Informing the Public by Posting Notices in Song China

Patricia EBREY

In comparative terms, Chinese methods of local government can be judged an amazing success: relatively junior officials were sent out to govern counties far from the political center and did their jobs sufficiently well that huge empires survived for centuries.  Chinese critics over the centuries pointed out numerous shortcomings of the county government system, ranging from inadequate funding and temptations for corruption to the difficulties magistrates had in controlling the long-term clerical staff.  The more challenging question is what worked: how was internal peace maintained for such long periods of the time when county magistrates were given so little to work with? This paper will examine one of the few tools magistrates did have: they were encouraged to post notices to inform local residents of rules they should observe, deadlines to meet, suspicious cults to stay clear of, and much else. Although this might seem a very weak tool, it was widely employed and just as widely advocated. This paper will look at the situations in which notices were posted and what they said. Good sources for the situations are the narrative histories such as the Xu zizhi tongjian changbian, compendia of government documents such as the Song huiyao, and the legal casebook, Qingming ji. Good sources for what the notices said include the handbook for magistrates, the Zuoyi zizhen, and the collected works of officials who preserved the notices they posted, including Zhu Xi and Zhen Dexiu. Viewing these notices as basic elements in a system of political communication allows us to see them in a new light.

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