What Were The Supervision Systems in Ancient China?

In ancient China, the Imperial Examination System was highly compatible with the feudal ideology; the disciplinary inspection system and the impeachment system aimed to keep a clean political administration; the Merit Rating System focused on anti-corruption and governance of virtue. All the systems provided a sufficient guarantee for ensuring honest and clean governance, the implementation of the central government’s policies and decisions, and steady development of the country for thousands of years, thus making China one of the few world’s thousand-year civilizations. The following is an introduction to the three ancient Chinese supervision systems for officials, namely, the impeachment system, the disciplinary inspection system, and the Merit Rating System.

The impeachment system in Ancient China

Lord John Acton, the British historian, once pointed out, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In ancient China, the purpose of implementing the impeachment system in the central government was to prevent the abuse of power. The imperial censors of all levels were responsible for supervising the officials, and the remonstrators (谏官jian guan) were those who advised the emperor when doing something wrong. After the Song Dynasty, the two kinds of supervising officials began to merge. Since then, with the development of feudal autocracy, the function of the impeachment system to supervise all officials became more prominent, intending to ensure that all officials were diligent and uncorrupted and dedicated to the emperor, thus further strengthening imperial power.

The remonstrators were officials who advised the emperor of his faults. According to legend, during the reign of Emperor Shun, there was a position of “纳言na yan” (adviser). As the embryonic form of the re-monstrator, this kind of official could report directly to the emperor. During the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods, the office was named directly after “谏jian” (admonishment). In the Qin Dynasty, the grand censor was set up to be responsible for “advising and remonstration.” After China was unified, in order to ensure the healthy operation and long-term stability of the unified state, Qin Shi Huang paid more attention to the construction of the supervising function of censors, thus building a relatively complete system of administrative supervision, namely, the Three Councilors and Nine Ministers. The “Three Councilors” were the prime minister, the general-in-chief, and the grand censor. The grand censor was the vice prime minister responsible for supervising officials at all levels. At the local level, the system of prefectures and counties was established, and each prefecture had a supervising censor whose duty was to monitor local officials on behalf of the emperor. In this way, Qin built a two-tier supervision system, focusing on central supervision, aiming to utilize the grand censor’s supervisory power to restrict the prime minister’s executive power and ensure that all officials performed well.

After the death of Qin Shi Huang, just a few years, this empire suddenly collapsed because of the dictatorship of imperial power and excessive taxation. The quick rise and rapid fall of the Qin government greatly shocked the later rulers. Therefore, the Han Dynasty attached great importance to the role of the remonstrators in correcting the errors of the rulers and their policies. In the Western Han Dynasty, the “Three Councilors” system was continued, but the grand censor as the vice prime minister was no longer responsible for supervision. By the end of the Han Dynasty, the office of grand censor was renamed the attorney general. On the other hand, the Censorate (yu shi tai) gradually became independent, and the grand censor, as the highest official in the court, executed the power of supervision independently. As the institution and its personnel became independent, its limits of supervisory authority and affairs became more and more diversified. First, it investigated whether there was any abuse of power or dereliction in officials; second, it supervised whether the court’s rituals were respected and observed; third, it monitored whether the judiciary was in accordance with the regulations. In 192 BC, the specialized supervision regulation, the Nine Rules for Supervision of Censor, was introduced, which had an important position in the history of ancient Chinese supervision.

In the Tang Dynasty, the censor-centered supervising system became more stringent. The Censorate was the highest supervisory institution, and under it were the Headquarters Bureau (台院tai yuan), the Palace Bureau(殿院dian yuan), and the Investigation Bureau (察院cha yuan), forming the “One Censorate with Three Bureaus” system of supervision. According to The Administrative Law of the Tang Dynasty, these institutions had strong coordination under a clear division of labor. The Law specified the quota, official ranks, and authority of the Censorate and its relationship with other government organs. At the same time, The Law of the Tang Dynasty was the major legal basis for censors to perform their duties. To ensure that the supervising censors had laws to follow when they went out on disciplinary inspections, the government also formulated a more comprehensive inspection law, namely TheSix Rules for Inspection.

