Yamin XU

A system developed in ancient China that primarily served as the means by which bureaucratic institutions and government officials were monitored, and which ensured that the growing empire was governed and functioning properly.

The Chinese traditional supervisory system could trace its origins back to the times when China created the first bureaucratic governing machine under a monarch. While being exploited to strengthen monarchical control over the extended executive branch of the state, the supervisory system witnessed its own expansion, formalization, and bureaucratization over the centuries. As the bureaucratic machine became indispensable for governing the growing Chinese empire, highly adaptable supervisory institutions governed under a different set of regulations played a crucial role in monitoring the Chinese bureaucratic machine’s function and in keeping it on a “correct” track.

The bureaucratic post of yushi (censor), which in later periods was commonly entrusted with the supervisory power over administrative officials, already existed in the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE). In Zhouli, or Book of Rights—a collection of the Western Zhou dynasty (1045–771 BCE) institutes believed to have been compiled by scholars of the Spring and Autumn (770–476 BCE) and Warring States (475–221 BCE) periods—it was written that to keep a complex bureaucracy functioning properly under the Zhou kings, serious crimes committed by officials were targeted, and a post of chief judge (shishi) was established for prosecuting those who were involved. Two posts of grand steward (dazai) and his lieutenant (xiaozai) also were set up to be in charge of impeaching officials who violated government regulations and disciplines.

During the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–221 BCE) a post of yushi was established in Qin, Zhao, Han, and Qi as these decentralized feudal domains were transformed to warring states governed through functionary officials and clerks.

Preliminary theories and practices regarding how to keep officials and bureaucratic offices in check were widely discussed and implemented by prominent statesmen and political advisors of the time, such as Guan Zhong (d. 645 BCE), Shang Yang (390–338 BCE), and Han Feizi (281–233 BCE). Shang Yang in particular firmly believed that in order to make the supervisory system work, the power of censorial officials ought to be separated institutionally from that of administrative officials being supervised.

Major Developments during the Qin and Han Dynasties

The centralized imperial system established by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) and consolidated and perfected during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) was a major institutional development in Chinese history. Although this political system, under which the vast Chinese empire was unified and governed, was centered on an imperial house, it was maintained through a well-organized bureaucracy.

Under the first emperor (reigned 221–210 BCE) the Qin central government was divided into three branches controlled by, respectively, the counselor-in-chief (chengxiang), the military commander-in-chief (taiwei), and the censor-in-chief (yushi dafu). These three paramount officials were ranked head to head as “three grand dukes” (sangong), with each deriving his power directly from the emperor. Although the censor-in-chief had an official duty to assist the counselor-in-chief and could succeed the latter when a vacancy was created, he also headed the Censorate (yushifu) and could impeach the counselor-in-chief. Since the censor-in-chief was also the chief secretary serving the emperor, the Censorate staffed by a number of censors (yushi) was mainly managed by the junior censor-in-chief (yushi zhongcheng). At the local level supervising censors (jian yushi) affiliated with the Censorate were periodically sent down to inspect activities of commanding governors (junshou) and other subordinate officials.

During the Han dynasty, while the supervisory system established under the Qin was further expanded, several important changes took place. First, the former censor-in-chief (rank: wanshi [ten thousand shi of grains—one shi of grains weigh about 110 pounds]) assumed more formal secretarial duties to serve the emperor and was eventually transferred from the Censorate to a purely administrative post. As a result, the junior censor-in-chief (rank: qianshi [one thousand shi]) became the highest official responsible for running the Censorate, while the institute itself became specialized exclusively in censorial services during the mid-Han. From the monarchical perspective it would be much easier to control imperial censors, who wielded a wide range of powers, if they were low-ranking officials.

Second, to monitor the ever-expanding officialdom, the supervisory organization itself grew to become a more complex body. It was expanded to include several related divisions that could check on each other, making the emperor less worried about the possibility that the supervisory system would spin out of control. Besides the junior censor-in-chief, who had forty-five professional censors working under him, an additional supervisory post of rectifier (chengxiang sizhi) was established under the counselor-in-chief to monitor different administrative divisions of the central government. Moreover, under Emperor Wu (reigned 140–87 BCE) a powerful independent censorial post of metropolitan commandant (sili xiaowei), together with twelve supporting clerks, was added to the supervisory operations. While personally controlled by the emperor, the metropolitan commandant had power to supervise, investigate, arrest, and impeach any suspicious officials in the imperial capital and its surrounding areas.

