In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Confronting the Job Shortage:The Commercialization of Personnel Information in Song China
  • Tung Yung-chang


The late thirteenth-century literatus Zhou Mi 周密 (1232–1298) once recounted a story about a man named Mister Shen (Shen guanren 沈官人) who "sold position vacancies" (maique 賣闕)1 to those who were waiting for government appointments. According to Zhou, Shen was capable of knowing all of the personnel information across the entire country, and his data were even more detailed and comprehensive than those assembled by government clerks. Zhou explained the reason for Shen's success:

At that time there were more candidates than positions. [Someone who received an appointment] often needed to wait for three to five zheng,2 which counted for ten years [of waiting]. It really was not easy. [So men who were waiting for an appointment] always went to visit Mister Shen, and his doorway was often filled with their shoes!3 [End Page 57]

時方員多闕少,動是三五政十年,殊不易得。必往扣之,門外之履 常滿。

Zhou Mi's anecdote must be understood within the historical context of the shortage of government positions in the Song bureaucracy and the circulation of information from state archives. Historians are aware of the problem of the shortage of positions in the government during the Song, a situation that Zhou Mi explicitly described as "more candidates but fewer positions" (yuanduo queshao 員多闕少). The problem resulted from the increasing number of eligible candidates who emerged through multiple channels of recruitment.4 The number of candidates eventually exceeded the total number of government positions. In the early thirteenth century, the number of eligible candidates was close to 40,000 men, while the total number of positions might have been no more than 15,000.5 As this article will discuss later, the long wait for open positions created a serious crisis for the government to allocate human resources effectively and for individual officials in pursuing career achievement.

Current scholarship on the issue has usually treated this topic as a clash between government regulations and their violation. On one hand, historians have focused heavily on government regulations concerning the ranking system, the appointment process, the causes of the position shortage, and various administrative efforts that were made to counter these problems.6 On the other [End Page 58] hand, because eligible candidates wanted to receive appointments as soon as possible, their strategies to compete for vacancies are usually described in both historical sources and secondary research, as instances of political corruption. For example, Wang Zengyu has argued that while the court sometimes sanctioned selling offices for financial reasons, the phenomenon of selling offices in general showed the corrupt nature of the Song bureaucracy.7

However, Shen's case reveals more than the corruption of state agents and agencies. As I will discuss in detail later, although the Chinese term maique denotes "position-selling," as Zhou Mi's anecdote explains, Mister Shen was selling customized information about vacancies in positions, not positions per se. He was able to integrate multiple sources of government archives and personal intelligence in order to instruct his clients how to apply for those positions they had the best chances to obtain. In other words, Shen's case shows one of the survival strategies that individual officials could exploit during a time when the bureaucratic "job market" was extremely competitive. When the Song central government failed to offer possible countermeasures to deal with the problem of position shortages, individuals had to seek out their own personal solutions.

Among these strategies, the formation of personnel archives by the government, and how they were utilized by the central government, officials, and individual brokers deserve more exploration. The role of archival practices in Song China has received much attention recently. While Chinese and Japanese scholars have usually focused heavily on the institutional procedures and government protocols for archival management,8 recent scholarship in [End Page 59] English has analyzed the ways in which the government archives circulated outside the government and were integrated into the personal intellectual or cultural projects of individual literati.9 Hilde De Weerdt's recent study has further shown that while the Song government often announced restrictions on the circulation of government information in order to maintain state secrecy, the dissemination of government archives, including maps...