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The Collective Recommendation System in Ming Dynasty: From Opinion Disputes to Impulsive Inclination

Author  :  Li Wenyu     Source  :    Studies and Exploration, Issue 10, 2015     2016-11-03

The Collective Recommendation System was the major way of choosing higher-ranking officials since the Mid-Ming Dynasty, which represented the typical landscape of the officials’ selection system in the Ming Dynasty and reflected the structure and development of the central pivot politics of the Ming Dynasty. At the same time, this system integrated the various political parties in the Ming central pivot, its charges and rules gradually became the inner political moral standards of the literati and officialdom, thus constituted the most striking characteristics of the political culture of the Ming Dynasty.

Opinion Disputes in the Collective Recommendation

The higher-ranking officials’ selection system had gone through many changes in the Ming dynasty. During the reigns of Hongwu and Yongle, the Emperor’s Imperial Edict was the most common practice. By Xuande’s reign of 1428, “The Emperor asked the courtiers to recommend those honest, upright and talented so as to fill the important vacancies in the Six Boards and the Censorate.” Later, this practice was promoted and was called “Collective Recommendation(会举)” in literature. When time approached the reign of Chenghua, there had been a short period of higher-ranking official appointments held solely by the Ministry of Official Personnel Affairs. However, people held that the choosing of those higher-ranking officials above San Pin(The Third Grade三品)should be very cautious and should be different from those ordinary officials because of the former’s high importance in state affairs, so there appeared more petitions against the autocracy of the Ministry of Official Personnel Affairs in official recommendations. By the second year of Hongzhi (1489), the recommendation system based on the former “Collective Recommendation” was finally established. There were two major procedures in the running of this system: First, in the selection of the candidates, there should be a court gathering and recommendation of nominees after careful discussions. Second, in the actual appointment, the list of those candidates will be submitted to the Emperor and the Emperor would make the final decision, either by choosing someone from the candidates or appointing someone else from his own will.

During this collective recommendation process, different officials always had different opinions upon certain personnel or the qualifications for a certain vacancy. The purpose of this presumption of disputes and negotiation space among officials was to amend the defects of each individual. The disputes among officials were acknowledged by the system and was actually the exact basis of this system, which differs itself from the Imperial Edict and the appointing practice conducted solely by the Ministry of Official Personnel Affairs.

Although the opinions of the Nine Ministries’(九卿) and the Supervision Department (科道) of a certain higher-ranking official candidate was a result of collective discussions, the Emperor’s idea could be different from those courtiers. Since the Emperor possessed an unchallengeable power of issuing the Imperial Edict, or he could summon an alternative recommendation or call for a renewed recommendation, which was the rule of this system and a natural result of the autocratic monarchy, the disputes among those courtiers could be finalized by him.

This Collective Recommendation System starts from the disputes among courtiers and these disputes ran through both of the two important procedures during its practice, and were finalized by the Emperor. Allowing disputes among the officials was to integrate public voices. The disputing space between the Emperor and the officials was served to ensure the authority of the monarchial decision-making. This Collective Recommendation System based on and characterized by opinion disputes first served for the autocracy system, but went beyond this system to some degree. This Collective Recommendation System for higher-ranking officials thus constituted an important expression of regime democracy within the Ming political arena.

The Impulsive Inclination Resulted from this Collective Recommendation System

With the establishment of this system, collective recommendation had become the major practice in selecting higher-ranking officials in Ming Dynasty. At the same time, the Imperial Edict was gradually dying out and was no longer popular among the public. During the promotion of this Collective Recommendation System, the function of this system itself was undergoing a change. During the Mid-reign of Wanli, its positive function of integrating public voices so as to legalize the personnel changes was diminishing, but its negative influence on the court conflicts and partisanship was increasing. The outcome of this system was no more a simple “Opinion Disputes”, but became an “Impulsive Inclination” between the Emperor and his courtiers and among the courtiers themselves.

The transformation from the opinion disputes to the impulsive inclination was not something inevitable, and its manifestation patterns varied with the political situations in different times. However, the general trend was that from the Mid-reign of Wanli, Emperor Shenzong gradually began neglecting his duties, and the previous subtle changes in political patterns, working styles and popular feelings were becoming more and more prominent, from then on, the collective recommendation system began to show more signs of impulsive inclination.

