The District Magistrate

An imperial civil servant's badge of rank. There were nine grades; grade one being the most senior; the peacock denotes grade three.

The county (xian) was the basic unit of imperial rule throughout most of Chinese history. It is governed by an official usually known as a district magistrate who, as well as being a judge, was responsible for local security, tax collection, and conscription for labour and military service. Like his superior, the provincial governor, he attended all important local religious ceremonies.

The district magistrate's office, the yamen, was always in a walled county town and was itself surrounded by walls and guarded by soldiers. The magistrate was aided by clerks and servants called "yamen runners' and had to be on good terms with the local scholar-gentry. Special handbooks reminded him of his moral duties - to protect the people and be sympathetic to them - and gave practical hints on the law and other matters. To diminish the danger of nepotism or corruption, a magistrate was never posted to his or his wife's native district.

From China: The Land of the Heavenly Dragon edited by Professor Edward L. Shaughnessy