Get a Government Job — Chinese Version

by John Derbyshire

A reader in Virginia has alerted me to this piece by Lawrence Solomon in Saturday’s National Post (Toronto). Sample:

Twenty years ago the [Chinese] Communist Party decided that “getting rich is glorious,” giving the green light to lawless capitalism. The rulers in China started by awarding themselves and their families the lion’s share of the state’s resources in the guise of privatization, and by selling licences and other access to the economy to cronies in exchange for bribes. The system of corruption, and the public acceptance of corruption, is now pervasive — even minor officials in government backwaters are now able to enrich themselves handsomely.

This ethos of corruption is captured in a popular song in China, I want to marry a government official, whose lyrics explain why an official makes for a good matrimonial catch: “He has power, a car and house; He only needs to drink tea and read the newspaper during work; He never spends his own money on cigarettes and alcohol; He can get free food every day; He can get promoted by only kissing his boss’s ass.”

China pessimism now has such a long history in the West there ought to be university departments for it. Gordon Chang is a current leading light (or dark); in this review of his 2001 book The Coming Collapse of China I quote a predecessor from 1932, and the genre goes back at least another hundred years before that.

The question implied is really two questions: (1) Has modern China escaped from the boom’n'bust dynastic cycle — a few decades of despotic order followed by uncontrolled corruption, popular uprisings, disintegration into warlord rule, then conquest or consolidation and the start of a new cycle? (2) If she has not, how near to the disintegration phase are we now, in 2011?

My own guesses are (1) no, and (2) not very; but they are only guesses (though I’d claim decently well-informed ones), as is everything else you read on the topic.

For further illumination on Lawrence Solomon’s article, I have just trawled through the 92 index references to officials in John Rohsenow’s ABC Dictionary of Chinese Proverbs. Some of them are bland:

官不容針, 私可容車  guan burong zhen, si kerong che : Officially [one can]not permit a needle, [but] privately [one] may let in a carriage. [I.e. rules can be stretched.]

Some are ambiguous:

高官騎瘦馬  gaoguan qi shou ma : High officials ride thin horses. [I.e. the rich don't flaunt their wealth.]  [But the Chinese permits either the "is" or the "ought" interpretation.-- JD]

Some are enigmatic:

官不差—人  guan bu chai bingren : [An] official [should] not send [a] sick person on an errand. [Why not? Or: Why is it necessary to have a proverb for this? -- JD]

But a high proportion take a cynical approach:

不怕官, 只怕管  bupa guan, zhipa guan : Don’t be concerned about high officials, only the one who officiates directly over you.

趁‘十年運, 有——來醫  chen wo shi nian yun, you bing zao lai yi : If you need any favors done, come see me [i.e. the official] while I’m in a position to help you out.

吃的好, 說的好  chi de hao, shuo de hao : [When you] eat well [of someone's food, then] speak well of them. [Often said about providing banquets to visiting authorities so they will make a good report.]

吃人家的, 嘴軟;拿人家的, 手短   chi renjia de, zui ruan; na renjia de, shou duan : After eating another’s food, one’s mouth is softened; after taking someone’s gift, one’s reach is shortened [i.e. because they can then accuse you of bribery].

大蟲吃小蟲  da chong chi xiao chong : Big critters eat little critters. [Usually said of traditional officials -- the stronger always bully the weaker.]

大官不要錢, 不如—歸”;  小官不索錢, ’女無姻緣  daguan buyao qian, buru zao guitian; xiao guan bu suo qian, ernü wu yinyuan : A high official who doesn’t take bribes had better retire; a petty official who doesn’t practice extortion won’t be able to get his sons and daughters married. [This one has a bit of class: all four verses rhyme, and the picturesque metaphor guitian, "return to one's fields," is used for "retire." -- JD]


當權若不行方便如入寶山空手回  dangquan ruo bu xing fangbian ru ru bao shan kongshou hui : To be in a position of power but not help others is like returning from a treasure-hill empty-handed. [Originally a Buddhist exhortation to benevolence; later understood to mean not taking advantage of one's position for the benefit of oneself or one's friends and relatives.]

大者不服小  da zhe bufu xiao : Those [in] higher [positions] never submit to those [in] lower [positions].

多做, 多錯; ‘做, ‘錯; 不做, 不錯!  duo zuo, duo cuo; shao zuo, shao cuo; bu zuo, bu cuo! : The more [one] does, the more mistakes; the less [one] does, the fewer mistakes; [if one] does nothing, [there will be no mistakes at all, which is] not bad! [A play on words between the literal and idiomatic meanings of bucuo, "no mistake / not bad"; a satirical rhyme said of or attributed to bureaucrats.]

