Confucianism and its effects on the Chinese Bureaucracy

Tylar Orion Davidson for History 110 with Dr. Harney

The political ideology that has exerted the most effect upon the bureaucracy of China is Confucianism. It was developed in the fifth century BCE by the Chinese scholar, and lowly government official named, Confucius. The China that Confucius inhabited was fragmented from the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty in the seventh century BCE, in a period that would be known as the Warring States Period (771 BCE-221 BCE). This period, as the name suggests, saw a constant state of warfare between the fragmented states that rose to power from the wealthy families of the collapsing Zhou Dynasty. There were a multitude of philosophies that came about during this period, all a part of the “Hundred Schools of Thought,” but the one that remained influential from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) to modern day Chinese society was that philosophy founded by the Scholar Confucius. He blamed the fragmentation and warfare that China faced on a lack of morality and proper behavior. He sought to remedy this through his philosophies, but no state readily adopted the moral philosophy of Confucianism due to the constant state of warfare that China faced at the time. The first triumph of Confucianism came during the Han Dynasty, when it was adopted as the philosophy by which the government was ran. One of the most prominent instances of this was the establishment of a civil service examination system based on the teachings of Confucius, which served as the basis for all government proceedings. The Confucian exam system was adopted by all dynasties that followed the Han, which led to the formation of a distinct, Confucian educated gentry, that formed the basis of the Chinese aristocracy during the centuries that followed the death of Confucius.

The political turmoil that China faced during the Warring States Period was immense. The officials that ran the various states had abandoned all senses of morality that the government held during the Zhou Dynasty, which fell due to a loss of morality by its rulers, in favor of practices that directly benefitted the officials as opposed to benefitting the whole country. The Warring States Period began in the year 771 BCE, when “The Marquis [of Shen] allied himself with barbarians, because King Yu had cast the Marquis’s daughter aside in favor of a concubine, and the armies of noble families failed to rally at the request of Yu, which led to his eventual death and the fall of the western Zhou.”[1] King Yu had strayed from the moral actions of a King, and as a result, the house of Zhou fell to barbarian invaders and his former empire split into a number of warring states. The event that finally caused the Warring States Period to begin was when “powerful nobles took advantage of the decline of the royal power to enrich themselves and enlarge their territories by seizing the weaker states on their borders.”[2] This thrust the remaining Zhou nobles into the following five centuries of warfare, during which, China would experience a loss of morality and the worst warfare that the country had seen to that point. It was through this world, that the philosophy of Confucianism emerged. The primary political philosophies of the time advocated for strong governments that ruled solely by force, on which Leonard Shihlien Hsu states that “what these men desired was military glory, territorial expansion… and an overflowing public treasury.”[3] This statement reflects an overall trend that a majority of the states of China had adopted, for these were the desires that would give the most benefit to the rulers of the state and had seemed to work in the best interest of the people, or so the people were told. Confucius had developed a philosophy that was directly contrasting to this popular philosophy that was adopted by the majority of the rulers at the time.

The philosophy that Confucius taught placed the utmost importance on a government ruling by morality and virtue, and in turn, this placed an immense importance upon cultural respect, which served to aid in morality. Confucius hailed from the state of Lu, which was formerly ruled by the Duke of Zhou, who was famously hailed as the creator of the very foundations of the Zhou legal and moral system, and that of Confucianism. D. Howard Smith states, on the Duke of Zhou, “He, more than anyone else, was thought to exemplify in his life and character those virtues of filial piety and loyalty which were to form the basis of Confucian morality.”[4] The concepts of filial piety and loyalty served as basic unifying factors for China, for they were concepts that were expressed for centuries prior to Confucius absorbing them into his philosophy. The final culmination of these values comes from a Confucian counter to the values of Daoism, which was a popular anarchist philosophy that arose during the Warring States Period, that advocated the dissolution of social hierarchies and political systems, where Hsu states that “Confucius believed that government, civilization, and literature should be developed to a higher degree…and that political honours and class distinctions were essential to induce…service to the society.”[5] This highlights the values that Confucius wanted the society of China to adopt, for he believed that they were the root of morality and virtue, values which would deliver China from the Warring States Period unto a period of peace and prosperity that is similar to that experienced during the Zhou Dynasty, However, this philosophy was not adopted on a wide scale until nearly two centuries after the death of Confucius, upon the founding of the Han Dynasty and its famous bureaucratic system based on Confucian teachings.

