Late Qing novels have been hailed for their carnivalesque exposure of bureaucratic corruption. But to simply subsume the fictional description of the officialdom under the term “corruption” may miss its historiographic significance. Qing historians who focus on the statutory institutions of bureaucratic recruitment and their constitutional reforms after 1906 easily overlook the fact that being an official was not an occupation but a social status and neglect the fluid and ever changing bureaucratic landscape that emerged in the wake of the mid-nineteenth century civil wars. The novels by Li Boyuan and others allow a glimpse into this world. Even as official status had become almost completely venal, it continued to command supreme social capital. The protagonists navigate careers riddled with uncertainty and risk, patronage and bribery, to obtain one of the rare spots in the statutory bureaucracy, even as new employment opportunities have opened up in the provincial bureaucracies or, outside the status system, modern business. But merchants are not the heroes of this world. It is exactly the tenacity of the old social value system that the authors are so desperate to expose, as it draws away talent and economic capital from more productive occupations and investments. The novels become agents in the political discourse by creating a moral panic and pushing forward the fledgling dynastic reforms. Citing exemplary stories from the novels together with archival sources, this paper will explore the historicity of the fictional accounts and their meaning from the perspective of late Qing reformers.