Circuit intendants (daoyuan 道員, daotai 道臺 or guancha 觀察) were supervisors of special administration zones directly subordinated to central government agencies. The territory of their jurisdiction was the circuit (lu 路 or dao 道), which normally included several districts, sometimes overlapping provincial boundaries. Because they organized financial and economical matters, also in the treaty ports, Western merchants had often business with circuit intendants. In Western sources they are called taotai or tao-t‘ai.
The origin of the intendants goes back to the early Ming period 明 (1368-1644), when the jurisdictional territory administered by provincial administration commissioners (buzhengshi 布政使) and surveillance commissioners (anchashi 按察使) were divided into smaller units that were administered by the two administration vice commissioners (canzheng 參政) and the assistant administration commissioners (canyi 參議). They organized financial and granary matters of each circuit, the so-called general administration circuits (fenshoudao 分守道). The subordinated officials of the surveillance commission (anchasi 按察司), the surveillance vice commissioners (ancha fushi 按察副使) and assistant surveillance commissioners (ancha qianshi 按察僉事 or qian ancha shi 僉按察事) were given the supervision of jurisdiction, in so-called general surveillance circuits (fenxundao 分巡道).
During the Qianlong reign 乾隆 (1736-1796) of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) these offices and their double responsibility were abolished, while the types of circuits were retained, from then on controlled by individual intendants (daoyuan) responsible for the control of one circuit only. The intendants were additionally given the duty to supervise military matters (in military circuits, bingbeidao 兵備道), and were therefore concurrently given the title of an officer. Apart from the administration and surveillance circuits, there were also tax circuits (duliangdao 督糧道) or grain tax circuits (liangchudao 糧儲道), and salt control circuits (yanfadao 鹽法道), or a combination of both (yanfa liangwu dao 鹽法糧務道). In the late Qing period the types of police ciruits (xunjingdao 巡警道) and industrial circuits (quanyedao 勸業道) were created.