Official standard

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I received the following message from a young Chinese scholar who is studying in America:

Improving my English and understanding Western culture, as well as dealing with racial and gender issues as an Asian female and also a first-generation immigrant in this country, is much easier than being part of the 官本位 culture in China, though I was born and grew up there. I feel that my intelligence is treated with more respect in the States.

This is not the first time that I had heard this young scholar and other young scholars inveigh against 官本位, but in this instance she put it so succinctly and clearly that I felt galvanized to come to grips with a concept that I had heretofore only grasped in a hazy manner.

So what is this "官本位 culture in China"?  I was aware that it had something to do with the standing of officials in China, but until I read the passage quoted above, I didn't realize how all-consumingly important it is and what exactly it signifies in the Chinese social context.

Here are some of the many translations for guān běnwèi 官本位 that one can find in dictionaries and on the web:

Google Translate:  "official standard"

Baidu Fanyi:   "the official standard"

Bing Translator:  "official standard"

iciba:  "official standard; bureaucracy [sic] nature; government standard"

DictALL:  "the official oriented consciousness; official-cored idea"

Oxford Chinese Dictionary:  "official rank standard"

not in ABC

Line Dict (formerly nciku):  official standard: measuring the social status of a person in terms of the level of his official position; official standard consciousness; bureaucracy; officer's standard"

and so on and so forth

Chinese encyclopedic explanations may be found here and here.

This is not a term that I had ever encountered before the 80s, when it seems to have arisen.  Where did it come from?

Even though I had never heard of guān běnwèi 官本位 before the 80s, when I did start to hear people saying it, the expression somehow had a vague ring of familiarity.  It sounded like some other term with which I was already intimately familiar, namely, jīn běnwèi 金本位 ("gold standard"), after which it must have been modeled.  Just as jīn běnwèi 金本位 signifies the monetary unit against which all currencies are measured, so guān běnwèi 官本位 signifies the official standing against which all social positions are measured.

Here is a Chinese Communist Party website which recognizes that the special privileges enjoyed by officials in China today derive from the overwhelming emphasis that society places on guān běnwèi 官本位.

Guān běnwèi 官本位 boils down to the fact that being an official is considered the sine qua non for aggressive social aspirants.  What is amazing about this is that, though one would think that the social values inculcated by communism (as espoused by Marx and Engels) would result in very different configurations than those that were operative under Confucian ideology during the long sweep of the imperial, "feudal" order for two millennia and more, the guān běnwèi 官本位 of the PRC is not much different from the emphasis on gaining access to officialdom and the prestige attendant upon membership in the ranking bureaucracy of imperial times.

So how did one achieve that in premodern times?  One studied very hard so that one could pass the civil service examinations.  The rigors of that process and the nature of the system under which it was imposed are described in stark detail by Ichisada Miyazaki in his China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China (English translation by Conrad Schirokauer).  The joys of those who passed and the anguish of those who failed are poignantly elaborated in Rúlín wàishǐ 儒林外史 (The Unofficial History of the Grove of Scholars), a masterful mid-18th c. vernacular novel.

If you did pass the exams and rise through the ranks, that was THE surest path to wealth and power in premodern China.  However, then as now, if you belonged to the wrong clique or faction, you could very suddenly and easily be brought low by the emperor or members of an opposing clique or faction who had gained the upper hand in court politics.

How does one become an official in China today?  I am afraid that, not being a specialist on contemporary Chinese politics, I really don't know the answer to that question.


  1. Bathrobe said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 8:23 pm

    Japanese has the expression 官尊民卑 kanson minpi 'respect for officials, contempt for the people', which apparently entered Japanese political discourse through Fukuzawa Yukichi (福沢諭吉). Fukuzawa criticised the phenomenon in his work 福翁百話 (Fukuō hyaku-wa), published in 1897. I'm not sure if the phrase was coined by Fukuzawa himself or was based on an earlier Chinese expression.

  2. J. F. said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 8:39 pm

    What is amazing about this is that, though one would think that the social values inculcated by communism … would result in very different configurations than those that were operative under Confucian ideology
    Amazing? Didn't you know that some animals are more equal than others?

  3. Ren Zixu said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 9:17 pm

    this is interesting… i'll be curious, per the CCPC piece you mention, to see what if any effect XJP's efforts to rein in / professionalize the bureaucracy will have on GBW as you note (assuming XJP's motives / etc are at least mostly sincere and not entirely a cover for power consolidation). I never really thought of GBW as being oppressive as opposed to repulsive, since there have always been alternatives to being a 禄蠹. Perhaps gender plays a role here, as well.

