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Rise of the bureaucrats

Shengguan Tu is a board game from a millennium ago that charts players’ rise through the many layers of Chinese bureaucracy.

China is pretty big, and it has a lot of people. You knew this already, I presume. Throughout much of its history the Chinese government has required a large and capable network of officials to keep everything running smoothly, and historically these officials have been selected through exams.

The imperial examinations are a topic unto themselves – they were in fact the first national examinations in history – but the most successful candidates were granted the role of mandarin and entered the imperial bureaucracy. Once in the system, they could move up and down the ranks based on skill, competence, connections, and bribery.

Some time around the 800s CE, someone decided to make this into a board game: Shengguan Tu, or the Table of Bureaucratic Promotion. Players begin with no rank and a little money, and by the luck of the dice and the judicious application of cash they are promoted through the ranks on the board. It worked as a way to introduce young men to the imperial examination system, and also as a gambling game.

Pretty much every source I can find describes it as a cross between Monopoly and Snakes and Ladders. That’s not a great sign, by the way, because those board games are considered by aficionados to be two of the worst board games in history.

The imperial examinations died with the end of the Chinese Empire (although similar examinations still take place in China and Taiwan), but Shengguan Tu remains popular. The rules are… quite variable, and open to local interpretation. I cannot seem to find a good set of rules in English online. Anyone know where I could get them?

Categories: Arts & recreation Asia Education Games & sport History Medieval history Places Politics & law

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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