The Han Dynasty, which lasted from the years 202 BCE-220 CE, unified China after a period of political turmoil that followed the collapse of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). The Han adopted a large bureaucratic system that was deeply rooted in Confucianism and was based on its principles of morality and virtue. This adoption of a large bureaucratic society was made possible by preexisting elements of Chinese culture that allowed the populace to be governed very closely by the Han government. Etienne Balazs writes on the subject of an inherently bureaucratic Chinese society that:

“This society was bureaucratic because the social pyramid-which rested on a broad peasant base, with an intermediate strata consisting of a merchant class and an artisan class, both of them numerically small, lacking in autonomy, of inferior status, and regarded with scant respect-was capped and characterized by its apex: the mandarinate.”[6]

The existence of a largely uneducated peasant base meant that the populace was subject to strict and rigid control from their bureaucrats, which would allow for strict governance due to the fact that the leaders of the country were able to interpret the laws of the nation based on Confucian texts, leaving the populace unable to interpret the laws, and only following the strict interpretations that are given to them by their local bureaucrats. This allowed Confucianism to be readily adopted by a state whose people were used to a rigid and strict form of government. When the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Pang, came to power, he set about adopting a system to effectively rule his new lands, with clear power being placed in the hands of the emperor, as it was in the Qin Dynasty, as opposed to using a feudal system similar to that used during the Zhou Dynasty. Smith states that “he [Liu Pang] followed the Ch’in precedent of dividing the empire into provinces …which were controlled by governors and magistrates who were appointed by… the central government.”[7] This large number of new bureaucratic areas created a need for a large group of educated officials, and at the time of the founding of the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE, the only form of education present was being well versed in any form of philosophy, and Smith states that the only true reason that Confucianism was adopted during the Han Dynasty was that “Confucianism came into its own because it and it alone could supply an educated scholarly elite to administer the affairs of  a rapidly expanding empire.”[8] Thus, the adoption of a Confucian scholar class was solidified during the early days of the Han Dynasty.  

            The rapid expansion of the Chinese state was accompanied by a constant need for more bureaucrats to run an increasingly complicated government system, which led the government to adopt policies of state supported education, in the form of a “state sponsored academy, called the T’ai-hsiieh, which was opened during the reign of emperor Wu-Ti (141-87 BCE).”[9] Loewe also states that the purpose of this academy was to “Train men for office.”[10] The training that these men received was strictly Confucian. The first appointments to the civil service were based strictly on the morals of Confucianism, and more often than not, the men recommended for these positions were “filially pious and incorrupt.”[11] These values fall directly upon the values that Confucius had sought to emphasize in Chinese society and showed a quality that Confucius had sought to eliminate (corruptibility) during the Warring States Period, some three centuries prior to the founding of the Han Dynasty. These early recommendations were replaced in A.D. 132 by the examinations by which the Han bureaucratic system has become known for, where Bielenstein states that “it was decreed that year that all must be examined…and the age of the candidates had to be forty years or more.”[12] The introduction of a state sponsored examination system allowed for a more educated Confucian scholar class, for they were required to have complete knowledge of the Confucian texts for these examinations, as opposed to the interview and recommendation systems that were implemented in the early Han, and the requirement of men being aged forty and above meant that one would be required to study the Confucian texts for a majority of their lives before being considered for civil service.

