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A manual for Local Magistrates in Seventeenth-Century China

Topic 1: Selection and Appointment (Shih-shih)

Chuan 1

General Discussion

A journey of ten thousand li must start with the first step; a sheer precipice of eight thousand feet has its foundation among strewn rocks. One must start from the vicinity to reach his distant destination, and climb from the bottom of the mountain to scale its top. By the same token, a scholar who files his application and waits for selection is taking the first steps in building himself a government career. When he receives the appointment of a magistracy, he is climbing the first rung of the official ladder. Once a scholar enters officialdom, his prospects for gaining prominence and achieving greatness are unlimited. The appointment to a magistracy is only the beginning of a great career.

When a man of character receives that appointment, he does not think that the magistracy is an office of no significance or that the administration of a district is an easy task. While waiting for selection, the first thing he should do is firmly resolve to conduct himself properly. If he can apply this resolution unswervingly in his administration and his dealings with the people throughout his tenurem he will not be easily swayed by evil influences and temptations. His administration will be a successful one.

What are the essential ingredients of this resolution? Keeping one's integrity is of foremost importance. The magistrate should maintain the frugal life of a scholar and refrain from indulgence in luxurious living. Loving the people under one's care is another. He should improve their livelihood and cultivate good social customs so that the people of the district will not suffer from deprivation and decadent tendencies. Diligence in conducting public business is essential to success. He should set his own conduct as an example for others to follow, working from morning to night, without complaining about being tired or overburdened. If he can keep these maxims in mind, the magistrate will be successful in his administration, wheter the district he rules is affluent or poor. There will be nothing to prevent him from discharging his duties properly.

However, good habits are formed only gradually and it takes courage to hold fast to one's principles. A person who is accustomed to eating coarse food and wearing simple clothes, and who carries his frugal habits over into his social intercourse, will never feel disappointed when he is assigned to a poor district nor become overjoyed when appointed to an affluent one.

After the magistrate desingate receives his appointment, he should not waste valuable time and energy in meaningless pursuits nor incur unnecessary expenses. He should make appropriate preparations for assuming his post at an earliest possible date. If there are people of experience and virtue whose advice is worth being sought after, he should visit them with respect and humility. At the same time he will provide them with an opportunity to sample his opinion and appraise his character. This may turn out to be a great help to his future career.

On the other hand, if a person's sole purpose in becoming an official is to make a comfortable living, as soon as he receives the appointment he will begin to indulge himself in feasting and entertainment and forget to prepare for his responsibilities. Such a person does not have a sense of dedication and is apt to be misled by evil influence and temptations. I am quite sure that a promising future official career is not in store for him, whereas the person who has made a firm resolution with a sense of dedication will travel far in officialdom.

Waiting for Selection

A qualified scholar, after filing an application for the magistracy, waits in the capital for the selection to be made. During this waiting period he should stay in a monastery or a quiet lodging house. He should not keep company with a woman as a consolation for his solitude. Instead, visiting members of the gentry who are worth and experienced is beneficial. Dissipated or spendthrift acquaintences should be avoided, because they may cause trouble in the future.

Since he is uncertain whether he will get an affluent or a poor post, it would be advisable for the candidate to keep his thrifty habits, eating simple food and wearing coarse clothes. He should never borrow money at heavy compound interest from load sharks in the capital. A magistrate arriving at his post in the morning with his creditors on his heels that evening is a poor spectacle that must be avoided. It will create a scandal that can cost him dearly if his superior hears about it.

I shall always remember what my father once advised a friend of his who was waiting for selection in the capital. "To repay debts while in office is a shame," he wrote, "It is better to keep free of debt before recieving appointment by practicing frugal living." His contemporaries all paid attention to this valuable advise.

The Penal Code of the Great Ch'ing Dynasty and the Imperially Sanctioned Regulations of the Six Boards provide important information for the candidate. He should study them to while away his leisure time. They should not be disregarded or considered sophisticated reading material.

Presenting Resume' and Answering Roll Call

Selections of an urgent nature are customarily conducted in odd-numbered months and regular selections in even-numbered months. Urgent selections fill the positions of those selectied who are receiving promotions and eighty percent new appointees. On the twenty-eight day of the month prior to the selection, the candidate presents his resume' to the Board of Civil Office. An examination of the candidate and his resume' is held after the first day of the month in which the regular selection is held. The candidate must be present at the examination. If he fails to attend, he forfeits his chance for selection and must wait for the next round. For this reason a candidate must not leave the capital after he has presented his resume'.

