gold or silver

The top button is of fashioned gold, with another gold button of chased gold on top. Embroidered panels of flycatcher (or sea horse for military officials). The belt has four pieces of black horn with a silver button.


Plaques embroidered with oriole. The symbol for longevity (shou) engraved on the button of the higher grade to separate into two upper and lower divisions.

Peacock feathers

Only in the late 19th century under the Qing dynasty a custom of conferring merit by wearing peacock feathers was instituted. A huā líng has one, two or three peacock eyes denoting grade. Whereas a minor military honor was indicated by a blue feather lán líng from a raven's tail. Honors such as these could be withdrawn at any time.

yellow riding jacket, huang ma gua
Imperial yellow riding jacket. Available under a Creative Commons License

Yellow Jacket

The Yellow riding jacket huáng mǎ guà was another honor bestowed on people of great merit, particularly for military success in late Qing times. Normally only the Imperial family could wear yellow apparel. It was given to high ranking officials and worn in the presence of the Emperor. It was made of silk with blue sleeves. It permitted the wearer the honor of riding a horse through the outer Forbidden City. In the Taiping Rebellion it was conferred on Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang and the Englishman General Charles Gordon.


The dragon was the Imperial emblem and could only be used by others under strict control. The number of claws of the dragon indicated precedence in the Qing dynasty. Five claws for the Emperor himself, four claws for his close relatives and three claws for high officials. As with the other codes of etiquette, someone breaching them would be dismissed and sometimes executed for impudence.

Stone lions

A high official would have a pair of stone lions guarding the entrance to his mansion. The number of coils of hair in their mane became a guide to seniority, the more curls the higher the rank.

Finger nails

It was traditional for the well off to let one or more finger nails grow up to two inches in length (both men and women). This advertised to all that they were not engaged in any manual labor and had servants to do everything for them. Special silver guards were used to protect them from damage. This tradition applied to aristocrats as well as officials.

See also