The censor-centered supervising system then was also relatively complete. Because of the complete refusal and rejection system and the full-time team of censors, the system of the remonstrators became a vital part of the ruling mechanism. There were three departments in the administrative structure: the State Council, the Ministry of Supervision, and the Council of Imperial Advisors, and the chief officials of the three departments served as the prime ministers. Most of the supervising works was done by the officials from the Ministry of Supervision and the Council of Imperial Advisors.

The supervisory organization of the Song Dynasty inherited that of the Tang Dynasty, with the integration of the Censorate and the Remonstrance Bureau. Before the Song, the two institutions were separate, but since then, both the Remonstrance Bureau and the Censorate had the power of supervision and impeachment. The remonstrators could impeach officials, while the censors could also exercise the power of remonstrance. Gradually, these two types of officials became indistinguishable from each other and were jointly called the “Censorate and Remonstrance (台谏tai jian),” which weakened the function of bluntly remonstrating and correcting the emperor’s faults. In addition, the contradictions between the remonstrators and the prime minister, and between the Remonstrance Bureau and the government were becoming increasingly intense. Initially, the remonstrators were coordinators between the power of the emperor and the power of the prime minister – the emperor appointed the prime minister, the latter selected the remonstrators, and the remonstrators advised the emperor. But after the expansion of the power of the remonstrators and the emergence of “Censorate and Remonstrance,” the contradiction between the Remonstrance Bureau and the government arose, changing the main mission and the initial purpose of the system –remonstrators were not to restrain the emperor but to supervise the prime ministers. After the remonstrators held the power of supervision, a situation in which all the officials were supervised jointly by censors and remonstrators was formed. However, no one admonished the emperor; thus, the prime minister could no longer express opinions to the emperor through censors and remonstrators. Instead, they became a constraint on the government.

The emperors of the Ming Dynasty strengthened the centralization of power by abolishing the office of the prime minister and replacing the Censorate with the Chief Surveillance Bureau(都察院du cha yuan), especially the word du means foremost and overall. Under the Chief Surveillance Bureau, local investigating censorates were set up in every dao (a supervisory region in ancient China: 13 in the Ming Dynasty and 15 in the Qing Dynasty). Although the official rank of these censors was not high, generally ranked 7, they had great power.

After the office of the prime minister was abolished by the Ming government, its authority of administration was shared by six newly-established ministries, i.e., 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. Thereout, another supervision system that was independent of the Chief Surveillance Bureau was established. These two overlapping systems were known collectively as “integrated supervision of the administration and supervising institution,” forming a crisscrossed network of power supervision, which was conducive to selecting, appointing, and evaluating officials for the Ming and Qing governments.

Unlike the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances in the West, the distinctive Censorate and Remonstrance system, with profound cultural and historical traditions, was an important part of the exercise of power and governance in ancient China. Whether it was the design of the supervisory system, the improvement of the supervisory institutions, the appointment of supervisors, or the creation of the supervisory legal system, functioned to varying degrees at the time to restrain power, clarify official governance, and reduce corruption.

The disciplinary inspection system in Ancient China

The second system is the disciplinary inspection system. It is a system in which the supreme ruler, the emperor, sent officials to localities on a regular or temporary basis to conduct comprehensive inspections to see if the local governments followed the instructions so as to monitor all officials, fight against corruption, detect illegality, and punish evil. Sprouted in the era of Yao, Shun, and Yu, established in the Qin and Han dynasties, completed in the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties, and sophisticated and strengthened in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, the disciplinary inspection system had been passed down from generation to generation.

As early as the pre-historical period of Yao, Shun, and Yu, a top-down inspection already appeared. The supreme ruler personally inspected the situation, political performance, and agricultural production of feudal states and tribes to urge local officials to work hard. It was conducive to maintaining inter-tribal order, strengthening the control over vassal states and tribes, and promoting the stability and coordination of central and local relations. However, disciplinary inspections in the pre-Qin period did not develop into regular institutionalized activities.

