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Corruption in the Political System of the Han Dynasty

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#16 Wang Fu on Friendship and Getting Ahead

In an essay by the Chinese philosopher and political thinker, Wang Fu, he explains the folly of the system of recruitment for civil service during the Han Dynasty. Instead of looking at qualifications, someone was hired through their connections to those already in power. Ideally, in a this sort of society, the only ones hired would be those who have proven themselves to be morally fit for the job, as judged by those already personally acquainted with them. But the whole system was flawed at it’s core, with people taking advantage of it in order to claim an esteemed position of power. Wang Fu described how friendship turned into shallow relationships for those wealthy and in power, while the poor were cast aside. People would befriend others for selfish reasons, only to gain some sort of benefits. The topics addressed in his essay are able to give a brief view into the Han Dynasty and it’s people at the time. One of the underlying concept this entire essay reveals of the Han Dynasty is that people seemed to be very quick to judge. A person’s status and appearance was a swift way for someone to determine whether or not they wanted to become friendly with someone else. Fu gives many examples of the contrast between the treatment of the people who look rich and powerful versus those who do not, and gives his reasoning as to why people would act in such a way and why it is detrimental to society.

Wang Fu may have had many reasons for writing this piece, but as he himself never landed an official post, it would be reasonable to think that he wrote this in response to that fact. According to Margaret Pearson in her article, “The Nature of the Worthy in the Political Thought of Wang Fu”, she states that Wang Fu “…argued that many (like himself), though less-than-perfect, were worthy of official responsibility” (Pearson 282). Fu believed that many are born with the capabilities to hold official responsibility, but never obtained it due to various circumstances. Since he never seized a position for himself even though he felt entitled and worthy of one, his writing reflected that. This is a factor to consider during the analyses of his essay, as it may have led to him learning one way or another.

Wang Fu opens the essay with the quote “With people, the old friends are the best; with things, the new ones are the best”. He goes on to say that this is how friendship should be, with people growing closer as time passes. The longer you know someone, the closer you two should be in your friendship. Though around the time of Fu’s essay, those in the Han Dynasty would seemingly let old friendships fade away, while seeking to make new friends with those who were wealthy or in power, breaking “the ancient sages’ instruction to treasure old friends”. Fu came to the conclusion that it was a common tendency for people to try and charm the higher ups for their own benefit while disregarding anyone below them. In befriending those with a higher status, they may slowly be brought up to a higher level or wealth or status, while making acquaintances with anyone below will result in a net loss through their favors that they are unable to repay in one way or another. This brings up the idea that, regarding politics and power, some people at the time deemed giving up humility and honesty for wealth or power was a worthy compromise. Though this is not an idea exclusive to the era, it is interesting to note since the way the political system was set up, it essentially encouraged it.

With a nature that was quick to judge, some things may not have been what they appeared to be. The poor could wear classy clothes and become considered extravagant, while if they wore ragged clothing, they would not be given a second thought. An immensely wise scholar could have the appearance of a beggar, and nobody would listen. While there may be some bias in Fu’s words, seeing that he never secured a position position, it still displays the flaw of the political system: the cunning and crafty minds to rise to power, through a friendship with ulterior motives. There was no check in place to validate their abilities. Officials would recommend those close to them, and men of wealth and influence over those where were the most worthy and capable for the job. This system existed for a while until there were written examinations for candidates, so aside from Wang Fu and some other critics, it seemed most people were largely okay with how it worked out. A majority of those in the Han Dynasty either were not aware of the specifics to become an official during this time, or they just accepted the process, which is telling of the apathy towards politics. Still, even with this inefficient method of casting officials, there must have been some worthy for the position.

Wang Fu did not believe anyone would stay worthy without supervision. Existing problems may frustrate the righteous, and tempt their weaknesses to take the easy, path and “…he will catch the illness of arrogance… which will destroy him” (Pearson 284). So Fu believed in honesty from potential candidates. Instead of an embellishment of their strengths, he wanted to hear weaknesses along with strengths, he wanted to assess a candidate wholly instead of just by appearance and connections. He likened the imperfections of a someone to salt that is used to polish gold; some commodities are made valuable by cheap, or ugly things. That is to say, in order to get the best out of people, one needs to understand their own weaknesses to be more effective. People of the Han Dynasty who put forward a perfect front are not brought accepted into the position because of their character, ability, skills or deeds, but instead they make up false reputations and “…at best, the deeds and abilities of most of them do not even approach mediocrity” (Pearson 283). This is further evidence of how the compromise of humility for power was commonplace.

The Han Dynasty had an easily exploitable system for getting their officials. Until the written examination system, men rose to power purely through networking. The inadequate method of being recommended through someone who was already an official brought forth people who were able to figure out how they would abuse this, instead of bringing in those who were actually qualified. Becoming friends with one another was essentially a business ordeal, where it would only happen if both of the people came to the conclusion that the friendship would be beneficial to themselves at the least. Wang Fu’s essay on Friendship and Getting Ahead brought a critical light to these ideas, and as an reader centuries later, it also revealed a few of the values and considerations of the people of that time. Men would become crafty in their approach and give up benevolence for a shot at power. Those not involved in the politics were not bothered enough to do anything about it. The meaning of friendship was lost to those who wanted to get ahead.

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