This essay is a first attempt at examining the origins and development of Chinese complaint systems before 1900, so as to understand the nature and character of this institution in historical perspective. The essay argues that the Chinese complaint system originated as an informal system in the pre-Han period and developed gradually from the late Han to the Sui. The Tang first institutionalized such a system and distinguished three major forms of complaints: direct, jumping, and gradual appeals. Subsequent states generally followed the Tang model but also made significant changes. Chinese rulers, deeply influenced by the Confucian concept of minben (people as the foundation of the state) and by notions of heaven-human interaction (tianren ganying), tended to accept illegal appeals no matter how annoying they were for fear that any grievance might prompt heavenly punishments, while complainants regarded their appeals as a natural right no matter how useless they were. In this way, the complaint system become a hot potato for rulers that was too hot to hold but too valuable to drop.
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