An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

qing 卿, ministers, dafu 大夫, grand masters, and shi 士, servicemen

Apr 11, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Qing 卿 "ministers" and dafu 大夫 "grand masters" belonged to the highest titles of state officials (ranking just below the Three Dukes) in the Zhou kingdom 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) and were the leading administrators in the territories of the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯).

The holders of the posts of qing and dafu were usually also conferred a territory as a hereditary estate (fenfeng 分封) inside a regional state which was called jia 家 (in contrast to bang 邦 or guo 國, which was the territory of the regional ruler). The posts of qing and dafu were therefore hereditary. Most occupants were relatives of the ruling houses.

The lowest of these three ranks of officials (sanji 三級) were servicemen (shi 士), which were not endowed with an estate. The expressions qing shi 卿士, qing dafu 卿大夫 or qing shi dafu 卿士大夫 (in this order!) refer to the whole administrative staff of the Zhou kings or that of a regional ruler.

Qing 卿 "ministers"

The function of qing was to directly support the king and the regional rulers, respectively, in daily administration. The word can therefore be translated as "minister". During the Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) and the Spring and Autumn 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) periods ministers could occupy three ranks, namely senior minister (shangqing 上卿), ordinary minister (zhongqing 中卿), and junior minister (xiaqing 下卿). During the Spring and Autumn period these were reduced to two, namely senior ministers (shangqing) and *lesser ministers (yaqing 亞卿).

The fact that qing were often relatives to the regional rulers gave them a position to claim the right of obtaining an own "regional state". This was the case in several states during the Spring and Autumn period, mainly Chen 陳, Lu 魯, and Jin 晉.

In the political system of the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) dynasties ministers run the agencies of the central government. They were subsumed under the designation "nine ministers" (jiu qing 九卿). Each of them was aided by a vice minister (shaoqing 少卿). Examples for such imperial ministers are Chamberlain for Ceremonials (taichang qing 太常卿) or Chief Minister of the Court of Judicial Review (dali qing 大理卿). The title was informally used until the end of the imperial period.

In late imperial China the title qing was conferred upon meritorious persons, as a kind of honorary title (xuxian 虛銜 "vain rank", rank 3-5), for instance, as jingqing 京卿 "metropolitan minister". In official correspondence, Grand Ministers (dachen 大臣) were sometimes called with the antiquated title of qing.

During the Han period qing was also used as a polite address to a male person (like jun 君 "sir"), both by males and by females.

Dafu 大夫 "grand masters"

Dafu had subordinated or specialized duties, like chamberlain or steward. This term is usually translated as "grand master" (Hucker 1985: 5939). Some grand masters served in the central administration (chao dafu 朝大夫), but a large number in the territorial administration, and were therefore named xian dafu 縣大夫 (township), xiang dafu 鄉大夫 (district in the royal domain), zhou dafu 冢大夫 (surveying tombs), duyi dafu 都邑大夫 (several townships around a city), sui dafu 遂大夫 (district outside the royal domain), or gongzu dafu 公族大夫 (surveying the family affairs of a duke). All these duties were carried out for official domains (gongyi 公邑), while the administrators for private domains (siyi 私邑, later also for "princedoms", wangguo 王國) were called zai 宰.

Some texts like Guanzi 管子 (ch. Kuidu 揆度) discern between "senior grand masters" (shang dafu 上大夫), a designation which included also the qing and shi, and "adjunct grand masters" (lie dafu 列大夫). The latter again were divided into ordinary and junior grand masters (zhong dafu 中大夫, xia dafu 下大夫). Dai Wang 戴望 (1837-1873), commenting on the Guanzi, says that lie dafu and zhong dafu was the same.

The book Hanfeizi 韓非子 (ch. Wai zhushuo zuo xia 外儲說左下) explains that senior grand masters had the right to use two state coaches (yu 輿) and two carriages (sheng 乘), the ordinary grand masters two coaches and one carriage, and the junior ones one carriage.

The ranks (and thus the salaries) of qing and dafu depended on the size of the regional state. The chronicle Zuozhuan 左傳 (Chenggong 成公 3) explicates that a senior minister (shangqing 上卿) in a smaller state had the same rank as an ordinary minister in a greater state; an ordinary minister in a small state was as much as a junior minister in a larger state; a junior minister in a small state finally had the same rank as a senior grand master in a large state. In very small states, the level of ranks was accordingly lower.

A sentence in Zuozhuan, Xianggong 襄公 15, lists a few more estate holders than the known five ranks of nobility, namely dian 甸 (territory among the royal domains), cai 采 (owner of a territory outside the royal domains), wei 衛 (owner of a stronghold?), and dafu. This would mean that dafu was the lowest rank of nobility that was still granted a tract of land to live off.

