Pen and Sword: Meritocracy, Conflicts, and Bureaucratic Appointments in Imperial China

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Bureaucracy is a pillar of state building. I examine how new states achieve the transition from tenuous rule to consolidated rule. Rulers can diversify the selection system to recruit agents who have different skill sets to solve the dual challenges of territorial pacification and routine administration in pursuit of state-building. While rulers appoint officials who have cultural training resources to maintain routine governance, they turn to officials with practical skills to pacify contentious areas.

This dissertation brings bureaucracy to the debate on state-building and contributes to the literature about meritocracy and bureaucratic politics. I draw on archives to build an original dataset on the prefects of Qing Dynasty of Imperial China prefectural and conflict incidents to test this theory. First, I explain the temporal variation in recruitment channels by describing how appointment strategies responded to perceived regime threats, conditioned by the supply side constraint. Second, I find that during peaceful times the Qing imperial court was more likely to appoint officials who passed entered the Imperial Civil Service Exams during peaceful times, but they the court turned to Manchu officials and office purchasers after conflicts broke out. Third, I examine the impact of bureaucratic structure on state performance. I test whether or not the exam officials performed better in terms of delivering famine relief and establishing charities. I find the Qing imperial court shifted to appointing officials with military skills and fiscal resources after conflicts broke out from appointing officials who entered the administration via the exam route. I also find that the exam officials did not perform better than non-exam officials in governance, measured by famine relief measures and charitable activities. I conclude the dissertation by summarizing the theoretical framework and empirical findings, discussing limitations, and reviewing the research agenda.





Peng, Peng (2022). Pen and Sword: Meritocracy, Conflicts, and Bureaucratic Appointments in Imperial China. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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