Q & A

Who were the managers?

While technologies and social structures change through the ages, the basic need for efficient and skillful management of resources and organizations is a constant. An archaeologist and a historian describe how past societies have met the challenge of training effective and accountable managers.

In the century before the Spanish conquest in 1532, the Incas established a prosperous, multi-ethnic empire without alphabetic writing or riding animals, never mind the internet. Twelve to fifteen million people were overseen by a centrally trained and individually accountable managerial class.

Q: Were the Incas good managers?

Richard L. Burger:
 Almost all of the Spaniards who wrote about the Incas were enormously impressed with how well-organized the empire was, how rich it was, but also how well cared-for the populace was.

What they tended to emphasize was the coherence and comprehensiveness of the administration, and the fact that it wasn’t in any sense ad hoc. It was envisioned as a global system that incorporated all these different language groups and ethnic groups.

Plus, you didn’t have transportation or communications systems that made it easier to communicate between the extremes quickly. There weren’t any animals that could be ridden. They didn’t really have water transportation either because most of the rivers are not navigable. Plus, they didn’t have a writing system that was alphabetic, nothing like we have. So to be able to administer with all those constraints, and to make it work so well, was really quite astonishing.

Q: How did they manage without alphabetic writing?

We’re told that most of the administration was done by people who had learned to use quipus, or knotted records. There are at least two chronicles that talk about schools, and in fact they talk about a four-year program [to teach administrative skills]. Now some people have said that sounds suspiciously European, but we certainly know that administrators were brought to Cuzco to learn Quechua. And they had to learn how to use the quipus.

There’s no evidence that I’m convinced of that indicates that the quipus existed broadly before the Inca empire, so I think one can make a very good argument that the quipus were an administrative innovation.

These knotted records were used by an entire hierarchy of administrators. The lowest-level knotted records were summarized in a higher-level knotted record that was held by a higher administrator, and so on upwards to the capital. But we are told of these records that in any community there wouldn’t be one account. There would be two, kept by two different administrators, and each would be responsible for his own. When officials would come to check up on them, these two sets of knotted records would be compared.

Q: What kinds of performance standards were there?

The Incas were insistent on honesty... We are told that the people who were in the elite and the administrators were punished more severely than the regular populace if they broke the rules.

I was always fascinated by this notion of having stricter rules for the officials and for the elite than for the common people because there were higher expectations.

There is a very famous chronicle by Felipe Guaman Poma, in which he writes to the king of Spain, several generations after the conquest, basically trying to explain to the Spanish king how it should work, with the sense that if he knew how badly the Spaniards were administering and he could see how well the Incas had administered, he would reinstate the original system. Guaman Poma assumed that the king of Spain was in a sense the successor of the Inca emperor and would want his kingdom to yield well, to have happy people.

The emperors of Sung China (960–1279) tested for knowledge and skill in an attempt to secure better managers for their empire.

Q: When they reformed the existing civil service exams, what were the Sung emperors hoping to achieve?

John W. Chaffee:
 They were trying to look for those with outstanding ability and virtue for their officials. At the same time, they wanted to give people a chance who might not have been able to have a chance previously, given the workings of power and influence.

There was an assumption that selection meant that you were among the most talented candidates. And obviously there was some truth to that, because passing the examinations would take a high degree of skill.

Q: What did they test for?

They had examinations in law, in calligraphy, on special understanding of the classics, the ritual codes, and the like. Then they had a more generalist examination that was called the chin-shih, or advanced scholar examination, and that was one that drew more on broad learning, the ability to write well, including writing poetry. That was the track that came to dominate, that was most highly regarded.

There were three major sessions that people had to sit through in the chin-shih, and the third—and in some ways the most important—was policy essay questions. These were in some cases very detailed, requiring a lot of expert knowledge and a lot of knowledge of history, in terms of being able to cite the pertinent historical precedents, almost like in case law. So sometimes they might be fiscal questions about taxation, they might be questions about military policies, about household registration, all kinds of things.

There was a recognition that in the process of choosing officials they needed to be able to choose people who really could think through complex political and sometimes economic problems.

Q: Poetry was part of the exam?

There were big debates over whether or not poetry should be used. And, in fact, one of the counter-intuitive defenses of the use of poetry was that poetry could be more objectively graded than other things. One reason for that was that in the writing of poetry you had to follow all kinds of compositional rules, and they were quite complex—there were lists of accepted rhymes, and in classical Chinese poems you not only had to match rhymes but you also had to match tones from line to line.

Q: Did the examination system work?

Certainly one can find very effective scholarly officials... It’s hard to judge overall whether or not the system was effective, because almost everybody coming into the higher ranks of government came out of the system. So when the government was not effective, was it because their education was wrong, or because of a whole host of other things?

The examination system did create this educated elite that was to a large extent China’s counter to the aristocracy. What’s so interesting about it, though, is that it was, at least in theory, a class that was shaped by merit.

Interviewed by Kate Dailinger.

Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Professor of History, State University of New York at Binghamton