  4. Mark Mandel said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 9:27 pm

    I'm leaning towards J.F.'s reaction, though I wasn't thinking of the Orwellian view. More like, Some things in human nature are likely to trump any system superimposed on it.

  5. John Rohsenow said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 1:48 am

    I just seem to recall dimly something I read years ago in grad. school where someone had compared the ranking systems of the late Qing bureaucracy and the current PRC bureaucracy and they corresponded
    fairly closely, so even the forms are the same, despite the so-called
    "radical" changes.

  6. Jin Defang said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 7:28 am

    This made me think of Milovan Djilas' The New Class. The revolution to overturn "decadent" old ways soon adopts the same norms, with its perpetrators now at the top of the social system.

  7. DMT said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 7:35 am

    I'm on the move at the moment and thus unable to check, but 官尊民卑 looks to me like it might have a Chinese origin. On the other hand, I wonder whether 金本位 might have been been a Japanese coinage. (Pun not entirely intended)

  8. AB said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 9:28 am

    Might one possible English translation be "Mandarinism"?

  9. Jin Defang said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 10:04 am

    I suppose one could, but that would not capture the nuances for most readers.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

    From a colleague (in two parts — 1. quoting the Baidu online encyclopedia; 2. giving his own opinion):


    According to Baidu (Romanization and translation added by VHM):

    “Guān běnwèi” shì yī zhǒng yǐ guān wéi běn, yǐ guān wéi guì, yǐ guān wéi zūn wéi zhǔyào nèiróng de jiàzhíguān. Zhōngguó liǎng qiān duō nián de fēngjiàn zhuānzhì wénhuà zhìshǐ zhè zhǒng sīxiǎng yìshí shēnrù Zhōngguó shèhuì de céngcéngmiànmiàn, shènzhì kěyǐ shuō shì Zhōnghuá wénhuà de yībùfèn, jí “zāopò” dì nà bùfèn.


    “Guān běnwèi” is a kind of value system which takes officials as its basis, its value, and its main content. For two thousand years, the culture of this feudal autocratic institution has caused this type of thought and consciousness to deeply penetrate into every level of Chinese society, to the extent that we may say it has become a part of Chinese culture, that part which is the dregs.


    In my opinion:

    “官本位” refers to a system of values that is based on the perception of government officials as valuable, respectable, and essential. In other words, “官本位” is meritocratic / elitist self-imaging, self-validation, and self- apotheotization (or self-glorification, self-worship) of government officials.


  11. Leo E said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 6:21 pm

    The Uyghur term coined specifically for 官本位 – it doesn't appear in the Hazirqi Uyghur Tili Izahliq Lughiti (Modern Uyghur Phrasal Dictionary) – is mänsäpchilik, which has an interesting link with old Central Asian bureaucratic systems. mänsäp comes from manṣab in Arabic, which just means post, office, position, but a mansabdar ("mansab-holder") in the Timurid and Mughal contexts was a special imperially appointed position, very similar to that of an official in China.

    It's funny to see some of these essays online inveighing against mänsäpchilik/官本位 as a barrier to proper government functioning, the three barriers to that being byurokratliq (bureaucratic), mänpä'ät zänjiri (being a slave to profit), and huquqdin paydilinip öz kömichigä chogh tartish (taking advantage of your power and raking the embers toward your own naan – i.e. as they are roasting in the tandoor!).

  12. Michael Watts said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

    When did China measure its currency against gold? I thought it was silver.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:51 pm

    I can't say much about the question of "how does one become an official today?", but I can observe that a chinese college student of my acquaintance told me that she went to a special class ("党课"), held by the communist party at her school, on the weekends, and she did this because she was hoping to join the party.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:52 pm

    Actually, it seems worth further observing that her stated goal in joining the party was not to become a government official, but to get a job at a state-owned company. (Sorry about the multiple posts.)

  15. Andy D. said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 8:41 am

    "Improving … and understanding …, as well as …, is … "

    I hear this class of mistakes all the time, even on NPR. It's curious that it went unnoticed on a blog about language.

  16. Eidolon said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

    When I read the translation from Baidu above, I initially thought the mention of guān běnwèi being the dreg of Chinese culture was an attached commentary. I was taken aback when I came to the realization that it was how Baidu described the concept. Speaking to the oxymoronic nature of a Communist Confucian society, modern Chinese culture strikes me as not so much Orwellian as a parody of Orwell, in which Communists launch repeated but ultimately futile attacks against age-old practices that, despite universal condemnation from both government and public, are yet incorrigible.

