The system of official selection and appointment used by the Western and Eastern Chin and the Southern and Northern Dynasties was a direct continuation of the Chiu-p'in Chung-Cheng (九品中正) system of the Ts'ao-Wei Dynasty and in the previous volume on the Three Kingdoms period we have already briefly mentioned the course of events that accompanied the creation of the system by the Ts'ao-Wei so here we will add on to that explanation.
The Nine Rank, Primary and Secondary system was formally established during the Three Kingdoms period on the basis of a proposal made by the Wei court official Ch'en Ch'ün that was supported by Ts'ao P'i, the ruler Wen-ti, and then put into effect by proclamation. However, this system was probably first actually tried out before Wen-ti usurped the throne of the Han during the period when Ts'ao Ts'ao dominated the government. According to Shen Yüeh in the Preface to the Biographies of the Grateful Favorites (En-hsing Ch'uan Hsü) in the Sung Shu, ... during the loss and confusion of the late Han when Wei-wu (i.e. Ts'ao Ts'ao) began to establish his foundation, the authority of the soldiers in the army was set up in nine ranks using it to judge the good or bad of a man's talent and not the high or low of the family's background, and for this reason their fates were linked and consequently became an accepted usage... In addition, according to the T'ung-tien Li-tai hsuan-chu Chih During the period when Wei Wen-ti was still the King of Wei and the three regions (i.e. Wei, Wu and Shu the kingdoms into which the Han state had decomposed) had become fixed in a triangular balance of power, the scholar-officials led a life of wandering and were everywhere mixed together so there was absolutely no way to assess them. In the year Yen-k'ang 1 (the same as Huang-ch'u 1 of the Wei ruler Wen-ti, 220 A.D.) the minister of the Board of Personnel (Li-pu Shang-shu) Ch'en Ch'ün was of the opinion that the dynasty's selection and employment of officials did not exhaust the available pool of men of ability, therefore, he set up the nine-rank system for officials. Then again according to the Biography of Wei Ch'üan in the Chin Chu The House of Wei fell heir to a legacy of collapse and after the turmoils had passed the people still wandered and shifted about so there was no place to test or investigate, therefore, the system of nine ranks was established, the rough draft becoming the basis of selection and employment immediately!
During the latter half of the Eastern Han following the evils of the Yellow Turbans and Tung Ch'o all the lands under heaven were convulsed by social and political upheavals. Warfare and armed struggle flowed across the entire state causing populations to suffer deprivation and hardship as they left their homes to wander about aimlessly. The system of selection and appointment that had been practiced by the previous two Han Dynasties was based for the most part on village opinion, but as soon as the populace had been driven from their native villages such opinions no longer had a solid basis, while at the same time even when peace returned the local popularity of such general criticism no longer existed because of the upheavals brought about by the wars. As a man who highly valued talent and ability, in the midst of the turmoils of war Ts'ao Ts'ao came up with a stopgap measure as a temporary expedient. On the basis of talent, virtue, skill and ability candidates were roughly divided into three grades and nine ranks and were both employed and paid according to their rank. Compared to the varied and unpredictable ways to establish name and rank in the system of selection and appointment used by the Han Dynasty it represented a simplification and clarification, in addition to this, it could also be used to rectify an evil common during the late Han of the vanity and superficiality of many scholars where name and reality did not tally. From its origin as a temporary expedient by the time of Wei Wen-ti it had become an established practice and what is even more surprising is that this system continued to be used for some three-hundred years. The outcome was an even greater spread of corruption than that caused by the ch'a-chü system of the Han.
During the period in question the nine rank system of the Ts'ao-Wei Dynasty served two important functions.
1. To rectify the abuses of the Ch'a-chü system of the late Eastern Han period where fame and virtue depended on one's rank on the examination while disregarding the real situation. Thus talent and virtue were united when men were divided into nine ranks, while the state employed them according to their rank in order to achieve results.
2. During the period when the ch'a-shü system was in use, the appraisal of candidates and control of public opinion was in the hands of local elites (literally - the wise and the virtuous) out of power. Now the office of the Palace Director (中正 Chung-cheng) was established to be sent out by the government to judge and select men of ability and give the central authorities power over popular opinion. This brought (杜絕朋黨 tu-chüeh p'eng-tang) an end to cliques and (破除門閥 p'o-ch'u men-fa) eliminated the powerful families thereby increasing the political strength of the central administration of the Ts'ao family regime.
In all of the local adminstrations an office to supervise selection was established, in a province a Major Palace Director (Ta Chung-cheng, also called Chou-tu or Tu-shih) was set up, while in a commandery there was a Minor Palace Director, these two posts classified local candidates into three grades and nine ranks (three grades of shang, chung and hsia which as A, B and C can be organized into the nine ranks of AA, AB, AC, BA, BB, BC, CA, CB and CC). The first two ranks (AA and AB) were known as the Upper Ranks (Shang P'in) and those who were selected as such were the very exceptional.
