What Was The Local Political System in Ancient China?

In ancient China, the local political system mainly included the System of Prefectures and Counties and the Local Gentry System (xiang shen zhi), aiming to centralize the political power, the emperor’s supremacy, and the smooth implementation of government decrees.

The System of Prefectures and Counties was formed along with the centralization of the political system. In order to achieve effective control over localities, ancient Chinese monarchs set up this two-tier local administrative system with the prefectures governing the counties. It was established during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods, then implemented nationwide after the unification of China in the Qin dynasty, and basically inherited by successive dynasties.

During the Spring and Autumn Periods, after the annexation of other small states, Qin and Chu, in order to facilitate governance and administration, stopped distributing land to the royal descendants and meritorious officials and set up counties where the emperors directly appointed local officials to perform governance. As the number of counties increased, the tax revenue and military resources of the state were greatly enhanced, and the national power was strengthened as well. Subsequently, other states copied the system, thus making it popular. In contrast, the prefectures emerged much later.

After the establishment of a unified country in the Qin Dynasty, the First Emperor of Qin convened his ministers to discuss the issue of local administration. There were two main representative views among the ministers at that time. The first view, represented by Wang Wan, strongly advocated the Enfeoffment System, which granted rewards to the sons of the emperor, royal clans, and meritorious officials to govern a remote area to ensure the stability of the country. The other view, represented by Li Si, greatly recommended the System of Prefectures and Counties, in which the emperor directly appointed local officials to facilitate his rule. Qin Shi Huang thought that the Enfeoffment System tended to cause regional separatist regimes and was harmful to the country’s stability, so he finally decided to adopt Li Si’s suggestion and implement the System of Prefectures and Counties throughout the country. During the Qin Dynasty, the country was divided into 36 prefectures, which were later increased to more than 40, and each prefecture was composed of several counties and had three governors of the prefect (jun shou), lieutenant (jun wei), and supervisor (jun jian). The prefect was the head of the prefecture and mainly responsible for managing the administrative affairs, the supervisor oversaw the administrative affairs of the prefecture, and the lieutenant assisted the prefect and was in charge of the military affairs.

Regarding the number of households, counties with more than 10, 000 households were considered large ones, and those below the number were small ones. The county magistrate (xian ling) was in charge of the whole county’s security, criminal lawsuits, taxation, and servitude. Under the magistrate, there was a magistrate assistant (xian cheng)responsible for managing the clerical, warehouse, and prison affairs, and a county lieutenant (xian wei) in charge of military affairs. All officials of prefectures and counties were appointed and dismissed by the central government and were paid by the court. The abolition of the hereditary system facilitated the strengthening of the ruling of the central government over the localities. The prefectures and counties’ administrative, military, and supervisory powers were separated to avoid the local governors from arrogating all powers to themselves and ensure the localities were under the jurisdiction of the central government, thus helping to maintain local stability and national unity. The System of Prefectures and Counties created by the Qin government was inherited by successive dynasties, with only a few changes in terms of its administrative formations and specific names. This system had a far-reaching influence on the history of ancient Chinese political systems.

During the early Han Dynasty, both the System of Prefectures and Counties and the Enfeoffment System co-existed. Liu Bang, Emperor Gaozu of Han, believed that the abolition of the Enfeoffment System contributed to the downfall of the Qin Dynasty. Therefore, he enfeoffed a large number of the royal sons and distinguished officials to find their vassal states. At that time, the vassal states took up almost half of the territory of the Han Dynasty. With the recovery and development of the socio-economy and the growing strength of the vassal states, they gradually alienated themselves from the central government and posed a severe threat to the central authority. Soon, Emperor Gaozu began to replace vassal lords who were not part of the royal lineage with royal descendants. During the reigns of Emperor Wen and Emperor Jing, the land and administrative power of the vassal states was reduced to the minimum. It was only during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han that this issue of vassal states was largely resolved. The minister of the time, Zhufu Yan (?-126 BC), suggested Emperor Wu implement the Decree of Imperial Favors (tui en ling), which allowed vassal lords to divide their fiefs among their sons at their own discretion rather than only to their first son born to their legal wife, thus establishing smaller vassal states. This decree was ostensibly an imperial favor, but it actually divided the vassal states into smaller pieces, thereby strengthening centralization.

