An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

menxiasheng 門下省, the Chancellery

Aug 23, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The Chancellery (menxiasheng 門下省) was part of the central administration in imperial China and one of the Three Departments (sansheng 三省), the others being the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) and the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省).

The Chancellery was created during the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265) and lost its significance during the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Its original name during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) was Court of Palace Attendants (shizhongsi 侍中寺), which was an institution that oversaw all palace attendants. The term menxiasheng was first used during the Western Jin period 西晉 (265-316). It was headed by a Director (menxia shizhong 門下侍中), who was assisted by a gentleman attendant at the palace gate (Huangmen shilang 黃門侍郎 or jishi Huangmen shilang 給事黃門侍郎), later called Vice Director (menxia shilang 門下侍郎). The name huangmen "Yellow Gate" was derived from the yellow lacquer with which the gates of the inner palace were covered.

The responsibility of the Chancellery changed over time. During the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420-589), for instance, they were responsible for the imperial coaches, medicine (shangyaoju 尚藥局), provisions (shangshiju 尚食局) and the stables, during the Sui period 隋 (581-618) also for the city gates (chengmenju 城門局), the imperial seals (fuxiju 符璽局), the wardrobe (yufuju 御府局) and the palace administration (dianneiju 殿內局). These external duties were by the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) reduced to the offices for the city gates (chengmenju) and the insignia (fubaoju 符寶局), and the Institute for the Advancement of Literature (hongwenguan 弘文館).

During the Han period, court eunuchs supported the emperor to decide over the huge amount of cases he had to work through, and therefore had also considerable influence on politics. After the elimination of the eunuchs in the late Eastern Han 東漢 (25-220 CE) decades, court officials - so-called palace attendants (shizhong 侍中) - took over this duty. Emperor Xian 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220) appointed six attendants to help him to obtain a "shortcut in the matter of incoming documents" (sheng shangshu shi 省尚書事). This custom was inherited by the Wei dynasty, and also in the empires of Wu 吳 (222-280) and Shu 蜀漢 (221-263). The position of gentleman attendant at the palace gate was a highly admired one, as its holders got ever more influence on political decisions. Such were Hu Zong 胡綜 (183-243) at the court of Sun Quan 孫權 (r. 222-252) and Guo Youzhi 郭攸之 (b. 190), Fei Yi 費禕 (d. 253) and Dong Yun 董允 (d. 246) at the court of Liu Shan 劉禪 (r. 223-263 CE). Emperor Wu 晉武帝 (r. 265-289) of the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) was influenced by court gentleman Ren Kai 任愷 (223-284). During the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420), no emperor issued edicts without consulting his gentleman attendant at the palace gate. Some of these officials had even the permission to investigate cases and interview other state officials, like a Censor.

The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) tried everything to overcome the tribal system of the Taɣbač, and therefore appointed several court attendants (jinshi 近侍) who received and discussed documents with the emperor. These posts were filled with members of the nobility of the tribes. The highest of them were the four Directors of Palace Attendants (neishizhang 內侍長), who supported the emperor in the decision on critical cases. Emperor Daowu 北魏道武帝 (r. 386-408) standardized the system by adopting the model of the Jin dynasty, with titles like shizhong 侍中 and gentlemen cavalier attendant (sansji shilang 散騎侍郎). Mu Shou 穆壽 (d. 447) and Zhang Li 張黎 attended Emperor Taiwu 北魏太武帝 (r. 423-451), and Yu Zhong 于忠 (460-518), who was concurrently a commandant (lingjung 領軍), Emperor Xuanwu 北魏宣武帝 (r. 499-515). All these persons had a function that was close to that of regent.

The Northern Zhou dynasty 北周 (557-581) created a different system for the central government, and therefore did not know a Chancellery. The function of the Northern Zhou Imperial Adviser (yubo zhong dafu 御伯中大夫, also called nayan 納言) corresponded to that of gentleman attendant at the palace gate.

Emperor Yang 隋煬帝 (r. 604-617) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) revived the Chancellery, but the gentlemen were called shinei 侍內, in order to avoid the homophony of shizhong with the late emperor's personal name, Yang Zhong 楊忠 (Emperor Wen 隋文帝, r. 581-604). Only in 621, the term shizhong was reintroduced. In 607 Emperor Yang founded five departments, namely the Imperial Secretariat, the Chancellery, the Palace Domestic Service (neishisheng 內史省), the Palace Library (bishusheng 祕書省), and the Palace Administration (dianneisheng 殿內省). The duties to care for the daily necessities of the emperor fell under the jurisdiction of the Palace Administration, while the Chancellery was responsible for the discussion of cases to be decided by the emperor.

In 662 the name of the Chancellery was changed to Eastern Terrace (Dongtai 東臺), and the gentlemen renamed "left chancellor" (zuo xiang 左相). The "right chancellor" was the head of the Palace Secretariat, the "Western Terrace" (Xitai 西臺). Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (regent 684-690, ruler 690-704) called the Chancellery "Phoenix Terrace" (Luantai 鸞臺). For a short time after 713, the leader of the Chancellery was given the name Supervisor of the Chancellery (huangmen jian 黃門監). At the same time, the institution was called Department of the Palace Gate (huangmensheng 黃門省.

