Governors-general (zongdu 總督, between 1519 and 1551 called zongzhi 總制; also known as zhitai 制臺, zhijun 制軍, zhixian 制憲 or zhifu 制府) were high military officials controlling military units of one or several provinces.
During the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), some governors-general were entrusted with special tasks, namely the transport of tribute grain (zongdu caoyun 總督漕運, see caoyun zongdu 漕運總督), the management of the Grand Canal (zongdu hedao 總督河道, see hedao zongdu 河道總督), or the storage of grain (zongdu liangchu 總督糧儲). These governor-generals were allowed to mobilize military personnel for the transport and management of grain. The office over local military garrisons was but a temporary one, when rebellions had to be suppressed or wars in the borderlands were waged.
In 1441, for instance, the Minister of War (bingbu shangshu 兵部尚書), Wang Ji 王驥 (1378-1460), was temporarily entrusted as Governor-General suppressing a rebellion in Luchuan 麓川 (today's Longchuan 隴川, Yunnan). Yu Qian 于謙 (1398-1457), also Minister of War, took also over a similar task. The Minister of War in the Southern Capital (Nanjing 南京) carried concurrently the title of Governor-General of the metropolitan garrison (zongdu jingshi 總督京師) and was also responsible for military affairs around Nanjing. In 1452 Wang Ao 王翱 (1384-1467) supervised the military affarirs of Liang-Guang 兩廣.
The first office of a governor-general that had a relatively permanent character was created in 1469 for the twin-provinces of Liang-Guang 兩廣 (Guangdong and Guangxi), with Han Yong 韓雍 (1422-1478) taking over the post. In 1497 the office was created for the "three borders" (sanbian 三邊) in Shaanxi (zongdu Shaanxi sanbian junwu 總督陜西三邊軍務), in 1510 those for Sichuan, Shaanxi, Henan and Hu-Guang (Hubei and Hunan), in 1513 that of Xuanda 宣大 and Shanxi (concurrently responsible for grain used to supply the border troops), in 1150 that of Ji-Liao 薊遼 and Baoding 保定 (also including the supply organization), and in 1554 that of Jiangxi, Fujian, Jiangnan and Jiangxi.
After the office had become a permanent character, governors-general and provincial governors (xunfu 巡撫) were called du-fu 督撫 or du-fu dayuan 督撫大員. While the former was responsible for military matters, the latter administrated the province in civilian terms. Yet the governors-general had a higher status than governors. In some places, both offices were occupied by just one person. Most governors-general administered more than one provinces, some up to seven provinces. They were selected from high personnel in the ministries or the Censorate (duchayuan 都察院). Quite a few had been Ministers (shangshu 尚書), Vice Ministers (shilang 侍郎), Censors-in-chief (duyushi 都御史), Vice Censors-in-chief (fu duyushi 副都御史) or Assistant Censors-in-chief (qian duyushi 僉都御史) before appointed as governor-general. Governors-general entrusted with special duties mostly came from ministerial directorates.
The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) made the office of governor-general a permanent one. They controlled one or more provinces, yet the area of jurisdiction changed oftenly during the 18th century, particularly in the critical border zone of Shaanxi, Gansu and Sichuan. Governors-general (rank 2A, or 1B in case they held the title of Minister of War) were superiors to provincial governors. Their total number was about eight at a time. In the nineteenth century, there were governors-general for Zhili 直隸 (today's Hebei), Liang-Jiang 兩江 (Jiangsu and Jiangxi), Shaan-Gan 陜甘 (Shaanxi and Gansu), Min-Zhe 閩浙 (Fujian and Zhejiang), Liang-Hu 兩湖 (or Hu-Guang 湖廣, Hubei and Hunan), Liang-Guang 兩廣 (Guangdong and Guangxi), Sichuan 四川, and Yun-Gui 雲貴 (Yunnan and Guizhou). Governors-general had concurrently the title (xian 銜) of Minister of War or Vice-Minister of War, or Right Censor-in-chief (you duyushi 右都御史). They were the highest officials of the local administration and reported directly to the Council of State (junjichu 軍機處) and the emperor.
Unlike during the Ming period, the Qing governors-general also controlled civilian affairs and evaluated officials. The Western powers had to do with governors-general, which them called viceroy, as representants of the emperor. After the First Anglo-Chinese War, the status of viceroys became even more prominent. Some of them were important modernizers, others can be called proto-warlords. There were also three specialized governors-general, namely one for grain transport (caoyun zongdu), one for the northern or "eastern" parts of the Grand Canal (donghe zongdu 東河總督), and one for its southern parts (nanhe zongdu 南河總督). In 1906 the three northeastern provinces (dongsansheng 東三省) were transformed into regular provinces, and the office of Banner General was replaced by that of a governor-general.