History or Immediacy?
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Modern Public Management in
Song Dynasty China
History or Immediacy?
his paper deals with one of the key texts of Chinese public man-
agement, the great Song Dynasty statesman, philosopher and poet
Wang Anshi’s Wan Van Shu, or ‘memorandum of a myriad words’, of
1058 – a proposal to radically reform the Chinese civil service. While Wang
has remained famous across a millennium, the explicitly public managerial
dimension of his work has been neglected, especially as regards its standing
as a ‘global classic’.
In this paper, after briefly putting the memorandum into context, I
explain its proposals from today’s globalized Western public management
perspective, rather than from an historical one. I treat the memorandum as
an ancient text with contemporary relevance – surely the Confucian way,
and one that also Wang Anshi employed. My aim is to show, without doing
any injustice to the text, that Wang argues on a very high level even from
the perspective of the 2013 public management discourse, by addressing
both context-specific problems and perennial ones in public management.
My approach here is based on Gadamer’s (1960) hermeneutics – the full
reconstruction of the meaning of the original, or of the author’s intent, is
impossible, even if such a meaning did exist. Almost ironically, we therefore
can assume a possible immediacy of such fundamental, classical texts as the
Source: Public Money & Management, 33(5) (2013): 353–360.
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82 History of Public Administration
present one, to the extent that we realize the context as much as is necessary
to understand the text.
Current history of science theory has largely given up on tracing the
history of success only, but it is highly difficult not to judge historical
processes in light of one’s own current existence and therefore one’s views
and those of one’s time. Keynes looked very different in 1988 from the way
he does in 2013, and Marx as well. For this reason, relatively recent changes
in the public management discourse have been very conducive to the study of
Wang Anshi, because the end of the New Public Management (NPM) as the
global theoretical paradigm (see Kattel and Drechsler, 2009) and the post-
NPM situation of ‘paradigmettes’ – such as the old NPM and a new one (a
response to the global financial crisis), the old ‘Weberian’ state, New Public
Governance and its various permutations, and especially the Neo-Weberian
State (see Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011) – may lead to an easier recognition of
his qualities. Wang’s thoughts correspond to tenets of more than one of these
‘paradigmettes’, but as precisely this amalgamation of views is the current state
of the art of public management, we can see that his thoughts directly relate to
a very immediate, contemporary set of insights, institutions and tools.
Wang Anshi (1021–1086) was the leading statesman in the China of his
time, and his time, the Song Dynasty (960–1279), is usually regarded as one
of the great cultural periods of Chinese (see Williamson, 1937, p. 71) and –
therefore, one might say – human civilization. If we follow Fukuyama (2011,
p. 18), assuming that the modern state started in China and not in the ‘West’;
and if this is a state understood to be very different from the Western one
(Jacques, 2011), this is even more interesting:
China alone created a modern state in the terms defined by Max Weber. That
is, China succeeded in developing a centralized, uniform system of bureau-
cratic administration that was capable of governing a huge population and
territory. . .China had already invented a system of impersonal, merit-based
bureaucratic recruitment that was far more systematic than Roman public
administration (Fukuyama, 2011, p. 21).
And this state was enormously successful – so successful that it was not chal-
lenged until the early 19
century as regards organization.
One would therefore expect the main administrative-theoretical work of
a man like Wang Anshi to be of major importance, and so indeed it is. The
Wan Yan Shu, the ‘memorandum of a myriad [10,000] words’ (in reality,
8567 according to Franke, 1932, p. 269; or 8565, according to Williamson,
1935, p. 48), is a well-structured text, addressing the emperor of China,
Renzong (1010–1063), not as a rhetorical device, but it was really written
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for and also read by him, even if he did not seem to have followed up on it
(Franke, 1932, p. 275). It was also surely written with further distribution
and perhaps even some historical dimension in mind – and it did form the
basis for the far-reaching public management reforms its author was able to
launch as the emperor’s chancellor (see Smith, 2009, pp. 360–361).
Since the book’s most controversial point was that it would break with a
highly regarded tradition – that of basing civil service access on the knowl-
edge and handling of canonic texts, which was in the interest of the literati
bureaucrats (Franke, 1932, p. 264; see generally Elman, 2000), the central
device of that part of the text is the classical rhetorical one of many reforms,
including the Reformation itself, to ‘purify’ the present from the aberrations
of the recent past in order to restore the good old slate of earlier centuries
(see Higashi, 1970, pp. 921, 935–937). As has often been observed, it is
therefore irrelevant whether the past actually was as Wang tells it, because
that is not the point (Mote, 1999, p. 139; on Wang’s sophisticated under-
standing and use of the classics, Bol, 1993, pp. 163–165).
