Samurai & The Chinese Scholar Officials

This paper will look at the similarities and differences between the Japanese Samurai class and the Chinese Scholar Officials. In their very basic form they were merely political entities, designed to separate the people into different classes, which in turn had certain privileges and rights outlined by the political doctrine. In the case of the Samurai, their class was created to maintain a level of honor and devotion to the feudal lords, unparalleled in Asian societies. The Chinese Scholar officials purpose however was to run affairs of state, guiding and manipulating the lives of the lower classes. In several ways the paths of these two upper classes intermixed and entwined with each other. But in many, many more ways they were as different as night and day.

The Samurai, at least in the beginning, were the most honorable and loyal class in Japan. Samurai were forced to live in the castle town located along the major trade routs. This kept them close to their lords and allowed them to mingle with the commoners in the surrounding villages. Their devotion to their lords was unshakable, and their pride was equally as grandiose. The word 'Samurai' is synonymous with the phrase "One who serves". Although the Samurai received little compensation for their services (which later became a huge problem), the status of 'Samurai' gave them certain inalienable rights within the social strata of Japan.

A good example of this is would be Kirisute Bowmen, or the "Permission to cut down and leave". In so many words this gave the Samurai the right, in any situation, to murder a commoner if he felt that he had been shown disrespect. Another perk of being a Samurai was leniency in the eyes of the law. They weren't totally above the judicial process, but if a commoner and a Samurai committed the same altercation the commoner could receive a punishment as sever as death, while the Samurai would get off with a slap on the wrist comparatively. One thing that the Samurai had in common with the Chinese Scholar Officials was the idea of Confucianism. But since the scholarly abilities were lacking in the Samurai they lacked the clout necessary in the Japanese educated community to spread the ideas.

Across the Sea of Japan there lies the esteemed coast of the rising sun. On these great shores lies the royal blood of the Chinese dynasties. One of the most esteemed positions a Chinese man could attain was that of a Scholar Official. Though you needed not to be a rich man, the one requirement was to be a well-educated man. To do this he had to pass a series of tests on the ancient ideas of Confucius. Since the position of Scholar Official was such an honorable one it was not uncommon for a man's family to help pay for his education, if he seemed a worthy student.

The goal of a Scholar Official was similar to our Mayor or Senator. They looked over the affairs of states in different regions of China and upheld the ideals of Confucianism. They dealt with merchants and kings alike, overseeing trade and tried to keep everyone 'honest' by spouting the sacred ideas of Confucius.

The idea of the Scholar Official was a good one, but it was very difficult to maintain the image of the good man with so much corruption in the marketplace. Soon the Scholar Officials began to realize the power of their positions. The temptation of money and wealth began to corrupt their ideals. Pacts were formed with local merchants, giving them certain trading privileges if the local Scholar Officials were allow a portion of the profits. This continued for many years, weakening the Chinese economy and severely corrupting the government and soiling the families honor. The ideas of Confucius were becoming nothing more that a thin veil to obscure the corruption of the Chinese government, a fate that was to befall the Samurai as well.

Back in Japan there was an economic crisis brewing. The feudal lords had spent themselves into depression. Deeply involved in debt the Daikyo looked round for a new source of money. They ended up borrowing money from their Samurai. This in turn left the Samurai with little to support themselves. This strained relations between the Samurai and their lords. Growing stress gradually ate into their idealism and consumed their pride. They dispensed with their hereditary retainers, who should have lead their horses and carried their spears in a time of war. And hired townsmen as servants, often first extracting a money payment. The most needy of the Samurai committed infanticide when their families became too large to support. Others would displace their natural heirs and adopt the son of a wealthy commoner if they could get the father to pay handsomely for this privilege. This all was extremely significant for it meant the Samurai class no longer prided itself. By the end of the Tokugawa period it was not uncommon for a commoner to purchase the rank of Samurai. This signified the end of a long and honorable tradition.

The Samurai and the Scholar Officials had many things in common, their rise to power and reichousness among the men with which they lived. They're shining lives and dark deaths, and their fall from the grace of the people. They were a sign of their times, to be blown away by the sands of time, and washed into the history books.

Sansom, G.B., Japan: A short Cultural History, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Copyright 1974


Chie Nakane & Shinzabaro Oishi, Tokugawa Japan, University of Tokyo Japan, Copyright 1990


Fairbank-Reischauer-Craig, East Asia: Transition and Transformation, Revised Edition, Harvard University, Copyright 1989

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