The local supervisory work was also enhanced during the Han dynasty. Under Emperor Wu thirteen regional censors (cishi) affiliated with the Censorate were appointed. Their duties were confined to six areas (liutiao) defined by the emperor, which made local magnates, commandery governors, and various marquis (nobles) their main targets. Each commandery governor also appointed five local inspectors (duyou) to tour counties in the jurisdiction.

Supervisory Institutes after the Han and in the Tang Dynasty

During the periods between the Han and Sui (581–618 CE) dynasties when the empire was in disunity, specific supervisory practices varied under different rulers, but they all retained the basic Qin and Han organizational structure and features. Key supervisory institutes remained under direct control of the emperor and were made flexible enough to meet different imperial needs. To break the monopoly of great families over governmental posts, low-ranking supervising officials, including clerks coming from poor families (dianqian), were asked to spy on local officials. Moreover, supervising inspectors could also report activities of officials to the emperor anonymously and were even allowed to impeach them based on unconfirmed hearsay (wenfeng zoushi). Therefore, it was not surprising that censors were often found abusing their power. High-ranking officials, particularly after the Jin dynasty (265–420 CE, one of the dynasties during the Southern and Northern dynasties [220–589 CE] period), were thus forbidden to take on the post of junior censor-in-chief. R
egional standing censorial offices were regarded as unreliable by emperors, and censorial inspections instead were often assigned to ad hoc imperial censors.

Supervisory practices during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) were more institutionalized and formalized. Before, the Censorate had been located inside the imperial inner quarters and treated more like the emperor’s personalized tool of control. During the Tang dynasty the office of the Censorate was moved to the outer court, while the post of censor-in-chief was restored, lifting the Censorate from rank 4a to 3a. The Censorate was more bureaucratized itself as it was formally divided into three bureaus (sanyuan): Headquarters Bureau (responsible for handling daily affairs and impeachments), Palace Bureau (responsible for correcting high-ranking officials’ ritual conduct), and Investigation Bureau (responsible for touring prefectures and counties and investigating local officials). The expanded Tang Censorate, which had its own jail, had power to review important judicial cases, supervise economic matters handled by both central and local officials, and investigate corruption cases of the military. Besides ad hoc tours and inspections of local prefectures and counties carried out by censors sent down from the Censorate, more regular supervising posts were established in ten and then in fifteen regions (dao) to carry out censorial work confined to the six categories specified by the Tang emperors, which had a different focus compared with those six areas defined by Emperor Wu of the Han.

Another major development during this period was a series of appointments of formal remonstrance officials, particularly those who were affiliated with the Chancellery (menxia sheng). These remonstrance officials had power to examine and rebut not only proposals coming from the Secretariat (zhongshu sheng) but also state policies formulated in imperial edicts. The most reputable Tang remonstrance official was Wei Zheng (580–643 CE), who often openly rebutted the edicts of the Taizong emperor (reigned 627–649 CE). According to Tang rules, without the approval of the Chancellery, even a Tang emperor could not get the concerned policies promulgated.

Supervisory Practices from the Song to the Qing Dynasty

During the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties the supervisory institutes were further centralized, while the rank of the censor-in-chief was promoted from 3a in the Tang to 2b in the Song dynasty and then to 1b in the Yuan dynasty. To increase the efficiency of the Censorate, the number of its formally appointed censors was reduced considerably, while the number of clerks was increased during the Song. Also, each of the six branches of the central government was put under a censor’s watch. Song emperors increased imperial control over the supervisory system, requiring each censor to submit at least one report per month. Censors were allowed, again, to impeach officials based on hearsay. At the same time, remonstrance officials were detached from policymaking institutes and increasingly worked as censors who targeted officials rather than as imperial advisors.

The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) supervisory system comprised several overlapping institutes, and its effective control over officialdom was enhanced through combined bureaucratic and monarchical efforts. To consolidate formalized bureaucratic supervisory institutions, the old Censorate (yushi tai), which had comprised several bureaus during the Tang dynasty and had been trying to coordinate their functions since the Song dynasty, was reorganized into a single but expansive institute called “Supervisory Headquarters” (ducha yuan), which was run by two censors-in-chief (zuo you duyushi) (rank: 2a) who, in turn, were supported by two vice censors-in-chief (rank: 3a) and two assistant censors-in-chief (rank: 4a). The Supervisory Headquarters was fully bureaucratized and established a number of internal offices to oversee the supervisory work in the empire.

