An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

zhongshusheng 中書省, the Palace Secretariat

Aug 21, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) was one of highest institutions of the central government in early imperial times. It was created during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) and abolished by the founder of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). During the Song 宋 (960-1279) and Yuan 元 (1279-1368) periods, the Palace Secretariat was the core of the central government.

Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty desired to strengthen his authority. For handling the huge amount of documents, the chief steward for writing (shangshu 尚書) was the crucial person. He forwarded documents to the inner palace with the help of court eunuchs, the so-called palace secretaries (zhong shangshu 中尚書 or zhongshu 中書), who were concurrently receptionists (yezhe 謁者), and therefore also called *secretary-receptionists (zhongshu yezhe 中書謁者). This organization was soon standardized, and transformed into an office, headed by a Secretariat Director (zhongshu ling 中書令), who was assisted by a Vice Director (zhongshu puye [!] 中書仆射). Both persons had considerable influence on political decisions, as seen in the biographies of the eunuchs Hong Gong 弘恭 (d. 47 BCE), Shi Xian 石顯 (d. 33 BCE) and Lao Liang 牢梁. Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE) amended this shortcoming by giving the two posts to state officials instead of to court eunuchs. Yet the influence of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshutai 尚書臺) on the central administration persisted.

The warlord Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220), ennobled as king of Wei 魏, created a parallel state structure for his quasi-autonomous kingdom, and took this chance to make a rearrangement concerning the secretariats. He created the post of director of the palace library (bishu ling 祕書令), who handled the flow of documents from the chief steward for writing to the emperor. Cao Cao's son, Emperor Wen 魏文帝 (r. 220-226) of the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265), created the Palace Secretariat (zhongshu sheng), which was headed by a Secretariat Supervisor (zhongshu jian 中書監) and a Director (zhongshu ling). They were assisted by several *inner secretarial court gentlemen (zhongshu lang 中書郎). The emperor thus relied on two secretariats, namely the outer Imperial Secretariat (shangshutai), and the inner Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng). The ranks of the personnel of the Palace Secretariat were lower than that of the Imperial Secretariat, but the former worked closer with the emperor, and therefore had some influence on the sovereign, even more as the Palace Secretariat took over the drafting of edicts (zhaoling 詔令) – and thus also over the content.

With the creation of the Palace Secretariat by Cao Cao, the paperwork of the central government was thus organized in the Three Departments (sansheng 三省), namely the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng), the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省), and the Chancellery (menxiasheng 門下省). This arrangement was imitated by the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420), and the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600), with the only exception of the Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581), who did not use the institution of the Palace Secretariat.

The relation with the imperial library was terminated by Emperor Hui 晉惠帝 (r. 290-306) of the Jin dynasty. He also liberated the Palace Secretariat from the work of compiling the imperial diaries (qijuzhu 起居注) and historiographical records, a work carried out by an editorial director (zhuzuolang 著作郎). The drafting of public documents was realized by a court gentleman with the title of tongshilang 通事郎 (lit. "transmission officer"), who was instructed in oral consultation with the Director. In earlier times the drafting of documents had been realized by the Directors themselves. Important edicts therefore came from the hand of Liu Fang 劉放 (d. 250) during the Wei or Zhang Hua 張華 (232-300) during the Western Jin period 西晉 (265-316). During the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420), these reception and issuance of documents was transferred to the Department of Scholarly Counsellors (sanjisheng 散騎省) and the Western Department (xisheng 西省) under the Chancellery, and the posts of the Palace Secretariat were left vacant.

The Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420-589) revived the Palace Secretariat. The post of Director was often filled by princes or members of high-ranking families, and the composition of edicts was therefore carried out by some retainers of them. From the Southern Dynasties period on this duty therefore fell in the hands of the drafters. Many of them came from families of lower status. This changed the power structure and created new channels of influence on court politics. Zhou She 周舍 (469-524) or Zhu Yi 朱異 (483-549), for instance, were drafters which had considerable weight on the decisions of Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557). Close to the end of the Southern Dynasties period, the position of Director was just a honorific one.

