Political systems of Imperial China

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History of China
History of China
ANCIENT
Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BCE
Xia c. 2070 – c. 1600 BCE
Shang c. 1600 – c. 1046 BCE
Zhou c. 1046 – 256 BCE
 Western Zhou
 Eastern Zhou
   Spring and Autumn
   Warring States
IMPERIAL
Qin 221–207 BCE
Han 202 BCE – 220 CE
  Western Han
  Xin
  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei, Shu and Wu
Jin 266–420
  Western Jin
  Eastern Jin Sixteen Kingdoms
Northern and Southern dynasties
420–589
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
  (Wu Zhou 690–705)
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms

907–979
Liao 916–1125
Song 960–1279
  Northern Song Western Xia
  Southern Song Jin
Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1636–1912
MODERN
Republic of China 1912–1949
People's Republic of China 1949–present

China is one of the oldest and most politically influential civilizations in the world. The political systems of Imperial China can be categorised into a central political system, a local political system and a system for the selection of officials. There were three major tendencies in the history of Chinese political system: the escalation of centralisation, the escalation of absolute monarchy, and the standardisation of the selection of officials.[1] Moreover, there are the ancient supervision system and political systems created by ethnic minorities, as well as other critical political systems which may be mentioned.

Fundamental system: Centralised monarchy[edit]

Warring States period (453 BC – 221 BC)

Rudiment and establishment[edit]

During the Warring States period, Han Feizi proposed the establishment of centralised autocratic monarchy.[2] During the same period, Shang Yang from the state of Qin carried out political reforms in practice.[3] The imperial system was established by the time of Qin, as well as the system of three lords and nine ministers, and the system of prefectures and counties. Weights, measures, currency, and writing were unified. Books and scholars were burned and buried as the ideological control strengthened. Officials were to act as teachers of the law.[4]

Consolidation and reinforcement[edit]

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books (18th century Chinese painting).

To solve the problem of the kingdom, West Han carried out the system of historical assassination, promulgated the decree of mercy and the law of supplementary benefits, executed dethrone 100 schools of thought, while only respecting Confucianism.[5] By implementing the system of three provinces and six ministries, the feudal bureaucracy formed a complete and rigorous system, which weakened the prime minister's power and strengthened the imperial power. The establishment and improvement of the imperial civil examination expanded the source of young government officials. Centralised military power: which removed the military power of senior generals and local commanders in the central government, set up three government officials to command the imperial army and check each other with the privy council.[6] Centralised executive power: the political, military and financial powers of the chief ministers, the privy councillors and the three secretaries divided the prime minister's power. Centralised financial power: by setting up transshipment in each level to manage local finance. Centralised judicial power: by the central government sending civilian officials to serve as local judicial officials. Through the above measures, the emperor mastered the military, administrative, financial, and judicial powers from the central government to the local government, thus eradicated the foundation of feudal vassal separation.[7]

Further development and final shape[edit]

In the central government, the executive system of central officials was improved during Yuan dynasty. It established the Xuanzheng Yuan (the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs) to direct religious affairs and to govern the region of Tibet. At the local level, the provincial system was practiced.[8] At the beginning of the Ming dynasty, the prime minister was abolished, and the power was divided into six departments. The local government implemented the division of power among the three functioning departments. The Qing dynasty followed the system of the Ming dynasty, set up more military offices, put up literary prisons, thus strengthened the centralisation of authoritarianism.[9]

First Emperor of Qin (18 February 259 BC – 10 September 210 BC)

Central political systems[edit]

Three lords and nine ministers system[edit]

The three lords and nine ministers system was a central administrative system adopted in ancient China that was officially instituted in Qin dynasty and later developed in Han dynasty.[10]

A pottery model of a palace from a Han dynasty tomb; the entrances to the emperor's imperial palaces were strictly guarded by the Commandant of Guards, and if it was found that a commoner, official, or noble entered without explicit permission via a tally system, they were liable for execution.[11]

Three Lords referred to three highest rank officials in the imperial government, namely:[12]

  • the Chancellor
  • the Imperial Secretary
  • the Grand Commandant

Nine Ministers comprised all the ministers of importance in the central government. They were:[12]

  • the Minister of Ceremonies
  • the Supervisor of Attendants
  • the Commandant of Guards
  • the Minister of Coachmen
  • the Commandant of Justice
  • the Grand Herald
  • the Director of the Imperial Clan
  • the Grand Minister of Agriculture
  • the Small Treasurer

Three departments and six ministries system[edit]