In the Han Dynasty, prefectures were the center of local administration. There were more than 100 prefectures in the Han Dynasty, each of which had the jurisdiction of 10 to 20 counties, and there were about 1, 000counties nationwide. There were four types of prefectures in the Han Dynasty, including central prefectures, common prefectures, border prefectures, and vassal states, together with the Protectorate of the Western Regions, which was an administrative division on the same level as prefectures. The central prefectures covered the capital and the neighboring areas, with a higher status than other prefectures. The common prefectures were in the interior of the country, mainly responsible for ruling the people, and the border prefectures were in the border areas, focusing on managing the soldiers and garrisoning the borders. For the vassal states, the vassal lords stayed in the capital with the states governed by their chancellors (xiang), and they served the same administrative function as the prefects. In the Han Dynasty, there was a prefect (tai shou)in a prefecture with great power in charge of administration, finance, justice, and part of military affairs. Since the prefects played a vital role in handling local affairs, they were appointed and selected with great consideration. Under the leadership of the prefects, there was a prefecture lieutenant in charge of military affairs, and a prefecture assistant and chief secretary assisting the prefects in handling financial affairs, civil affairs, litigation, and other political affairs. There were counties under the prefecture, which were the basic units for implementing and enforcing the policies of the central government, and county magistrates, magistrate assistants, and county lieutenants were set up to assist in civil and military affairs in the counties.

During the Wei, Jin, Southern, and Northern dynasties (220-589), the local administrative system remained highly messy and complicated due to the turbulent political situation. After the reunification of the country in the Sui Dynasty, the three-level administrative system of districts(zhou), prefectures (jun), and counties (xian) was implemented in local areas. Minister Yang Shangxi (539-590) noticed that the numerous districts and prefectures across the country and the overwhelming number of local officials led to financial strain on the country, so he suggested that Emperor Wen of Sui reduce the number of districts and prefectures. Accepting this suggestion, Emperor Wen abolished the prefectures and implemented a two-level system of districts and counties. Later, Emperor Yang (569-618) of Sui abolished the districts and restored the two-level system of prefectures and counties. He regained the right to appoint the administrators of the prefectures and counties and their subordinate officials and asked the Ministry of Officials to assess the local governors. Meanwhile, there were also requirements on the native place of the local governors, as magistrates and the county lieutenants should not be native to the counties they ruled. They had to be rotated every three or four years, and those who had already been appointed could not serve again. In addition, the government also separated the military authority and the civil authority, making the prefect in charge of civil affairs and the prefecture lieutenant in charge of military affairs. Through this reform, the centralization of power was greatly strengthened.

During the Tang Dynasty, the two-level system of prefectures and counties was still adopted. The prefectures were divided into the upper, middle, and lower levels according to the number of households. Those with more than 100, 000 households were upper prefectures, those within the range of 20,000 to 100, 000 households were middle ones, and those with less than 20,000 households were lower ones. Similar to the prefectures, the counties were also classified into three corresponding levels. Those with more than 6, 000 households were called upper counties, those within the range of 3,000 to 6, 000 households were middle counties, and those below 3, 000were lower ones. The prefectures occupied a significant position in the local administrative system of the Tang Dynasty, and the governor of a prefecture was the regional inspector. The emperor attached great importance to the selection and appointment of the regional inspectors. For instance, Emperor Taizong of Tang recorded the names of the regional inspectors on the screen and repeatedly checked them to promote and appoint suitable candidates to higher positions. Evidently, the emperors of the Tang attached great importance to cultivating the prefecture governors as people-oriented officials and establishing the image of the central government among the local people so as to help maintain political stability.

During the Song Dynasty, the emperors learned from the lessons of the late Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms and implemented a three-level local administration system to strengthen centralization. Circuits (lu) were the highest level of the local authority, the middle level of authority was the superior prefectures, ordinary prefectures, military prefectures, and industrial prefectures, and counties were at the lowest level. At the circuit level, there was a military commissioner (jing lue an fu shi) in charge of the military affairs and civil affairs of the whole circuit, and a fiscal and supply commissioner (zhuan yun shi) in charge of the local financial affairs, collecting taxes and submitting them to the central government, which later became an administrative officer with increasing authority. Besides, the position of judicial commissioner (ti dian xing yu) was set up to be in charge of litigation, and a supply commissioner (ti ju chang ping) was appointed to be responsible for managing the disaster relief provisions and agricultural water conservancy. The central government assigned these four officials to supervise and command the local military, political, judicial, and fiscal affairs, and they supervised and checked each other to facilitate the emperor’s rule. Below the circuits were the superior prefectures, ordinary prefectures, military prefectures, and industrial prefectures, all of which were directly under the central government’s jurisdiction. These prefectures were governed by prefects, who were all appointed and removed by the central government. In order to prevent military officials from taking over the military power and causing separate regimes, the governors of the prefectures were generally taken up by civil officials. During the Song Dynasty, counties were also divided into superior counties, ordinary counties, military counties, and industrial counties according to the number of households and were governed by county magistrates, who were responsible for handling all county affairs.

An important change in the local administrative system of the Yuan Dynasty was the establishment of the Administrative Provincial System(xing sheng zhi). After the country was unified again, the Yuan government set up the Department of State Affairs in accordance with the Jin Dynasty to better govern the vast territory. Later, the Department of State Affairs was merged into the Secretariat, and then the local administration of the whole country was renamed as the Branch Secretariat, or simply the Administrative Province or Province. Since then, a four-level local administrative system of provinces, circuits, prefectures, and counties was formed during the Yuan Dynasty. The officials of the provinces were appointed by the central government and had the power to handle political affairs on behalf of it. As a development of the System of Prefectures and Counties, the Administrative Provincial System was adopted by the Ming and Qing dynasties and exerted a significant influence on the local administrative system of ancient China.