During the Qin and Han dynasties, it became the norm for emperors to inspect localities. In addition to the regular inspection, imperial envoys would be sent to localities on a temporary basis, with strong motivations, to handle wrong verdicts and examine the judiciary, or to comfort the people and inspect civil affairs. During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, the system of Regional Inspector (刺史ci shi) was created, which set a precedent for central supervisory officials to supervise the localities through inspection. Emperor Wu divided the country into thirteen bu (a supervisory region in ancient China) and set up a regional inspector in each one. As a full-time supervisory official, the regional inspector inspected the malfeasance of prefectural governors, chancellors, and feudal kings. With the central government’s clear and systematic stipulation of objects, ranges, and methods, this mechanism became one of the signs marking the formation of the ancient inspection system. In addition, the Han central government also created a system of local inspection. The post of the prefectural inspector (督邮du you) was added to the original supervisory system, which was subordinate to the prefectural governors and in charge of the supervision of local officials.

During the Three Kingdoms and the Jin dynasties, the Censorate was gradually independent of other institutions and, as the “spies of the emperor,” directly supervised all the political affairs in the country. By the Northern and Southern dynasties, the Censorate became a supervisory body directly under the emperor. Later on, the Censorate system was continued in the Sui Dynasty, and the investigating censors were sent to inspect prefectures and counties on behalf of the emperor to maintain the centralization of authority. In the Sui Dynasty, the tribunal of the Inspection Bureau (司隶台si li tai) and Reception Bureau (谒者台ye zhe tai) were built to cooperate with the Censorate, further strengthening the inspection system. In addition, a relatively complete system of inspection laws and regulations as established by promulgating the Six Regulations on Inspection of the Sui Dynasty and the Law of the Sui Dynasty.

With the increasing centralization of power, the disciplinary inspection system developed significantly in the early Tang Dynasty. First, as we mentioned before, the Headquarters Bureau, the Palace Bureau, and the Investigation Bureau were set up under the central Censorate, and the Investigation Bureau was responsible for local inspections. In the “One Censorate with Three Bureaus” system, the responsibilities of each department were clear, and the regulations were complete, forming a systematic inspection system at the central and local levels, which was followed by all subsequent dynasties. Second, in order to make up for the irregular inspection of the Censorate, the “regular inspection” (分道巡按fen dao xun an) system was established, in which the censorial inspector (巡按xun an)was dispatched from the dynastic capital on routine inspection tours of government agencies in a specified circuit (道dao). It was a regular inspection system for the central government to inspect localities, and the censorial inspector could be investigating censors or administrative officials. Inspecting on behalf of the monarch, they had great power. However, this system was undermined around the An-shi Rebellion (755-763) (安史之乱an shi zhi luan), so the inspection tour in Tang developed in a diversified and multi-faceted manner. To strengthen the central government’s control over local regions, the Tang government had no choice but to open up new ways of inspection, such as sending out imperial envoys and fiscal and supply commissioners to supervise localities.

The disciplinary inspection system in the Sui and Tang dynasties was a paragon for later generations. Among them, dao, as the basic territorial unit for inspection, was widely adopted in the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The fact that the fiscal and supply commissioner participated in inspection activities provided a reference for the Circuit Supervisors (jian si)system in the Song Dynasty. And the ten-dao and fifteen-dao“censor-on-tour” systems provided a model of the disciplinary inspection for Ming and Qing governments.

The Song government held a lot of power in local inspection, and there was a situation where the inspection department and the administrative department were annexed into one, so they included many related institutions and a huge staff. Officials such as fiscal and supply commissioners, deputy fiscal and supply commissioners, fiscal and supply commissioner assistants (转运判官zhuan yun pan guan), judicial commissioners (提点刑狱ti dian xing yu), and the commissioners of civil affairs (提举常平ti ju ping chang) all had the responsibility of inspecting officials in their jurisdictions, which made the inspection work increasingly specialized and professional. For example, Song Ci (1186-1249), who served as a judicial commissioner in Guangdong, Hunan, and other areas, wrote Records for Washing Away of Wrong Cases, pioneering Forensic Identification, and is respected as the father of world forensic medicine.

