An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

liuke 六科, the Six Offices of Scrutiny

Jan 5, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

The Six Offices of Scrutiny (liuke 六科) were bureaus under the Censorate (duchayuan 都察院) in late imperial China. The jurisdiction of the Offices corresponded to the portfolios of the Six Ministries (liubu 六部), namely personnel (li 吏), revenue (hu 戶), rites (li 禮), military (bing 兵), justice (xing 刑), and public work (gong 工), which means that the Offices were in charge of supervising the appropriate work of functionaries in these six fields.

During the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), the Six Offices were still independent institutions, with twelve Supervising Censors (jishizhong 給事中), two for each office. In 1377, the Six Offices were subordinated to the Directorate for the Receipt of Edicts (chengchijian 承敕監), and two years later to the Office of Transmission (tongzhengsi 通政司). The number of Supervisions Censors was reorganized in 1391 with one Chief Supervising Secretary (du jishizhong 都給事中) and two Supervising Secretaries, a left and a right one (zuo jishizhong 左給事中, you jishizhong 右給事中) for each Office, but a total of 40 supervising secretaries in Beijing, and 7 in the secondary capital Nanjing. During the early 15th century, the Six Offices were once more made an independent organization. They controlled the attendants (shicong 侍從), read and prepared remonstrating memorials (gui jian 規諫), checked appointment for vacant functions (buque 補闕), corrected errors in documents (shiyi 拾遺) and checked the appropriate carrying out of orders (xicha 稽察) to the Six Ministries. In this way, the sovereign was able to guarantee the supervision of the flow of documents and the work of the Six Ministries.

The Yongzheng Emperor 雍正帝 (r. 1722-1735) of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) subordinated the Six Offices in 1723 to the Censorate which drastically reduced their power. Each Office was headed by two Supervising Censors, one being a Bannerman or Manchu, and one a Chinese. They were assisted by a large corpus of 80 bithesi clerks (Ch. bithesi 筆帖式) clerks and 63 assignees (jingcheng 經承). In 1666, the function of seal-holding supervising censor (zhangyin jishizhong 掌印給事中) was created, with two positions for a Manchu and a Chinese official.

The routine work of the Six Offices was to check the daily incoming routine memorials related to the individual portfolio. The memorials were received from the Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣), checked, and then forwarded to the respective institutions as "portfolio copies" (kechao 科抄). The copy sent to the institution in charge was called "proper copy" (zhengchao 正抄), and copies for information were dubbed "external copy" (waichao 外抄). Apart from these two types of working copies, the Six Offices produced two further types of copies, namely "historiography documents" (shishu 史書) produced for the Historiography Institute (guoshiguan 國史館), and "record documents" (lushu 錄書) containing information of interest for the Censorate.

The veritable work of the Offices came when the annotations of the emperor were impractical or incorrect. The Office in charge would then send it back to the throne, but in enclosed form (ju zou feng huan 具奏封還). If there were errors in the remarks by the Grand Secretariat (piaoqian 票簽) or factual errors in the text, the Office in charge would criticize the document and suggest corrections (bozheng 駁正). Documents for which both cases applied were called "enclosed and criticized" (feng bo 封駁). A second duty of the Six Offices was to check all kinds of political decisions, and documents of various government institutions. Orders of the Grand Secretariat to functionaries all passed the Six Offices of Scrutiny. They also controlled the time limit within which appointed officials had to reach their destination. The Six Offices also controlled the documents of the capital evaluation (jingcha 京察) of central-government officials and the great evaluation (daji 大計, waicha 外察) of provincial officials as well as the certification of civilian and military Confucian apprentices (tongsheng 童生). The Office of Justice (xingke 刑科) was responsible for the reception of imperially endorsed documents of the autumn assizes (qiushen 秋審) and the court assizes (chaoshen 朝審). The Office also supervised executions.

In 1906, the Six Offices of Scrutiny were abolished, but 20 supervising censors remained that commonly took over the duties formerly carried out according to portfolio.

The term liuke also refers to six types of state examinations (kemu 科目), namely "cultivated talents" (xiucai 秀才), classists (mingjing 明經), "presented scholars" (jinshi 進士), experts in law (mingfa 明法), experts in writing and calligraphy (mingshu 明書), and experts in arithmetics (mingsuan 明算)

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