The situation was different in the Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386~581). Directors like Gao Yun 高允 (390-487), Gao Lü 高閭 (d. 502), Xing Shao 邢邵 (496-561) or Wei Shou 魏收 (507-572) were also professional writers. The duties of the Palace Secretariat and its prevalence over the Imperial Secretariat changed over time and depended from the preferences of each individual emperor. In some cases, the Secretariat was even responsible for court entertainment and judicial supervision.

The Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) and the early Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) called the Palace Secretariat neishisheng 內史省 or neishusheng 內書省. Emperor Gaozong 唐高祖 (r. 618-626) used the term "Western Terrace" (xitai 西臺) for it, Empress Wu 武則天 (regent 684-690, ruler 690-704) called it "Phoenix Tower" (fengge 鳳閣), and Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) chose the name "Department of the Purple Mystery" (ziweisheng 紫微省).

The Sui dynasty replaced the Secretariat Supervisor by a second Director, called zhongshu ling, neishi ling 內史令, ziwei ling 紫微令 (temporary use only) or youxiang 右相 "right counsellor". The court gentlemen were from the Sui period on also known as zhongshu shilang 中書侍郎.

The Tang reduced the number of court gentlemen from four to two. They were assisted by several drafters (zhongshu sheren 中書舍人) and secretarial receptionists (tongshi sheren 通事舍人, also called tongshi yezhe 通事謁者). The Sui introduced the lower office of imperial diarist (qiju sheren 起居舍人) for the compilation of the imperial diary, and the Tang added to these the posts of right rectifier of omissions (you buque 右補闕) and right reminder (you shiyi 右拾遺; the corresponding "left" persons worked in the Chancellery), who were responsible for critical proof-reading of documents.

The duty of the Palace Secretariat was to read incoming memorials to the throne, to answer questions by the emperor, and to draft the ruler's reactions, i.e. imperial edicts. From the Tang period on, the drafters also took over the duty to ask critical questions if cases were difficult to decide. The secretarial receptionist cared for the communication of documents inside the palace and the summoning of state officials to be interviewed.

Under the Sui dynasty, some Directors or Vice Directors even acted concurrently as Counsellors-in-Chief (zaixiang 宰相), and during the Tang, the Director was master of court assemblies, and thus also controlled the Counsellor. Many Counsellors started their career in the Palace Secretariat.

It was common use that political decisions were deliberated in the Administration Chamber (zhengshitang 政事堂). During these conferences the emperor consulted with the two directors of the Palace Secretariat and the heads of the Imperial Secretariat and the Chancellery. The function of this committee was to give counsels the emperor (zaixiang 宰相). The court gentlemen also participated in in consultations. The lowest stratum of the Secretariat's staff were secretaries (zhushu 主書), scribes (zhushi 主事), clerks (lingshi 令史), clerical scribes (shulingshi 書令史), *writers (nengshu 能書), translators (fanshu yiyu 蕃書譯語), mounted couriers (chengyi 乘驛), proclamation carriers (chuanzhi 傳制), managing clerks (tingzhang 亭長), clerks (zhanggu 掌固), case makers (zhuang zhichijiang 裝制敕匠), case repairers (xiubu zhichijiang 修補制敕匠), envelope keepers (zhanghan 掌函), file clerks (zhang'an 掌案), etc.