  17. Matt said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 1:40 am

    Hey DMT, are we going to get more info on whether 官尊民卑 was borrowed as a unit from Chinese? It's quite strongly associated with Fukuzawa Yukichi here in Japan so I'd be interested to learn where he got it from if he didn't actually invent it. (My Japanese reference works make no comment either way, although the earliest two citations in the NKD are both Fukuzawa.)

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 9:23 am

    @Andy D.

    For goodness' sake, it's not her native language.

  19. Error said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 10:58 am

    @Andy D.

    I don't even see the "mistake" at all. Firstly, this is a site about language not orthography. The chunking of information intra-comma is an important way we convey how we organize and chunk thoughts and ideas. Having a pure list would not provide those important cues and perhaps at worst suggest an equality between each item in said list. Maybe I just don't see the problem with a 'x and y, z and w' construction even if it is non-standard

  20. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 1:56 pm

    From the same colleague whose two part comment I posted above:

    You are absolutely right. First, this term is a poor coinage by the ccp propagandists, which doesn't make any rhetorical or semantic sense. To put it plainly, what this coinage means is ccp officials' narcissistic arrogance.

  21. Ren Zixu said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

    Is the term ever used positively, though, referring to a desirable state? The only references I can find on the web, including the link you provide, present it as something to be condemned. So how is it propaganda/how does it reflect the "narcissistic arrogance" of the people who use the term?

  22. Ren Zixu said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

    Sorry, misinterpreted the second half of the quote.

  23. Richard W said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    > not in ABC
    Although ABC doesn't (yet) have an entry for 官本位, it does define 官 as "government official" and 本位 as "one's own position (seen as central)". The entry for 本位主義 also seems relevant (主義 means "-ism").

    官 [guān] government official; officeholder …

    本位 [běnwèi] monetary standard; one's own department/unit; one's own position (seen as central)

    本位主義 [běnwèizhǔyì] selfish departmentalism; chauvinism

  24. Wentao said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 8:50 pm

    To Professor Mair's colleague: I thought if anything, it was invented by CCP's critics? It's hard to imagine anyone to regard it NOT as a derogatory term. At least when I hear it being used, it's always negative. Also, personally I feel it makes good semantic sense and is actually a rather elegant construction.

  25. Richard W said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 9:45 pm

    I found the following Web snippets interesting:

    This short excursion into traditional Chinese culture makes it clear that Li sao actually voices a recurring theme in Chinese literature, that of a talented scholar deprived of the opportunities to put his knowledge and skills into practice. The strong frustration voiced by Qu Yuan in Li sao reflects not only the poet’s emotional state at unfair treatment by the King but also his deep-seated desire for officialdom, typical of the general mentality of the intelligentsia in traditional China (guan benwei yishi).
    [Here, "yishi" (意識) can be interpreted as "mentality".]

    Luo Linshu, Chairman of the Foreign and Overseas Affairs Commission of the Sichuan People's Congress, discussed with ConGenOff the outlook for Chinese reform at a reception for the opening of the Sri Lanka Consulate in Chengdu. While discussing the mechanics of legislation in Sichuan Province, Luo commented that China has far to go to rid itself of the "the officials come first" (guan benwei zhuyi) thinking inherited from thousands of years of imperial rule. China is far behind the United States in democracy, but it is making steady progress. The United States has over 200 years of history, Luo said, while only 30 years have passed since the PRC began its reform and opening policy.
    [Here, "zhuyi" (主義) can be interpreted as "-ism".]

  26. Jean-Michel said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 11:24 pm

    When did China measure its currency against gold? I thought it was silver.

    The term might've been coined to describe foreign gold-backed currencies, but the Hong Kong dollar was indirectly backed by gold from 1935 to the end of the Bretton Woods system, during which the HKD was backed by sterling.

  27. Jeffrey Willson said,

    February 20, 2015 @ 6:47 am

    Certainly "official standard" is a horrible translation. It means something completely different, as in "the official standard defines an inch as 2.54 cm." I must say that when I first saw 官本位 I had a pretty good idea of what it was talking about, and I was quite surprised to see that you had parsed it as guān běnwèi. I would unquestionably read it as guānběn wèi: guan is a person with a high official position, ben is basis, and wei is standing. The expression clearly means "status based on officialdom".

  28. DMT said,

    February 20, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    Matt: I can’t find any examples of 官尊民卑 in pre-20th-century Chinese sources, so my guess at a Chinese origin was almost certainly wrong. The phrase did make its way into Chinese eventually, along with related phrases like 官重民輕.

