An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Political System - The Directorate of Ceremonial (silijian 司禮監)

Dec 11, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

The Directorate of Ceremonial (silijian 司禮監) was one of the twelve directorates that managed the imperial household during the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), and became the central institution by which the court eunuchs controlled the imperial court and exerted extraordinary influence over the emperor and the officialdom. It is first mentioned in 1384, but at the time, it ranked after the Directorate for Imperial Regalia (sishejian 司設監). The Directorate of Ceremonial was headed by a Director (lingzheng 令正; rank 7A), who was supported by an Assistant Director (cheng 丞; rank 7B). The institution managed the various ceremonies at court through the year, but also investigated violations of etiquette by the eunuch staff.

In 1395, the ranking of the Directorate of Ceremonial among the twelve Directorates was promoted to just after the Directorate of Palace Eunuchs (neiguanjian 内官監), and received a proper Director (taijian 太監; rank 4A), like all other directorates, assisted by two Vice Directors (zuo-you shaojian 左右少監; rank 4B), and two Assistant Directors (zuo-you cheng 左右丞; rank 6). The portfolio of its duties was considerably enlarged and included practically all public activities of the members of the imperial household, as well as the management of the necessary public orders and documents to carry them out.

During the Xuande reign-period 宣德 (1426-1435), the Directorate of Ceremonial was the first among the twelve Directorates and the twenty-four court institutions (ershisi yamen 二十四衙門). From that time on, its heading staff consisted of a Supervising Director (tidu taijian 提督太監), a Seal-Holding Director (zhangyin taijian 掌印太監), and four or five *Brush-Wielding Directors (bingbi taijian 秉筆太監) who annotated incoming documents and *Apprentice Directors (suitang taijian 隨堂太監). The Supervising Director was responsible for the Imperial City and the Palace. The Directorate controlled various types of managers (zhangsi 掌司) and supervisors (jianguan 監官). The *Documents Secretariat (wenshufang 文書房) controlled the flow of all incoming and outgoing documents, including memorials to the throne, suggestions to imperial rescripts (piaoni 票擬), and imperial decrees, and was thus a direct competitor to the Office of Transmission (tongzhengsi 通政司). The Ceremonials Office (liyifang 禮儀房) took care for the ceremonies of the imperial family. The *Secretariat of the Heir Apparent (zhongshufang 中書房) was responsible for documents of the Hall of the Flowering of Literature (Wenhuadian 文華殿), the seat of the Heir Apparent. Imperial furniture was organized by the *Heritage Office (yuqianzuo 御前作). Other institutions were the Eunuch School (neishutang 內書堂), the Corridor of the Six Offices of Scrutiny (liukelang 六科廊) and the Printing Office (jingchang zhangsi 經廠掌司).

The Directorate of Ceremonial had thus transformed from a purely organizational institution to an agency which had enormous influence on policy-making and political decisions, including military affairs. Incoming documents could be treated with preference, or suppressed. The Directors had the right to represent the sovereign at the Three Judicial Offices (sanfasi 三法司), i.e., the Censorate (duchayuan 都察院), the Ministry of Justice (xingbu 刑部), and the Court of Judicial Review (dalisi 大理寺), and were thus able to exert influence on the promotion and punishment of court officials.

In this respect, the Directorate's control over the imperial jails and their guards was of particular importance. The jails (zhenweisi 鎮撫司) and guards consisted of the Eastern Depot (dongchang 東廠), the Western Depot (xichang 西廠; together Dong-Xichang 東西廠), and the Palace Depot (neixingchang 內行廠, only during the early 16th cent.). The most important of them was the Eastern Depot established in 1420 where the Brocade Guard (jinyiwei 錦衣衛) had a free hand in arresting and interviewing suspects among the officialdom. It stood under the Directorate of Ceremonial, and was headed by a *Battalion Commander-of-Justice (zhangxin qianhu 掌刑千戶) and a *Company Commander-of-Justice (zhangxin baihu 掌刑百戶) who operated with a wide network of spies and collaborators not just in Beijing, but also in the provinces. The investigative mechanism offered the Depots and the Guard (chang-wei 廠衛) the cooperation with the Ministry of Justice and the provincial surveillance commissioners (anchashi 按察使). The autocracy of the Ming emperor gave rise to the old, but rarely used, custom to beat obstreperous officials publicly at the court (tingzhang 廷杖; see punishment by beating), either with the whip, or with the cane, often with deadly consequence. The Ming also made it easier to put high functionaries into jail (zhao yu 詔獄).

The Directorate's usurpation of the sovereign's right to add red-ink notes on imperial rescripts became blatant in the mid-Ming period, when several emperors ceased to attend court sessions regularly. The eunuch agencies then acted on behalf of the emperor, often in conflict with the unofficial Grand Secretary (shoufu 首輔). The Director of Ceremonial was therefore often dubbed "inner counsellor" (neixiang 內相), as all important documents of communication went through his hands. Director of Ceremonial Liu Jin 劉瑾 (1451-1510) was even called the "standing emperor" (zhan huangdi 站皇帝) because he answered, standing during the court session, in the emperor's place, who was sitting on his throne. High state functionaries had no chance of direct contact with the emperor, and could not be sure if the sovereign's instructions were true or not. Liu was so powerful that even members of the Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣) officially sided with him.

The cooperation between the eunuch Directors of Ceremonial and the Grand Secretariat became most intensive during the Wanli reign-period 萬曆 (1573-1619), when high officials like Yan Song 嚴嵩 (1480-1567) used their close ties with the Director of Ceremonial in order to get rid of their opponents. State functionaries colluding with the eunuchs were called the "eunuch faction" (yandang 閹黨). The great reformer Zhang Juzheng 張居正 (1525-1582) worked not just in cooperation with the Empress Dowager, but also with Director of Ceremonials Feng Bao 馮保 (1543-1583). The eunuch dictator Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢 (1568–1627) circumvented the Grand Secretariat by having the emperor proclaim his decrees directly in the Palace Hall, instead of in written form. In edicts, he was mentioned side by side with the emperor as "Minister of the Depots" (changchen 廠臣). He obtained the nine privileges (jiuxi 九錫) and cities throughout the country created "shrines for the living one" (shengci 生祠) dedicated to Director Wei. Even after Wei's downfall, Director Zhang Yixian 張彝憲 (d. 1635) interfered into court politics by establishing a General Office of Revenue and Works (hu-gong zongli 戶工總理), by which he took direct control over the ministries of Revenue (hubu 戶部) and of Public Works (gongbu 工部), while indirectly influencing other state agencies through intimidation and denunciation. When the last emperor of the Ming, the Chongzhen Emperor 崇禎帝 (r. 1627-1644), hanged himself, Director Wang Cheng'en 王承恩 (d. 1644), accompanied him into death.

Du Wanyan 杜婉言, Fang Zhiyuan 方志遠 (1996). Zhongguo zhengzhi zhidu tongshi 中國政治制度通史, Vol. 9, Mingdai 明代 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe), 96-109, 253-259.