Between heaven and earth: Dual accountability in Han China

Miranda Brown, Yu Xie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Scholars have noticed that centrally-appointed officials in imperial China were not only beholden to their superiors but also acted as brokers of local interests.We characterize such a structural position as ‘dual accountability’. Although accountability to superiors is readily understandable within the Weberian framework of bureaucratic hierarchy, the reasons behind local responsiveness bear explanation. This paper attempts to explain such responsiveness by investigating the larger ideological, structural, and institutional contexts of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). We explore two existing explanations - practical necessity and ‘Confucian’ or classical paternalism - and add a new explanation of our own: the emphasis on virtuous reputations in the system of bureaucratic recruitment and promotion. Our argument is supported by empirical evidence from a range of sources, including administrative records and inscriptions on ancient stelae. More generally, we question Weber’s hypothesis that the Chinese imperial system of administration fit the ideal type of traditional bureaucracy, and we examine the rational bases underlying an ‘inefficient’ system that was in place for two millennia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)56-87
Number of pages32
JournalChinese Journal of Sociology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


  • Bureaucracy
  • Dual accountability
  • Localism


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