Talons and Teeth: County Clerks and Runners in the Qing Dynasty.
This study of the sub-bureaucratic system of clerks and runners in the county magistrate's court, or yamen, in central China's Ba county is solidly based on new archival research and introduced within a legal, political, and sociological framework. In the nineteenth-century demographic increase, commercial growth, foreign presence, and interprovincial migration greatly increased the workload of the Ba county yamen, which responded by hiring a large number of clerks and runners beyond the quota and the budget set by the central government. These yamen employees were local residents recruited by the county magistrate to run the day to day administrative and judicial tasks of the yamen, which functioned as the most immediate point of contact between the common population and the state.
The clerks, who prepared legal documents, registered deeds, and issued licences, were commoners who did not own property, hold degrees, or belong to the elite gentry families. The runners, who collected taxes, delivered communications, and arrested and jailed criminals, belonged to a lower social class. Reed argues that because most of these clerks and runners exceeded the state quota, their employment was illegal and unsalaried, and as such they operated as an "extra-statutory" system and defined their duties and remuneration by customary practice and collective discipline rather than by imperial statute and formal law. In charging fees for individual services rendered and in burdening the yamen with a huge backlog of legal casework and bureaucratic hassles, they were seen by both the common population and central government as yamen vermin and rapacious men who acted as the magistrate's "talons and teeth" (zhaoya).
Reed contends that this negative image of the clerks and runners, reinforced by the local gentry and central government officials, is flawed and should not be accepted at face value. While the local gentry distrusted the clerks and runners because they enforced central government authority and acted against communal interests, the central government officials condemned them as illicit employees. Reed observes that clerks, runners, magistrates, local gentry, and the central government in Beijing used Confucian discourse and rhetoric in documents and hearings to claim moral authority, such that no one party's viewpoints on yamen conflicts can be determined to be more objective than those of the others.
The corruption label traditionally aimed against the clerks and runners was based on the general but sometimes mistaken perception that the fees they charged were exorbitant. Arguing that the line between legitimacy and corruption was permeable in accordance with local customs, Reed stresses the need to "relativize" the term "corruption" and the related behavior of the clerks and runners, who considered their work as a source of livelihood and charged fees because the yamen did not pay them.
Reed points out that the dichotomy of state and society can be observed in the controversy between the central government and the clerks and runners. Despite the magistrate's informative and urgent letters, the Qing central government was insensitive to the additional administrative and budgetary needs of the county yamen in the midst of drastic changes in the nineteenth century. The lack of formal structural reform to the yamen administration exacerbated the proliferation of the "extra-statutory" clerks and runners in the informal administrative process. The central government should have noted the significant role of the clerks and runners in local administration. In fact compared to the magistrates, clerks and runners had a deeper impact on the local population because they were local recruits, knew the customs and dialects, and held their positions for much longer periods than did the magistrates, who were appointed from elsewhere and held office for only three years.
The main argument in this volume, anchored on legal proceedings and disciplinary records at the grassroots level, is that despite the complications in power and politics, and in personal and kinship factions, the role of clerks and runners was crucial to both the operation of the yamen and the centralization of political and administrative authority. By examining the clerks and runners through their efforts to legitimize their careers and livelihoods as remunerated yamen employees, Reed provides us with a deeper contextualized perspective on the corruption label, local administration, and the dichotomy between local society and the state in the last hundred years of the Qing dynasty.
In sum this monograph is a substantive contribution to judicial practice, local administration, and social history. The specialist is likely to appreciate the several appendices listing important information such as administrative duties of clerks and runners, agreements, and fee schedules. The non-specialist would be interested in exploring further Reed's contention that the data from Ba county do not support Max Weber's "idealized notion of a rational bureaucracy" that separated private interest from institutional and social functions of public office.
Jennifer W. Jay
University of Alberta
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|Author:||Jay, Jennifer W.; Colwill, Elizabeth|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2001|
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