Like his antagonists, including his nemesis, the conservative statesman
and historian Sima Guang (1019–1086; see Bol, 1993), Wang was a (Neo-)
Confucian as well, with a special liking for Mencius (Franke, 1932, p. 271;
Higashi, 1970, p. 937); however, he was not an uncritical one. By now, many
have come to recognize that it is wrong to say, as Fukuyama still does, that
‘Confucianism is an intensely backward-looking doctrine that roots legiti-
macy in ancient practices’ (2011, p. 119; see rather Bell, 2010: especially pp.
xiii–xv, xxvii, 148–162, from today’s perspective and Smith, 1993 for the his-
torical context), especially as Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism are again
legitimized by the success of the (New) Confucian countries that employ
it. Following Bell, we may indeed call Wang Anshi a ‘left Confucian’ (2010,
p. xxix). Specifically, I would say that Wang wanted to make Confucianism
work and therefore needed to make the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats work.
The memorandum made its author ‘famous for its powerful ideas and
gained him a kind of leadership among reformers’ (Mote, 1999, p. 139). It
formed the basis for Wang’s reforms, but even after those had been rescinded
to a good extent, the memorandum remained a much-debated classic. (See
the opinions in Meskill, 1963.
willing but that his support is weak. The empire is badly administered and
therefore soon existenially threatened. (Wang was proven correct, but was
made a scapegoat for this himself; see Williamson, 1935: pp. vii–viii.) Yet
the emperor cannot easily change the situation. Why? ‘My reason for saying
that the realization of your object is impossible is that there is an insufficient
number of capable men to help you. Without these it is not feasible to reform
the government’ (WYS, pp. 50–51).
‘Producing’ good people is therefore the key to administrative reform – this
is not about innate or cultivated virtue, or not only, but about the structures,
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84 History of Public Administration
institutions and processes that will eventually produce these men (WYS, p. 51;
see Liu, 1968, p. 47). In other words, Wang’s focus, quite in line with the clas-
sical development-policy concept of Nurkse (1952; 1964; see also Drechsler,
2009), is clearly on administrative capacity, without which any further reform
is impossible (see WYS, p. 52; Liu, 1968, p. 45).
Wang divides the pillars of a well-functioning civil service into four catego-
ries, which could be replicated today without any change:
‘Nurturing’ meaning remuneration (Bol, 1993, p. 161).
Appointment (WYS, p. 54).
These are first enumerated (WYS, p. 54), then briefly discussed (WYS, pp.
54–60) and then dealt with in some detail (WYS, pp. 60–76). In other words,
and this has rarely been recognized, the first short discussion forms an exec-
utive summary. In the following discussion, however, I have combined the
respective arguments from both sections, as well as pertinent ones from the
Key to the training of good civil servants is to have both high-quality instruc-
tors (a basic point of Wang) and a relevant curriculum (WYS, pp. 54–55). In
this regard, Wang is famously opposed to the traditional curriculum, which
in the end prevailed over the centuries, as the basis for the civil service exam-
ination, because it largely consisted of the formal discussion, recitation and
interpretation of the great Confucian classics (WYS, p. 61; on the exam, see
overall Elman, 2000; briefly still Miyazaki, 1976; and the case study of a
much later cohort by Man-Cheong, 2004).
Actually, this system also had its very good sides, because it objectivized
selection and hence was much better than nothing; it was a meritocratic test
and thus potentially the only way to counteract the practice of corruption
and nepotism which Wang decried (WYS, pp. 71–72), which has always been
seen as a problem in China (until today) and which is, if one will, a side-
effect of strong family ties. As Fukuyama says, ‘the natural human propensity
to favor family and friends . . . constantly reasserts itself in the absence of coun-
tervailing incentives’ (2011, p. 17). Overall, the story of the Chinese civil ser-
vice exam is a giant success story – ‘it is safe to say that the Chinese invented
modern bureaucracy, that is, a permanent administrative cadre selected on
the basis of ability rather than kinship or patrimonial connection’ (2011,
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p. 113). That objectification, any objectification, of selection would be the
only possible path thither is as obvious as that the exceedingly strong Chinese
notion of family might have actually been the reason for the emergence of
such a model.
