1902 Encyclopedia > China > Official Corruption. Torture. Government Offices. Punishments.

(Part 58)


Official Corruption. Torture. Government Offices. Punishments.

Official Corruption

Theoretically the system of government in the provinces is excellent, but as a matter of fact it is corrupt to the core. Several causes have tended to bring about this disastrous state of things. In the first place, the mandarins, even when they receive their salaries, which is by no means always the case, are so wretchedly underpaid that the money they receive from this source is barely sufficient to support the staff which it is necessary for them to maintain. A district magistrate, for instance, is supposed to receive about £275 per annum, a prefect about £685, and an intendant of circuit about £1035. The pay of the higher officers varies in different parts of the empire. The salary of the viceroy of the two provinces, Kwang-tung and Kwang-se, is said to be about £9000 a year. The consequence is that, as few mandarins have private means, they are obliged to supplement their official incomes by illegal exactions and bribes. And this evil is further heightened by the regulation which forbids that a mandarin should hold any office for more than three years. It becomes the selfish interest, therefore, of every office-holder to get as much out of the people within his jurisdiction as he possibly can in that time. The instant he arrives at his post it is customary for all the subordinate officials to pay their respects to him, on which occasion they are expected to display their loyalty by offering presents of more or less value according to the means at their command. No subaltern dare absent himself, being perfectly aware that such an omission of duty would deprive him of all hope of promotion, and would subject him on the slightest pretence, or even without an y pretence whatever, to official persecution and ruin. Then, again, when a suitor comes with a legal cause to the Yamun, or mandarin’s office, he obliged to fee the mandarin, and all the subordinate officials, the secretary, the police, and the doorkeeper, in proportion to his wealth, or otherwise his chance of gaining a hearing would be very small indeed. In a great many cases also the bribery goes beyond the preliminary fee. In an officialdom, where illegal exactions are recognized, it would be impossible to suppose that the stream of justice should be pure, and a limited acquaintance with the practices of Chinese Yamuns is enough to verify the common belief that justice is bought and sold, and that a suitor’s change of success is in proportion to his wealth.


As may readily be imagined, this corruption in high places has a most demoralizing effect on the people generally. Dishonesty prevails to a frightful extent, and with it, of course, untruthfulness. The Chinese set little or no value upon truth, and thus some slight excuse is afforded for the use of torture in their courts of justice ; for it is argued that where the value of an oath is not understood, some other means must be resorted to extract evidence, and the readiest means to hand is doubtless torture. The kind most commonly inflicted is flogging. The obdurate witness is laid flat on his face, and the executioner delivers his blows on the upper part of the thighs with the concave side on the upper part of the thighs with the concave side of split bamboo, the sharp edges of which mutilate the sufferer terribly. The punishment is continued until the man either supplies the evidence required or becomes insensible. Numberless other forms of torture are occasionally resorted to, such as tying the witness up to a beam by this thumbs and big toes, squeezing his fingers between pieces of bamboo, &c.; and these, of course, vary both in kind and severity, according to the disposition of the presiding mandarin.

Government Offices

Theoretically every safeguard is adopted to secure for the public service only officers of enlightened and refined dispositions. The law ordains that every man who wishes to obtain Government employment must qualify himself for office by passing the prescribed competitive examinations; and as there is, speaking generally, no hereditary nobility nor any class equivalent to English country gentlemen, office supplies the only distinguishing rank in the empire. The consequence is that it is sought after by all except those who engage in trade. Thus the Government has the cream of the national talent at its disposal, and if posts were only given to the foremost men at the examinations as the law provides, no system could be better, and when it has been carried out China has reaped the benefits of it. Unfortunately, however, it has constantly happened that when the Government has been embarrassed by want of money, offices have been put up for sale, and thus the man who has the longest purse steps into the post of honour ; and if, as must often happen, he should chance to be cruel as well as uncultured, unjust as well as ignorant, woe betide the people under him. One great defect in the competitive system in China is that there is no limit to be number of candidates, nor to the age when they may go up for examination, and the result is that, what with the surplus victors and the unsuccessful aspirants who go on trying year after year until they become grey-haired old men, there exists a large non-producing class in the community which acts as a dead weight on the national prosperity.


It is only natural to expect that in a country where the torture of witnesses is permitted, the punishments inflected on the guilty should exceed in cruelty, and this is eminently the case in China. The Mongolian race is confessedly obtuse-nerved and insensible to suffering, and no doubt Chinese culprits do not suffer nearly as much as members of more sensitive races would under similar treatment. But even granting this, the refined cruelties perpetrated by Chinamen on Chinamen admit of no apology. Not long since, for instance, at one of the Treaty Ports, an offender was placed in a cage, through the top of which his head protruded, and which was just long enough to allow the tips of his toes to touch the ground. In this position, hanging as it were by his neck, with just enough support from his feet to prevent his neck dislocating, the wretched man remained for days, the object of the jeers and laughter of the passers by, until starvation and exhaustion put an end to his sufferings. As punishments for heinous offences such cruelties would be sufficiently shocking, but the fact that this and kindred tortures and not unfrequently inflicted for very insignificant crimes, and sometimes even to gratify the malice or the greed of the officiating mandarin, is significant of a strangely callous indifference in the Chinese nature to the sufferings of others. For capital offences the usual modes of inflicting the extreme penalty of the law are—in bade cases, such as parricides, "cutting to pieces," and for less aggravated crimes either strangulation or decapitation. The culprit who is condemned to be "cut to pieces" is fastened to a cross, and while thus suspended cuts are made by the executioner on the fleshy parts of the body, and he is then beheaded. Strangulation is reserved for offenders of high rank, it being considered a privilege to pass out of life with a whole body. When it has been granted to a criminal thus to meet his end, a silken cord is sent to him in prison. No explanatory message is considered necessary, and he is left to consummate his won doom. Sometimes, of course, the prisoner’s nerve forsakes him at the supreme moment, as was the case with a prince of the blood, who in 1861 was presented with a silken cord for treason. This imperial personage could not make up his mind to be his own executioner, and it became necessary to call in the jailers to carry out the sentence of the law. Decapitation in China is a very speedy death, and were it not that popular sentiment regards it as a peculiarly disgraceful end, it would be a very merciful one. Constant practice makes the executioners wonderfully expert in the performance of their deadly office. No black or resting-place for the head is used. The neck is simply outstretched to its full length by the aid of an assistant, and one blow invariably leaves the body headless.

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