It appears to be Mr. Meadows's deliberate opinion that the Chinese are a more civilized nation than the English, in the highest function of civilization. After devoting many pages to the investigation, he defines civilization as the substitution of moral agencies in the conduct of life for those which are either merely physical or merely intellectual. He thinks that in China, government is carried on principally by moral force, and that this is effected by means of the Civil Service Examinations. Strange as such an assertion seems, it must be owned that, assuming his theory of civilization, the case which he makes out is stronger than we should at first sight have been disposed to believe. China is the greatest bureaucracy in the world. Its enormous territory, peopled by a third of the human race, is entirely governed, not only physically, but mentally, by officials. Mr. Meadows compares the eighteen provinces into which it is divided to eighteen Great Britains. These provinces contain, upon an average, as many as eighty districts, which may—speaking of course very roughly--be compared to our counties. The districts are formed into groups, varying in number from three to twelve or fifteen, which constitute departments; and about three departments form a circuit. Each of these divisions is under the care of officers judicial, fiscal, and administrative, all of whom are subordinate to the governor of the province, or, in certain cases, to the governor-general of a group of provinces; and these again are under the direction of certain central boards of officials resident at Pekin. Every member of this vast body is appointed by competitive examinations. The officers of the army are appointed in the same manner; and as every province has its own military establishment, the total amount of the armed force exceeds 600,000 men. The examinations, according to which the appointments to these posts are distributed, are of three grades. The primary examination is held annually, and admits a certain number of candidates to a degree, which Mr. Meadows translates as the de of Bachelor. Once in three years, the Bachelors are examined for the degree of Keu Jin, or Licentiate. In the province of which Nanking is the capital, about 20,000 candidates competed, in 1851, for 166 vacancies. There is a third degree that of Doctor—open to the Licentiates, for which there is an examination at Pekin, which admits the successful candidates at once to the place of a District Magistrate at least. The degree of Licentiate entitles those who obtain it to expect an office of some kind after some years waiting; whilst that of Bachelor is principally valuable because it entitles the graduate to enter upon the second competition. An examination, of which Mr. Meadows quotes a detailed account from a Shanghae paper consisted principally of exercises on the various Sacred Books which form the groundwork of the whole of the Chinese system of philosophy and morality; but it comprised also papers on miscellaneous subjects, such as geography, modern literature, and the system of water communication in the province in which it took place.
This system, according to Mr. Meadows, is the institution of China. It accounts for the durability of the Chinese empire. It has united the different provinces of that vast territory into one homogeneous whole. It is the great regulator of all education—the great rewarder of all ambition. It has produced an unprecedented similarity of “fundamental belief” throughout the whole body politic, for it is through its agency that the Confucian morality and philosophy have become the creed of all that enormous number of the Chinese who are, or hope to become, holders of office.
This is the institution which Mr. Meadows has the audacity to propose for our acceptance, as a means “for the improvement of the British executive and the union of the British empire"—meaning by the last words the amalgamation of England and all the Colonies into one great whole, governed by one central executive, combining in itself all the ablest persons in the country. The bare statement of such a scheme is its refutation. No one who knows anything of the Colonies can really suppose that, in consideration of the allotment of a certain number of offices to natives of New Zealand, of Canada, or of New South Wales, the inhabitants of those countries would consent to give up their individuality, and their prospect of virtual or avowed national independence. Nor would the scheme be more practicable if applied to Great Britain only. Mr. Meadows expressly says that he does not wish to see members of Parliament or judges appointed by examination, because, “with all the faults they have had, and may still retain, it is to our Houses of Parliament, our juries, our bench, and our bar, that England owes her freedom and her greatness;” and he “would be amongst the most prompt to join in resisting attempts to introduce organic changes into them.” What he does propose is to throw open to competition all offices connected with finance, diplomacy, colonial government, the permanent civil departments of State, or which involve military or naval command, as well as those which have hitherto been dependent on the Ministry, but which are neither judicial nor legislative. His avowed object is to secure the ablest men in the country for these situations; and he proposes to effect this by surrounding success in the proposed examinations with considerable artificial éclat.