The three lords and nine ministers system was replaced by the system of three provinces and six ministries by Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty.[13] The three departments were Shangshu, Zhongshu and Menxia. The central committee was responsible for drafting and issuing imperial edicts; Subordinate provinces shall be responsible for the examination and verification of administrative decrees; Shangshu was responsible for carrying out important state decrees, and the heads of the three provinces were all prime ministers. The six ministries were officials, households, rites, soldiers, punishments, and workers. The three provinces and six ministries had both divisions of labor and cooperation, and they supervised and contained each other, thus forming a strict and complete system of the feudal bureaucracy, effectively improving administrative efficiency and strengthening the ruling power of the central government. The separation of the three powers weakens the power of the prime minister and strengthens the imperial power. The officially adopted systems of Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties all changed a little on this basis.[14]

Emperor Wu of Han (30 July 157 BC – 29 March 87 BC)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Emperor
(皇帝, huángdì)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Chancellery
(t , s , Ménxiàshěng)
 
 
 
 
 
Department of State Affairs
(t , s , Shàngshūshěng)
 
 
 
 
 
Secretariat
(t , s , Zhōngshūshěng)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ministry of Personnel
(吏部, Lìbù)
 
Ministry of Revenue
(t 戶部, s 户部, Hùbù)
 
Ministry of Rites
(t 禮部, s 礼部, Lǐbù)
 
Ministry of War
(兵部, Bīngbù)
 
Ministry of Justice
(刑部, Xíngbù)
 
Ministry of Works
(工部, Gōngbù)
Prime Minister Wang of Song (December 8, 1021 – May 21, 1086)

Prime minister system[edit]

Prime Minister Zhu of Shu (181–234)

Qin established the system of three lords and nine ministers in the central government. Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty reformed the official system implemented the internal and external dynasties system and weakened the power of the prime minister. Emperor Guangwu of the Eastern Han dynasty expanded the power of the Shangshu department. Sui and Tang dynasties established the system of three provinces and six departments, dividing the power of the prime minister into three and containing each other, which reflected the strengthening of the imperial power. In the northern song dynasty, under the chancellors, the chief ministers were appointed as deputy ministers to divide the administrative power of the chancellors. There were privy secretaries to divide the military power and three divisions to divide the financial power.[15] The Yuan dynasty set up a Zhongshu province, with prime ministers on the right and left, exercising the functions and powers of prime ministers. The Ming dynasty abolished the prime minister and divided the power into six parts. Yongle dynasty set up a cabinet and implemented "draft vote." The military offices were set up in the Qing dynasty, and the remnants of the prime minister system disappeared, reflecting that the imperial power had reached its peak. From the changes, we can see that the emperor divided and weakened the power of the prime minister, gradually concentrated all kinds of power in his own hands, and thus effectively implemented the autocratic monarchy. Notable prime ministers include Prime Minister Zhu of Shu, Prime Minister Xiao of Western Han and Prime Minister Wang of Song.[16][17]

Prime Minister Xiao of Western Han (257–193)

Local political systems[edit]

Enfeoffment system[edit]

To consolidate the power of slave owners, the rulers of the Western Zhou dynasty implemented the system of enfeoff vassals politically, which enabled the Zhou dynasty to consolidate its rule and expand its territory.[18] In the spring and autumn period, it gradually collapsed and was replaced by the system of prefectures and counties, which remained in some later dynasties.[19]

Prefecture and county system[edit]

During the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, the Qin dynasty was carried out nationwide, thus replacing the feudal system nationwide, greatly weakening the independence of local authorities and strengthening the centralization of power. This was an epoch-making reform in China's local administrative system. The prefecture and county system was used for a long time in ancient China, with a very far-reaching influence.[20]

Province system[edit]

At the beginning of the Western Han dynasty, the system of prefectures and counties was implemented in local areas, and at the same time, the system of enfeoffment was established. Counties and countries were parallel to each other, which was not conducive to the unified management of the country, with the risk of division. The Yuan dynasty was a feudal country with a vast territory at that time. Its establishment consolidated the unification of the country and ensured the centralization of power in the system. The provincial system of the Yuan dynasty had a far-reaching influence on the political system of later generations. Since then, the provincial system has become the local administrative organ of China, which was followed in the Ming and Qing dynasties and has been retained until today.[21]

Administrative structure of Western Han
Administrative unit Administrator title Appointment Authority
Province (州 zhou) Governor (牧 mu) Central Executive
Inspector (刺史 cishi) Central No direct authority
Commandery (郡 jun) Grand administrator (太守 taishou) Central Executive
Kingdom (王國 wangguo) Chancellor (相 xiang) Central Executive
King (王 wang) Hereditary No real authority
County (縣 xian) Prefect (令 ling)
Chief (長 zhang)
Central Executive

