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The Political System of Imperial China

  • Harold Scott Quigley (a1)


For more than two thousand years the government of China exhibited, in the main, the elements which characterized it when, in the reign of Ch'in Shih Huang Ti (221–209 B.C.), feudalism was abolished and a centralized system inaugurated. Through successive dynasties the changes introduced were in matters of detail. These facts admonish to unusual caution in the accepttance of the present system at its face value. “Republic,” “president,” “cabinet,” “parliament,” “courts,” “democracy,” —these are titles of Western institutions which continued to stand for the corresponding institutions in China when the latter were established upon the model of the former. Even in Western states the meaning of these terms varies, as does their application in actual government. It would be strange if a decade of republicanism in China had evolved a political organization which still remains largely an ideal among nations which have spent centuries of effort toward its attainment. New terms are applied more readily than old ways are altered. Different clothes may be a disguise, not a sure gauge of habitat or occupation. The more one strives to understand present political forces in China, the more is he driven to study the old régime.



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1 Translation by Legge, , Chinese Classics, Vol. V.

2 Yen, H. L., A Survey of Constitutional Development in China (New York, 1911), p. 72; Cheng, S. G., Modern China (Oxford, 1919), p. 3; Tyau, M. T. Z., China's New Constitution and International Problems (Shanghai, 1918), pp. 36.

3 Backhouse, E., and Bland, J. O. P., Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (London, 1913), p. 248.

4 Mayers, W. F., The Chinese Government, 3rd ed. (Shanghai, 1897), p. 12.

5 Smith, A. H., Chinese Characteristics (New York, 1894), p. 113.

6 Brief descriptions of the Manchu “Banner” organization are given by Parker, E. H., in China, 2nd ed. (New York, 1917), Ch. XIII, and by Morse, H. B., The Trade and Administration of China, rev. ed. (Shanghai, 1913), pp. 6166.

7 For an example of plain speaking which cost a Censor his life see Bland, and Backhouse, , Annals and Memoirs, pp. 6872; see also the valedictory memorial of Wu K'o-tu to the Empress Dowager, T'zu Hsi, in Bland, and Backhouse, , China under the Empress Dowager, pp. 9599.

8 See article entitled “The Chinese Judiciary,” by Chang, Y. C., in the Chinese Social and Political Science Review, Vol. II (Dec., 1917), pp. 7172. Mr. Chang quotes the Book of Records to the effect that “a sentence before being passed has to be referred to and approved by some assessors or jurors to be selected from amongst the populace;” from the Book of Rites that “sentences involving capital punishment should be passed with the advice of the ministers, the minor officials or the people.”

9 Mr. Chang's article contains a concise and clear account of the development of the judicial system from the earliest times.

10 China under the Empress Dowager, p. 158.

11 Morse, H. B., The Gilds of China (London, 1909).

12 Leong, Y. K., and T'ao, L. K., Village and Town Life in China (London, 1915), Ch. 1.

13 Smith, A. H., Village Life in China (New York, 1899), Ch. 21.

14 A comprehensive treatment of the Chinese district magistrate by Byron Brenan, C.M.G., will be found in the Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XXXII, 18971898, pp. 3665.

15 Mayers, pp. 48–51.

16 Article above cited: “The Chinese Judiciary,” p. 78.

The Political System of Imperial China

  • Harold Scott Quigley (a1)


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