History Lessons

Ming, the merciless

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is the toughest in history?

Zhu Yuanzhang w

“The ongoing anti-corruption campaign is so tough that one would find nothing close throughout the Twenty-Four Histories.”

This remark was made by Ling Jiefang in an interview with the Party’s anti-graft watchdog. Ling, a former soldier, is best known for his trilogy on Qing Dynasty emperors, written under the pen name Eryue He. His comment soon invoked debate. “The scale of Xi Jinping’s anti-graft drive may not be unprecedented. But certainly corruption in China is one of the most serious in history,” one columnist wrote in Nanfang Daily.

So is Ling’s claim valid? The Twenty-Four Histories is an epic collection of books covering five millennia from 3,000 BC to the 17th century. Each dynasty has tried to compile an historical account of its predecessor. These 24 compilations contain 3,213 volumes and more than 40 million words.

Evidence from the History of Ming, the last entry of the Twenty-Four Histories, may be enough to dismiss Ling’s proposition that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is China’s greatest.

Zhu Yuanzhang was the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He was arguably the most prolific killer of corrupt officials too. During his reign (1368-1398 AD) Zhu launched massive anti-graft campaigns. Any public servant caught taking bribes of 60 taels of silver or more (roughly three months’ salary for a junior official) was sentenced to death. Condemned men were often flayed first and municipalities had “scarecrow temples” where effigies fashioned from hay were dressed with human skin as a warning to others. The terror didn’t end there. The family members and colleagues of serious offenders would also be executed. Two notable corruption cases saw nearly 80,000 people slaughtered in retribution.

Xi’s campaign is causing shockwaves – not least because of the arrest of a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee – but it seems a good deal less draconian than the Ming purges. It has already been effective in changing behaviour – anecdotes abound of anxious bureaucrats eschewing excess and temptation. But when the campaign ends, the fear is that systemic corruption will return.

The Ming never managed to eradicate graft either, for instance. In the early 16th century Ming official Wang Xiancheng retired and built the finest garden in southern China. Its scale and grandeur – it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Suzhou – far exceeded Wang’s pay grade. The historical consensus is that – prior to its fall at the hands of its Qing conquerors – the Ming court must have become phenomenally corrupt once more.


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