  29. Wu Youde said,

    February 20, 2015 @ 10:39 pm

    It's interesting that 官尊民卑 (GZMB) was "translated" into the Chinese 官贵民贱, which seems to me slightly more colloquial than the classical-sounding 官尊民卑, the latter of which is perfectly understandable Classical Chinese.

    I don't really understand how one can say GZMB was "translated" at all though, since linguistically (though not politically) it's perfectly admissible Chinese (unlike even 科学, for example, which I don't think could really mean anything in a Chinese context before it was used by Japanese to mean "science", though I'd be interested to be corrected on that point). It absence from Chinese pre-20th century probably more a reflection of politics and society than language.

  30. Mark Metcalf said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 10:47 am

    The 现代汉语规范词典 (via Plecodict) defines 官本位 as 以官职高低、权利大小作为衡量事物标准的价值观念

    "An evaluation system that judges the value of something on the basis of the relative seniority of official rank and the degree of privilege."

  31. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

    From Hill Gates:

    I realize that my views on the patterns of the Chinese past are eccentric, but I occasionally (e.g. your discussion of guanbenwei), find something vernacular and persistent into the present that colorfully supports my analysis of the late imperial system and the one the current state is re-creating. And so various people receive rants. Here's mine on guanbenwei.
    First, if this is not obvious, the official meaning and the popular meaning–opposites in moral terms–both seem perfectly apposite to imperial times as well as to the present.
    Second, one expects the two great "classes" of Chinese–the eligible-for-office scholar-bureaucrats (now graduates of major universities who get state jobs as administrators and teachers etc.)–and the laobaixing have exactly the two very different views of ruling class status the two "translations" offer. The former gain from the hierarchical transfer of goods, the latter loses, so to one, guanbenwei is a form of virtue, whlle to the other, it means exploitation and snobbery.
    Third, by slotting this bit of vocabulary into a class/political-economy analysis, one fills out otherwise abstract comparison with other ancient empires and the "feudal" (in the Western usage of that word) social formations of pre-capitalist Europe and of pre-Meiji Japan.(NB one focuses on the "working" elite, not an otiose imperial family). If you're only interested in China sui generis, such abstract comparison seems pointless. My argument (as any historical materialist's would be) is that to focus on a single society is to lose the forest for the trees, and go on to mis-identify the trees in the bargain by assuming them to be unique.
    Fourth, it might be interesting to compare language such as guanbenwei that comes from an old agrarian empire like China with a non-hereditary ruling elite (there were others e.g. the Ottomans) with one where the ruling elite was an hereditary aristocracy (e.g. Western Europe or Japan, at certain points). Blood vs. Wenhua. Noblesse oblige vs. Benguanwei.
    I'm slowly writing an article I'll send to the New Left Review about the continuities between late imperial and present-day China–political-economy and culture stuff. Responses welcome.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2015 @ 8:40 pm

    @Jeffrey Willson

    I am a strong proponent of normally parsing trisyllabic expressions as 2 + 1 syllables. See, for example:

    "Linsanity" (2/16/12)

    Also consider:

    Fǎlún gōng 法輪功 ("Dharmacakra Practice")

    Yóuxiān kū 遊仙窟 ("Dwelling of Playful Goddesses", not "Excursion / Visit to the Cave / Dwelling of Goddesses", as it is often mistranslated)

    Hónglóu mèng 紅樓夢 ("Dream of Red Chambers / Towers")

    Sānguó zhì 三國志 ("Account of the Three Kingdoms")

    Shuǐhǔ zhuàn 水滸傳 ("Tale of Water Margins")

    Xīyóu jì 西遊記 ("Record of a Journey to the West")

    An exception to the general is when the final two syllables of a three syllable expression semantically have long been tightly linked as a single lexical item, as in the present case with guān běnwèi 官本位.

    Note that guān běnwèi 官本位 was formed on the model of jīn běnwèi 金本位 ("official standard")

    We also have yín běnwèi 銀本位 ("silver standard").

    Běnwèi 本位 in the technical sense of "(monetary) standard" is a modern usage, but the term itself has existed for over two thousand years and is well attested with the following meanings (in order of historical development):

    1. one's original official position (here we see that běnwèi 本位 is connected with official position from the very beginning of its existence)

    2. one's original seat

    3. one's domicile, mansion

    4. subject; main body; center

    5. (monetary) standard

    Běnwèi 本位 ("standard; one's own standard or unit") is well attested as a disyllabic unit in countless dictionaries and online resources, e.g.,

    ABC Chinese-English Dictionary:

    本位 běnwèi {F} n. monetary standard ◆n. ①one's own department/unit ②one's own position (seen as central)

    Cf. 單位[单-] ¹dānwèi* {B} n. ①unit (in measurement or organization) ②unity ③〈lg.〉element; -eme

    Everybody who studies modern China is familiar with the latter term.

