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Talons and Teeth: County Clerks and Runners in the Qing Dynasty

March 22, 2010

Bradly W. Reed. Talons and Teeth: County Clerks and Runners in the Qing Dynasty. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Jiangsui He (2004)

Bradly Reed’s book is an in-depth study of daily administrative practices during the Qing dynasty. Using the metaphor, “talons and teeth,” to describe the role of the county clerks and runners, Reed points out that in imperial China, clerks and runners were essential in local administrative operations. “Owing to their expertise and familiarity with local conditions, customs, and people,” in fact, these people governed China at that time (3).

Most of these yamen employees were illegal, and their income thus depended on the customary fees collected from local residents. Therefore, these local functionaries were depicted by government and local gentry as the “most cunning and venal of scoundrels” both institutional and ideological terms. Based on official and elite sources, earlier research on county clerks and runners supports this well-known stereotype. Pointing to the biases and pejorative assumptions of these sources, Reed relies instead on the Ba County archive, which is “the largest and most comprehensive Qing local government archive known to exist in China” (xiv). This book is based on a sampling of more than 500 files about intra-yamen disputes brought to magistrates in the Guangxi reign (1875-1908).

Reed examines the hierarchical organization, the socioeconomic background, and the mechanism of recruitment and advancement of the clerks and runners. In contrast to long-standing views, Reed finds that these local functionaries were not driven to their positions by poverty and then did not have “the sole intent of engaging in corruption” (149). Instead, the clerks and runners regarded yamen employment as “a legitimate and sustainable occupation,” and used elements of orthodox Confucian rhetoric to validate their work. Reed also demonstrates that Ba county clerks and runners formulated “their own sub-rosa system of rules and customary practices” to daily operation, some of which were cited by magistrates in settling the intrayamen disputes. However, this informal administrative law was never sufficient to guarantee their security, thus the clerks and runners had to turn to particularistic associations, such as “kinship, factional alliances, and patron-client bonds” (78).

Following his advisor, Philip Huang, Reed emphasizes to look at China for China’s sake, which actually challenge some approaches in present Chinese studies. Firstly, Reed shows the yamen employees to lie in direct contact with the community in the arenas of tax collection and fee collection. His account shows not only the cooperation the yamen received from the local gentry, but also the desire of Ba county elite to be involved in county government. And then, Reed criticized the rigid demarcation between state and society. He argues that in local administrative practice, “elements of both state and societal structures, institutions, and practice” all melded together (199). Secondly, in his discussion of the indispensability of these county clerks and runners, Reed uses the term “illicit bureaucrats” to refer to local functionaries. This is meant to convey “the extrastatutory and frequently illegal nature of many yamen practices,” but these practices also constituted an “informally legitimized system of local bureaucratic government” (249). Reed thus argues that the late imperial China represented “an alternative pattern of bureaucratic government” in a non-Western historical context, which directly challenges the uncritical application of Weberian categories, especially bureaucratic rationalization, to imperial China.

Reed’s work is praised as “a pioneering exploration of county administration” (Kristin Stapleton, The American Historical Review, Vol.106, No.3). It shows us “a much more complex and dynamics society” of late Qing (Kenneth Pomeranz, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2).� However, while focusing on local affairs in this area study, Reed ignores the national context and the impact of the west at all, which precludes a comprehensive portrait of late Qing.

© Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

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