In addition, that the examination was done with the personal involve-
ment of the emperor himself, who personally graded the final top essays (see
Miyazaki, 1976, pp. 81–83), unthinkable in the West, shows its centrality for
the state system and the esteem in which the process, and thus civil service
selection, was held. And, finally, if there had to be standard texts upon which
to base the exam, the Neo-Confucian Four Books (see Gardner, 2007 for a
handy selection) were not the worst choice. The potentially quite subversive
nature of these texts – especially of Wang’s favourite, the Mencius – towards
any oppressive, irresponsible regime, such as through the concept of the
‘Mandate of Heaven’, is very clear even for the casual reader.
However, today, one would generally be more in sympathy with Wang,
and the argument would be that while a standardized test of any sort is and
was better than no test at all, a test or examination mechanism which would
actually select the best candidates suited to the office (rather than to the
studies, which generally is the case with academic admissions exams today)
would be better still.
What is interesting here is that Wang takes one further step in his argu-
mentation – if I see it correctly, this point is made for the first time in what
can be called testing theory. Not only is the test not beneficial, he claims,
it actually is bad because it makes the cadres worse by preventing early
Subject-wise, Wang’s idea why there should not be generalists is the notion
that people are suited to different tasks, and thus that they should fulfil
exactly those (WYS, pp. 58–59). It is therefore important that, early on, pub-
lic management candidates focus on the policy field(s) in which they will
later work – a point that has been emphasized by Pollitt (2005) and one
that has classically been made for the current Western discourse by Mosher
(1982). Meskill called it ‘commonplace today’: this was in 1963. Wang thus
advocates early specialization, arguably because his focus is primarily on
competence and only secondarily, if still very strongly, on the avoidance
of corruption and imperial bureaucracy that come with a lack of rotation,
which in turn requires generalists. Early specialization, never mind whether
one agrees with it or not, also seems to be the current trajectory in public
management (see Ingraham, 2007; also Peters, 2010).
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86 History of Public Administration
Regarding nurturing, i.e. remuneration, Wang is a realist (to an extent which
did not enter the Western discourse before Machiavelli almost half a millen-
nium later), stating that if civil servants are not adequately remunerated,
they will become corrupt (WYS, p. 55; see Qi, 1979, pp. 102–103; Smith,
2009, p. 359). It is from this perspective that he makes the ever-unpopular
and almost always correct remark: ‘The rate of salaries paid nowadays is
generally too low’ (WYS, p. 65). He mentions that highly dedicated civil serv-
ants will even work well without appropriate income and really bad ones not
even with, but the normal, average person is motivated by money, or at least
by an adequate salary, to perform well (WYS, p. 65). ‘What people want is
a decent life, to earn a good reputation, gain a distinguished title, and get
good pay’ (WYS, p. 79).
Wang is very thorough regarding this point, arguing in favour of bench-
marking with private sector incomes a civil servant would otherwise have.
The concept for just salary is thus that of alimentation, i.e. the idea that civil
servants receive ‘sufficient to make up for what they had lost in farming by
being called upon for public work’ (WYS, p. 55). It is implicitly opposed,
therefore, to performance pay, i.e. in the contemporary and post-NPM sense,
Wang is arguing for civil servants to be paid well enough to live but moti-
vated by identification with the state. Wang’s concept is thus precisely that
of the Economics Nobel Prize winner George A. Akerlof and his notion of
‘motivational capital’ (Akerlof and Kranton, 2005). It is also fully in line with
the recent public management discourse on public sector motivation and
incentives (see Ingraham, 2007; Perry et al., 2010; Peters, 2010).
Wang matches this with spending control, i.e. outlawing excessive show-
off and luxury spending (WYS, p. 66) – as was common in the West for
centuries as well but not an idea deemed possible today – on the one hand.
On the other, heeding the context, and well aware of the rule of nepotism,
Wang even allows salary continuity for children and grandchildren (WYS, p.
55). Given the Chinese notion of family, this is of great importance. This is,
of course, just like what is still done today in several modern systems in the
form of continued pensions for widows and younger children if a civil serv-
ant dies (see Bossaert et al., 2001).
And to the common complaint that there is no money to pay the civil
servants, one that was indeed leveled against him (see Kuhn, 2009, p. 56),
and one that meets anyone arguing for adequate civil service remuneration
today, Wang basically says that there is no alternative and that decent fiscal
management produces enough resources to pay for a well-working civil ser-
vice. (WYS, pp. 67–68; see Smith, 1993, pp. 83–84). Wang was miscast as
profit-seeking, as opposed to Confucian, by his antagonists (see Liu, 1968, p.