The opinion disputes were the natural basis of this collective recommendation system, but the impulsive inclination derived from the fact that its practice becoming the dismantling force of this system. The systematic function of integrating public voices had lost its positive significance and provided space for mutual suspicion and sectarianism which was growing secretly in the court. The Emperor’s suspicion and distrust towards his subjects, the subjects’ arguments and uncompromising attitudes towards the Emperor, together with the partisanship and mutual attacks among those courtiers, were all demonstrated in the impulsive inclinations in late Ming Dynasty.

The Systematic Ideology of Collective Recommendation and the Political Ecology of the Late Ming Dynasty

From the institutional perspective, the Collective Recommendation System highly represented the structure and development of pivot politics in the Ming Dynasty. The reasons are the following: First, collective recommendation was the major way of choosing higher-ranking officials after the abolishment of the post of Prime Minister in the Ming Dynasty, and took over part of the position-appointing duties from the Prime Minister; Second, from its content, this system intermediated every major dimension of Ming pivot politics, accommodated the responsibilities and positioning of various political powers such as the Monarch, the Cabinet, the Ministry of Official Personnel Affairs, the Nine Ministries and the Supervision Department. As a political system, there were three major ideas contained in this Collective Recommendation System: First, the attention to collective opinions; Second, the Monarch’s autonomous decision-making; Third, a systematic alienation from the Cabinet. However, these three ideas were not always in accordance with the changes of political patterns in the late Ming Dynasty, from every dimension they were always contradictory and conflicting.

With the changes of the political ecology in the late Ming Dynasty, the Collective Recommendation System evolved from the broad adaption of public opinions at its first design into a noisy confusion where every courtier could step in and interfere. The positive functions of the collective discussions, opinion communications and idea collections at its first stage had gradually lost its inner flexibility and tension due to the interference of different political sectors and the entanglement of their inter- relations. Due to one reason or another, there was also an absence of the balancing and the final deciding power from the sovereign. The three systematic ideas implicated in the system, namely, the expression of collective opinions, the autonomous decision-making of the Emperor and an alienation from the Cabinet, all had been held by Emperor Xiaozong of the early Age of Hongzhi in his state administration and political attitudes. Although those ideas were consolidated into the system, the political ecology kept varying. When the system became more and more important and the practice happened more and more frequently, paradoxically, both the Emperor and his subjects seemed to drift away from the original design of this system.

The Collective Recommendation System and the Political- Cultural Tolerance of Ming Dynasty

The disparity between the original ideology of this system and the evolution of the political ecology of the late Ming became the major reason which resulted in the alienation of the Collective Recommendation System. Undeniably, there were other systems that could not achieve their supposed political functions when the time reached the late Ming. The peculiarity of this system lay not just on its functions to integrate many political powers in the central pivot and to define their separate responsibilities, but also on its symbolic meaning in the minds of those officials, it fully represented a typical political culture of the Ming Dynasty.

Ming politics bred a series of constraining mechanisms against autocracy, the essential purpose of it was to adjust the over-rigidness of autocracy. This political-cultural tolerance represented by the Collective Recommendation System was indeed a distinct feature of this period and deserve our special attention. For the ruling order of a dynasty, on the one hand, this tolerance could generate merits such as adjusting rulings. It could generate risks of weakening the ruling, on the other hand.

As to the Collective Recommendation System, the final solution of those disputes, either between the Emperor and the bureaucracy or among the bureaucrats themselves, totally resided in the Emperor’s final say. Whenever the Emperor was neglecting his duties and the Cabinet did not have a proper way to get involved, the balancing function of the central pivot would be just nominal, and this adoptive tolerance would be used as a tool for confusion-making and self-service. This tolerating feature in Ming political culture eventually went nowhere and became a weakening force to the reign of the dynasty. The Qing Dynasty inherited many of the Ming institutions except for this Collective Recommendation System. This tolerating feature in Ming political culture was swept away after the founding of the Qing Dynasty. The once lively atmosphere of ancient Chinese politics gave way to tranquility under autocracy.


Li Wenyu is from the College of Literature at Jilin University.










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