Systems of Social Servants

Last updated by noswald at 2014/10/17

In ancient China, the administrative systems of Central Social Servants were very complicated.

In the early administrative systems, which originated during the ancient Shang Dynasty, there were no specific officials responsible for political affairs, religion or other affairs, but by the Zho Dynasty a simple central administrative system of social servants had been established. This consisted of three Dukes and six Ministers. The three Dukes, referred to as the the Grand Preceptor, Grand Mentor and Grand Guardian were responsible for state affairs, while the six Ministers were required to deal with specific tasks and were second in command to the Dukes.

Local and central systems of social servants were further improved and by the time of the Xia Dynasty, there were six Ministers supporting the reign of the current emperor. Among the six ministers were:

•    Sikong (the Minister of Works); the highest ranking minister  
•    Houji (the Minister of Agriculture)
•    Situ (the Minister of Education)
•    Dali (the Minister of Justice
•    Gonggong (the Minister of Construction)
•    Yuren (the Minister of Farming and Animal Husbandry).

During this time, separate departments were also set up for military affairs, agriculture and taxes.

In the Shang Dynasty the administration was reorganized into one with the emperor at the centre, assisted by Yin (the Chief Executive). Under Yin there were other positions, including Situ (Minister of Labour Force), Sikong (Minister of Engineering), and Sikou (Minister of Justice).

During this time, the idea of divine power played an important role in political life. Therefore, the minister of religion, who took charge of sacrifice, augury, and record of events, was a very prestigious member of the system of power.

Further development of the central administrative system occurred in the west Zhou Dynasty. In this period the emperor was assisted by three Dukes and three Censor-In-Chiefs, who were in charge of local affairs.

The dukes were referred to as the Grand Preceptor, Grand Mentor and Grand Guardian, while the Censor-In-Chiefs were comprised of Changbo or Mu, who took care of civil administration at the local level, Renren or Changren who were responsible for the selection of local civil servants, and finally, Zhunren or Zhunfu, who administered local political affairs.

During the Qin and Han Dynasties, a hierarchy consisting of three Dukes and nine Ministers with the emperor at the centre was established. The three Dukes, referred to as the Chief of Counsellor, Counsellor-in-chief and Chief of Defence, were responsible for administration, supervision, and military affairs respectively.

The Ministers were the chief administrative officials of the nine departments constituting the central regime. They were:
•    Fengchang: the most influential minister, in charge of religious affairs, rites, and cultural education
•    Longzhongling: responsible for guarding palaces gates etc.
•    Weiwei (Regalia): the chief caretaker of palaces
•    Taipu (Stud): responsible for administration of transportation, such as carriages and horses;
•    Tingwei: the judicial administer at the highest position of the central regime
•    Dianke: in charge of ethnic affairs and official selection
•    Zhili: responsible for taxation of salt and gold, and the overall balancing the financial affairs of the state
•    Shaofu: took care of the taxation of marine and land resources and the arts and craft industries. At that time, state affairs were not distinguished from the affairs of the imperial family, which was a characteristic of the system of central civil servants in the Qin and Han Dynasties.  

In order to strengthen his own power, and reduce that of the ministers around him, Emperor Wu Di reduced the rights of the Chief of Counsellor and set up the Zhongchao System, were he selected a series of officials from more junior positions to assist him in his reign.

In the Sui and Tang Dynasties: the central regime of concentrated state power matured, and the system of three Councils and six Boards was established. The three Councils were the Secretariat, the Department of State Affairs, and the Chancellery.  This was the highest tier of power in the structure of the state. These councils were responsible, respectively, for policy-making, deliberation and discussion on state affairs and execution of policies.

At the same time, the original Department of State Affairs devolved into six Boards, namely, Boards of Civil Service, Revenue, Rites, War, Justice, and Works. Under each of the six Boards, there were sub-departments called Si. The head of each board was Shangshu (Secretariat) and the vice-head Shilang (Vice Minister).

For each Si, there was also a Shilang (Vice Minister) and a Yuanweilang. The system of Three Councils and Six Boards evolved from the system of central civil servants and the feudal regime. Compared with the systems of previous dynasties, the structure was more complete and the distribution of responsibility was much clearer. The advent of this administration system signified the development and maturation of the feudal society, and most of its structures were retained until the Qing Dynasty.     

The height of the development of imperial autarchy with concentrated state power was witnessed in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In the heyday of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang made many adjustments to the system of central civil servants.

Firstly, he abolished the position of Chief of Councillors, who was responsible for managing day-to-day affairs.  This position, which was a relic from the Qin and Han Dynasties, was replaced by a Council of Ministers who were responsible for consulting on state affairs.

On military affairs, the Grand Regional Command was changed into Regional Commands of Five Armies. The power of the Six Boards was increased and a huge structure of eunuchs and secret organizations under its control was established. This was designed to increase the control that the Emperor had over the military.

The main change made to the central administration at this time was the abolishment of the Chief of Councillors. The Council of Ministers comprised of the three Hanlin Academics; the Prime, Secondary, and Common Assistant. The main responsibility of these assistants was piaoni (writing rescript and memorials for the Emperor).

After the Yongle Emperor, academics in the Council of Ministers gradually gained more rights to participate in state affairs, gaining legislative power in addition to their consultative services. From this point to the early Ming Dynasty this the Council of Ministers gradually evolved into the backbone of the state administration.

In the Qing Dynasty, state affairs were co-managed by the Chiefs of Eight Banners and the Grand Ministers of State Affairs. During the ruling period of Emperor Yong Zheng, wars were very frequent in the northwest of the country. Therefore, the Privy Chamber, later called the Privy Council, was established to manage military affairs.

Despite initially being a temporary stopgap measure, the Privy Council later evolved into a powerful department that eventually replaced the Conference of Grand Ministers of State Affairs, and bore the main responsibility for military affairs directly under the control of the emperor. The Privy Council was famously a very efficient and secret operation.

Over time, the powers of the Six Boards were gradually reduced, losing it’s position as the center of state administration, and it’s responsibility for issuing imperial orders.

In the Qing Dynasty, there were Five Imperial Courts; the Dali, Taichang, Guanglu, Taipu, and HongLu Courts. The legislative power of the Imperial Clan was greater than that of the Six Boards and among the Five Commissions, only the Commission for Education was retained, while the other four were gradually annexed by the Board of Works.

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