Lawrence ZhangDec 4, 2023
Power for a Price
The Purchase of Official Appointments in Qing China
Harvard University Press 2023
The Qing dynasty's office purchase system (juanna) allowed men to legally and openly pay for appointments in the civil service — enabling them to skip the much-lauded civil service examination entirely. Thoroughly forgotten by historians and often dismissed as "corruption," Lawrence Zhang's meticulous book, Power for a Price: The Purchase of Official Appointments in Qing China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2022), unpacks this system. Through a thorough analysis of archival and other print sources — including personnel files, lists of buyers, and late Qing novels — Zhang shows that office purchase was widespread, common, and an important part of the state's recruitment strategy.
By upending the "ladder of success" narrative of the Qing, Zhang's book challenges the characterization of the Qing as a meritocracy and calls into question how we (and historians) today think of merit. As he writes in the book: "The link between wealth and power has always been one of the most important relationships in any organized society. Rarely do we get a chance to understand it as a fresh problem that undermines so many existing assumptions about a society we thought we knew well. Office purchase is precisely such a system" (p. 266). Listeners interested in bureaucracy, Chinese history, examination systems, and the lengths that parents will go to to ensure their children's success should seek it out.
Listeners especially interested in meritocracy might also want to check out the edited volume mentioned in the episode (which Lawrence Zhang also contributed to!): Making Meritocracy: Lessons from China and India, from Antiquity to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2022). It was also discussed on another NBN podcast, hosted by Nicholas Gordon, over here.
Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a Research Assistant Professor at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. She can be reached at email@example.com