How Was Ancient China’s Government Run?

Starting from Qin Shi Huang, the emperor held the country’s supreme power and dominated the provincial bureaucracy through the prime minister, firmly controlling the central departments, the local prefectures, and counties. On behalf of the emperor, the local officials exercised administrative power over the provinces, the counties, and the local gentry, thus forming a monarchic country where “one family dominates the whole nation.” Specifically, the central system in ancient China consisted of the Prime Ministerial System (zai xiang zhi du) and the System of Three Departments and Six Ministries (san sheng liu bu). The prime minister was a decisive administrative official second only to the emperor, leading the departments and ministries to manage the country for the emperor.

The prime minister (宰相zai xiang) is the title for the highest official who assisted the emperor in the administration of state affairs in ancient China. The term zai xiang does not refer to any specific official position. In Chinese, the words “zai” and “xiang” mean “domination” and “assistance” respectively, which together make up the term to show the function of the prime minister. The title of “zai xiang” was used as an official name only in the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), while in other dynasties, there were dozens of different official titles to refer to the highest administrative officer second only to the emperor.

The prime minister was a derivative and an appendage of the ancient Chinese imperial system. Despite the fact that the emperors held important administrative, legislative, and judicial powers, they also required a corresponding administrative organization to govern the country. The organization was led by the prime minister or a body with the same function as the prime minister, and it was the executive or executive body directly under the emperor and also served as the senior think tank of the emperor.

During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, the supreme ruler reigned over the country through the Enfeoffment System. The feudal lords administered political affairs within their own feudal states. The supreme ruler generally had no right to interfere with the affairs of the feudal states and the hereditary system of nobility was practiced. Therefore, the Enfeoffment System became increasingly detrimental to the reign of the supreme ruler. After the unification of China, the Qin government abolished the Enfeoffment System, implemented the System of Prefectures and Counties, and governed the country by appointing and dismissing officials rather than by patriarchal kinship, thereby establishing the Prime Ministerial System. The emperor wielded the authority to appoint prime ministers, which was based more on the ability of the candidates to manage the country than on lineage and family background, thus contributing to safeguarding emperorism. During the Qin Dynasty, two prime ministers were classified as the first prime minister (左丞相zuo cheng xiang)and the second prime minister (右丞相you cheng xiang), with the former occupying a higher official position. The prime ministers wielded great power and assisted the emperor in governing the country, enjoying a high political status.

The Prime Ministerial System remained in use during the Han Dynasty, with the prime minister or the first and second prime ministers serving in the position. In the early Han Dynasty, the prime minister was powerful, and his political status was second only to that of the emperor. In order to strengthen the power of the emperor, Emperor Wu took measures to limit the power of the prime minister. During the reign of Emperor Ai (25-1 BC)of Han, he abolished the post of prime minister and replaced it with the grand chancellor (da si tu).

After the country was reunified, based on the experience during the Wei and Jin dynasties, the Three-department System (san sheng zhi) was established by the Sui Dynasty, consisting of the Department of State Affairs (shang shu sheng), the Secretariat (nei shi sheng) and the Chancellery(men xia sheng). The system divided the prime minister’s powers into three departments, thus avoiding the monopoly of the powerful ministers. The Secretariat was responsible for making decisions, the Chancellery for deliberation, and the Department of State Affairs, for execution. The chief executives of the three departments shared the power of the prime minister.

During the Tang Dynasty, the Three-department System of the Sui Dynasty continued with the same division of functions, except that the name of nei shi sheng was revised to zhong shu sheng, which was still mainly responsible for decision-making. In ancient China, the relationship between imperial power and that of the prime minister was always tempestuous. In order to prevent the diminution of imperial power and the monopoly of the prime minister, the Tang government often changed the institution and even the name of the prime minister. In that period, the prime ministers included not only the chief executives of the three departments but also other important officials who were involved in the political affairs of the imperial court. For example, during the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang, Du Yan, the Minister of the Ministry of Officials (li bu), and Wei Zheng, the Librarian of the State (mi shu jian), were able to handle the political affairs and exercised power as prime ministers.

During the Northern Song Dynasty, Emperor Taizu (927-976)learned the lesson of political manipulation by powerful officials in the late Tang Dynasty and reformed the central administration to centralize his power through frequent changes in the institutions with the function of the prime minister and their names. The administrative agency in charge of confidential affairs was mainly the Secretariat. In the case of handling affairs, they were required to present written reports to the emperor for instructions, prepare decrees, and formally issue them to the administrative agencies at all levels only after the emperor’s review and approval. Through this system, the emperor actually took back the decision-making power of the prime minister. In the Song Dynasty, the Commission of Military Affairs (shu mi yuan) was the supreme military organ in charge of national defense, and it occupied the same position as the legislative department. The Commission was in charge of the military registration with the military power, but it could only mobilize the army with the emperor’s approval. At that time, the Commission of Military Affairs ministers were all as powerful as the prime ministers.

