An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Qing Dynasty - Political System

Mar 19, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Government, Administration and Law

Although the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) copied the Chinese administration system that had existed since Tang period 唐 (618-907) - and in some parts even since the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) - they created some important new elements that rendered the earlier instruments more effective.

The capital of the Manchu empires was moved from Shenyang 沈陽 (Mukden, also called Shengjing 盛京), Liaoning, to Beijing in 1644. Beijing had been the capital of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) and remained the capital of the Qing until 1911, while Mukden was used as a secondary capital in the first hundred years of the Qing.

The male relatives of the Manchu emperor (Manchu: beile 貝勒) were allowed to take part - to a certain extent - in the central government. Brothers and sons of the emperor were called Imperial Prince (qinwang 親王). To avoid succession struggles, the successor was nominated only shortly before the death of the emperor. Princes were not granted own territories, but were contented with a rich appanage.

The traditional titles of the Three Dukes (sangong 三公: the Grand Preceptor taishi 太師, the Grand Mentor taifu 太傅, and the Grand Guardian taibao 太保) and the Three Solitaries (sangu 三孤) were purely honorary in practice.

The large imperial household of the imperial palace required a special agency, the Imperial Household Department (neiwufu 內務府). Most posts of the imperial household were occupied by eunuchs; the highest among them (taijian 太監) had great importance in the run of daily business.

The central government was first led by the Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣 / dorgi yamun) that was modeled after the traditional Chinese government, with palace academies for the recruitment of highest officials (inlcuding the Hanlin Academy 翰林院), the translation of edicts and documents into Chinese and Manchu, etc.; the Six Ministries (liubu 六部: Personnel libu 吏部 / hafan i jurgan, Revenue hubu 戶部 / boigon i jurgan, Rites libu 禮部 / dorolon i jurgan, War bingbu 兵部 cooha-i jurgan, Justice xingbu 刑部 / beidere jurgan, and Public Works gongbu 工部 / weilere jurgan; each Ministry was headed by a minister shangshu 尚書 / aliha amban); and the Censorate (duchayuan 都察院).

At the beginning of the 18th century, the influence of the Grand Secretariat was gradually reduced and the institution was reduced to an apparatus of paperwork. Instead, the originally unofficial Council of State (junjichu 軍機處 / cooha-i nashūn i ba) took over the tasks of government. It was chaired by a prince and led by five Grand Ministers of State (junji dachen 軍機大臣). The Junjichu was a Manchu invention.

The Censorate was thoroughly copied from the Ming administration and had the task to maintain disciplinary surveillance over the officialdom. Its statff consisted of Investigating Censors (jiancha yushi 監察御史).

A special agency, in its meaning almost equal to the ministeries, was the Court of Colonial Affairs (lifanyuan 理藩院), from 1861 on called Central Foreign Office (zongli yamen 總理衙門). The lifanyuan was the diplomatic representation mainly of the Mongols and other Central Asian peoples. The zongli yamen was a more modern form of a foreign ministry.

The imperial administration was run by several courts, offices and directorates that managed the questions of communication, jurisdiction, imperial sacrifices, state banquets, astronomy, education, the flow of documents between the center and the provinces, and so on. An important office for the vast Qing empire was a translation bureau, publishing dictionaries for Mongolian, Kalmyk, Manchurian, Tibetan, Turki (Uyghurian), Arabian, and so on (see Qingwenjian 清文鑒). Each instituition, central and territorial, was, at least in theory, headed by Manchu and Chinese in equal numbers, leading to an oversized bureaucratic staff.

The territorial administration was modeled after the Ming administration in provinces (sheng 省). Their names were equal to the modern provinces, except Zhili 直隸 (modern Hebei); Fengtian 奉天 (modern Liaoning), Chinese or Eastern Turkestan (since 1884 province of Xinjiang); Taiwan became a province in 1885. Tibet (Xizang 西藏) was relatively autonomous, equally Mongolia (called Uliasutai 烏里雅蘇台). Provinces were personally headed by a governor (xunfu 巡撫) instead of the Ming time collective chaqian 差遣 commission, but the governor was subordinate to one of nine (on average) governors-general (zongdu 總都). While the governors can be seen as civilian administrators and were therefore often translated as "viceroy" by foreigners, the governors-general were specially entrusted with military tasks.

The territorial administration itself was organized in prefectures (fu 府, better: 1st class prefectures), departments (zhou 州; better: 2nd class prefectures) and subprefectures (ting 廳; better: 3rd class prefectures, often located in border regions). Prefectures were headed by prefects (zhifu 知府) and divided into districts (xian 縣) administered by magistrates (zhixian 知縣).

The territory of China was in a parallel way divided into circuits (dao 道), administered by circuit intendants (daotai 道臺). They had to supervise waterways, grain tax and transport, salt salt production and sales, and many more specialized issues. The intendants were directly subject to the central government and not controlled by the provincial governors.

In Outer Mongolia, the tribes were organized in leagues (meng 盟). In the 19th century, these territories were taken under tighter control of the central government, just like Tibet, where the Qing government had stationed two representatives, the Grand Ministers Superintendent (banshi dachen 辦事大臣, in Manchu called amban).

The Qing military was organized in the Eight Banners (baqi 八旗 / jakūn gūsa), originally only Manchu divisions that were later increased by eight Mongolian and eight Chinese Banners. Each Banner was commanded by a Commander-in-chief (dutong 都統) and stayed under the authority of the emperor or one of the imperial princes. Some were stationed in the capital or even acted as palace guard, other banners were stationed in special garrisons throughout the empire. Military posts were hereditary, and the Banner families lived together with the Manchu soldiers in the Banner garrisons. Chinese troops were generally designated as "Green Standards" (lüying 綠營).

A very important aspect of the Chinese government and administration was the competitive recruitment of state officials, an invention of Tang dynasty but only perfected during the Song 宋 (960-1279) and Ming periods. This system relied on open, competitive examinations with yearly quotas of officials (Manchu, Mongol and Chinese) from every region. The first step in the hierarchy of examination were the prefectural examinations. A graduation led to the title of "shengyuangovernment student" (shengyuan 生員). Persons that passed the provincial examinations (titled juren 舉人) were allowed to take over lower-level appointments. Those passing the metropolitan examinations were called jinshi 進士 and were entitled to become officials with higher ranks after undergoing further studies at the central Hanlin Academy.

Appointment (xuanju 選舉) required a selection according to needs. The examinations were three days long and were to be written in a clausure where the candidates were asked to interprete paragraphs from the Confucian Classics and to write essays in prescribed literary forms (the infamous "eight-legged-essay " baguwen 八股文).

All official posts were graded in a nine-rank system (jiupin 九品) that was a heritage from the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265). Although this open system of recruitment seemed to be quite objective and fair, it was corrupted by the possibility to buy lower ranks in the academies, and the fact that candidates were often highly indebted.