No. 160.
Mr. Denby to Mr. Bayard.

No. 531.]

Sir: At this time, when civil-service reform is on trial in the United States, a slight comparison of the system with the competitive examination system in China may not be uninteresting.

Under the Chinese system the candidates for office are divided into three grades: “Budding geniuses,” “Promoted”scholars,” and those who are “ready for office.” The examination for the first grade takes place in the chief city of each district or hsien; for the second, in the provincial capital; for the third, at Peking.

A fourth examination remains for those who aspire to the distinguished honor of a place in the Imperial Academy.

About 2,000,000 persons are examined every year in China, and about 2 per cent. pass.

The successful students at the district examinations are exempt from corporal punishment, receive all possible social consideration, and are regarded as superior beings. Once in three years they repair to the provincial capital for competition for the second degree. Ten thousand students usually enter the lists.

The “promoted scholars” of all China appear at Peking the succeeding spring. Successful examination there is followed by appointment to an office, which is determined by lot. Another examination, as stated, follows for a position as a member of the Hanlin College, and from these again a laureate is selected, by competitive tests, who is the model scholar of the empire for the season.

There is no restriction as to the age of applicants. Many instances are known of persons of forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, and even eighty years of age attending the examinations.

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This system is liable to many objections from a western point of view. It holds out the attainment of official position as the one object of life. In free countries, where so many laudable objects of ambition are offered to the people, wisdom and prudence would discourage a desire for office. It creates a special class devoted to the government and subservient to improper official influence. It takes from the laborious avocations of life vast numbers of men who become consumers instead of producers.

It is by no means a practical system. The examinations are not designed to test the fitness of the applicants for any class of office. They are mostly the same everywhere, and in their subjects are confined to disquisitions on Confucian philosophy, repetition of passages from the classics, ancient history of the dynasties, with occasional treatises on agriculture, poetry, war, and finance.

The examination fixes the status of the successful applicant. He becomes one of the literati, a class of people whose anti-foreign proclivities are well known.

The arguments which are usually advanced in favor of this system in China may be summarized under three heads: It serves the state as a safety-valve, providing a career for those ambitious spirits who might otherwise foment disturbances. It operates as a counterpoise to the power of an absolute monarch. It gives the government a hold on the educated gentry and binds them to the support of existing institutions.

It will be acknowledged, I think, on a comparison of this system with civil-service reform in Great Britain and the United States, that exactly opposite ends are designed by the latter, except possibly the second purpose above stated.

In free countries frequent elections furnish a safety-valve for ambitious spirits; there is no absolute monarch to be guarded against, and there is no purpose in increasing the governmental influence, because existing institutions are not in any danger. Party spirit is sufficiently rife in Great Britain and the United States and requires no stimulant. Its zeal is now perhaps excessive. The appeal of patriotism is rather to the conscience of the voter than to faithfulness to party ties.

In western countries examinations in the civil service tend directly to secure the independence of the citizen.

He secures office not through personal abasement to great leaders or favoritism, but as the result of merit. In China these competitive examinations, while based on merit, build up a class entirely subservient to improper official influence.

The practical methods are also decidedly better with us than in China. The examinations here are at stated periods for often as many as 10,000 applicants at a time. They cover all over the empire the same general subjects. Only abstract knowledge is considered. The subjects of examination have no reference to any particular class of office. The successful applicant may enter any branch of the civil service.

Under our system all this is changed. Each examination is practical and tests the fitness of the applicant for the special official service that he desires to enter, whether it be the customs, the Treasury, the Post Office Department, the Patent Office, or any other.

In our system official influence is sedulously guarded from abuse. There is no such check here.

Here it is distinction in abstract scholarship which insures official appointment.

There is no good reason why great scholars should alone administer the government to the exclusion of the masses whose means or opportunities have not enabled them to become graduates of colleges.

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Under our system, while high education is not a bar to success, it is not the only qualification or sometimes the most important. The civil-service act of 1883 provides for an examination of the fitness of the applicant. He may be eminently fit for the discharge of many duties, and yet be comparatively unlearned in letters, history, or languages.

That the Chinese system encourages education must be admitted. So far it is better than no system.

It is plain that the Chinese themselves have seen the defects in the subjects of study and examination. They have lately given to the sciences a place in their curriculum, not obligatory it is true, but open to candidates who are to receive appropriate recognition.

This entering wedge of reform may enable the Chinese Government to build up a perfect system on the good foundation which was laid thousands of years ago.

Our system has been attacked as being a copy of the Chinese plan. But even this cursory comparison demonstrates that the objects and Machinery of civil service reform are entirely different from the Chinese competitive examinations. The different governmental conditions of the two countries demand different treatments. Our aim is to guard against the despotism of party; the Chinese rather seek to uphold the despotism of the emperor. Our aim is to fill the offices with independent men who are fit for the discharge of their duties.

The Chinese seek to perpetuate an educated class, and do not seek individual fitness.

Herein lies one of their great troubles, It happens every day that distinguished scholars who know nothing of engineering science are sent to superintend the public works; civilians are put in charge of troops or ships, and men are made judges who know nothing of law.

Under a complete civil-service system, like that of England or British India and our own law, as far as it extends, such absurdities are impossible.

I have, etc.,

Charles Denby.