Table 1. Staff of the Palace Secretariat (Tang period)
中書令 zhongshu ling Directors of the Palace Secretariat 2
中書侍郎 zhongshu shilang Court Gentlemen (Vice Directors) of the Palace Secretariat 2
中書舍人 zhongshu sheren Drafters of the Palace Secretariat 6
主書 zhushu secretaries 4
主事 zhushi scribes 4
令史 lingshi clerks 25
書令史 shulingshi clerical scribes 50
傳制 chuanzhi proclamation carriers 10
亭長 tingzhang managing clerks 18
掌固 zhanggu clerks 24
修補制敕匠 xiubu zhichijiang case repairers 50
掌函 zhanghan envelope keepers 20
掌案 zhang'an file clerks 20
右散騎常侍 you sanji changshi right cavaliers attendant-in-ordinary 2
右補闕 you buque right rectifiers of omissions 2
右拾遺 you shiyi right reminders 2
起居舍人 qiju sheren diarists 2
通事舍人 tongshi sheren receptionists 16
Source: Tang liudian 唐六典, 9

In the second half of the Tang period, the factual power fell into the hands of local military commissioners (fanzhen 藩鎮). Some of them were granted the honorific title of Director or Vice Director of the Palace Secretariat, in order to give them a higher status. In consequence, this custom deprived the title of Director of its real value. At the same time, the Hanlin Academy 翰林院 gained importance as an institution where court documents were processed. Documents were drafted by Hanlin academicians (Hanlin xueshi 翰林學士), which had an excellent education in language and literature. The Hanlin Academy, and clerks in the newly created eunuch Palace Secretariat (shumiyuan 樞密院, founded in 765) step by step eclipsed the drafters of the Palace Secretariat. The novel institutions allowed the emperor to issue edicts without prior consultation of the secretariats in the Administration Chamber.

When the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) was founded, the Palace Secretariat was deprived of its status and became an institution outside the imperial palace, like the Chancellery. Its function was reduced to the processing of certain less important documents, like memorials presented on a special occasion (cewen 冊文), resubmitted documents (fuzou 覆奏) or lists of official examinations (kaozhang 考帳).

The office of the Counsellor-in-Chief was called Secretariat-Chancellery (zhongshu menxia 中書門下, short zhongshu 中書) or Administration Chamber (zhengshitang). It was located inside the Imperial Palace, and had nothing to do with the former Palace Secretariat. The latter had no director any more, and even the title of drafter (jilu guan 寄祿官) was purely honorific. Their duty was taken over by the drafters (zhizhigao 知制誥) of the new Document Drafting Office (sherenyuan 舍人院).

A reform during the Yuanfeng reign-period 元豐 (1078-1085) divided the Secretariat-Chancellery into three departments, and thus restored the original situation, in which the Palace Secretariat received edicts of the emperor, the Chancellery processed resubmitted documents, and the Department of State Affairs acted as executing agency. The original functions were restored and the Document Drafting Office transformed into the Secretariat Rear Section (zhongshu housheng 中書後省). The post of Director (zhongshu ling) remained just honorific, and the guidance of the Palace Secretariat was taken over by the Right Vice Director of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu you puye 尚書右仆射, also called youcheng 右丞), who was concurrently Court Gentleman of the Palace Secretariat (zhongshu shilang 中書侍郎). A second Court Gentleman of the Palace Secretariat managed the institution and took part in court consultations. The Rear Section was managed by one of the Secretariat Drafters (zhongshu sheren). The Left Vice Director (zuo puye 左仆射, also called zuocheng 左丞) and Court Gentleman of the Chancellery (menxia shilang 門下侍郎) acted concurrently as Counsellor-in-Chief. Decisions in policy were made by the Counsellor, before the respective edicts and documents were drafted and issued.

The increasing involvement of the secretariats into the decision of political affairs can be seen in the creation of eight new sections (fang 房) that reflected 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 (zhushifang 主事房, reception of letters, later called kaichifang 開拆房), the section for personnel registers (banbufang 班簿房), and finally the proclamations archive (zhichiku 制敕庫). Around 1090 two new sections were created, namely the expediting office (cuiqufang 催驅房) and the office of inspection (dianjianfang 點檢房).

During the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279), the Palace Secretariat was again merged with the Chancellery. The Right Vice Director, concurrently Court Gentleman of the Palace Secretariat, was called Counsellor to the Right (you chengxiang 右丞相), and the term zhongshu shilang was changed to Vice Grand Counsellor (can zhizhengshi 參知政事).