In the Yuan Dynasty, the disciplinary inspection system was further strengthened. In 1291, the Judicial Commission (提刑按察司ti xing an cha si) was renamed the Surveillance Commission (肃政廉访司su zheng lian fang si). According to the regulations, the Surveillance Commissioners were responsible for conducting interrogations and audits relating to civil affairs, people’s livelihood, and official malpractice and examining the official’s performance in the multi-level administrative regions under their jurisdiction. At that time, China was divided into 22 inspection areas. In addition, the Branch Censorates (行御史台xing yu shi tai) was set up in the regions south of the Yangtze River and Shaanxi as the agency of the central Censorate to better maintain the authority of the central government and its control over the 22 inspection areas.

The Ming and Qing dynasties continued the diversification of the inspection system since the Tang and Song dynasties with more stringent inspection and supervision systems. Generally speaking, inspectors in Ming and Qing dynasties affiliated with three independent systems: the special commissioners and the censorial inspectors were led by the investigating censor system. The surveillance commissioners belonged to the Surveillance Commission system. And the Supreme Commander (总督zong du) and the inspecting pacifier (巡抚xun fu, grand coordinator in Ming, the provincial governor in Qing) were affiliated with the 督抚du fu (abbreviation of zong du and xun fu) system.

After Emperor Chengzu (1360-1424) of Ming came to the throne, he formally established the Regional Inspection System, with more than 100investigating censors in 13 provinces, from which the regional censors (巡按御史xun an yu shi) were selected to inspect the local areas on behalf of the emperor. Whenever a major event occurred in localities, the ruler sent a high-ranking censor-in-chief (都御史du yu shi) with a specified title to handle it. Sometimes the officers exercised supervisory power, and sometimes they managed administrative and civil affairs, so they were called the “pacification commissioners (巡抚xun fu).” At first, they were dispatched on a temporary basis, but later on, the dispatch was fixed, which manifested the strengthening and maturity of the imperial inspection system. In addition, provincial surveillance commissions were set up in each province, responsible for supervisory administration of judicial and penal matters and, as the branch institution of the central supervisory organs, for regular censorial surveillance over the regions and officialdom. The Qing Dynasty inherited the system from Ming, in which the investigating censors and the surveillance commissioners jointly inspected local areas.

By comparison, Western countries also had an inspection system with a different philosophy and political function, but it emerged quite late. The inspection system in ancient China, on the one hand, was an effective way for the central government to strengthen the control and supervision of localities and their officials, holding a crucial position in realizing political integrity. On the other hand, it provided the basis for the emperor to understand localities’ real situations and make sound decisions, becoming an essential part of the central decision-making system. Therefore, it played a significant role in ancient Chinese political life, and some of its practices still offer references for the construction of modern political civilization.

The Merit Rating System in Ancient China

The Merit Rating System of officials was created for evaluating the officials’ performance. In ancient China, “all officials must be interrogated and examined,” that is to say, officials were regularly examined and evaluated according to related standards and procedures. They were rated, rewarded, or punished based on the results, also called merit rating (考绩kao ji).

Although the appellation of the Merit Rating System varied in different periods, its basic content included the same aspects of the rating standards, procedures, rewards, and punishments. As a regular system in ancient China, it was created and developed with the gradual establishment of the state.

According to historical records, the Merit Rating System first appeared in the period of Emperor Shun. At that time, every three years, Shun would evaluate the tribal leaders. After three evaluations, he would decide on the rewards, punishments, promotion, and demotion, discovering wise and competent officials and putting them in important positions and dismissing fatuous and incompetent ones.

The Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties were governed under the hereditary system. Under the control of the lineage system, the empire was organized by the principle of unity of kinship and nobility. During this period, especially the Zhou Dynasty, there were many regional dukes, so the supreme ruler adopted a combination of “inspection” and “presentation before the emperor” to assess their performance. The former referred to the emperor’s top-down inspection of the feudal states and localities; the latter was the regular bottom-up reporting by the affiliated alliance leaders to the emperor.

During the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods, the bureaucratic system gradually replaced the hereditary system, so how to evaluate and appoint or remove officials was critical to state governance. The results of the performance appraisal were important references. At that time, reviewing the statistical books (上计shang ji) was the main appraisal method. Specifically, this method was to record and compile the statistics of households and cultivate fields, taxes, treasury, thefts, and prison inmates in the area under the official’s jurisdiction into a book. The ruler and the official each took a copy. At the end of each year, the ruler would examine the annual records. According to the results, the deserving were promoted, and the undeserving were removed or even arrested and imprisoned. With clear rewards and strict punishments, this appraisal method set clear performance goals for officials and kept mediocre ones from muddling through. However, the specific criterion and procedures during this period were not yet perfect, and the specialized assessment agency had not yet been established.

The unification of China by the Qin State brought favorable conditions for the development and promotion of the Merit Rating System. Firstly, the criterion was established. The Qin government enacted related laws, stipulating that officials must observe the “Five Goodness (五善wu shan)” (be faithful and respect your superiors; be clean and don’t slander others; to act properly; be ready to do good deeds; be respectful and self-effacing)and prevent the “Five Negligence (五失wu shi)” (be excessively extravagant; be presumptuous; to make arbitrary decisions; to flout the law and committed rebellion; to despise scholars and value money). Secondly, the procedure was improved. The system of reviewing the statistical books was perfected, and officials’ performances were reported from the county to the prefecture and finally to the imperial court. Besides, another method was the appraisal according to the statistics books. They were two simultaneous and opposite processes. Thirdly, the content was enriched. It involved more comprehensive aspects than ever before, such as governing the people, adjudicating cases, encouraging agricultural production, and alleviating poverty, initially forming a hierarchical assessment system from the local to the central government. Each year, the county magistrate was required to report to the prefectural governor and the grand censor the information about the households, taxes, the public order, and the corvée in the area under his jurisdiction, and finally, the emperor would decide his treatment based on the results of the evaluation.

The Merit Rating System in the Han Dynasty basically inherited that of the Qin government and developed in terms of procedures and standardization. The evaluation of the prime minister, the three councilors, and the local officials constituted the main framework of the Merit Rating System then. During the reign of Emperor Yuan of Han, the Law on Evaluation of the Public Officials was issued, marking the establishment of the appraisal system for officials in ancient China.

During the Three Kingdoms, the Jin Dynasty, and the Northern and Southern dynasties, due to the rapid change of political situations and the need to maintain governance, the appraisal objects were gradually expanded from local officials, county magistrates, and prefectural governors to central officials. In addition, specialized institutions were set up, showing the trend of the evaluation power delegating to lower levels.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, noticeable progress was made in the official evaluation system, which became more rigorous and complete. Before this period, the merit rating of officials, being mixed with ordinary administrative activities, was only a derivative work of top-down administrative supervision. Since the Sui Dynasty, all central and local officials had to be examined and evaluated regardless of their positions or family backgrounds. The central evaluation agency and local evaluation agencies were set up. The supervising censor (给事中ji shi zhong) and the drafter in the Secretariat (中书舍人zhong shu she ren) supervised the central officials and local officials, respectively. In the Tang Dynasty, the Bureau of Evaluations, the earliest specialized performance appraisal institution, was set up in the Ministry of Officials, marking the beginning of the professionalization of merit rating institutions. Soon after the founding of the Tang, it began to formulate laws on evaluation, stipulating that the Ministry of Officials should set up posts for the evaluation director and the vice evaluation director for assessing the performance of capital officials of rank four and below. However, the evaluation of the capital officials of rank three and above, the commander-in-chief, the regional inspector, the military commissioner, and the surveillance commissioner, etc., would be reviewed by the emperor himself through the “merit and demerit report.”