50; Kuhn, 2009, p. 56), but his point was simply to have sufficient revenues
in order to have a well-functioning state.
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Candidates for civil service positions, according to Wang, should be nomi-
nated decentrally, i.e. locally and then checked and educated, after which
there would be a trial or probationary period (WYS, p. 57). Today, we see a
clear tendency in Western public management towards general decentraliza-
tion as well (Ingraham, 2007) – what is interesting here is that, for Wang,
this decentralization is part and parcel of, and indeed strengthening if not
making possible, the centralization of the overall system. In that sense, it is
akin to the impetus of, for instance, the famous Steinian establishment of
municipal autonomy in Prussia 200 years ago, still the most important concept
of local autonomy, which was intended to make the nation work better (see
Drechsler, 2008). Checking and also educating, again, is left to experienced
senior civil servants, i.e. practitioners (WYS, p. 58) – something that was actu-
ally done in the system, including grading the exams (Miyazaki, 1976, p. 24).
So there is an important snowball effect – once one has some good people as
senior civil servants, they can and will select good people for lower or younger
ranks as well (WYS, p. 70). This is an idea fully congruent with the con-
temporary discussion of public sector leaders as ‘stewards’ (see Denis et al.,
2007). On the other hand, bad people would produce more bad ones as well
(WYS, p. 71). Due to the size of the Chinese empire, not everything could
have been done by the emperor himself, and so it was important to delegate
hiring to people who had shown themselves to be competent (WYS, p. 51).
Finally, civil servants are assessed after an extended time period of at least
three years, as too short a period makes no sense – something taken up in the
problem of monitoring, performance pay, etc. today, which interferes with
good public management. (See again Akerlof and Kranton, 2005; on the con-
ceptual problems with performance measurement see Van de Walle, 2009.)
As this is a key insight, the argument, which still stands today, is cited in full:
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88 History of Public Administration
It ought to be generally a rule that appointments should be made for a long
time, relatively longer periods being allowed to those who have control of
greater areas, or particularly heavy responsibilities. Only in that case can
a person be responsible and make some valuable contribution to the state
(WYS, p. 75).
Whether this is something like the classic NPM performance contract with
agency heads, typically for three to five years (see Hood, 1998), or in effect
the opposite, would be a fascinating item for discussion.
The historical Chinese precept, which Wang cites approvingly, is in this
regard to have an inspection every three years, and after three successful
inspections, the candidate would perhaps receive something like tenure
(WYS, p. 60) – very similar to, for instance, the Estonian academic tenure
system today. This includes only sparing rotation, of course (WYS, p. 74),
because, as has been mentioned previously, Wang wants to avoid generalism,
which would lead to a lack of expertise and to the appointment of men to
positions for which they would not be suited.
This system also includes the need for some trust in the civil servants, a post-
NPM notion today again emphasized especially by Halligan and Bouckaert
(2009; Bouckaert, 2012), and not weighing them down with overregulating
micro-management, basically the earliest charter of managerialism:
(WYS, p. 75).
Of course, the necessity for trust – necessary objectively because only
time will tell and subjectively because it hinders and demotivates the compe-
tent civil servant – requires having the latter to begin with – and that in turn
is accomplished by training and by the payment structure. Thus, promotion,
too, should be by merit and not by seniority, and the fact that once the for-
mer happens, there are complaints among the literati civil servants shows,
Wang says, how much the system has degenerated already (WYS, pp. 73–74;
see Franke, 1932, p. 275).
Given that framework, Wang is strongly in favour of performance review.
Civil servants should not only be dismissed, or at least not promoted, if they
do something wrong, but also if they do not perform well enough (WYS, pp.
75–76). This is something many would certainly call an NPM feature, and it
is one if compared to classical ‘Weberian’ systems, but equally surely not to
Weber at least as regards promotion (see Weber, 1922, pp. 124–130). This is
also a concept that goes back to early modern Western public management in
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some of the earliest texts, such as Oldendorp’s Was billig und recht ist of 1529
(1948, pp. 5–23), which also emphasizes that legality is not good enough for
public management action but that benefit for the given entity of governance
is. The key for all of them is, however, that civil servants have to have the
space to do the things they are supposed to do, and well.
Reverting again to the idealized historical precedent, Wang concludes:
So we see that due caution was paid to the selection of officials in those
days, that they were given an appropriate position, that they were kept in
office for a long-enough period, that they were regulated and rewarded in a
most careful manner, and were given freedom and authority for the proper
discharge of their duties (WYS, pp. 59–60).