Few persons will, perhaps, be inclined to go to such lengths as these; but the scheme is the legitimate expansion of proposals which are frequently made in the present day, and Mr. Meadows seems to us to state fairly enough the social and moral results which they would involve. As the consequences, which seem to Mr. Meadows to be the strongest arguments in favour of his scheme appear to us the strongest objections to it, we will do our best to place them fairly before our readers, and will leave them to draw their own inferences.
We must, in the first place, remark upon Mr. Meadows's exemption of the Bench and the Houses of Parliament from the operation of his proposed scheme. If his principle is good for anything, it ought to include them. His instinctive perception of the absurdity of including them ought to have led him to see the fallacy of his whole argument. In China there is no Parliament, no bar, no bench—no one of the institutions to which “England owes her freedom and her greatness;” and for that very reason there are Public Service Competitive Examinations. They are, in fact, no more than a substitute—in our opinion, a very bad and inefficient substitute—for the institutions alongside of which Mr. Meadows would wish to place them. It is because we have, in our free political institutions, an arena and an outlet for ambition that we have no bureaucracy—that our public servants are our servants, and not our masters. If Mr. Meadows would consider the subject from an English as well as from a Chinese point of view, he would see that he wants inconsistent advantages. We may either govern ourselves, or we may be governed by officials. Either plan has its merits, but we cannot combine them—we must choose between the two. Suppose that, by means of the proposed system, all the ablest young men in the country were to be drained away from the liberal professions into the public service, what would become of Parliament and the bar? They would fall into the hands of second-rate men, who would be engaged in a continual contest with the powerful bureaucracy which Mr. Meadows is so anxious to create. A certain number of able public servants is no doubt indispensable to good government, but we can imagine no greater curse to the country than a system which should make the public service the natural resource and the universal ambition of persons of distinguished ability.
Another fatal objection to the scheme is its educational aspect. The second class of the proposed examinations ought—Mr. Meadows thinks—to be open to all persons who had passed the Primary Examinations, and were between sixteen and twenty-one years of age. For such candidates, “an acquaintance would be necessary with the body of generally accepted doctrines of psychology and morality. . . . The object of this description of knowledge is to produce homogeneity of fundamental beliefs on man's duties towards, and dealings with, man throughout every portion of the wide-spread British empire.” Mr. Meadows's plan is probably entirely peculiar to himself, but we should wish those who look for great moral and educational advantages from schemes which more or less resemble this in principle, to consider seriously what it involves. Perhaps our great-grandchildren may see the day when we have quite settled the terms on which religious instruction is to be given in parish schools; but would our nati natorum et qui nascentur ab illis ever behold any approximation to a settlement of such questions as would be raised ny the establishment of an institution having a greater or less tendency to produce “homogeneity of fundamental beliefs throughout Great Britain?” We all know what Leeds thinks of Manchester, what Manchester thinks of the National Society, an what the National Society thinks of the Management Clauses; but what would all the wrangling that ever filled the House of Commons or Willis's Rooms in comparison to the strife which would arise when the issue to be tried was whether English, Scotch, Irish, High Church, or Low Church “fundamental beliefs” were to be selected as the type to which Downing-street was to assimilate the United Kingdom? Should the Civil Service examinations ever become a great national institution, they would naturally exert an immense influence over education. Mr. Meadows thinks that they would render the Universities superfluous, relegate the education of the rich to private schools, and do away with classical learning altogether. This he considers, apparently, a great advantage, as to which there cannot be two opinions. We doubt whether such a result is probable, but we do think that the scheme would place an entirely new and vastly important power in the hands of Government. Is this a state of things which it would be wise to bring about or to tolerate? In China there is no National Church, and indeed hardly anything which can be called a religion at all. The official creed is a kind of pantheism, which is no doubt more intellectual, if not more moral, than the gross idolatries which prevail amongst the poorer classes. Such a creed as this is, of course, intelligible only to persons of a certain amount of education, and in adopting and propagating it, the Government are discharging a function which is natural and intelligible enough. Where the few are philosophical pantheists; and the many superstitious idolaters, a despotism of the learned over the ignorant is inevitable. The circumstances of this country are entirely different. The differences which education developes in Englishmen are no less remarkable than the similarity which it produces in the Chinese; and so long as these differences exist, it will be hopeless for the Government to attempt to act as schoolmaster-general to the nation.