In the Liao empire 遼 (907-1125), the people of the Kitans dominated their Chinese subjects. The central administration was divided into two spheres, the Chinese one, and the Kitan one. For the organization of the latter, the Liao dynasty created a structure similar to the three Chinese departments. The Palace Secretariat was in the beginning called Department of Administration (zhengshisheng 政事省). Its structure was the same as in the early Tang-period model. The posts of Director, Vice Director, and the drafters, were mostly held by Chinese.

The Jurchens, founders of the Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234), chose a mixture of the Tang and the Song systems. Accordingly, the post of Director of the Palace Secretariat was occupied by the Right Counsellor of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu you chengxiang 尚書右丞相). This person was subordinated to the Counsellor-in-Chief. The paperwork was not done by drafters, but by academicians. Emperor Wanyan Liang 完顏亮 (r. 1149-1160), Prince of Hailing 海陵王, therefore abolished the more or less vain institutions of the Palace Secretariat and the Chancellery, but retained the Imperial Secretariat as the highest institution of the state bureaucracy.

The Mongols had a particular kind of central administation. It stood under the guidance of a "seal holder", daruγači (Ch. daluhuachi 達魯花赤), who was responsible for administration and taxation. Paperwork was organized by scribes, bičikeči (biduchi 必闍赤). These were to master not just the Mongolian language, but also Uyghurian, Chinese and Persian. Their expertise corresponded to the growing need to specialize the administration of the territory Činggis Qaɣan (c. 1155-1227) had conquered, and they had influence on political decisions.

In 1231, during Ögödei's (r. 1229-1241) campaign to conquer Yunzhong 雲中 (today's Datong 大同, Shanxi), the Mongols learned more about the central administration of the Jurchen empire. The scribes Yelü Chucai 耶律楚材 (1190-1244), Nianhe Zhongshan 粘合重山 (d. 1238) and Zhenhai 鎮海 were made Director, Left Counsellor (zuo chengxiang), and Right Counsellor (you chengxiang), respectively, of the Palace Secretariat, and the staff of scribes was transformed into that of regular drafters of the Secretariat.

In 1260 Qubilai Qaɣan (r. 1260-1294) decided to adopt the Chinese institution of the Palace Secretariat as the central administrative office. The Imperial Secretariat was abolished in 1292 (revived 1309-1311). The structure followed the model of the Jin empire. The post of Director was filled by an imperial prince, or left vacant. The real work was done by a left and right counsellor (you chengxiang, zuo chengxiang, the former being senior to the latter, unlike in China, where left was over right), or just by the Right Counsellor. The next level of officials were four managers of governmental affairs (pingzhang zhengshi 平章政事) and a right and left aide (you cheng 右丞, zuo cheng 左丞). This group of officials was called "state counsellors" (zaizhi 宰執). Below these persons, there were four consultants in the Secretariat (canyi zhongshusheng shi 參議中書省事) who were responsible for the paperwork, but also took part in decisions. The two sections, left and right, were further supported by directors (langzhong 郎中), vice directors (yuanwailang 員外郎) and office managers (dushi 都事). The Palace Secretariat controlled the Six Ministries and was thus also structurally the heart of the government.

In the course of the conquest of China, the Mongols created mobile Palace Secretariats (xing zhongshusheng 行中書省) which took over the administration of certain regions of the empire. The regions of what is today Shandong, Shanxi, Hebei and Inner Mongolia were directly subordinated to the central Palace Secretariat. From these institutions, the provinces (sheng 省) evolved after the foundation of the Ming dynasty.

The Ming took over the Yuan system, but in 1380, Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398), suspicious about the loyalty of Counsellor Hu Weiyong 胡惟庸 (d. 1380), decided to abolish the Palace Secretariat altogether, and had all institutions directly subordinated to the emperor's power. The Secretariat was never revived, but its functions were later replaced by other institutions, like the Hanlin Academy, or the Grand Secretariat (neige 内閣).

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