    I could cite dozens more dictionaries on běnwèi 本位 as a fixed term, but will just list one that is very influential:

    Běnwèi 本位 in the sense of "(monetary) standard") first appears in the expression jīn běnwèi 金本位 ("gold expression").

    There is also yín běnwèi 銀本位 ("silver standard")

    Here are some related terms which make it unmistakably clear that běnwèi 本位 is a tightly linked disyllabic expression that can be used to generate new terms with it as the core:

    běnwèi zhǔyì 本位主義 ("selfish departmentalism; departmental selfishness")

    běnwèi huòbì 本位貨幣 ("standard currency")

    fù běnwèi zhì 复本位制 ("bimetallism")

    dān běnwèi zhì 单本位制 ("single standard system")

    Notice that, with the last two items, these four syllable expressions do not parse as 2 + 2, which one would normally expect for quadrisyllabic expressions, but rather as 1 + 2 + 1, which further underscores the tight boundedness of běnwèi zhǔyì 本位.

  33. John Rohsenow said,

    February 23, 2015 @ 1:44 am

    For background on Professor Hill Gates comment on guanbenwei above, see her CHINA'S MOTOR: A THOUSAND YEARS OF PETTY CAPITALISM(Cornell Univ. Press, 1996)

  34. Jeffrey Willson said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 7:21 am

    I absolutely agree that in the sense of "monetary standard," 本位 benwei is a tightly linked expression (a Mandarin word). I just disagree that 官本位 guanbenwei is formed from it, or from any of the other dictionary meanings of 本位 that derive from 本 ben in the sense of "self." Similarly, 天花 tianhua is a word that means "smallpox", but 天花板 tianhuaban does not mean smallpox board. It parses the other way: tian huaban, "a decorated board that is placed overhead (in the direction of heaven," or more simply "an ornate ceiling." The fact that a substring exists as a word in the language makes for a statistical likelihood, but does not guarantee that it is being used as such when it occurs in text. The parsing that is correct is the one that makes sense semantically. In this case, guanbenwei makes sense when interpreted as a noun phrase with wei "position" at its head and guanben "based on the class of officials/based on being an official" as its modifier. On the other hand, guan benwei "officialdom (monetary) standard" is difficult if not impossible to interpret in the sense that the expression is actually used — as you will be the first to admit, since that difficulty formed the basis of this blog post.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 9:46 am

    @Jeffrey Willson

    No, I would not be the "first to admit" that. Please don't put words in people's mouth(s). That's a no-no on this blog.

    Also, you need to go back and reread the whole post and all of the comments, especially the last long one by me (, to consider all of the historical and lexical evidence that has been adduced concerning běnwèi 本位, which you seem to have totally ignored. Běnwèi 本位 does not mean only "(monetary) standard", which is actually a modern extension of the original meaning that stretches back over two thousand years and has to do with official status and position.

  36. Richard W said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

    @ Jeffrey Willson
    If 天花板 parses as "tian huaban", how can terms like 天花吊鉤 (ceiling hook) and 天花射燈 (ceiling spotlight) be explained?

  37. Jeffrey Willson said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 12:53 am

    First of all, I would like to protest the deletion of my explanatory post.

    @ Richard W

    These expressions are derived from 天花板 by ellipsis.

  38. Richard W said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 1:38 am

    I saw your post, and I wasn't surprised it was deleted. For one thing, you again presumed to know what somebody else was thinking (this time, in a particularly obnoxious way), after having been told that's a no-no on this blog.

  39. Jeffrey Willson said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 7:00 am

    Okay, I withdraw my protest.

    For other readers: Richard W's query was a response to an example I gave in the deleted post, in which I drew a distinction that I feel to be useful, between expressions whose meanings might be inferred from the meanings of their individual characters and those that definitely need further knowledge to understand.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 8:13 am

    @Richard W

    Jeffrey Willson's original comment on "smallpox" and "ceiling" may still be found here:

    For a very long and detailed note on the derivation of the Chinese word for "smallpox", see "Smallpox / Ceiling Light" (8/19/09):

  41. Jeffrey Willson said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 8:32 am

    Thank you for the link to the old post "Smallpox / Ceiling Light." When I asked my wife why 天花 tianhua was the name of the disease, she confidently answered with an explanation that I did not see anywhere in that post or its comments: 天 means fatal, as in "taking you to heaven." Smallpox is distinguished from other pustule diseases, such as chickenpox and measles, by being much more often fatal.

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