Since Qin Shi Huang implemented the System of Prefectures and Counties throughout the country, this local administrative system was adopted by successive dynasties. In particular, the name of the “county” has been passed down to the present day. This system underwent the least change among ancient Chinese political systems, mainly because it facilitated the central government to effectively control localities, strengthen centralized power, and conduct direct rule over localities. However, in the operation of this system, there were always strained relations between the central government and the localities. The central government centralized power and achieved effective rule, jurisdiction, and supervision over the localities, while the localities desired greater administrative autonomy. In order to maintain centralized power, successive emperors had always taken various measures to limit local power, prevent local forces from becoming too powerful and alienating from the central government, and ensure the full implementation of the central government’s orders. On the whole, this system served to strengthen the power of the supreme ruler and ensure the central government’s effective jurisdiction over localities. However, it resulted in many restrictions on the exercise of power by local administrations, which prevented them from exercising their full authority and led to less motivation in administration.

In ancient China, the grassroots governance relied partly on the Local Gentry System. The local gentry was a special class formed in the complex history of ancient Chinese society and was mainly composed of scholars who failed in the imperial examinations, educated landlords, officials who lived in their hometowns for a long time due to retirement or recuperation, and patriarchs of clans. Some of the local gentries were respected by the local people because of their high reputation for virtue and were known as local sages.

The ancient Chinese Imperial Examination System was a key driving factor in the formation of the local gentry class. Under the Imperial Examination System, the local gentries had the dual status as scholars and officials. In ancient China, the social status was arranged in the order of “scholar, farmer, artisan, and merchant,” and people desiring a higher social status should study hard to pass the Imperial Examination. However, the strict selection and elimination mechanism of the Imperial Examination System prevented many scholars from engaging in the bureaucratic system, so they returned to the countryside, gained the trust of the local people by virtue of their knowledge and prestige, and possessed the right to handle the civil affairs, which was tantamount to serving as officials. Therefore, these scholars who failed in the Imperial Examinations constituted a vital part of the local gentry.

The Local Gentry System played an important role in ancient rural society management. They were not officials and therefore did not possess real administrative power, but they had greater authority in rural governance. In ancient China, the emperorism could only extend to the counties. Therefore, the local gentry maintained the rural areas’ social order and assumed indispensable social management functions with gentry and clan organization as the core. Local officials had the legal authority to govern local affairs, but they often had to take important advice from the local gentry. The local officials appointed by the imperial court must mobilize the enthusiasm of the local gentry and rely on their assistance to implement the decrees of the central government effectively. In the traditional grassroots social structure of government, local gentry, and civilians, the local gentry acted as intermediaries between the upper and lower classes. On the one hand, they could convey the ruler’s policies to the public and mobilize the civilians; while on the other hand, they could report public opinions to the government, thus helping the government make more sound decisions. In this sense, the local gentry class bridged the gap between the government and the public to a certain extent and became a crucial force in maintaining social stability at the grassroots level.

The local gentry class had a significant influence on the construction of rural civility. In an ancient agricultural society, this class was well-educated. In order to make the grassroots and the civilians accept the ideological indoctrination from the rulers, they started to use the local convention (xiang yue) to indoctrinate and restrain the people since the Han Dynasty. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the local convention was continuously improved. To edify and guide the rural people and promote stability at the grassroots level, Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty specially formulated and promulgated the Sixteen Ordinances of the Holy Scriptures, which was to be preached every half month in the rural society. However, it could not be accomplished by local officials alone, but it also required the local gentries’ close cooperation. In conveying and implementing instructions from the upper level, the local gentry class proclaimed the social and moral norms advocated by the ruling class, maintained the civility and order of rural society, and served as a social stabilizer at the grassroots level.

As the backbone of rural social governance, the local gentries promoted the implementation of various local public affairs. The government would coordinate the construction of large projects in the countryside, such as road and bridge construction, temple repair, and cross-regional large-scale water conservancy projects, but the actual implementation could not be done without the specific operation of the local gentries. Furthermore, the local gentries also engaged in undertakings of education in the countryside. This class was largely associated with the Imperial Examination System, and some of them even benefited from this system. Based on the importance they attached to the examinations and cultural and educational undertakings, they were often enthusiastic about the development of education by establishing public and private schools. In addition, since they enjoyed a high reputation in rural society, they often mediated and arbitrated disputes among rural neighbors, effectively resolving rural conflicts.

On the whole, in ancient Chinese rural society, although the local gentry class received no legal authority from the rulers, they actually played an important role in managing the countryside and educating the villagers. Serving as both an agent to convey the political intentions of the upper class and a spokesman to reflect the public opinion of the lower class, this class supplemented the lack of local administrative power, filled the gap of imperial power in rural society, and maintained the social order of the grassroots.

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