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Playing the Meritocracy Game

升官圖

A Shengguan Tu Board.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has dueling articles by Eric X. Li and Huang Yasheng titled “The Life of The Party” and “Democratize or Die”, respectively arguing for the CCP’s enlightened non-democratic meritocracy and its imminent destruction if it fails to implement democracy. Both have their fair points as well as their strawmen and sleight-of-hand, and others have effectively critiqued Li and his Canadian tag-team partner, Daniel A. Bell, for a flawed definition of “meritocracy.” While Bell and Li have avoided claiming this meritocratic process is the latest in a long historical tradition, the connection is implied when the mechanisms Li describes, from the national college entrance exams to the various level of bureaucratic rankings and evaluations, are so similar to the the imperial keju system, which Professor Mark Elliott argued in the New York Times was hardly “meritocratic”. He pointed out what mattered was family connections and money. In fact, this was so common it was a board game – Imperial China’s answer to Monopoly.

In a class on “Gaming in Libraries” (yup, that’s a thing now), I had to build a basic web game using MIT’s Scratch platform (most librarians aren’t programmers – yet). Years ago, in Richard Smith’s China’s Cultural Heritage, I had read about a Chinese board game called Shengguan Tu (升官圖), or “Promoting the Officials,” where players assume the of an aspiring mandarin, moving through the imperial examinations and through the bureaucracy, eventually rising to the “Da Nei” or inner sanctum Grand Secretariat in the imperial household. Along the way, players pay “donations” to higher ranked players in each department.

There are few English sources on Shengguan Tu, and almost no Chinese sources online (1). The best source I’ve found is Carole Morgan’s article on the game in Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2004 (subscription/paywall access), which draws on the work of gaming ethnographer Stewart Culin and a pamphlet published in Taiwan in the 1980s, whose author Cai Ce admitted he wasn’t clear on the rules either. Some highlights from her article (and Carole, drop me an email if you read this):

  • The game has existed in some form since the Tang Dynasty, when a precursor was invented by a Henan official named Li He 李郃.
  • There’s alot of variety, with versions alternating between square and round boards, tops and dice, and varying numbers of bureaus and positions.
  • Rules on movement and payment vary, but the dice/tops always have four possibilities: dé 德 (virtue), cái 才 (talent), gōng 功 (ability), and zāng 赃 (bribery, general skullduggery). Depending on your current post, any of these could be either beneficial or disastrous for your career.
  • Shengguan Tu and its ancestors, including Daoist versions where you climbed through the ranks of the heavenly bureaucracy, were gambling games.
  • One legend says Ji Yun, an editor of the Qing Dynasty encyclopedia Siku Quanshu, stayed up late gambling with his friends and showed up late to an appointment with a pissed-off Emperor Qianlong. To wiggle out of trouble, Ji told the emperor he was up late studying government administration and as proof showed him the game board. If that’s not true, it ought to be.

I picked up a cheap kid’s version of the game on Taobao and built the game below – it still has some bugs in the payment system, there aren’t clear rules on the amount of payment except once you’re in the Grand Secretariat, and the board I bought had typos – I think I caught all of them. Most of the title translations come from Charles O. Hucker’s Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, and in a few places I fudged it. I wouldn’t call the online version fun (with some VC money I could make it awesome, I swear) but playing the real thing with family for pocket money isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon during the Chinese New Year holidays. It’s no mahjong, though.

Learn more about this project

Notes:

  1. The now dead websites http://www.shengguantu.com/ and http://geocities.com/lswk/, available in the Internet Archive, were among the few sites about the game. A Baidupedia entry has some information about the game as well.

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