During the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), only the Secretariat was set up as an auxiliary agency, and its chief administrative officer was usually occupied by the crown prince, who was in charge of all the officials to handle the political affairs. Within this agency, the first and second prime ministers and another minister enjoyed the same power.

The early Ming Dynasty inherited the system of the Yuan Dynasty and set up the Secretariat, with the first and second prime ministers wielding great power to manage the department and deal with the political affairs of the state. In 1380, Zhu Yuanzhang killed the then Prime Minister Hu Weiyong (?-1380) for “conspiracy to rebel,” abolished the Secretariat and the Prime Ministerial System, and set up six ministries directly under the emperor to deal with the national political affairs, thus forming a trend of convergence of the emperorism and the prime ministerial power. However, the emperor could not deal with the numerous and complex political affairs on his own, so the grand secretary of the Grand Secretariat (nei ge da xue shi) was later set up to act as an adviser to the emperor to collaborate in handling the documents. As the secretaries continued to engage in political affairs, their power became greater, and they were known as the “grand secretary,” holding the prime ministerial power.

The Qing Dynasty followed the system of the Ming Dynasty to retain the Grand Secretariat. However, the grand secretary of the Grand Secretariat was only the highest honorary title for civil officials with no actual power. The real power was held by the Office of the Grand Council (jun ji chu), the central body responsible for handling the military and political affairs of the country. In 1729, Emperor Yongzheng established the Office of the Grand Council to deal with urgent military affairs in the northwest region. It was not a formal institution at first. The military ministers handled important military and political affairs under the instruction of the emperor. Later, it gradually expanded its power and became the highest power center of the state under the direct control of the emperor, and its minister was equivalent to the prime minister.

The Prime Ministerial System occupied an important position in ancient Chinese history and played a positive role in the administration of the state. From the perspective of the politics of the Western Han and Tang dynasties, this system played a better role in the governance of the state. During the relatively stable and prosperous Western Han Dynasty, the emperors made great efforts to govern the country and were assisted by many dedicated prime ministers. It was only by keeping the harmony and unity of emperorism and ministerial power within a specific “order” that such a peaceful and prosperous age could be achieved. In the Western Han and Tang dynasties, the mutual restraint and support of the emperorism and ministerial power contributed to the clean governance of the emperor and the stable development of society. However, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the conflict between emperorism and ministerial power deepened, and the Prime Ministerial System was abolished during the Ming dynasty to strengthen the emperor’s rule. Although the Grand Secretariat was later established, it was not an independent administrative body, and the grand secretaries of the Grand Secretariat mainly served as advisers to the emperor and had no real power. In the Qing Dynasty, the Office of the Grand Council was added and gradually replaced the Grand Secretariat as the center of government affairs, reflecting the increasingly centralized emperorism.

The central institutions of ancient China were embodied in the system of Three Departments and Six Ministries. As an important political system for governing the country in ancient China and a relatively complete and systematic central political system, it originated in the Han Dynasty, got established in the Sui Dynasty, matured in the Tang Dynasty, and remained until the late Qing Dynasty. The “Three Departments” included the Department of State Affairs, the Secretariat, and the Chancellery, while the “Six Ministries” consisted of the Ministry of Officials(li bu), the Ministry of Finance (hu bu), the Ministry of Rites (li bu), the Ministry of Defense (bing bu), the Ministry of Justice (xing bu) and the Ministry of Works (gong bu), all of which were under the Department of State Affairs. The Department of State Affairs was formed during the Eastern Han Dynasty, aiming to check the power of the prime minister and strengthen the ruling of the emperor, while the Secretariat and the Chancellery were established during the Three Kingdoms period, intending to check the power of the Department of State Affairs. This political system evolved over a long time, with different organizational forms and provisions of authority. It was finally settled down and became the central administrative system in the Sui Dynasty, with the main responsibility of formulating, reviewing, and implementing central decrees and policies.

The Department of State Affairs, one of the three central departments, took shape during the Eastern Han Dynasty. In the early Western Han Dynasty, the court’s power was mainly held by the emperor and the central administrative body headed by the prime minister. In order to strengthen his rule, Emperor Wu began to transfer power from the outer court to the inner court and appointed Minister Steward (shao fu shang shu) to assist him in handling the documents and memorials. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, the emperor made changes to the original system of Three Councilors and Nine Ministers (san gong jiu qing) to reduce the prime minister’s power. Although the three councilors held high positions, the power they actually held had been drastically reduced, and the highest decision-making power over internal political affairs was transferred to the emperor alone. At the same time, the ministers of the Department of State Affairs often assisted the emperor in the management of documents and participated in internal political affairs. Their functions and powers were expanded, with their status being enhanced.