The criteria of the performance evaluation in the Tang Dynasty were the “four goodness” (morality, integrity, impartiality, and diligence) and the “twenty-seven qualifications.” The former highlighted the pursuit of virtue, and the latter involved the different standards for capabilities of varied positions, which were divided into twenty-seven categories. These standards actually included four aspects of merit rating: morality, diligence, competence, and performance, and could be honored as the most complete criteria in the history of the Chinese Merit Rating System.

To conclude, the Tang’s official evaluation system had three main features: First, it covered a wide range of objects, including all central and local officials; second, the levels and standards set were clear, explicit, and objective, which made it easy to operate and implement; third, it was in strict operation. With special institutions and personnel, as well as clear procedures and time limits, all officials concerned could check and supervise each other.

During the Song and Yuan dynasties, the official appraisal institution is more complete in system and implementation rules. The significant measure then was “thorough examination (磨勘mo kan).” Because the treatment of officials was decided by the results of the evaluation, in order to avoid inaccurate reports and improper decisions, the findings must be submitted to the Ministry of Officials and the Surveillance Commissioner of each circuit for counter-check. In other words, anyone who had merits or achievements had to be not only evaluated by the relevant departments but re-inspected for approval before they could be promoted. Later on, the system of “thorough examination,” every three years for civil officials and every five years for military officers, was gradually formed.

The rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties were bent on drawing lessons from the rise and fall of successive dynasties and attached great importance to the performance appraisal of officials. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang even directly linked the courtesy received by officials to their performance. According to The History of Ming Dynasty, when a banquet was held at the court, officials with “superior” performance were given a seat at the banquet; those who with “medium” performance were also allowed to attend the feast, but without a seat; while officials with “inferior” performance could only wait outside until the banquet was over.

The Ming government comprehensively summarized and drew lessons from the Merit Rating Systems of past generations, based on which formulated a rigorous and straightforward evaluation standard. On the one hand, it was more practical and concise and thus had great maneuverability; on the other hand, it held the pulse of the time, adding some new elements to the evaluation system, such as the “regular rating” and the “fixed evaluation.” The former was the triennial merit rating in the third year, sixth year, and ninth year of his tenure, through which the officials would be divided into the upper, middle, and lower rates, deciding their promotions or dismissals from the office. The latter was the unified evaluation of officials at all levels and was generally held once every six years.

Given the corrupted officialdom and the increasingly lax and procrastinate governance in late ancient China, the Qing government focused more on cracking down on corruption in the Merit Rating System. For example, the official appraisal emphasized the “four virtues and eight weaknesses (四格八法si ge ba fa).” The former included the four requirements for the qualities of officials: integrity, capability, good health, and political performance. The latter consisted of eight weaknesses, including embezzlement, cruelty, inattentiveness, impetuousness, passivity or laziness, incapability, oldness, and bad health. These criteria covered aspects such as professional integrity, capability, and physical condition, which were targeted and operable. Meanwhile, the investigation, demotion, and dismissal of the inferior officials were all in accordance with thorough procedures and strict standards.

Throughout the Merit Rating Systems in ancient China, it is easy to find that the fundamental principle of rewarding and punishing officials was to rest on the actual political performance and the virtue and talent of the officials. The evaluation systems in Chinese history contained governance wisdom, establishing a sound political orientation and official standards and fostering many good officials with both virtue and talent to work for the people, which, to a certain extent, limited the corruption and degradation of ancient officialdom.

[1] Si Maqian, ‘Records of the Grand Historian’, Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 2011.
[2] Zhang Jinfan, ‘The history of the supervision system in ancient China’, Beijing: The Commercial
Press, 2007.
[3] Chen Shi, Main character of the supervision system in ancient China and its reference, Theory
Jounal, 2002.
[4] Li Qing, Supervision System of Tang Dynasty & Song Dynasty, Contemporary Law Review, 2004.

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