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  • Bing: From Farmer’s Son to Magistrate in Han China by Michael Loewe
  • Liang Cai (bio)
Michael Loewe. Bing: From Farmer’s Son to Magistrate in Han China. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2011. xviii, 219 pp. Paperback $12.95, isbn 978-1-60384-622-6.

It is a work of fiction. But Bing: From Farmer’s Son to Magistrate in Han China makes real the rich and vibrant daily life of the early Chinese empire and inspires the reader to rethink the recruitment system and clerk group of the Han imperial bureaucracy.

Bing, the title character, was the second son of an ordinary farmer living in the Han empire around 70 b.c.e. As Loewe describes Bing’s experiences as a farmer, a conscripted laborer and soldier, an ironworker, and an apprentice to a merchant, readers get an up-close look at the hardship of life on a rural farm, the tasks of a government laborer, the life at a military garrison on the northwest border, and life in the flourishing cities of Chang’an and Luo Yang.

Over the course of his career, Bing rose from a commoner to a magistrate. He seized the opportunity to learn to read and write and obtained the necessary training for government service from a retired junior official. In the recruiting examination for clerks, Bing distinguished himself through his knowledge of the legal system and administrative documents. He was employed as a copy clerk in the imperial court, where he became familiar with various tasks in other positions and with the operation of the bureaucracy. After being promoted to higher-ranking clerk positions through merit and years of service, Bing reached the zenith of his career when he was appointed county magistrate.

The story of a successful commoner in the Han dynasty is not one with which most students of early imperial China would be familiar. Scholars have traditionally believed that since Emperor Wu (141–87 b.c.e.), the recommendation system and the Imperial Academy were the most important avenues for commoners to enter officialdom. One would also expect knowledge of the Confucian Five Classics, rather than of fiscal and legal systems and institutional procedures, to help a man secure a position in the bureaucracy. However, Bing’s career path differs greatly from these conventional beliefs, a story that reflects the findings of new studies on the bureaucracy of the Han empire. In fact, clerks constituted a major pool out of which candidates might become officials, and seniority and merit (jigonglao 積功勞) turn out to have been a more important path to career advancement than the much studied recommendation system and the Imperial Academy.

Unlike the gentlemen-attendants (langli 郎吏) and marquises who have drawn scholars’ attention for decades, the clerks are only occasionally addressed in passing in traditional sources. Not until the discovery of archeologically excavated administrative archives in Juyan 居延, Yinwan 尹灣, and Shuihudi 睡虎地 did scholars such as Ooba Osamu 大庭脩, Gao Min 高敏, Bu Xianqu 卜憲群, and Liao Boyuan 廖伯源 have a breakthrough in the studies of clerks. [End Page 122]

Clerks were differentiated from officials by two major characteristics. First, they were directly employed by officials as assistants, and their appointments did not require approval of the official’s superior or the throne. Second, their ranks were below two hundred bushels of grain, which meant that they carried no official seals and had no guard of honor when traveling. Various levels of officials, from magistrates to the most powerful bureaucrats, appointed clerks. According to Han guan jiu yi 漢官舊儀 (old rites of Han bureaucracy), the office of the imperial chancellor hired 162 clerks ranked one hundred bushels. Because they dealt directly with daily administrative matters, clerks were the de facto operators of the intricate machinery of imperial bureaucracy.1

The candidate pool for clerks can be divided into four categories. The first included military veterans, especially those awarded low-ranking nobility titles and those with more than ten years of service. They usually served as prison clerks (yuli 獄吏), local police officers (qiudao 求盜), and postmen (youren 郵人). The second included those who distinguished themselves in martial arts. This type of clerk was needed in order to maintain the security of local community. Clerks of the third...


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