Three Departments and Six Ministries

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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)
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 Secretariat (中書省; Zhongshu Sheng), the Chancellery (門下省; Menxia Sheng), and the Department of State Affairs (尚書省; Shangshu Sheng).

Under this system, the Department of State Affairs, which controlled the six ministries, was the highest executive institution of the imperial government. The Secretariat was the main policy-formulating agency that was responsible for proposing and drafting all imperial decrees. The main function of the Chancellery was to advise the emperor and the Secretariat, and to review edicts and commands. The head of the 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):

  • 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.[1]
  • 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.[2]
  • 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.[3] 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.[4] In war times, 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.[5]
  • 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.[5]

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


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 agaisnt the powerful Office of State Affairs, made use of this base of advisors 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.[6]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hucker, 32.
  2. ^ Hucker, 33.
  3. ^ Hucker, 33–35.
  4. ^ Hucker, 35.
  5. ^ a b Hucker, 36.
  6. ^ Lu, 235.


  • Denis C. Twitchett, John K. Fairbank (Hrsg.) (1979). The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 3, Sui and T'ang China, 589–906. Cambridge: 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.