After China was unified in the Sui Dynasty, the system of Three Departments and Six Ministries was formally established and implemented as a central administrative body. The three departments, including the Department of State Affairs, the Secretariat, and the Chancellery, were the highest central government institutions, jointly responsible for handling central government affairs. Among them, the Secretariat was responsible for making decisions, the Chancellery for deliberation, and the Department of State Affairs, for execution. The three departments worked in cooperation with mutual checks and balances, and were jointly responsible to the emperor, thus facilitating the centralized rule of the emperor.

The Tang government improved the system of the Three Departments and Six Ministries of the Sui Dynasty and specifically divided the responsibilities of the departments and ministries. In that period, the six ministries, covering the Ministry of Officials, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Rites, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Works, were set up in addition to the three departments. Compared with that of the Sui dynasty, the functions and powers of the Secretariat of the Tang dynasty were more clearly defined and relatively centralized. The Secretariat was responsible for drafting central policies and documents, drawing up and approving submissions from officials at all levels and participating in various important events held by the court. The Chancellery had the important functions of reviewing documents, participating in the administration of the highest affairs, and correcting the faults of the imperial government. It exercised the authority to review the edicts drafted by the Secretariat and had the power to return and refute them and request the Secretariat to redraft them if they were considered inappropriate or inconvenient to implement. As the highest administrative agency of the central government, the Department of State Affairs could participate in political affairs and was mainly responsible for the issuance, implementation, and execution of the central government’s orders. It issued all decisions made by the emperor, the Secretariat, and the Chancellery to the local administrative agencies for implementation through the six ministries. The six ministries and twenty-four divisions under the Department of State Affairs were in charge of the state’s administrative affairs. Among them, the Ministry of Officials was responsible for the appointment, dismissal, reassignment, and examination of officials; the Ministry of Finance was in charge of national finance, taxation, and civil affairs; the Ministry of Rites managed rituals, schools, ceremonies, court visits, and foreign affairs. Besides, the Ministry of Defense was responsible for selecting military officials, military orders, military registration, and military training; the Ministry of Justice was in charge of national penal decrees and review of major cases; the Ministry of Works handled engineering and construction matters.

During the Song Dynasty, the Three-department System was merely nominal and gradually evolved into one department. The Secretariat, the Commission of Military Affairs, and the Three Bureaus (san si) were set up to manage administrative, military, and financial affairs, respectively. In this way, the prime minister’s power was drastically reduced and taken by the Commission of Military Affairs and the Three Bureaus. Under this administrative system, the three parties had equal functions and powers. In order to strengthen centralization, a system of separation of official titles and actual functions was implemented, whereby officials could not manage the affairs of their ministries unless the emperor assigned them. As a result, many officials of the imperial court were occupied with nothing, and there were duplicated authorities at all levels with unprecedentedly large structures. However, it was beneficial for the emperor to directly control the power of selecting officials so that he could appoint talented officials of lower rank to important positions and remove incompetent ones at any time. In the Song Dynasty, all official positions were basically temporary and were honorary titles, and they could only become powerful officials when they were in key departments and served the emperor or received important missions.

During the Yuan Dynasty, the Secretariat was in charge of state affairs with high status and great authority, which was the central institution controlled by the emperor and managed by other officials. The Department of State Affairs was abolished from time to time, and the Chancellery was no longer set up, making the Secretariat much more powerful and influential than in previous generations. The early Ming Dynasty followed the system of the Yuan Dynasty. The Secretariat was retained to manage the six ministries and was managed by the first and second prime ministers as the highest officials. In 1380, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang abolished the Secretariat and the Prime Ministerial System through the case of Hu Weiyong’s conspiracy to rebel, and then the six ministries were directly managed by the emperor. Since then, the Three-department System was utterly abolished, while the Six-ministry System continued until the end of the Qing Dynasty.

In general, the creation of the system of Three Departments and Six Ministries was beneficial to the division of labor and cooperation in the administration of the state under the emperor’s domination. The Three Departments worked in cooperation with each other and played the role of mutual checks and balances and supervision of power, thereby improving the administrative power of the central government and the effectiveness of state governance. The system ultimately facilitated the strengthening of centralized power, marking a significant innovation of the administrative system in ancient China.

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