After a man's rank had been determined it was also the case that it could be changed, rising and falling with regard to the good and bad of his moral conduct and administrative acheivements. In the chapter on selecting officials (Hsüan shih pien) in the Wen-hsien T'ung-k'ao it is written: The differentiation of men was fixed into nine grades. If their words and actions are polished then they rise and advance, perhaps advancing from the fifth rank to the fourth, or from the sixth to the fifth. In the event that the sense of right and honor is lacking then they are demoted, falling from the fifth rank to the sixth, or from the sixth to the seventh. If a man's rank was to rise and fall then the evaluations must be frequently investigated and revised, thus, when the Ts'ao-Wei Dynasty was first organized the regulation of San-nien I-ch'ing ( to cleanse once in three years) was established which meant that at the end of each third year there would be a readjustment and rearrangement of the ranks. However, the procedure was complicated and troublesome, and the years that followed were troubled and confused so in reality they were never able to be thoroughly carried out. (See the Chin Shu, the Chronicle of Shih Chi-lung.)
There were three criteria used in the selection of men of ability: the first was pu-fa - pu-fa refers to family background, the second was chuang - chuang is a judgement of talent and virtue shown in conduct and includes political accomplishments in public office, and the third is p'in - p'in is into which of several grades his character should be ranked. It was the responsibility of the Palalce Director to supply the data on these three criteria by entering it into the official record as documentation supplied to a government office for reference. A Minor Palace Director reported to a Major Palace Director, and a Major Palace Director reported to the office of the Minister of the Masses (司徒 Ssu-t'u).
As for the creation of these Palace Directors, at the very beginning they were chosen by the senior official in each commandery, but by the time of the Chin Dynasty the Major Palace Directors were recommended for appointment by another Major Palace Director. The Major Palace Director also usually served concurrently in an official post in the central government, and in addition his own official standing must be among those of the Upper Rank. All of those who held the office of Palace Director, no matter whether it was at the provincial or at the commandery level, were required to be responsible for their home district, thus Hsia-hou Chün, a native of Yü-chou became the Palace Director of Yü-chou, and T'ao K'an a native of P'o-yang chün became the Minor Palace Director for P'o-yang chün.
During the Western and Eastern Chin and the Southern and Northern Dynasties the power to select and appoint officials usually belonged to the Chief Minister of the Board of Personnel (Shih Pu Shang-shu) but if the Board wanted to employ an official it had to do so on the basis of the reports of the Palace Directors or else meet with the Left Chief Clerk of the Minister of the Masses to reach a joint decision.
Both the Minor and Major Palace Directors had a staff that was called 'fang-wen', and charged with making inquiries as to the rank of well-known local figures.
The local figures who were rated by the Palace Directors, it did not matter if they were from illustrious families or those of a destitute house, it was important that they all be loyal and law-abiding subjects (liang-min - good people). With regard to the menials and slaves of the lowest classes, they could not take part in the system of ranks. Therefore, those who were the objects of consideration of the Nine Ranks system of selection and appointment were definitely not the broad masses.
During the Ts'ao-Wei Dynasty when the Nine Ranks-Palace Director system was first put into effect it proved to be very good at rectifying the defects of the ch'a-shü system that marked the later period of the Eastern Han, but only six years after its implementation corruption was again widespread prompting the Left Supervisor of the Masters of Writing, Liu I, in 285 to offer up a memorial that bitterly stated the harm the system had caused. Of the eight points that he listed, the most important was that the Palace Directors manipulated the authority of the ruler through their power to assign ranking, and with the complete absence of any objective standards it was 'superiority and inferiority follow strength and weakness, right and wrong have their source in likes and dislikes', 'a man's body in ten days has a different form', thus it was that 'the Upper Ranks have no poor families, the Lower Ranks have no powerful lineages', This produced serious divisions within society and also proved that the system was incapable of finding talented individuals, quite to the contrary, men of genuine talent were not being recognized at all. However, because it had been in use for such a long time this long-standing practice proved difficult to reverse, and could not be reformed. After the flight to the south while the empire collapsed and fragmented, this irrational system was preserved by those with power and influence.
Although the Nine Rank-Palace Director system was important during this period there were several temporary selection and appointment systems used during the Western and Eastern Chin such as the chao-chü and hsiu-hsiao. In the chao-chü the emperor issued a decree that directed the localities to recommend men of exceptional talent for official posts in order to respond to the needs of the state in what was a temporary sort of emergency measure. For example, in the 11th lunar month of the year T'ai-shih 4 of Chin Wu-ti the kings, dukes, court and capital officials, and the heads of the local administrations were ordered to recommend men who were worthy, virtuous, square and upright, and straightforward in their speech. In the 12th lunar month of T'ai-shih 5 (269) the provinces and commanderies were directed to recommend those who were brave and had outstanding talent, in the 6th lunar month of the year T'ai-shih 7 the high-ranking court officials were instructed to recommend one man as a military general. In the 5th lunar month of T'ai-k'ang 9 (288) all officials everywhere were directed to recommend those with the talent to command.