In whatever light we regard it, the scheme proposed by Mr. Meadows is nothing else than a scheme for an organized despotism. He is more logical and thoroughgoing than any other advocate of the system of Civil Service competition that we have met with, and he consequently displays in a more glaring light the evils inseparable from the scheme. It is no disgrace to a gentleman who has lived abroad twelve years, and who went from a German university to the scene of very important and interesting labours, to be in some degree ignorant of the feelings and habits of his countrymen; but his book supplies some curious examples of the power which he attributes to the Executive government, and some curious evidence of the bad effects of the system which he so much admires. Some of these we hope to notice hereafter, but for the present we will content ourselves with expressing an opinion that nothing could be more injurious to the country than the systematic adoption of such a plan as he proposes. We should produce a whole army of place-hunters, scrambling lazily through life in the vague expectation of succeeding in some examination. We should place the holders of office in an entirely false position. They would justly consider that, after being encouraged to lay out a large amount of time and labour in obtaining their preferment, they had a right to retain it. So long as the tenure of an office is a mere matter of contract, the official is a servant and not a master; but once make office a prize, and you give the incumbent a property in it. By restricting official employment to persons who would submit to an examination, we should deprive ourselves of the services of men of mature age and experience. How, for example, would a barrister of forty-five years of age like to be examined in politics and geography against a set of youths who might be his sons; and even if he did submit to the ordeal, what chance would he have of succeeding in it? Every one who has had much experience of examinations knows that they are especially fitted for immature minds. It would be a grievous thing for the public service if all persons were to be permanently excluded from it who had not entered it by five-and-twenty. The ablest officials in the public service were transferred to it in mature life from other callings. Such a scheme as Mr. Meadows proposes would have deprived the country of the services of Sir Denis Le Marchant, Sir James Stephen, Sir Charles Trevelyan, Mr. Merivale, Mr. Phillips, Mr. Waddington, and, in fact, of almost every man in the service who holds, or has held, a position requiring eminent ability.
Perhaps the class who would, in practice, suffer most from the adoption of Mr. Meadows's plan, would be the able young men who would be brought into the Civil Service by means of it. Unless our whole administrative system is to be totally changed, they would find their expectations cruelly deceived. A clerkship of £100 per annum, gradually rising to £150 --with a possibility of finding oneself, after twenty-five years' service, in possession of a clerkship of £600, gradually rising to £1000 per annum, minus heavy deductions—is about the most brilliant preferment which our public offices have to give. By the time that the “young man of high ability” had endured snubbing, thwarting, and obscurity for a quarter of a century, he would curse the system which had allured him, by the prospect of early independence and ephemeral éclat, to abandon at once the anxieties and the honours of an open profession.
We do not wish to say that examinations are of no use at all in the appointment of civil servants. As a bar to the grossly incompetent, as a stimulant to a select number of unambitious and second-rate candidates, or in some very special cases (as in the Indian Civil Service, or the scientific branches of the Army), where the career must be entered upon at an early age, they may be very useful; but as a substitute for, or as a rival to, the open professions, as a means of selecting or rewarding really high capacity, or as a source of moral or social reforms, we think they would be, to the last degree, useless and dangerous. They may possibly have been a kind of substitute for a free Government in China; but they would, we are very sure, be incompatible with a free Government in England.
Saturday Review, August 16, 1856.