宮門裡好修行  gong men li hao xiuxing : It’s easier for officials to practice religion [i.e. Buddhism or Taoism].

—不’拜年的; 官不“送錢的  gou bu yao bainian de; guan bu da song qian de : [Just as] dogs don’t bite those [who come to] pay [formal] New Year’s calls, [so] government officials don’t [sentence to be] beat[en] those [who] send [gifts of] money.

官不離印 ;貨不離身  guan bu li yin; huo bu li shen : [Just as an] official is never without his [official] seal [of office, so a businessman's] goods are never far from his person. [Apparently implying there's profit to be got from both. -- JD]

官久, 自富  guan jiu, zi fu : [When one has been in an] official [position for a] long time, [one will] naturally [become] wealthy.

何水無魚; 何官無私?  he shui wu yu; he guan wu si? : What water is without fish; where are there officials without selfishness? [I.e. there aren't any.]

火到豬頭煉; 錢到公事辦  huo dao zhutou lan, qian dao gongshi ban : [Just as] cooking makes a pig’s head tender, [so] money applied to a public matter gets it done. [I.e. bribery's the way to go.]

見官, 三分災  jian guan, sanfen zai : [When one] meets with a [government] official, [one has at least a] thirty percent [chance of] calamity.

‘不與官鬥  min bu yu guan dou : Common people shouldn’t struggle with government officials. “You can’t fight city hall.” [Some things are universal. -- JD]

破家縣令; 滅門刺史  po jia xianling; miemen cishi : A county magistrate [may] ruin a family, [but] a provincial governor [may] execute [an entire] clan. [I.e. the higher the official, the more powerful or ruthless they are.]

清官難出猾吏手  qing guan nan chu hua li shou : Honest officials can’t avoid [being deceived and fooled by their] sly subordinates.

忍辱至三公  ren ru zhi san gong : [One who can] swallow insults [will] rise to high official position. [San Gong were the three highest officials in the Western Han dynasty.]

三年清知府, 十萬雪花銀  san nian qing zhifu, shiwan xuehua yin : [Even after being an] “honest and clean” official for three years, [one still garners] 100,000 [ounces] of snow-white silver. [Even self-professed honest and clean officials fleeced the people (in traditional Chinese society).]

—帽底下無窮漢  shamao dixia wu qiong han : Beneath an official’s hat there are no poor fellows.

”不入官門; 死不入地獄  sheng bu ru guan men; si bu ru diyu : When alive do not enter the doors of officialdom; when dead, do not enter Hell.

書中自有黃‘屋; 書中自有顏如玉  shu zhong ziyou huangjin wu; shu zhong ziyou yan ru yu : In books there are golden houses and [beauties with] faces like jade. (fig.) if you study hard you’ll have fine houses and a beautiful wife someday because you’ll become an official and get rich. [Should be "wives": A gentleman in old China was allowed more than one. This was the basis of much pre-modern domestic literature/drama/opera: they fought like cats. -- JD]

萬般皆下“, 惟有讀書高  wanban jie xiapin, weiyou dushu gao : All occupations are lowly, only book-learning is exalted. [Still very much current in China. Coming soon to an imperial-bureaucratic despotism near you. -- JD]

武官會殺; 文官會刮  wuguan hui sha; wenguan hui gua : Military officials can kill [people, and] civil officials can exploit [people, in traditional China].

縣令, 縣令, 聽錢調”  xianling, xianling, ting qian diaoyong : County magistrates [are] controlled [by] money [in their decision-making]. (fig.) Money makes the magistrate go.

新官上任, 三把火  xinguan shangren, san ba huo : A new official assuming office [sets] three fires [i.e. does something to impress his subordinates or the populace]. (fig.) Someone assuming a new position deliberately makes some changes just to impress people. [This is not equivalent to "A new broom sweeps clean."]  [Another universal, and by no means only in government work. -- JD]

袖大, 好做賊  xiu da, hao zuo zei : Big sleeves make theft easy. [Officials in old China had big sleeves.]

衙門的錢, 下水的船  yamen de qian, xiashui de chuan : [In a traditional] magistrate’s office, the money [to bribe officials flows as fast as a] boat running with the current.

一人在朝, 百人緩帶  yi ren zaichao, bai ren huan dai : [If] one person [in a family gets] into the [imperial] court, [then] one hundred [of his relatives will] loosen their belts. (fig.) One family member in the imperial civil service can support and assist all his relatives to get rich.

And summing it all up nicely down towards the end of the pinyin alphabet:

一—為官, 強似千載為‘  yi ri wei guan, qiangsi qianzai wei min : One day as an official is better than a thousand years as a commoner.