Three Departments and Six Ministries

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Three Departments and Six Ministries
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
VietnameseTam tỉnh lục bộ
Korean name

The Three Departments and Six Ministries (三省六部 (Sān Shěng Liù Bù)) system was the main central government structure in imperial China from the Sui dynasty (581–618) to the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). It was also used by Balhae (698–926) and Goryeo (918–1392) in Manchuria and Korea, and very likely the Lý dynasty (1009–1225) and the Trần dynasty (1225–1400) in Vietnam as well.

The Three Departments were the top-level offices of the administration. They were the Secretariat, responsible for drafting policy, the Chancellery, responsible for reviewing policy, and the Department of State Affairs, responsible for implementing policy. The former two were loosely joined as the Secretariat-Chancellery during the late Tang dynasty, Song dynasty and Goryeo.

The Six Ministries (also translated as Six Boards) were direct administrative organs of the state. They were the Ministries of Personnel, Rites, War, Justice, Works, and Revenue. They were under the Department of State Affairs until the Yuan dynasty.

The Three Departments were abolished by the Ming dynasty, but the Six Ministries continued under the Ming and Qing, as well as in Vietnam and Korea.

Three Departments and Six Ministries during the Tang dynasty[edit]

(皇帝, huángdì)
(t , s , Ménxiàshěng)
Department of State Affairs
(t , s , Shàngshūshěng)
(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)

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 (, Sāngōng Jiǔqīng) system. Nonetheless, even then, offices which fulfilled the same functions as the later three departments were already in existence.

The Department of State Affairs was first devised during the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), originally in an archival role. During the reign of Emperor Wu in the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), 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 (25–220 CE), an office of advisors and reviewers had also been set up.

By the time of the Cao Wei state (220–265 CE), the emperor Cao Pi made use of this base of advisers to officially institute the Secretariat to balance against the powerful Department of State Affairs. 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 (265–420 CE) and carried on throughout the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (420–589 CE), where it often became the most powerful office in the central government.

Three Departments[edit]

  • The Central Secretariat (, Zhōngshūshěng) 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 dynasty (960–1279), as well as under the Liao (907–1125) and Jin (1115–1234) dynasties, these organs exercised much of the executive authority of the emperor. Under the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), 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 (1368–1644), but it was abolished after the Hongwu Emperor executed the chancellor Hu Weiyong. The Central Secretariat was discontinued by later rulers.
  • The Department of State Affairs (, Shàngshūshěng) controlled the six ministries since the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) 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 dynasty, such as during the "New Deals" of Emperor Wuzong. This department was never set up again after the Yuan dynasty.
  • The Chancellery (, Ménxiàshěng) 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 Hu Weiyong's incident in the early Ming dynasty, the Three Departments and Six Ministries structure was formally replaced by the Six Ministries structure.

Six Ministries[edit]

Traditionally, these departments were also translated as "Boards". Each was headed by a Minister or Secretary (Chinese: 尚書; pinyin: shàngshū; Manchu: Aliha amban.png) who was assisted by two Vice-Ministers or Secretaries (Chinese: 侍郎; pinyin: shìláng; Manchu: Ashan i amban.png).

  • The Ministry of Personnel or Civil Appointments (吏部, Lìbù) 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 Finance (戶部, Hùbù) 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 (禮部, Lǐbù) 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 dealt with China's foreign relations prior to the establishment of the Zongli Yamen in 1861. It also managed the imperial examinations.
  • The Ministry of War or Defense (兵部, Bīngbù) 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 Defence also served as strategists and advisers to the frontline commanders. Sometimes, they even served as frontline commanders themselves.
  • The Ministry of Justice or Punishments (刑部, Xíngbù) 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 Public Works (工部, Gōngbù) was in charge of government construction projects, hiring of artisans and laborers for temporary service, manufacturing government equipment, the maintenance of roads and canals, standardisation of weights and measures, and the gathering of resources from the countryside.[7]

Beneath each Ministry were many Bureaus (, ), bodies responsible for grassroots 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, Diànzhōngshěng) was responsible for the upkeep of the imperial household and the palace grounds.
  • The Department of Secret Books (秘書, Mìshūshěng) was responsible for keeping books about astronomy and astrology.
  • The Department of Service (, Nèishìshěng) was responsible for staffing the palace with eunuchs.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Lu 2008, p. 235.
  2. ^ Mote 2003, pp. 477–478.
  3. ^ Hucker 1958, p. 32.
  4. ^ Hucker 1958, p. 33.
  5. ^ Hucker 1958, pp. 33–35.
  6. ^ Hucker 1958, p. 35.
  7. ^ a b Hucker 1958, p. 36.


  • Twitchett, Denis C.; Fairbank, John K., eds. (1979). Sui and T'ang China, 589–906, Part 1. The Cambridge History of China. 3. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 179. ISBN 0-521-21446-7.
  • Hucker, Charles O. (December 1958). "Governmental Organization of the Ming Dynasty". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 21: 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.
  • Mote, Frederick W. (2003) [1999]. Imperial China: 900–1800 (HUP paperback ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-01212-7.
  • 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.