Monk system[edit]

In the Ming dynasty, Tibet practiced the system of monks and officials. Because the Tibetan people believed in Tibetan Buddhism, the Ming government used religion to rule the Tibetan people which was later called the 'monk system'.[22]

Eight banners system[edit]

Eight Banners (1615–1701)
Nuzhen Ruler Nurhaci (8 April 1559 – 30 September 1626)

The eight banners system was in the late Ming dynasty when Nuzhen rulers Nurhaci to create a system of eight banners system according to the military organization form the Jurchen establishment, controlled by the aristocrat, with military conquering three functions, administrative management, organize production, is a soldier and unity of social organization, is a military organization and administrative management system, promote the development of the Nuzhen society. The eight banners army played an important role in unifying China in the Qing dynasty.[23] However, with the invasion of western capitalism, the corruption of the eight banners army itself and the gradual decline of its combat effectiveness, the Hunan army and Huai army, which rose up in the process of suppressing the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, had a great impact on it.[24]

Bureaucratisation of native officers[edit]

The Ming dynasty followed the rule of the Yuan dynasty in the southwest minority areas, where the chieftain system was implemented. These chieftain officials held by local minorities had autonomy over the administration of the areas under their jurisdiction, and they could be hereditary and had great power, which gradually evolved into a separatist force.[25]

Official selection system[edit]

Evolution of the system of selecting officials[edit]

Imperial examination paper of Ming dynasty in 1598 AD
The emperor receives a candidate during the Palace Examination.[26]

The selection of official standards by family background gradually developed to the selection of talent, while the selection method by selection gradually developed to the form of public examination. The selecting mechanism based on talent later became institutionalised and much more rigorous.[27]

Examination and degree hierarchy
Degree Ranks Exam Times held
Child student (Tongsheng) County/Prefectural Annual (February/April)
Student member (Shengyuan) Granary student (1st class)
Expanded student (2nd class)
Attached student (3rd class)
College Triennial (twice)
Recommended man (Juren) Top escorted examinee (1st rank) Provincial Triennial
Tribute scholar (Gongshi) Top conference examinee (1st rank) Metropolitan Triennial
Advanced scholar (Jinshi) Top thesis author (1st rank)
Eyes positioned alongside (2nd rank)
Flower snatcher (3rd rank)
Palace Triennial

Imperial supervision systems[edit]

Supervisor Shi of Ming (1499–1562)

Qin dynasty[edit]

The central government set up the imperial historian, whereas the local government set up the imperial supervisor.[28]

Western Han dynasty[edit]

Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty set 13 prefectures as the supervision area, and set the provincial history department for supervision.[18]

Eastern Han dynasty[edit]

The supervision power of the provincial governor was further strengthened, and the local administrative power and military power were gradually increased. At the end of the Eastern Han dynasty, the provincial governor evolved into the local highest military and political officer.[29]

Department of Criminal Investigation, Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

Northern Song dynasty[edit]

There was a general court to supervise the prefectures, which could report directly to the emperor.[28]

Ming dynasty[edit]

The local government set up the department of criminal investigation to administer local supervision and justice. In addition, the factory also set up a spying agency to monitor officials and civilians at all levels.[30]

Political systems created by ethnic minorities[edit]

Uniform land system, rent modulation, government military system, Fan-Han divide and rule system, fierce peace and restraint, provincial system, eight flag system are critical systems created by ethnic minorities to be mentioned in the history.[31]

Other critical political systems in ancient China[edit]

Abdication system[edit]

At the end of primitive society, the democratic election of tribal alliance leaders was carried out within the circle of the noble families. It is not only the reflection of primitive public ownership in politics, but also the signal of primitive society collapse.[32]

Hereditary system[edit]

It was the result of the development of productive forces, the product of class antagonism, and the inevitable trend of historical development. A hereditary system with its distinctive privatization embodied the significant progress of society.[33]

Patriarchal system[edit]

Since the Western Zhou dynasty, the patriarchal clan system was a system in which the inheritance relationship and the title were determined by blood relationship and marital status. The patriarchal clan system and privilege system formed by the patriarchal system had a far-reaching influence on later generations.[34]

Gentry system[edit]

The gentry was developed from the powerful landlords and belonged to the privileged stratum of the landlord class. The gentry system was formed in the Wei and Jin dynasties. It was a corrupt political system that selected officials according to the level of their family backgrounds.[35]

References[edit]

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See also[edit]