Three Departments and Six Ministries

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The Three Departments and Six Ministries system (Chinese: 三省六部; pinyin: Sānshěng Liùbù) was the main central administrative structure adopted in China during its imperial period. While its separate departments first took shape during the Han dynasty, it emerged in a more complete form during the Sui dynasty, and was adopted in some form by all Chinese dynasties since.

Emperor (Chinese: 皇帝; pinyin: Huang Di)
Chancellery (Chinese: 門下省; pinyin: Menxia Sheng)
Department of State Affairs (Chinese: 尚書省; pinyin: Shangshu Sheng)
Central Secretariat (Chinese: 中書省; pinyin: Zhongshu Sheng)
Ministry of Personnel (Chinese: 吏部; pinyin: Lì Bù)
Ministry of Revenue (simplified Chinese: 户部; traditional Chinese: 戶部; pinyin: Hù Bù)
Ministry of Rites (simplified Chinese: 礼部; traditional Chinese: 禮部; pinyin: Lĭ Bù)
Ministry of Defense (Chinese: 兵部; pinyin: Bīng Bù)
Ministry of Justice (Chinese: 刑部; pinyin: Xíng Bù)
Ministry of Works (Chinese: 工部; pinyin: Gōng Bù)


The Three Departments or Sheng () were the top-level offices of the administration. They were the Central Secretariat (中書省; Zhongshu Sheng), the Chancellery (門下省; Menxia Sheng), and the Department of State Affairs (尚書省; Shangshu Sheng). They were the principal divisions of a differentiated set of secretarial functions, distributed among the three departments. The head of the Central Secretariat or the Department of State Affairs was generally referred to as the Chancellor, next only to the emperor in rank and power.

The Six Ministries, also traditionally translated as "Boards", were direct administrative organs of the state, and each was headed by a Minister (尚書) who was assisted by two Vice Ministers (侍郎).

Early history[edit]

Before the institution of the Three Departments and Six Ministries, the central administrative structure of the Qin and Han dynasties was the Three Lords and Nine Ministers (Chinese: 三公九卿; pinyin: Sangong Jiuqing) system. Nonetheless, even then, offices which fulfilled the same functions as the later three departments were already in existence.

The office of State Affairs was first devised during the Qin dynasty, originally in an archival role. During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, the Secretariat's office was also instituted, as a channel of communications between the emperor's advisors and the government as a whole. By the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25 - 220), an office of advisors and reviewers had also been set up.

By the time of Cao Wei, the first emperor Cao Pi, in order to prevail against the powerful Office of State Affairs, made use of this base of advisers to officially institute the Secretariat. This was the first office known as the 'Secretariat' to fulfil functions similar to its later form, drafting imperial edicts.[1]

The office of the Chancellery, as a review mechanism, was first instituted during the Jin dynasty and carried on throughout the Northern and Southern Dynasties, where it often became the most powerful office in the central government.

Three Departments[edit]

  • The Central Secretariat (中書省) or simply the Secretariat was the main policy-formulating agency that was responsible for proposing and drafting all imperial decrees, but its actual function varied at different times. Under the Song, as well as under the Liao and Jin, these organs exercised much of the executive authority of the emperor. Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the Central Secretariat with enlarged functions stood alone as the sole organ to lead the civil administration in the Yuan realm.[2] This structure was adopted by the early Ming dynasty, but it was abolished after the last Chancellor Hu Weiyong was killed by the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming. The Central Secretariat was discontinued by later rulers of China.
  • The Department of State Affairs (尚書省) controlled the six ministries since the Sui dynasty and was the highest executive institution of the imperial government. During the Yuan dynasty however, the Central Secretariat replaced the Department of State Affairs as the top government agency. In fact, the Department of State Affairs was only occasionally established to handle financial affairs under the Yuan, such as during the "New Deals" of Külüg Khan (Emperor Wuzong). This department was never set up again after the Yuan dynasty.
  • The Chancellery (門下省) was one of the three departments, whose function was to advise the emperor and the Central Secretariat, and to review edicts and commands. As the least important of the three departments, it was discontinued after the Song dynasty. After the Hu Weiyong incident in the early Ming dynasty, the Three Departments and Six Ministries structure was formally replaced by the Six Ministries structure.

Six Ministries[edit]

  • The Ministry of Personnel or Board of Civil Appointments (吏部; Lì Bù) was in charge of appointments, merit ratings, promotions, and demotions of officials, as well as granting of honorific titles. [3]
  • The Ministry of Revenue or Board of Revenue (户部; 戶部; Hù Bù) was in charge of gathering census data, collecting taxes, and handling state revenues, while there were two offices of currency that were subordinate to it. [4]
  • The Ministry of Rites or Board of Rites (礼部; 禮部; Lĭ Bù) was in charge of state ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices; it also oversaw registers for Buddhist and Daoist priesthoods and even the reception of envoys from tributary states;[5] it also had a function of diplomacy when dealing with foreign affairs before Zongli Yamen was established in 1861. It also managed the Imperial examinations.
  • The Ministry of Defense or Board of War (兵部; Bīng Bù) was in charge of the appointments, promotions, and demotions of military officers, the maintenance of military installations, equipment, and weapons, as well as the courier system.[6] In times of war, high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Defense were also responsible in providing strategies for commanding generals, and sometimes even serving as commanding generals themselves.
  • The Ministry of Justice or Board of Punishments (刑部; Xíng Bù) was in charge of judicial and penal processes, but had no supervisory role over the Censorate or the Grand Court of Revision.[7]
  • The Ministry of Works or Board of Works (工部; Gōng Bù) was in charge of government construction projects, hiring of artisans and laborers for temporary service, manufacturing government equipment, the maintenance of roads and canals, standardization of weights and measures, and the gathering of resources from the countryside.[7]

Beneath each ministry were many bureaus (Sī, 司), bodies responsible for grass roots administration.

Other Departments[edit]

Aside from the "three departments", there were three others equal in status to them, but they are rarely involved in the administration of the state.

  • The Department of the Palace (殿中省) was responsible for the upkeep of the imperial household and the palace grounds.
  • The Department of Secret Books (秘書省) was responsible for keeping books about astronomy and astrology.
  • The Department of Service (內侍省) was responsible for staffing the palace with eunuchs.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Lu, 235.
  2. ^ Imperial China 900-1800, by Frederick W. Mote, p477-478
  3. ^ Hucker, 32.
  4. ^ Hucker, 33.
  5. ^ Hucker, 33–35.
  6. ^ Hucker, 35.
  7. ^ a b Hucker, 36.


  • Denis C. Twitchett, John K. Fairbank (Hrsg.) (1979). The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 3, Sui and T'ang China, 589–906. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 179. ISBN 0-521-21446-7. 
  • Hucker, Charles O. "Governmental Organization of the Ming Dynasty," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (Volume 21, December 1958): 1–66.
  • Li, Konghuai (2007). History of Administrative Systems in Ancient China (in Chinese). Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co., Ltd. ISBN 978-962-04-2654-4. 
  • Lu, Simian (2008). The General History of China (in Chinese). New World Publishing. ISBN 978-7-80228-569-9. 
  • Wang, Yü-Ch'üan (June 1949). "An Outline of the Central Government of the Former Han Dynasty". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 12 (1/2): 134–187. doi:10.2307/2718206. JSTOR 2718206.