Administrative Structure

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Administrative Structure



Tang Central Government. The central government of the Tang dynasty (618-907) had four main sections: Department of State Affairs, which performed the essential tasks of administration and included six ministries (personnel, revenue, rites, war, justice, and public works); Imperial Chancellery, which acted as a center for the transmission of imperial edicts; Imperial Grand Secretariat, which was responsible for the drafting of official decrees; and the Council of State, which comprised the emperor, great dignitaries, and the civil chiefs of the six ministries. There were also several services with more limited functions, the most important of which was the censorate, a separate branch of government. It acted as an inspector general of the administration, hearing complaints from the general public and preventing officials from engaging in corruption, extortion, and fraud.

Song Central Government. Many features of Tang administration were revived in a modified form in the Song dynasty (960-1279). The office of prime minister developed in the 1080s when reformer Wang Anshi made the two heads of the Department of State Affairs concurrently the secretariat and the chancellery. These two officers formulated and reviewed policies before presenting them to the emperor for approval. After being approved, the policies were implemented by the Department of State Affairs (comprised of six ministries). The heads of the chancellery and secretariat were recognized as the chief ministers. Kept separate from civil affairs, the Bureau of Military Affairs reported directly to the emperor only. The Song censorate remained independent, but its power and staff were greatly reduced. It was not allowed to send touring censorial inspectors throughout the empire as it did in Tang times.

Yuan Central Government. The Jin dynasty (1115-1234) in North China reorganized its central government by abolishing the secretariat and chancellery. The Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) followed the Jin precedent but changed the name of the remaining unified general administration agency from Department of State Affairs to Secretariat. Thus the Council of State was replaced

with two senior secretariat officials who became grand councillors. They presided over the Tang-style six minis-tries that carried out routine administrative business, a powerful and independent Bureau of Military Affairs, and a Censorate, which was more concerned with the surveil-lance of officials than with receiving complaints about them. The Censorate staffed with Mongols was larger than that of the Tang dynasty.

Ming Central Government. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) originally copied the Yuan government, making only name changes. The Office of Grand Secretariat was expanded in the fifteenth century because few emperors were able to supervise so many agencies effectively. This group of administrative aides was given concurrent status as ministers or vice-ministers. However, grand secretaries never managed to rise to chief councillor status, and they became focal points of recurrent factional controversies. Many emperors ignored them and other officials vilified them. Since the close cooperation between grand secretaries and palace eunuchs was essential for effective administrative function in the times of the more reclusive and inattentive emperors, the consequent lack of stable coordi-nation in the court was an important reason for the decline of the Ming dynasty.

Prefectures. The Tang empire began the practice of dividing the empire into prefectures, or districts, known as zhou. (Special prefectures were designated zsfu.) They varied in size according to the density of their population. The central government appointed prefects of the imperial civil service to administer these districts.


*with the Liao empire of the Khitans (Qidans) on the northern border
**with the Jin empire of the Jurchens (Ruzhens) in northern China
Sources: John K. Fair-bank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History (Cambridge, Mass. 6t London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992).
F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1999).
David C. Wright, The History of China ( Westport, Conn. & London: Greenwood Press, 2001).
Tang618-907China ProperChang’an
Five Dynasties907-960  
1) Later Liang907-923NorthKaifeng
2) Later Tang923-936NorthLuoyang
3) Later Jin936-946NorthBian
4) Later Han947-950NorthBian
5) Later Zhou951-960NorthBian
Ten Kingdoms902-979  
1)Wu902-937EastGuangling and Jinling
2) Southern Tang937-975SoutheastXidu
3) Former Shu907-925CentralChengdu
4) Later Shu935-965CentralChengdu
5) Southern Han917-971SouthCanton
7) Wu-Yue907-978EastXifu
8) Mm909-945SoutheastChangle
9) Nanping/Jingnan924-963CentralJiangling
10) Northern Han951-979NorthTaiyuan
*Northern Song960-1125NorthKaifeng
**Southern Song1127-1279SouthHangzhou
Yuan (Mongols)1279-1368China ProperBeijing
Ming1368-1644China ProperNanjing; Beijing after

Circuit. Tang emperors also introduced the circuit, a new level of government to oversee the prefectures. Fearing regional independence, the early Song emperors temporarily repealed this agency and established direct lines of

communication between prefectures and the six ministries in the capital. Yet, the later Song court realized the importance of intermediary-level coordination, and it began to send circuit intendants as short-term regional representatives of the central government. Thus fiscal intendants, judicial intendants, military intendants, and intendants of transportation and monopolies were assigned to different groups of contiguous prefectures. However, no circuit intendant or combination of intendants had a chance to become independent as Tang regional governors had done at the expense of the central government’s power. When the Song dynasty was creating these overlapping, functionally differentiated intendancies, the Liao dynasty (916-1115) was dividing its northern empire into five regions, each supervised by a “capital” in direct contact with all its prefectures. The Jin dynasty, in Liao fashion, formed six capitals in its northern empire and further created nineteen supervisory circuits of the prefectures. The circuit anticipated the provincial administration of the Ming imperial period.

Proto-Provinces. The Mongols created the most complex system of intermediary-level agencies in Chinese history. Yuan prefectures were divided among 185 supervisory regions, which were further grouped into 12 protoprovinces. The metropolitan censorate established two branch censorates, one in the West and the other in the South, which supervised the branch secretariats. Twenty-four regional surveillance offices were established to oversee lower-level agencies, and six geographic jurisdictions under the Bureau of Military Affairs were set up to supervise the military garrisons. Thus the Yuan empire was subdivided into three different kinds of provinces—12 for general administration; 3 for censorial surveillance; and 6 for military control.

Provinces. Not until Ming times did provinces begin to appear. In 1421 the Ming emperor divided China into 13 provinces. Three agencies—Provincial Administration Office, Provincial Surveillance Office, and Regional Military Commission—had supervisory responsibility over each province. Later the Ming government set up two levels of higher supervisory offices. Every province came to have a grand coordinator, and large regions comprising two or more provinces earned more prestigious coordinators known as supreme commanders. These coordinators and supreme commanders were civil officials, but they were also in charge of regional military affairs. This system of provincial-level government remained in place for many centuries with little change.

Subcounty Organization. Below the formal structure of local government, the people themselves came to bear administrative responsibilities. During the Song period and even under the Mongols, rural villages were required to organize themselves so that local leaders could be chosen to keep order, maintain peace, arbitrate disputes between families, sustain irrigation systems, organize small-scale construction projects, provide local militiamen when needed, and assess, collect, and deliver taxes. Such village leaders, whether a council of elders or a wealthy landlord, received no payment from the state. In Ming times a new system known as the Lijia system began to be created throughout the empire, under which families were grouped into tens and hundreds for local self-governance. This sub-county organization was especially effective in informing the peasants about the laws and educating them with the Confucian value system espoused by the state. Each village community had regular monthly meetings, during which they were taught about Confucianism or listened to the recitation of imperial decrees requiring them to be filial and obedient to parents, to respect superiors, to be in harmony with neighbors, to teach their children, and to do nothing harmful to others. This organization helped to bring orderliness of life to the peasants in the country.


Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964).

Wolfran Eberhard, History of China (London: Routledge 6c Kegan Paul, 1977).

Denis Twitchett and John Fairbank, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volumes 1, 7, and 10 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978-1995).

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Administrative Structure

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