The culture of corruption in China has changed over time with economic development and the improvement of both material and spiritual life. More than ten years ago, when subordinates presented gifts to superiors, they would stuff money in a cigarette box or snack box. Now such blatant displays of bribery have fallen out of favor. Officials like to receive ¡°elegant¡± bribes not only because of their arty pretensions, but also because it lowers the risk of being caught, which, to most officials today, is their primary concern.
In recent years, bribes have taken the form of cultural artifacts. When I was in Hetian a few years ago, a local friend told me that the price of Hetian jade had increased dramatically. This was because the speculation in capital market and the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy. Another major reason for the large rise in the price of Hetian jade, however, was that Hetian jade has become a trendy gift for officials. In the case of Wen Qiang, a gift that greatly affected the identification of the amount of bribe was an ¡°elegant¡± bribe. It was said to be a Zhang Daqian painting, which would be worth millions of renminbi if it was an original, and only worth about 1000 renminbi if it was not. Several identifications on the painting aroused a huge controversy. Eventually, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and National Committee of Cultural Relics determined that because it¡¯s ¡°strokes [were] vulgar and [its] signature weak,¡± it was a general forgery. It showed that the corrupt culture has changed with the times under the development of economic and the improvement of both material and spiritual life. More than ten years ago, when subordinates presented gifts to superiors, they would stuff money in a cigarette box or snack box. Now it is considered to be vulgar.
Are corrupt officials more refined or elegant for preferring cultural artifacts as bribes instead of money? Of course not,¡°elegant¡± bribery remains bribery, just like Kung I-Chi¡¯s tone of ¡°stealing books is not theft¡± is ridiculed to be mere quibble. The so-called ¡°elegant¡± bribery is still the practice of using wealth to enhance power. In essence, it is a blatant exchange of interests. Its nature would never be changed because of different bribery. An ¡°Elegant¡± bribe is just the cigarette box full of money wearing perfume and having cultural pretentions. Officials like to receive ¡°elegant¡± bribes, not only because of their arty pretentions, but also due to the lower risk of being caught, which, to most officials today, is their primary concern. Take Hetian jade as an example. It is said that ¡°gold has price whereas jade is priceless¡±. If an official received several gold bars, once investigated, it would be very easy to calculate the amount of the bribe since the price of gold is set in the international market. However, if what the official received is Hetian jade, it would be easier for the official to dispute accusations of bribery since the price of Hetian jade is far mor subjective.
China has a long history and tradition of gift-giving. There are, of course, gifts exchanged as a matter of courtesy between ordinary people, but a large part of the gift-giving culture is to present gifts to influential officials with the implied purpose of reciprocity. During the Spring and Autumn period, a time when China was truly ruled under etiquette, people were particular about gift-giving. The value of the gifts presented was not high. The social rules conveyed by the gifts were what were really important. For example, in weddings, as custom, the groom should present a gift to the bride¡¯s parents. For the emperor, the appropriate gift was a sacrificial wine. For a prince, it was jade, for ministers a lamb, for senior officials, a wild goose, and for junior officials a pheasant. Even if a junior official was sufficiently wealthy, he shouldn¡¯t present jade to his parents-in-law. In the Warring States period, there was a sage called Chen Zhongzi, whose brother was a senior official. One day his brother received a goose. His mother cooked the goose for Zhongzi, who ate it oblivious to the fact that the goose was given as a gift. When he found out that the goose was a bribe, he force himself to regurgitate the goose. How modest were our ancestors to present the influential official a mere goose! No one today can present a goose without shame.
By studying the historical data, we can draw a basic conclusion that the Chinese gift-giving culture among officials or, to call it what it really was, the bribery culture, had reached its peak during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. We should know that the emperors in these two dynasties set cruel punishments for corrupt officials. However, the reality set in with Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding monarch who would peel the skin of corrupt officials without mercy. Especially in the later period of the two dynasties, the act of bribery varied in many ways and was even packaged with elegant terms, such as the most popular ¡°two birthdays and three holidays¡± ¨C to present gifts to ones superior on his and his wife¡¯s birthdays, the Spring Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival. No matter how sentimental and humane the bribes seemed to be, it was nothing but self-deception.
The ¡°elegant¡± bribery at that time had way more tricks than what we know now. When Yan Song and his son Yan Shifan were in power, the family had collected treasures and antiques from all over the world, including the Great Yu Tripod, the Big Grams Tripod, and the Duke Mao Tripod, together named ¡°the Three Treasures of the Nation.¡± The Great Yu Tripod was unearthed in Qishan, Shaanxi in the early years of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty. Later, an assistant to General Tso bought the Great Yu Tripod at the price of 700 taels of silver and presented it to General Tso, who then presented it to Pan Zuyin in gratitude for saving Tso¡¯s life. 700 taels of silver for a treasure like this was actually a plunder. Presented to General Tso, this was a kind of ¡°elegant¡± bribery.
When Zhang Juzheng was named senior grand secretary of the Cabinet, a county magistrate presented him a jade belt. ¡°How precious it is!¡± Zhang exclaimed. ¡°Where did you get it?¡± I¡¯m afraid a treasure like this was not something a county magistrate could regularly present to their superior.
In the colored glaze factories in late Qing Dynasty, the owners of some antique shops specialized as the bridge between corrupt officials which, in modern parlance, made them basically professional money laundering companies. For instance, a subordinate came to Beijing, spent ten thousand taels of silver on a fake painting of Tang Yin in one of the antique stores and presented to a major official. The official, who had years of cooperation with the owner of the store, later sent his servant to the store with the painting in exchange for nine thousand taels of silver from the owner. In this way the owner earned a thousand and the official gained nine thousand. And the fake painting, even if investigated, would cost little.
Why was the culture of bribery so advanced in the Ming and Qing Dynasties? The key reason is that the totalitarian and authoritarian practices of the two dynasties were way beyond the preceding dynasties and reached a point of culmination. When power was highly concentrated without corresponding safeguards or constraints on this power, the means of pleasing the power would sure be endlessly emerging and continuously escalating. ¡°Elegant¡± bribery is nothing more than an upgraded version.
However, at that time, the recipients of the ¡°elegant¡± bribes were mostly scholars that had passed the imperial examination. They were true elegant scholars, such as Yan Song and his son; both of whom were great wits, not to mention Zhang Juzheng and General Tso. Whereas few of the recipients of the ¡°elegant¡± bribes in the present, have the ability to understand relics and treasures and the cultural information they conveyed. From this point of view, the level of today¡¯s ¡°elegant¡± bribery is still miles away from the tradition.
Translator: Cora Wang
Cora Wang is a recent graduate from Carnegie Mellon University¡¯s Master of Arts Management Program
Editor: Andrew Dirks
Original Author: 163.com
Original Publication Date: October 23
Original Article: http://view.163.com/12/1023/09/8EG7T77800014MO9.html