From the time of the Wei and Chin on although the Nine Rank-Palace Director system had replaced the ch'a-chü system, the ch'a-chü nomenclature hsiao-lien and hsiu-ts'ai (during the Eastern Han this was renamed mao-ts'ai, the hsiu being changed to mao in order to avoid using a character that appeared in the name of the emperor Kuang-wu-ti, Liu Hsiu) were maintained throughout the period and referred to as hsiu-hsiao. During the Eastern Chin as a rule each year two men were to be recommended as the hsiu-hsiao from Yang-chou (the seat of government) while the rest of the provinces were to recommend every year or every third year one man as hsiu-hsiao. Sometimes it became necessary to augment the examinations for many men dreaded them and did not dare compete in the exams. Thus the recommendation of hsiu-hsiao was only a sort of formality that barely maintained the meaning it had during the Han.
During the period of the Liu-Sung dynasty it was ordered throughout the empire that besides the Nine Rank every year the commanderies were to recommend one man as hsiu-hsiao (the commanderies of Tan-yang, Hui-ch'i and Wu-hsing in Yang-chou could each recommend two men), while each year the provinces could recommend one man as hsiu-ts'ai. It finally came to the point where the central government use problem-solving tests (ts'e-shih) to augment the bureaucracy, and it was again handed over to the head of the Board of Personnel (Li-pu Shang-shu) who employed men according to their talents using as a pretext the unseemliness of ammending the Nine Ranks. During the reign of Sung Wen-ti there was also a regulation that after thirty years (of taking tests) a candidate was then able to begin serving as a government official, and this was called hsien-nien chih, the year-limit regulation.
The system of official selection of the Hsiao-Ch'i dynasty was about the same as that of the Liu-Sung with the exception that the year-limit regulation was divided into two groups, the chia-tsu (influential and noble families of long standing) and the hou-men (literally back-door, the poor families). After taking the test thrity times the hou-men became functionaries (li) while after twenty tries the chia-tsu rose to the rank of official, thus making even more pronounced the differences between the nobility and the poor.
The Liang and Ch'en dynasties continued the Nine Ranks as well as the year-limit regulation. In the Liang during the T'ein-chien period (502 to 519) it was ruled that before the thirtieth year those who had not passed once could not obtain office. In addition, provinces were to establish the office of Chou-chung, commanderies a chün-tzung, and prefectures a hsien-hao to be filled by a man who was responsible for sou-chien, that is they were to search out and recommend those of excpetional talent regardless of wealth or the lack of it shattering the class concept bias of the Nine Rank system. The Ch'en patterned itself on Liang institutions and continued the custom that those who had not met the thirty-year limit could not enter official ranks excpet that those who had mastered the classics or the problem-solving tests and had also obtained the highest scores (te-ti) were not bound by this precedent.
The Northern Dynasties modelled themselves after the Southern Dynasties and so used the Nine Rank-Palace Director system with the provinces and commanderies all having Palace Directors. Prior to the T'ai-ho period (477 to 499) all who could select with care those of lofty virtue in their home districts became the Palace Director, and when the chief minister of the Board of Personnel selected those for office he had to do so in conjunction with the Palace Director. Besides acting as a corrective for the errors of the Palace Directors, they jointly administered the exam for hsiu-ts'ai, which was called the k'o-k'ao. The Wei ruler Hsiao-wen-ti ruled that there was to be an exam every three years, those who took the exam were divided (into nine ranks) according to the three grades and those hsiu-ts'ai in the fifth rank or above were personally tested by the emperor at the court. "The very best were transferred, the very worst were demoted, while those in between kept their original posts." (See the Record of Kao-tsu in the Wei Shu.) In the disorders that later came to the Northern Wei, this k'o-k'ao system fell into neglect and disuse.
The Northern Ch'i inherited the Nine Rank-Palace Director system from the Northern Wei but placed particular emphasis on the k'o-k'ao and at the same time set up numerous designations, their system having a hsiu-ts'ai degree for the chung-shu-ts'e, a kung-shih for the chi-shu-ts'e, and a lien-lang degree for the k'ao-kung-ts'e, moreover, sometimes the emperor summoned the ts'e-shih to an audience for conversation. By this time the Nine Rank- Palace Director system was already beginning to change.
The Northern Chou acted on the counsel of Su Ch'o to eliminate the familial bias of the Nine Rank system and cast a wide net to catch men of talent by restoring the ch'a-chü system. After Yu-wen Yung, Chou Wu-ti, pacified Ch'i all the provinces in Shan-tung were instructed to recommend as ming-ching kan-li six men from a upper prefecture, five men from a middle prefecture and four men from a lower prefecture. By the reign of Chou Hsüan-ti the provinces were again directed to recommend those with superior talent and extensive learning as hsiu-ts'ai, commanderies recommending those with intelligence and high moral conduct as hsiao-lien, upper provinces and commanderies each sending one man every year, while only one man on the central government's Board of Personnel was in charge of official selection. Thus by the time of the Northern Chou the Nine Rank-Palace Director system had undergone a tranformation that was to lead to the k'o-chü system of the Sui and T'ang dynasties that followed. The Northern Chou also acted quickly on Su Ch'o's critique promulgating his Six-article Proclamation that called for the setern administration of local officials (See 6.2 The Revolt of Hou Ching for more on this.) and every official who did not comply with the six articles did not receive recommendation and employment.