Bridge at the Summer Palace on Kunming Lake, northeast of Beijing. The bridge was constructed during the Qing dynasty. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
The Grand Council (Junjichu) was the high privy council that assisted the emperors of the mid- and late-Qing dynasty. Although its predecessor committees were organized almost midway through the dynasty during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723–1735), the Grand Council was formally established only in 1738, near the beginning of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736–1795).
The founding of the Grand Council (Junjichu), the privy council to several emperors during the later years of the Qing dynasty, has been much discussed in the literature of China, especially whenever new information has come to light, first in old books and later with the opening of the Qing archives at the Number One Historical Archives (Diyi lishi dang’an guan) in Beijing. The old books and memoirs described a scheme in the changing of one small office’s name—from Military Finance Section (Junxufang) to Military Strategy Section (Junjifang) and finally to Military Strategy Office (Junjichu). But once opened, the archives provided a large cache of new revelations about the council’s origins and development. For instance, both the newly available Chinese and Manchu documents showed some of the office’s several names and committees to have existed simultaneously rather than sequentially, and one committee that supposedly changed only its name actually consisted of different and changing personnel.
The archives revealed Emperor Yongzheng less interested in establishing a powerful inner-court organization such as the Grand Council and more interested in retaining power for himself. It is true that he depended on inner-court confidantes such as his younger brother, Prince Yi (Yi Qinwang), and two trusted Chinese officials, Zhang Tingyu and Jiang Tingxi. Beyond this inner circle Yongxheng added several informal, specialized offices to track and advise on particular problems such as financial corruption (Audit Bureau, Huikaofu), military finance (Junxufang), and military strategy (Junjifang). The advantage of these small working groups was that they could be summoned into existence and disbanded as necessary, leaving the emperor firmly in control. In fact, Emperor Yongzheng was content to maintain his father’s (Emperor Kangxi, reigned 1661–1722) policy of a divided inner court.
Arrangements swiftly changed at the beginning of Qianlong’s reign, when the Interim Council (Zongli shiwu wang dachen), the advisory committee for the imperial transition that was traditional at the outset of Manchu reigns, took over and ran the government for the new young emperor. Some of the same people who had served at high levels in Yongzheng’s inner court were now firmly in charge of the entire government, free of a strong imperial presence to challenge their actions. In spite of the traditional Confucian behest to respect a deceased emperor’s arrangements for three years, the Qianlong Interim Council instituted changes with unseemly haste. Most significant was the disbandment of the old informal committees and the Interim Council’s assumption of their responsibilities. Moreover, the Council itself was tion created in 1861 to deal with foreign relations. Moreover, in spite of the Yamen’s rise, for two decades Grand Councilors retained a strong influence in the membership of that body. The Council was also essential to running the government during the era of baby emperors, going through the formalities of responding to memorials and drafting edicts in the emperor’s name but in reality directing much policy on its own.
In May 1911, the throne’s end-of-dynasty attempt to rectify a dangerous drift toward regionalization finally brought an end to the Council. Yet an examination of archival materials from the few final post-Council months of the dynasty show that records continued to be kept in exactly the same form as the defunct Council’s, so possibly the supposed abolition was carried out in name alone. In fact, the Council had served China well. In the eighteenth century it was a key element in the Qing rise to power and greatness. And in the dynasty’s waning years of internal rebellions and foreign aggression, it held the country together for a considerable period of time before the final collapse.
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