Archive for January, 2014

The Promotion Chart

10 January 2014

Ephemera is notoriously difficult to describe and thus bring to the attention of scholars. It is even difficult to know what things are, because scholars are normally concerned with scholarship, and not the tiny details of daily life and work to which ephemera almost exclusively relates. And when all who might remember these details are long dead, so that there is nobody to ask, the difficulties are often insuperable.

I aim to describe all our Chinese ephemera in due course, and to identify it as best I can with the help of others.

In my second blog entry over two years ago, I described a rather high-brow piece of ephemera, the Red Decree. The subject of the current blog entry is rather different. I catalogue it as follows:

陞官圖 / 舊題(明)倪元璐作
1張 ; 82 x 75公分
Sinica 440/2

This is a large single-sheet item, bearing no title, so the title is simply a statement of what the item is, and was assigned to it by Xiang Da so that it could be included in his card catalogue. The “promotion chart” is simply an English translation of this description.


The above image is too small to be legible – I reproduce it only to show what the chart looks like; the full image can be seen and examined here.

The chart was among the books given to us in 1877 by General Lawrence Shadwell,who had served in the 98th (Prince of Wales) Regiment of Foot which had been sent to Hong Kong in 1842. His books are the first to be listed in James Legge’s manuscript continuation of Joseph Edkins’ printed catalogue of Chinese books in the Bodleian, which appeared in 1876 and contains 299 entries. Legge’s list therefore starts at number 300, and I reproduce the first entry to give a flavour of this document, which is surprisingly crude, and to introduce it to readers of this blog:


Unfortunately, there is no individual entry for the chart, which is found under number 321, “Extracts from Peking Gazette, Treaties, &c.”, and in fact it is only because of later annotations to this entry that we know that this batch of materials comprised 3 printed volumes, 19 manuscript volumes, and 4 printed sheets, of which one was discarded as a duplicate in 1939 by EOW (Eric Otto Winstedt, who was keeper of the Oriental collections at the time). Let’s hope it wasn’t a duplicate of the chart!


And here is the description of the chart “written on the back” as Legge’s entry suggests, and in his own hand:


However, it is wrong. Although the chart does indeed depict the structure of the contemporary Chinese bureaucracy, it is not a directory, but a game.

This, together with almost everything else I now know about the chart, I learned from Puk Wing Kin when he visited me in Oxford in 2009. Most important to me as a cataloguer, he pointed out that certain characters in the chart are represented by simplified forms which are only homophonous in Cantonese. For example: you 由 is used for rou 柔 (both are pronounced yau in Cantonese), and zhuang 庄 is used for zang 贓 (in Cantonese both are pronounced jong). I was thus able to say with some certainty where the map was printed in my catalogue entry, rather than merely infer it from its provenance; the date of 1840 道光庚子 is clearly printed in the central panel.

Puk Wing Kin came to Oxford in 1995 to pursue doctoral research under David Faure; his subject was the Ming salt monopoly, and he gained his D.Phil. in 2007. He had been introduced to the chart as an M.Phil student at Hong Kong Baptist University in the early 1990s. He is now a history professor in the Chinese University of Hong Kong specialising in the socio-economic history of Ming and Qing China, and is thus well qualified to understand the complexities of the game. He has written a book about it, which was published in 2010, with a second edition in 2011:

遊戲官場 : 陞官圖與中國官制文化 / 卜永堅著
香港 : 中華書局, 2011
平裝1冊(96頁) : 圖, 表 ; 23公分 + 圖2張
ISBN 978-962-8931-75-0

The two charts reproduced in large format in the book are facsimiles of ours and one printed in Shanghai in the Republican period.

The book discusses the history of the game, which originated in the Tang and achieved its present form in the Ming. The details of the chart change from time to time, according to the contemporary structure of the Chinese bureaucracy. The book also explains the rules of the game. They are very complex, and I will not pretend to understand the details, but the aim is quite simple: to achieve high government office, which means reaching the post of Grand Secretary 大學士 in the Grand Secretariat 內閣, encircled in red in the following image:


This involves a long series of promotions and demotions, as set forth in the small print in each of the rectangular panels, all determined by the roll of dice and the movement of counters. As in life, much depends on where one starts from, which in the game is again determined by the roll of dice.

By playing the game, much can be learned about the bureaucratic structure of imperial China and how officials rose and fell within it, for which reason Wing Kin told me that he sometimes plays the game with his students.

Although on one level the game is a very sophisticated form of snakes and ladders, perhaps its nearest western equivalent is Monopoly, which leads to a comparison of the two. While both are aleatory – games of chance depending on the roll of dice – whereas the aim of one is to attain the highest office in the land through virtuous conduct, that of the other is to become rich by bankrupting one’s neighbours. Food for thought here, don’t you think?

I’m going to describe another piece of printed ephemera in my next blog entry, as it’s closely related. Appointment to any of the posts represented in the promotion chart depended on passing the official examinations that were periodically held at local, provincial, and metropolitan levels. We have a set of three papers that were used in the provincial examination at Nanchang in 1902 which I’d like to bring to your attention. They will be exhibited in the Proscholium of the Old Library for a few weeks from mid-February, the aim of the display being to illustrate the traditional Chinese preoccupation with success in examinations as the path to fame and fortune.