On the twentieth day of the month a number of qualified candidates are examined for all the posts that are open. The appointments are decided on the twenty-first day and published on the twenty-third. On the twenty-fourth day, a roll call is conducted in the main hall of the Board of Civil Office. All candidates stand at attention on the left side of the courtyard. When one's name is called, he steps to the center of the courtyard in front of the hall and recites his name and native place in a loud, clear voice. This is the time when the officer in charge of the selection observes the candidate's countenance, age, and general appearence. The candidate must take care to make a good impression.

Lots are then drawn on the twenty-fifth day of the month. The candidate must sign a "quintet-mutual-guarantee-bond" before the drawing. He should sign the bond only with those he knows personally, to avoid future trouble. Candidates for minor and miscellaneous positions oftne regard the bond as merely a formality and co-sign it with strangers or even ask friends to forge their signatures on other people's bonds. Such carelessness often causes problems later on.

Drawing Lots

At dawn on the day for drawing lots, all candidates for civil offices are gathered in front of the yamen of the Board of Civil Office, to the east of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, waiting for the arrival of the high dignitaries of the Board. On the table in the main hall of the Board are two bamboo tubes for lots, one containing the names of candidates and the other the names of the posts. An official draws a lot from the name tube and calls out the name. The candidate whose name is called steps forward and draws a lot from the post tube, thus deciding his fate. He should not linger after the drawing even if he is not satisfied wiht his post, lest he be reprimanded by the official in charge.

The law of avoidance provides that a candidate who happens to draw a post in his native province cannot take it and is permitted to draw another lot instead. The first lot is returned, put in a new wrapper and replaced in the tube for another candidate to draw.

Rumors sometimes circulate in the capital that drawings are prearranged by unscrupulous yamen underlings. These cannot be taken seriously. Many candidates participate in the drawing and only a few posts are considered desirable. Even if the drawings were rigged, those who paid bribes but failed to get good posts could not complain, because of the bribery involved. It is absurd to believe such rumors and spend money foolishly.

Furthermore, if a candidate is not satisfied unless he gets an affluent post, what is his intention in becoming magistrate? At the beginning of one's official career, one must maintain a proper attitude toward his job. The success or failure of a career depends upon character and capability; it has nothing to do with the desirablity of the post assigned.

Studying the Social Customs of the Locality

When a magistrate is appointed to rule over a department or district, he should acquire some knowledge of its special administrative problems and the social customs of the locality. He should make a conscious effort to get such information from those who have served as officials in the department or district and from members of local gentry now living in the capital. Not only will this information help him prepare for his future problems, it will also help him decide what kind of assistants he must recruit.

He should find out if there are rapacious yamen underlings and local bullies whose activites are notorious and remember their names and alleged crimes. As soon as he assumes the post, he should make secret investigations to confirm what he has heard about them. If he finds that the rumors are true, he should punish them severly when they commit minor offenses and report to his superior for further investigation if the offenses are major ones. In any event the investigations must be conducted very confidentially and the magistrate must not take hasty action. If what he has heard about these people is not true, or if what he plans to do to them does not conform to regulations, he will only embarass himself and increase his opponents' audacity.

While making such inquiries and investigations, he should put everything he learns in a notebook so as to avoid making mistakes due to forgetfulness.

Sending Instructions to Subordinates

As soon as the magistrate desgnate receives the appointment, he should dispatch instructions to the subordinates of his yamen through the courier service. If the department or district is near the capital, the subordinates will send a delegation to the capital to welcome him, and the instructions can be brough back by the members of the mission.

Although these instructions are usually formal and stereotyped, the wording should show that the new magistrate is an experienced person. If his predecessor was dismissed for error or malfeasance and has not yet left the office, the new magistrate must instruct the clerk in charge of fiscal matters to prepare a detailed financial report so that the predecessor will not be able to misappropriate funds or make fraudulent reports. However, if the predecessor's departure is due to promotion to a higher office, such precautionary instruction should not be given, for fear of incurring the predecessor's displeasure.

Sending Courtesy Letters to Superiors

While dispatching instructions to his subordinates, the magistrate designate should also send courtesy letters to his immediate superiors, including the circuit intendant, the prefect, the garrison commandant, the suprefect of river administration, and others, announcing his appointment and presenting his resume'. A friendly letter to his predecessor is also in order. All these letters are to be delivered by the yamen clerks.

