Zhifu 知府 was the designation of administrators of mid-level territorial units, below the province, yet above the discrict. It is normally translated a "prefect", yet there were prefectures of different rank during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods, the highest being fu 府 (superior or 1st-class prefecture), the middle one zhou 州 (subprefecture, department, or 2nd-class prefecture), and the lowest one ting 廳 (subprefecture). During the Song period 宋 (960-1279), there were also military (jun 軍) and industrial prefectures (jian 監).
The term zhifu originated in the Song period in the form zhi X fu shi 知某府事, meaning "proficient in the management of the prefecture X". The prefect's duties were the organization of schools, levying taxes, jurisdiction and propagation of edicts and laws, rewarding persons of filial or outstanding moral behaviour, carrying out offerings and ceremonies, inspecting the officialdom, organizing disaster relief, settling down or resettling migrant peasant, requiring labour for official work, caring for granaries and the supply of copper money, and the administration of jails.
Prefects resided in a prefectural city, whose administration they took over, yet they often toured the districts in their prefecture, or took concurrently over responsibilities of the whole province, as administration commissioners on guard (liushousi gongshi 留守司公事), pacification commissioners (anfushi 安撫使) or commanders-in-chief (du zongguan 都總管). Prefects were also responsible for the military garrisons in their jurisdiction. It was common to appoint to these posts court officials or regional inspectors (cishi 刺史).
The term zhizhou 知州 was first found in the shape quan zhi junzhou shi 權知軍州事 or zhi junzhou shi 知軍州事. The duties of this lower type of prefect were similar to that of the zhifu. There were several types of zhou during the Song period, namely dudu zhou 都督州, jiedu zhou 節度州, guancha zhou 觀察州, fangyu zhou 防禦州, tuanlian zhou 團練州 and junshi zhou 軍事州, showing that all of them were administered by military officials like military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使), surveillance commissioners (guanchashi 觀察使) or defense commissioners (fangyushi 防禦使). These had different ranks, prefects of jiedu zhou carrying rank 3, and that of the (normal) cishi zhou 刺史州 the fifth. In the beginnings, only those prefects were called zhizhou whose rank was identical to that of the prefecture.
Under the Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234) they were called panfushi 判府事. Under the Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) the prefects of the five capital cities were given the title zhifushi 知府事, and the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) used the titles fuyin 府尹 or zhifu 知府, giving this office the rank 4A (see yin 尹, metropolitan magistrate). In northern China the prefects were particularly responsible for military matters, and in the south, for taxation. Only from the Ming period on the term zhifu became the standard designation for the heads of the prefectural administration. They were responsible for taxation and jurisdiction in all districts, and shared the duties of the provincial administration commissions (buzhengsi 布政司) and the surveillance commission (anchasi 按察司).
In 1373 the prefectures of the empire were divided into three grades. Prefects of superior prefectures (shangfu 上府) with a revenue of more than 200,000 shi 石 "bushels" (see weights and measures) of grain were of rank 3B, prefects of medium-size prefectures (zhongfu 中府) rank 4A, and those of inferior prefecures with a revenue of less than 100,000 bushels per year, rank 4B.
The Yuan dynasty reduced the levels of zhou prefectures to three (shang 上, zhong 中, xia 下). The prefects of "upper-level" prefectures were called zhouyi 州尹 (rank 5A), all others zhizhou (rank 5B). The Ming simplified this system, and all zhizhou officials had the rank 5B. Yet there were still two different types of zhou prefectures, namely such subordinated (shuzhou 屬州) to fu prefectures, and such directly subordinated to the provincial government (zhilizhou 直隸州). The former were treated administratively like districts (xian 縣), the latter like fu prefectures. Notwithstanding their prefects had the same rank.
This was changed again by the Qing dynasty who raised the rank of zhilizhou prefects (zhilizhou zhizhou 直隸州知州) to 5A, while that of "normal" prefects (sanzhou zhizhou 散州知州) remained 5B. The Qing changed the system of prefecture categories according to the difficulty of administration (with the four criteria "bustling" chong 衝, "complex" fan 繁, "exhausting" pi 疲 and "difficult" nan 難) into very important (zuiyao 最要), important (yao 要), medium (zhong 中) and easy (jian 簡) prefectures.