Spies and Postmen: Communications Liaisons and the Evolution of the Qing Bureaucracy

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This article introduces the "communications liaison" (titang guan) - an official category little acknowledged in past scholarship on the late imperial Chinese state. Communications liaisons stationed at garrisons and administrative seats compiled intelligence and news reports for supervising officials in distant locations. In Beijing, capital liaisons compiled documents into court gazettes and supervised the distribution of documents, seals of office, and imperial gifts to the provinces. Besides these responsibilities, capital liaisons acquired reputations for following personal and patronage agendas that undermined the integrity of the bureaucratic state. Longstanding financial and administrative inconsistencies within the Qing bureaucracy induced liaisons to misbehave. Still, characterizations of liaison malfeasance transformed over the course of the dynasty due to institutional developments including the implementation of new communications systems, the standardization of provincial administrations, and the expansion of office sales. Whereas liaisons in the early and mid-Qing periods were parties to political exchanges among the bureaucratic elite, by the dynasty's waning years, liaisons provided services for the larger population of bureaucratic personnel. The liaisons' transformation from spies into postmen, as seen through the eyes of official critics, offers an opportunity to evaluate the impact of major changes in the Qing bureaucracy upon some of its least known officeholders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-50
Number of pages32
JournalFrontiers of History in China
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 by Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands.


  • Qing bureaucracy
  • administrative crime
  • communications liaison
  • titang

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


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