An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

neige 内閣, the Grand Secretariat

Apr 28, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

The Neige 内閣 "Grand Secretariat" was a central government institution during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods. During the early Republican period (1911-1949) it was the main executive organ of the central administration of the Beiyang Government 北洋政府 in Peking. In modern states the term neige refers to the cabinet.

In the beginning of the Ming period the traditional Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) was set up. It was headed by a left and a right Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) and served as the central executive institution of the empire that assisted the emperor in political decisions. In 1380, Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (the Hongwu emperor 洪武, r. 1368-1398) decided to abolish this institution in order to strengthen the authority of the sovereign. Instead of the two Counsellors, four supportive offices (sifuguan 四輔官) were created that were named after the four seasons and took over duties corresponding to the annual seasons (spring support chunguan 春官 etc.), according to Chinese correlative thinking. These four officials were subject to the chief military commission (dudufu 都督府), but superior to the Six Ministries (liubu 六部). The Four Supports gave advice of the emperor, but only one of them for a period of ten days (a traditional Chinese week, xun 旬, see Chinese calendar), before the right of consultation was handed over to the next in turn. This was done in order to prevent one single person from trying to influence the ruler. The Supports also functioned as the main organ submitting memorials to the throne.

Emperor Taizu decided during these years personally over all important and relevant political issues, and only in difficult cases consulted a certain range of ministers, and not just the Four Supports. The posts of the Four Supports were sometimes left vacant. These procedures were not very efficient; two years later therefore, they were abolished and replaced by a larger group of Grand Academicians (da xueshi 大學士) which were chosen from a handful of central government institutions, namely the Hall of Flowery Cover (Huagaidian 華蓋殿, the later Hall of Central Harmony, Zhonghedian 中和殿), the Hall of Military Glory (Wuyingdian 武英殿), the Hall of Literary Profundity (Wenyuange 文淵閣) and the Eastern Hall (Dongge 東閣). This system was an imitation of a custom that had already been in practice during the Song period 宋 (960-1279). None of these officials was a sealkeeper, in order to prevent any abuse of power. They had only consulting rights, but memorials and edicts went through their hands, which made them a kind of secretariat to the emperor.

With the accession of Emperor Chengzu 明成祖 (r. 1402-1424) to the throne, the number of junior compilers (bianxiuguan 編修官) and examining editors (jiantaoguan 檢討官) in the Hanlin Academy 翰林院 was drastically reduced, and this personnel was transferred to a new location in the Wenyuange Hall, where they took over more important and critical tasks concerned with political decisions. The Wenyuange was located in the Inner Palace (neiting 内廷), and its staff regularly met the emperor in court sessions. This institution was therefore given the name Neige "Inner Hall".

At that time it was still the rule that imperial edicts were not to be handed down via the Grand Secretariat or memorials passed on to the emperor from lower institutions, nor did the latter possess any administrative competence among the officialdom. Officials working in the Neige were said to "do administrative work in the Inner Palace" (ru nei banshi 入内辦事), and were only later given regular titles of Academicians (xueshi 學士) or Grand Academicians (da xueshi).

From the Hongxi reign-period 洪熙 (1425) on the importance of the Grand Secretariat grew, and its staff was allowed to offer suggestions to the emperor. Some Grand Academicians were even bestowed the honorific titles of Grand Preceptor (taishi 太師), Grand Guardian (taibao 太保, both see Sangong 三公 "Three Dukes") or Minister (shangshu 尚書) and Vice Minister (shilang 侍郎). This custom was also used in the reverse way by giving Ministers and Vice Ministers the title of Grand Academician. It also became custom that the Six Ministries directly obtained instructions from the Grand Secretariat and implemented them. During the Xuande 宣德 (1426-1435) and Zhengtong 正統 (1436-1449) reign-periods, two new institutions were created, namely the Eastern Decrees Office (dong zhichifang 東制敕房) and the Western Proclamations Office (xi gaochifang 西誥敕房). They processed the documents of the Imperial Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) and therefore were institutions directly subordinated to the Grand Secretariat. This was also the first time that the emperor requested the officials in the Grand Secretariat to add suggestions in how to answer a memorial that required a decision by the emperor. These suggestions were added in smaller script written on a leaflet attached to the memorial. This endorsement was called tiaozhi 條旨 or piaoni 票擬. The emperor used red or cinnabar-coloured ink to indicate his decision. These notes were called pihong 批紅. When decisions about critical issues had to be made the emperor preferred to personally confer with his ministers.

Emperor Yingzong 明英宗 (r. 1435-1449, 1457-1464) succeeded to the throne as a boy, and therefore many decisions about great political matters were in fact made by members of the Grand Secretariat. It so became the factual executive organ of the Ming government, yet unlike the Counsellors-in-chief during earlier ages, there was rarely a single person wielding so much authority that he dominated the court decisions. All decisions were submitted as those of the body of the Grand Secretariat, and not of one single person.

There was nevertheless a visible hierarchy among the officials working in the Grand Secratariat. Those at the head were called Senior Grand Secretaries (shoufu 首輔), the others Secondary Grand Secretaries (cifu 次輔). Senior Grand Secretary was commonly the person with the longest tenure. All Grand Secretaries stood hierchially higher than the Six Ministers. Between the Jiajing 嘉靖 (1522-1566) and Wanli 萬曆 (1573-1619) reign-periods, the Senior Grand Secretary gained so much importance that he was the main person drafting the suggestions to respond to memorials, and had therefore the same importance for political decisions like the Counsellors once had before.