If there is failure to secure the right method in regard to any one of these
matters, viz., the instruction, selection, maintenance, and appointment of
officials, it is sufficient to ruin the future of the country. What state of things
can we expect if all four of these are present together? (WYS, p. 76; see also
Bol, 1993, p. 162.)
How to get to the well-working, interconnected system, then? Only ‘by stra-
tegic planning and calculating on the basis of the data available, and taking
actions gradually’ (WYS, p. 79) – by incremental change, that is – based on
proper foresight (WYS, p. 77).
Wang saw that there would be problems with his reform plans, seeing as
they went against powerful vested interests (WYS, pp. 80–82; see Meskill,
1963, p. xii; Mote, 1999, pp. 141–142). But the same, as he says, was the
case with Confucius himself (WYS, p. 81).
Wang Anshi’s Reforms
And indeed, Wang and his plans failed after the death of ‘his’ emperor and
patron, Shenzong (1048–1085, ruled 1067–1085); as Franke claims (1932,
p. 266), because he did not heed his own advice on the need for incrementalism.
But of course, from a public management perspective, the point is that many
of his reforms were actually implemented, and even by himself. This included:
• The raising of salaries, especially for minor officials.
• The promotion only of the truly qualified and successful.
• Some change to the civil service examination; and that of previous educa-
tion as well (Qi, 1979, pp. 102–112; see Elman, 2000, pp. 16–17).
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90 History of Public Administration
Most reforms may have been rolled back later, but for anyone dealing with
public management reform, to implement them for years or even decades
is a huge accomplishment (see Meskill, 1963, pp. xi–xiv; Higashi, 1970,
p. 955; Mote, 1999, p. 140; Hsiao quoted in Mote, 1999, pp. 143–144) This
is important to underline because it is my impression from the discussions
with Chinese scholars and senior civil servants (who all do know him) that
he is still seen as a practical failure and thus not as someone one should take
as a model for Chinese public management.
From the traditional Chinese Marxist perspective, Wang is seen, quite as
would be expected, either as a reformer, but just a reformer – and therefore
someone on the internally good but externally bad side of class struggle
(Qi, 1979) – or even as someone who made the exploitation of peasants
worse by stabilizing the system (Wang Zengyu, 1980, pp. 144–145). But, to
argue with Franke, the motive for Wang Anshi’s reform proposals was not
only the functioning state, but also that only a well-paid, well-motivated
bureaucracy will not oppress and exploit the citizenry (1932, pp. 265–266;
further, Liu, 1968, p. 46; Hsiao quoted in Mote, 1999, p. 144).
On the other hand, Wang has remained a household name, and a few years
ago, according to China Daily, the then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ‘cited Wang
Anshi, the Song Dynasty (960–1279) literary master and reformer: A true
reformer should fear neither heaven, nor convention nor gossip’ (Zhao, 2008).
Wang Anshi’s reform proposals are specific and concrete, and he realized
they could only be implemented incrementally and together. And in a limited
way, more than which he never claims, Wang’s system is self-perpetuating:
good senior civil servants will indeed lead to more good ones, especially if
closely engaged in the selection and education of new ones (see Cheung,
2010, pp. 38–40).
Almost all of Wang’s proposals are extremely ‘modern’ and could be
applied with a few adaptations today. Or vice versa – assuming that Wang’s
diagnosis of problems was correct – his very concrete remedies would com-
pletely be in line with important strings of 21st-century public administra-
• Applied yet fundamental training.
• Adequate remuneration.
• Corruption avoidance geared to the specific context.
• An evidence-based, careful and considered performance measurement
system based on appropriate time and trust.
All this he proposes in full awareness of the interconnectedness of the sys-
tem’s elements and the necessity for incremental change. In the West, such
public management discussions would have to wait another 500 years at
least – partially almost another millennium.
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1. For this essay, I have used as a basis Williamson’s standard translation (1935), abbrevi-
ated ‘WYS’, but I have edited this text based on the facsimile of the original given by
Franke in his appendix (1932). I have added the reference to the facsimile after
Williamson’s page number in cases of direct quotations. Franke uses the text from
Wang’s collected works originally published in 1883, which in turn is based on a text
from 1560, and that again on one from 1140 (Franke, 1932, p. 15). The (silent)
edition of Williamson was made, while also consulting Franke’s nicely annotated
translation (pp. 15–51), by Cong Yongqing with Aziz Klebleyev and myself.
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