When preparing these courtesy letters, the new magistrate must find out each of the superior's background, the degrees he possesses, and the history of his official career. Literary allusions should fit the superior's present position. Care must me taken not to use any character in his name or courtesy name in the letter, because these characters are taboo. Since courtesy letters are written in high-flown, euphuistic prose, with parallel constructions of alternate sentences of four and six syllables, in order to show the writer's respect for the addressee, the choice of words and literary images should be appropriate, elegant, concise, and lucid. Piling up too many historical anecdotes and artificial expressions which have no relevance will make the letter so long as to be boring.

Selecting an Auspicious Date for Assuming Office

The time limit for assuming office, specified in the appointment certificate, is determined by the distance between the capital and the assigned district. The magistrate designate must select an auspicious date for assuming office within the time limit and calculate the date of his leaving the capital accordingly. If he plans to spend time along the way, he will be wise to select two dates within the time limt, so he can use the second date in case of delay.

The date selected should be one of those designated as Heavenly Virtue (t'ien-te), Lunar Virtue (yueh-teh), Yellow Boulevard (huang-tao) and Illuminated Hall (ming-t'ang) in the calendar. These are lucky days. Then he should consult the Celestial Mobility Chart (t'ien-ch'ien-t'u) to determine the most auspicious date for him. Or course the combination of the stem-branch (kan-chih) of the hour, day, month, and year of his birth should be taken into consideration. The elements in his horoscope that cause or increase good fortune should not be neglected either. But there are too many unlucky stars; he cannot avoid them all.

People commonly believe that an official should avoid taking office in the third, fifth, and ninth months of the year. According to Tou P'ing in his Commentary on the New T'ang History (Hsin-t'ang-shu yin-hsun), Emperor Kao-tsu of T'ang ordered that no executions be carried out in the third, fifth, and ninth months of the year. According to a story told in a Buddhist sutra, the Lord Buddha uses a huge magic mirror to reflect on the four large continents each month in turn to detect the sins and merits of individuals. The third, fifth, and ninth months are those in which the magic mirror is trained on the South Shan-pu continent, which includes the Chinese empire. During these months there should be no executions, and the rulers should perform good deeds, reduce torture, and prohibit the slaughter of animals. Accordingly, officials do not take up their posts in these months which are considered unlucky months because of the prohibition against slaughter of animals. It has bnecome an unwritten rule in official circles.

However, in the fourteenth year of K'ang-hsi (1675), when the pacification campaign of Yunnan and Kweichow rebels was going on, the time limit for local officials to assume office was strictly enforced. I was appointed the magistrate of Tung-kuang in Chihli province and arrived at the post on the tenth day of the fifth month. Within three years there was peace in the district and everything was running smoothly. At the end of the term I even got a promotion. This proves that the third, fifth, and ninth months are not necessarily unlucky. However, the following days should be avoided if possible.

Totally unlucky days: the fourth, seventh, sixteenth, nineteenth, and twenty-ninth days of each month.

The four discord (li) days: One day before the solar terms of Vernal Equinox (ch'un-fen), Autumnal Equinox (ch'iu-fen), Summer Solstice (hsia-chih), and Winter Solstice (tung-chih).

The four terminal (chueh) days: One day before the solar terms of Spring begins (li-ch'un), Summer begins (li-hsia), Autumn begins (li-ch'iu), and Winter begins (li-tung).

The Celestial Mobility Chart

(T'ien - ch'ien - t'u)

Explaination: The Celestial Mobility Chart was used in the officialdom in the Ming dynasty. To select an auspicious day in a given month, count clockwise if it is a big month (thirty days in the Chinese lunar calendar) and count counterclockwise if it is a small month (twenty-nine days). When the count stops at "mobility" or "satisfacory," it is an auspicious day. When it stops at "crime," "error," or "violence," it is an inauspicious day. For instance, to select a day in the first day in the first month or seventh month, the first day is excellent; the second day is satisfactory; and the third, fourth, and fifth days should be avoided. The sixth day is fairly good; the seventh day is excellent again, and so on.

According to popular belief, a new magistrate should never enter the district capital for the first time through the south city gate, because the south is filled with the metaphysical force of pure fire. If the new magistrate fails to observe this tradition, there will be a big fire in the city during his tenure.

Copyright 2001 Northwind