The most important Senior Grand Secretaries during the later Ming period were Yang Shiqi 楊士奇 (1364-1444), Zhang Cong 張璁 (1475-1539), Yan Song 嚴嵩 (1480-1567), Xia Yan 夏言 (1482-1548), Xu Jie 徐階 (1503-1583), Gao Gong 高拱 (1512–1578) or Zhang Juzheng 張居正 (1525-1582). Their political role had become all the more important because many of the later Ming emperors did rarely personally attend court meetings. When the memorials with the attached suggestions were submitted to the throne, the Directorate of Ceremonial (silijian 司禮監) took over the task to comment the document. This instution was run by palace eunuchs. It was therefore necessary that the Grand Secretaries cooperated with the eunuchs to come to decisions. When the eunuch Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢 (1568–1627) usurped the political power of the Inner Palace during the Tianqi reign-period 天啟 (1621-1627), he was decisively supported by the Grand Secretariat. After his downfall it was decided that the members of the Grand Secretariat were selected by lot, in order to forestall court cliques gaining too much power again. At that time the Grand Secretariat had 50 members.

In 1629 the Jurchens (the later Manchus) who had founded the Later Jin empire 後金 (1616-1636, thereafter called Qing), established a Literary Institute (wenguan 文館) in their capital Mukden (Shenjing 盛京, modern Shenyang 瀋陽, Liaoning). In 1636 it was renamed Three Palace Academies (neisanyuan 内三院). The Three Palace Academies had basically the same task as the Grand Secretariat under the Ming, and apart from that, also to translate Chinese documents and to comment on the strengths and the shortcomings of the Manchu dynasty. The Three Palace Academies were the Palace Historiographic Academy (nei guoshi yuan 内國史院), the Palace Secretariat Academy (nei mishu yuan 内秘書院), and the Palace Academy for the Advancement of Literature (nei hongwen yuan 内弘文院).

The first of these institutions recorded and collected documents about the political history of the Manchu empire, especially in the shape of imperial diaries (qijuzhu 起居注), and was thus the forerunner of the Historiography Institute (guoshiguan 國史館). The Palace Secretariat Academy was responsible for documents of diplomatic relationships, but also of the regular documents handed down to the particular offices of the central government. The Palace Academy for the Advancement of Literature served as a critical historiographical institution and submitted its findings about history to the present ruler and the heir apparent in order to reflect the outcome of political decisions in the past. Each of these three academies was headed by a Grand Academician (da xueshi), who was from 1644 on supported by several academicians (xueshi). A year later the Three Academies were rearranged according to the pattern of the Hanlin Academy into the "Palace Hanlin Academy" (nei Hanlin yuan 内翰院林).

After the downfall of the Ming empire the Manchus, now masters of the Qing empire, imitated some political structures of the political system of the Ming. The Grand Secretariat, from 1658 on also called Neige (except a short interlude between 1661 and 1670 under the regency of Prince Oboi 鰲拜, when it was again called Neisanyuan), was headed by two Manchu Grand Academicians, and two Chinese ones. They were of official rank 1A. In 1748 the Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 (r. 1736-1795) relocated the Grand Secretariat into the buildings of the Hall of Preservation of Harmony (Baohedian 保和殿), the Hall of Cultivation (Wenhuadian 文化殿), the Hall of Military Glory, the Hall of Literary Profundity, the Hall of Substantiation of Humaneness (Tirenge 體仁閣) and the Eastern Hall. He also created the office of Assistant Grand Secretary (xieban daxueshi 協辦大學士), filled with one Manchu and one Chinese.

Under the Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 (r. 1661-1722), the Grand Academicians were still allowed to take part in political decisions, but with the creation of the Council of State (junjichu 軍機處) in 1730, the Grand Secretariat was reduced to the function of a secretariat in the proper sense. Academicians copied and drafted memorials to be submitted to the throne. They were translated by academicians reader-in-waiting (shidu xueshi 侍讀學士) into the official languages of the empire, Manchu, Mongolian and Chinese. Routine memorials (tiben 題本, tizou 題奏) were made ready for decision and accompanied by suggestions for procedure, and then submitted. When accepted by the emperor and marked as "notified" (zhidao le 知道了, Manchu saha), the decision was made ready as an imperial edict and handed down to the responsible ministry (gai bu 該部, Manchu harangga jurgan) for proclamation and implementation.

The Grand Secretariat was divided into the departments of the *certification office (dianjiting 典籍廳), the *Proclamations Office (gaochifang 誥敕房), the Manchu Documents Section (Manbenfang 滿本房), the Chinese Documents Section (Hanbenfang 漢本房), the Mongolian Documents Section (menggubenfang 蒙古本房 or Menggufang 蒙古房), the Manchu Registry (Man piaoqianchu 滿票簽處), the Chinese Registry (Han piaoqianchu 漢票簽處), the Endorsement-copying Office (pibenchu 批本處), the Verification Office (jichafang 稽察房), and the *copies archive (fubenku 副本庫).

Li Guanglian 李廣廉, Qin Guojing 秦國經, Zeng Yeying 曾業英 (1992). "Neige 内閣", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 732-733.
Qin Guojing 秦國經 (1992). "Neisanyuan 内三院", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 735.