Chinese local government

 How was China governed?


Pingyao gateway to yamen
The gateway to the Yamen, the seat of local government in Pingyao

The best way of understanding Chinese traditional local government is to look in the provinces, and here Pingyao provides a good example of local government in action. Local government was centred round the government offices called the Yamen – see the gateway above.  This consisted of  very extensive offices  and accommodation, and in Pingyao the yamen has been restored and made into a Museum

The government of China was very different from government as we know it in the West in that it was entirely central. Right from the time of the Qin dynasty in 220 BC, China was divided into 30 odd provinces (originally commanderies) and was then sub-divided into counties: there were between 1,000 and 1,500 counties in all, a number which remained remarkably stable throughout Chinese imperial history.


Pingyao Yamen outer courtyard
Inside the first courtyard at Pingyao with the government offices on either side.

Pingyao was one of these 1300 odd counties. It lay in the province of Shanxi, whose capital at Taiyuan lies 70 miles to the north. In the Ming Dynasty (AD 1300 -1500) most of these county towns were walled, and again Pingyao is very typical in this in that the walls and the size of the town were very much the norm – one must envisage there being somewhat over 1000 towns like Pingyao in late imperial China, in the Ming and the Qin Dynasties.


Pingyao Yamen plan
Outline a plan of the Yamen at Pingyao

The government offices were called the Yamen. These were of substantial size covering between 3 and 5 acres, – around 2 ha –and accommodated a staff of 200 or more. Like the government in Beijing, they were arranged in six sections.



Yamen courtroom at Pingyao
The local magistrates office at Pingyao. Note the painting behind him showing the sea and the Sun. On his desk are the boxes containing the Wands coloured red and black by which the magistrate’s decisions were conveyed

The county magistrate sat at the North facing south, just as in the Imperial Palace, and the administration buildings were to either side. It was said that the sections to the East were the departments of Life, whereas those to the west were the departments of Death.








Pingyao Money and grain store room
The tax office at Pingyao. This was the money and grain storeroom: much of the tax was paid in grain

On the East was the most important department of all, the revenue office which collected the vital taxes; there was the personal office; and also the Rites office, which we tend to forget, but which played an important – and very expensive role.







Chinese punishment paddles
In the Chinese courtroom, there was an emphasis on punishment and these red paddles were the instruments of punishment. If you paid a bribe, you were beaten with the broad side of the paddle. If you failed to pay the bribe, you were beaten with the edge

On the west however the most was feared department, the department of Punishments: we would call it the Justice department, or possibly even the law courts.

But the Chinese did not really have any concept of the Rule of Law, so it was the department that gave out punishments for deviating from the emperor’s wishes. And then there was the War office, and the office of Works – again vital in maintaining the roads and the   walls – and rather expensive.




Pingyao yamen: Inner courtyard
The inner courtyard.

The size of the staff was substantial. At the head was the county magistrate who would have been appointed – in theory at any rate – from those who had passed the examinations. For the more important provinces, they would be chosen from the elite stream who passed the Metropolitan examinations; those appointed to remote provinces would mainly be those who had only passed the provincial exam. Under him there were 20 to 30 registered clerks working under the licensed head clerk, and many more non-quota clerks depending on local conditions. More numerous than the clerks were the runners, whose duties including all the menial work of the yamen.


Yamen governors private rooms
The magistrates private study room. The local magistrate was expected to be a scholar and a gentleman.

One one of the great successes of the Chinese civilisation was that the county magistrates, like most of the bureaucracy were appointed because they had passed the all-important exams. In the Han period (220 BC to AD 220)  there was still the remnant of the old patrimonial system (fengjian) where appointments were made by family or dynastic priorities, but by the Tang period the prefectural/county (junxian) system and its examination routine was firmly established.

The other great rule was that the county magistrates should not serve in their home territory they should be outsiders which meant they were above the temptation of local prejudice, the ‘laws of avoidance’. They were appointed for three years after which they moved on, so they did not get involved with local factions.

Chinese bedroom
Chinese bedroom in governor’s private apartments.

Some sources say that they were not allowed to bring their family with them, but certainly in Pingyao there was a very adequate suite of rooms for the magistrate where he was encouraged to lead the life of a scholar, reading books, practising calligraphy,  playing chess and musical instruments.


Chinese Carriage
Decorated carriage in courtyard of Yamen

A fine bed was on display, as was an ornamented carriage which was presumably for the use of the magistrate





It is all very different to what we are accustomed to, here in the West. There was no concept of the town council made up of local people, the curia in the Roman empire or the town council in mediaeval England, nor of towns being chartered corporations. China was totally different with the magistrate being imposed from the outside, but chosen for his ability, and assumed to be neutral and impartial because he was serving in a province that was not his own. On the whole, the system worked well. You did not have to bother with all the wearisome business of elections and the changes and inconsistencies with a new regime – and it is certainly less divisive. It worked well for nearly two millennia: should we not note its strengths?


On to: Pingyao, Behind the scenes 


10th December 2014