The Grand Secretariat (Chinese: 內閣; pinyin: Nèigé) was nominally a coordinating agency but de facto the highest institution in the Ming imperial government. It first took shape after Emperor Hongwu abolished the office of Chancellor in 1380 and gradually evolved into an effective coordinating organ superimposed on the Six Ministries. There were altogether six Grand Secretaries (Chinese: 內閣大學士), though the posts were not always filled. The most senior one was popularly called Senior Grand Secretary (首輔, shǒufǔ). The Grand Secretaries were nominally mid-level officials, ranked much lower than the Ministers, heads of the Ministries. However, since they screened documents submitted to the emperor from all governmental agencies, and had the power of drafting suggested rescripts for the emperor, generally known as piàonǐ (票擬) or tiáozhǐ (條旨), some senior Grand Secretaries were able to dominate the whole government, acting as de facto Chancellor.
At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the administration adopted the Yuan model of having only one department, the Secretariat, superimposed on the Six Ministries. The Secretariat was led by two Chancellors, differentiated as being "of the left" (senior) and "of the right" (junior), who were the head of the whole officialdom in the empire. Emperor Hongwu was concerned that such a concentration of power in the office of Chancellors would become a serious threat to the throne. In 1380, Chancellor Hu Weiyong was executed upon accusations of treason. After that Hongwu eradicated the Secretariat and the posts of Chancellor; Ministers of the Six Ministries directly reported to the emperor himself.
The burden of the administrative details made it imperative for the emperor to seek secretarial assistance. In 1382, Hongwu drew from the Hanlin Academy, an institution that provided literary and scholarly services to the court, several Grand Secretaries to process his administrative paperwork. These Grand Secretaries were assigned for duty to designated buildings within the imperial palace, and they were collectively known as the Grand Secretariat since the reign of Yongle.
The Grand Secretariat gradually had more effective power since Emperor Xuande. During his reign, all memorials from the Ministries to the emperor had to go through the Grand Secretariat. Upon receiving a memorial, the Grand Secretaries first scrutinized it and then decided upon a proper response. The rescript was then pasted to the face of the memorial and submitted with it to the emperor. Through this process known as piaoyi, the Grand Secretariat became de facto the highest policy-formulation institution above the Six Ministries, and the senior Grand Secretaries had power comparable to the Chancellor of old.
Rank of Grand Secretaries
During the Ming Dynasty civil service officials were classified into nine grades, each grade subdivided into two degrees, extending from grade la at the top to grade 9b at the bottom. For example, the top-ranking, non-functional civil service posts of the Three Councillors of State had rank 1a, so did the office of Chancellor. Under this system, the Grand Secretaries, having merely a rank 5a, nominally ranked under various Ministers (whose rank rose from 3a to 2a after the abolishment of the Chancellor). However, the Grand Secretaries were usually given other high-ranking posts of regular administrative agencies, such as Ministers or Vice Ministers in one of the Nine Ministries. Some even obtained the title of Grand Preceptor among the Three Councillors of State. As a result, throughout the Ming Dynasty the Grand Secretaries always took precedence over other civil service officials by virtue of their honorable status among the Three Councillors of State, or their appointments as high-ranking officials in the administrative hierarchy.
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