The term shang dafu was from time to time revived in imperial times. The usurper Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-23 CE) for instance, re-adopted the title in 9 CE, likewise the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) and its successors.

The term dafu was used through imperial times for the designations of the leaders of institutions in the central administration, like Censors-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史大夫), Grand Masters for Splendid Happiness (guanglu dafu 光祿大夫), Superior Grand Masters of the Palace (taizhong dafu 太中大夫) or Grand Masters of Remonstrance (jianyi dafu 諫議大夫). In the Qin/Han period system of twelve official ranks, they occupied rank 5-9: dafu 大夫 (5), guan dafu 官大夫 (6), gong dafu 公大夫 (7, therefore also called qi dafu 七大夫), and wu dafu 五大夫 (9).

In late imperial China the designations XY dafu were sometimes conferred as honorary titles (fengzeng 封贈).

During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the highest court physicians were called dafu, subordinates had the titles he'an dafu 和安大夫, baohe dafu 保和大夫, and the like. For this reason the word dafu (today read daifu) is colloquially used to refer to a doctor.

Shi 士 "servicemen"

Servicemen often belonged to the households of grand masters and were not seldom relatives of them. During the Han period (refence in Baihutong 白虎通, ch. Jue 爵) the word shi was explained with the homophone shi 事 "to serve". Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200), commentator on the Confucian Classics, said that servicemen were the administrators of domains (yi zai 邑宰). Confucius' disciple Zilu 子路, for instance, was an administrator of the house of Jisun 季孫. A commentary of Zheng Xuan to the Liji 禮記 (ch. Shaoyi 少邑) indicates that servicemen lived from the income of the domain, and therefore did everything to raise the agricultural output.

Like the grand masters, the rank of shi was divided into three, namely senior serviceman (shangshi 上士), ordinary serviceman (zhongshi 中士), and junior serviceman (xiashi 下士). Below the rank of shi was that of zao 皂, a member of the menial staff (Zuozhuan, Zhaogong 昭公 7).

Shi was also used as a designation for an unmarried male or bachelor (for instance, in the ritual Classic Yili 儀禮). The earliest reference for the term shi used with the meaning of "scholar", "learned person", is in Guliangzhuan 穀梁傳 (Chenggong 成公 1), where the four classes of the people (simin 四民) are first mentioned (in this order!): scholars (shimin 士民), merchants (shangmin 商民), peasants (nongmin 農民), and craftsmen (gongmin 工民). The commentator Fan Ning 范寧 (339-401) explains that shi were persons studying the way and the arts (xue xi dao yi zhe 學習道藝者) and also persons of virtuous conduct (de xing zhe 德行者). The last statement can be confirmed from a sentence in the "Confucian Analects" Lunyu 論語 (ch. Zilu 子路).

Apart from this "Confucian" meaning, the term shi was also used for judicial officials (liguan 理官, sishi 司士, dashi 大士), and for elite troops (bingshi 兵士, wushi 武士).


Qing and dafu were either granted caidi 采地 or lutian 祿田. The latter only served to "pay out" (in the form of grain) a state official his salary, while the former was in hereditary possession and combined with a hereditary residence (caiyi 采邑) and troops of a certain size. In the late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), a qing or dafu had a domain with an army of 100 chariots.

This "estate" was also called shangtian 賞田 (in case the owner could not dispose of the local workforce), shangdi 賞地 or fengdi 封地. Its revenue served as a kind of salary to the estate-holder. In imperial times therefore, such hereditary domains were called shiyi 食邑 "domains to live off". One third of the harvest was to hand over to the central government, as a kind of tax. In some cases the king conferred "additional fields" (jiatian 加田) as an expression of extraordinary appreciation.

The arrangement of the fields followed in ancient times the so-called well-field system (jingtian 井田), and the estates were therefore also called jingyi 井邑. The domains also included the right to dispose of the peasant folk living on it, to use the forests and waters, as well as the gardens on it. With the progress of administrative reforms and the replacement of hereditary domains by centrally administered commanderies (jun 郡) and districticts (xian 縣), state officials were properly salaried, and the revenues of the domains were converted into regular taxes.

"Salary fields" (lutian) were only granted to an official as long as he served, and thus also called zhitian 職田 "fields of post". The size depended on the rank of the official, and the territory was not inheritable. The system was abolished with the introduction of the regular salary, but was sometimes revived, for instance, during the Northern Wei period, but also during the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song periods. A metropolitan official during the Tang, for instance, was given between 2 and 12 qing 頃 of land (see weights and measures), a provincial official between 2.5 and 12 qing. It was strictly forbidden to sell the fields. The official lived from the rent (zhizu 職租 "rent paid to government officials") paid by tenant farmers, but the Song dynasty restricted the land rent to no more than 6 dou 斗 per mu 畝 of land. The system was abolished by the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644).

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