            Despite the great successes of the Confucian bureaucratic system, the system was subject to shortcomings that would eventually cause its decline throughout the Han Dynasty and other subsequent Chinese dynasties that adopted the same bureaucratic system. One of the most prominent issues that arose from the bureaucratic exam system was that it became oversaturated with Confucian scholars, and openings for new positions did not occur, leading many of these men to be forced to “seek nominations or employment of their own.”[13] This meant that the state was wasting resources on the examination and bureaucratic systems, without having any way to benefit from the men that they had educated and examined. “Men were also allowed to purchase their bureaucratic offices in the late Han Dynasty,”[14] which decreased the number of scholars in the government that were serving based upon their merits as an educated Confucian, which decreased the overall skill of the bureaucracy. These factors eventually led to the decreased effectiveness of the Han bureaucracy, and contributed heavily to the downfall of the dynasty in 220 CE. The examination systems also placed immense strain on the examinees, not only through the exam itself, but also from the environment that the exam was held in. The examination cells were described by Ichisada Miyazaki as “a prison without bars.”[15] The cells in which the examinees were required to take their exams were “partitioned on three sides by brick walls and covered by a roof…each cell was equipped with only three long boards.”[16] These “spartan” conditions showed that the sole focus of these examinations was to provide the country with a large amount of well-educated, Confucian scholars, whose sole purpose was to serve the dynasty. However, cheating was rampant throughout this examination system, for there were often too many examinees and not enough guards and examiners to provide strong supervision for the duration of the exam. Miyazaki states that “The place [of examination] seems to have been too huge to permit effective supervision, and the towers must have served mainly as psychological deterrents.”[17] The lack of proper supervision led many students to find a multitude of ways to cheat during these exams, such as copying the Confucian texts into their robes, which would negate the benefits of a trained, Confucian scholar. These problems were all shortcomings that were rampant throughout the Chinese bureaucratic system in the late stages of almost every dynasty, which led to an increasingly uneducated elite class, and an eventual collapse of the examination system.

            Despite the failings of the bureaucratic examination system, Confucianism led China into an era of peace and prosperity, which was what Confucius had intended from the conception of his philosophy in the fifth century BCE. Smith states that “Confucianism appealed to reason, to good sense and good manners, [and] to a peaceable solution of problems.”[18] These core values have allowed Confucianism to flourish through the centuries in China, and it was through these values that China was able to maintain relative stability and prosperity from the third century BCE to the modern day. Confucianism began when one man had sought to remedy the great moral deficit that China faced during the Warring States Period, and these dreams were only achieved four centuries after the death of Confucius, when his philosophy was adopted by the Han Dynasty, through almost sheer luck, due to the number of Confucian scholars that were available. The successes of the Confucian bureaucratic systems allowed Confucianism to be fully cemented in Chinese society, until this very day.

Word Count:2139

[1] Herrlee Glessner Creel. The Birth of China: A Study of the Formative Period of Chinese Civilization. (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.), 243.

[2] Creel. The Birth of China. 243.

[3] Leonard Shihlien Hsu. The Political Philosophy of Confucianism: An Interpretation of the Social and Political Ideas of Confucius, His Forerunners, and His Early Disciples. (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.), 10. 

[4] D. Howard Smith. Confucius. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 33.

[5] Hsu. The Political Philosophy of Confucianism. 11.

[6] Etienne Balazs. Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy: Variations on a Theme. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 16.

[7] Smith. Confucius. 114.

[8] Smith. Confucius. 114-115.

[9] Michael Loewe. “The Structure and Practice of Government” In The Cambridge History of China: The Ch’in and Han Empires (221 B.C-A.D. 220).(London: Cambridge University Press), 464.

[10] Loewe. The Cambridge History of China. 465.

[11] Hans Bielenstein. “The Institutions of Later Han” In The Cambridge History of China: The Ch’in and Han Empires (221 B.C.-A.D. 220). (London: Cambridge University Press), 516.

[12] Bielenstein. The Cambridge History of China. 516.

[13]Bielenstein. The Cambridge History of China. 517.

[14] Bielenstein. The Cambridge History of China. 517.

[15] Ichisada Miyazaki. China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China. (New York: John Weatherhill Inc.), 41.

[16] Miyazaki. China’s Examination Hell. 41.

[17] Miyazaki. China’s Examination Hell. 41.

[18] Smith. Confucius. 161.


Balzas, Etienne. Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy: Variations on a Theme, edited by Arthur F. Wright, Translated by H.M. Wright. New Haven: Yale University Press., 1964.

Creel, Herrlee Glessner. The Birth of China: A Study of the Formative Period of Chinese Civilization, Sixth Edition. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967.

Hsu, Leonard Shihlien. The Political Philosophy of Confucianism: An Interpretation of the Social and Political Ideas of Confucius, His Forerunners, And His Early Disciples. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1932.

Loewe, Michael. “The Structure and Practice of Government” in The Cambridge History of China: The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B.C-A.D. 220, Edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe. London: Cambridge University Press., 1986.

Miyazaki, Ichisada. China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China, Translated by Conrad Schirokauer. New York: John Weatherhill Inc., 1976.

Smith, D. Howard. Confucius. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons., 1973.

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