During the Tang period, the staff of the Chancellery consisted of supervising secretaries (jishizhong 給事中), policy advisors (sanji changshi 散騎常侍), senior recorders (sanji shilang 散騎侍郎), grand masters of remonstrance (jianyi dafu 諫議大夫) and audience attendants (fengchaoqing 奉朝請). The Director of the Chancellery (menxia shizhong) was in fact the Counsellor-in-Chief (zaixiang 宰相). He headed the discussions in the Administration Chamber (zhengshitang 政事堂). This institution was first part of the Chancellery, and later of the Palace Secretariat. In the second half of the Tang period, the post of Director was often just honorific.

Table 1. Staff of the Chancellery during the Tang period
侍中 shizhong Directors 2
黃門侍郎 Huangmen shilang Vice Directors 2
給事中 jishizhong supervising secretaries 4
錄事 lushi overseers 4
主事 zhuke scribes 4
令史 lingshi clerks 11
書令史 shulingshi clerical scribes 22
甲庫令史 jiaku lingshi Archive or Personnel Recorders 7
傳制 chuanzhi proclamation carriers 8
亭長 tingzhang managing clerks 6
掌固 zhanggu clerks 10
修補制敕匠 xiubu zhichijiang case repairers 5
左散騎常侍 zuo sanji changshi left policy advisors 2
諫議大夫 jianyi dafu grand masters of remonstrance 4
左補闕 zuo buque left rectifiers of omissions 2
左拾遺 you shiyi left reminders 2
起居郎 qiju lang imperial diarists 2
令史 lingshi clerks 3
典儀 dianyi supervisors of rites 2
贊者 zanzhe court heralds 12
城門郎四人 chengmen lang gentlemen of the capital gates 4
令史 lingshi clerk 1
書令史 shulingshi clerical scribes 2
門僕 menpu gatekeepers 800
符寶郎 fubao lang seals secretaries 4
令史 lingshi clerks 2
書令史 shulingshi clerical scribes 3
主寶 zhubao keepers of the imperial seals 6
主符 zhufu keepers of seals 30
主節 shijie keepers of tallies 18
弘文館學士 Hongwenguan xueshi academicians of the Institute for the Advancement of Literature no fix number

The Vice Director (huangmen shilang 黃門侍郎, menxia shilang 門下侍郎, by the Southern Qi dynasty 南齊, 479-502, called xiao menxia 小門下) had similar duties like his superior, and during the Tang period, Vice Directors of the Chancellery or of the Palace Secretariat were officiating as Counsellors-in-Chief (zaixiang 宰相). In such cases, their work in the Chancellery was taken over by a supervising secretary (jishizhong).

The latter designation was derived from their duty to supply (jishi 給事) their subordinates with documents. The position originated in the Imperial Secretariat, from where the office-holders were transferred to the Chancellery during the early Tang period. The supervising secretaries studied the drafts of memorials and implemented corrections, before they were presented to the emperor. In the same way, they proof-read edicts before these were issued. Rectifications were not just made concerning the language, but also concerning the content. This gave the supervising secretaries an important position similar to that of remonstrance officials (jianguan 諫官). For several decades, the supervising secretaries were called Dongtai sheren 東臺舍人 and Luantai sheren 鸞臺舍人, respectively.

The policy advisors and senior recorders belonged originally to the Department of Scholarly Counsellors (sanjisheng 散騎省, later called jishusheng 集書省), but they were transferred to the Chancellery during the Sui period. Emperor Gaozong 唐高宗 (r. 649-683) of the Tang dynasty shifted part of them (the "right" ones, you sanji changshi 右散騎常侍, you sanji shilang 右散騎侍郎), to the Palace Secretariat, while the "left" ones (zuo sanji changshi 左散騎常侍, zuo sanji shilang 左散騎侍郎) remained with the Chancellery. Their duties were not specified.

The Tang also introduced several lower-ranking officials in the Chancellery, namely left rectifier of omissions (zuo buque 左補闕) and left reminder (zuo shiyi 左拾遺), as well as imperial diarist (qijulang 起居郎), who made the records for the imperial diary (qijuzhu 起居注).

In the second half of the Tang period, the administrative and political weight oscillated between the Palace Secretariat and the Chancellery, yet the control over the flow and the content of court documents gradually went into the hands of the Secretariat. In the ninth century, the Chancellery was reduced to the status of an institution caring for the imperial seals, court ceremonies and the imperial altars. Some of its officials took care for the lists of state examinees (see state examinations) and household registers of state officials, while others were responsible for resubmitted documents (fuzou 覆奏). Many of the former titles were just honorific (jiluguan 寄祿官).

Under the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279), the Chancellery existed but in name, while the functions were carried out by other institutions, mainly the Palace and the Imperial Secretariat. The Left Vice Director of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu zuo puye 尚書左仆射), for instance, was concurrently Director of the Chancellery. The Vice Director retained his function and also participated in political decisions. Following the example of the two secretariats, the structure of the Chancellery was reorganized, and it was divided into ten sections, part of them reflecting the structure of the Six Ministries (liubu 六部): the sections for personnel (lifang 吏房), revenue (hufang 戶房), military and rites (bing-lifang 兵禮房, later separated), justice (xingfang 刑房), and works (gongfang 工房), as well as the secretary's office (kaichifang 開拆房), and the *office for ministerial routine memorandums (zhangzoufang 章奏房), and finally the proclamations archive (zhichiku 制敕庫). In 1129 the Chancellery was merged with the Palace Secretariat and called Secretariat-Chancellery (zhongshu menxia sheng 中書門下省).

The Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) used the system as it was existing under the Northern Song 北宋 (960-1126), but added a few specialized sections. The Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234) abolished the Chancellery in 1156. After short deliberation, the Mongols decided not to revive the institution.

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