The Ming local dao supervisory system had several components. First, in each of the thirteen provinces (customarily called dao) there was a provincial surveillance commission (tixing anchashi si) headed by a commissioner (rank: 3a). As agencies of the central government established in provinces to be responsible for overseeing local judicial matters, these commissions were often collectively called the “Outer Censorate” and communicated with the throne through the Ministry of Punishment and the Supervisory Headquarters, although they were neither branch agencies of nor controlled by the latter. Under these provincial surveillance commissions forty-one circuit branches (dao fensi) throughout all provinces were set up to supervise officials working at a lower level.

Second, in times of need the task of overseeing provincial affairs was formally delegated to general superintendents (zongdu) or provincial inspectors (xunfu). Affiliated with the central government and the Supervisory Headquarters, a general superintendent or provincial inspector often carried concurrently a title of censor or vice censor-in-chief and was also responsible for coordinating the operations of different government branches at the provincial level.

Third, 110 investigation censors (jiancha yushi) were listed under the Supervisory Headquarters. Carrying a title of regional inspector (xun’an yushi) while inspecting provinces, these investigation censors actually reported directly to, and even had an obligation to watch over the Supervisory Headquarters for, Ming emperors.

The most important Ming supervisory institution at the central government level was the so-called ke system controlled directly by the emperor. Two years after abolishing the prime ministership, the Hongwu emperor (reigned 1368–1398) in 1382 created the so-called Six Offices of Scrutiny (liuke), which were independent from the Supervisory Headquarters and enabled the emperor to control the six administrative ministries (liubu) more directly. Each Office of Scrutiny was led by a low-ranking (7a) chief supervising secretary (du jishizhong), who worked with two assistant chief supervising secretaries (rank: 7b) and four to ten supervising censors (jishizhong) to oversee a particular ministry. Proposals made by each ministry had to be examined and approved first by its corresponding Office of Scrutiny before they could be submitted to the emperor.

This dao-ke bifocal supervisory institution of the Ming dynasty was, with some modifications, inherited by the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). A major change, however, took place in 1723 when the Six Offices of Scrutiny were incorporated into the Supervisory Headquarters, making the latter the most centralized and formally bureaucratized supervisory institute in Chinese history. To regulate various censorial organizations and their operations, the Qing dynasty established comprehensive laws, such as the imperial ordained rules governing the Censorate (Qinding taigui) (established in 1743 and revised in 1802, 1827, and 1890), and the regulations of the Supervisory Headquarters (duchayuan zeli). The Qing dynasty also established other institutions, such as the confidential palace memorial (zouzhe) system operated since the Kangxi reign (1622–1722), to enhance dual (namely, monarchical and Manchu ethnic) control over both Manchu and Chinese officials.

The Censorate Bureau of Remonstrance

Thoughts from Su Shih, a statesman of the Song dynasty (960–1279), on the Censorate Bureau of Remonstrance, from Charles Hucker’s The Censorial System of Ming China. Hucker writes

Su’s memorial is of particular interest because it reveals his attitude toward the service expected of the Censorate and the Bureau of Remonstrance. He considered that the state’s gravest problem was to maintain a proper balance between forces favoring centralization and those favoring decentralization. Overcentralization made it possible for evil ministers to gain imperial favor and usurp the authority proper to the sovereign, while extreme decentralization permitted regional authorities to become strong enough to do so. The Sung [Song] government, Su thought, tended toward centralization and was thus susceptible to the abuses of cunning men in high places. He said that he could not presume to explain entirely the measures that dynastic founders had instituted to prevent overcentralization and its dangers, but he added:

However, in regard to the single matter of their employment of a Censorate and a Bureau of Remonstrance, this is the sages’ perfect preventive plan. Successively considering [history from] Ch’in [Qin] and Han and on to the Five Dynasties period [907–960 CE], there were undoubtedly several hundred men who met their deaths because they remonstrated; but from the Chien-lung era [960–962 CE] on, no critics have ever been punished. Even though they were reproved they have forthwith been granted extraordinary promotions. Being permitted to make use of hearsay evidence, they have not been intimidated by high rank or prestige and have paid no attention to the honorable or humble [status of those criticized]. When their criticisms extended to the imperial person, the emperors have shown disturbance; when [the spoken of] matters concerning state policies, the grand councilors have expected trouble. Thus in the time of the Je-tsung (reigned 1022–1063) public opinion ridiculed the grand councilors, (saying) that they merely accepted and enacted the criticisms of the Censorate and the Bureau of Remonstrance, and that’s all.

Source: Hucker, C. O.. (1966). The censorial system of Ming China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 325.

Further Reading

Ames, R. T. (1994). The art of rulership: A study of ancient Chinese political thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Bartlett, B. S. (1991). Monarchs and ministers: The grand council in Mid-Ch’ing China, 1723–1820. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Du You. (1988). Zhiguan dian ??? [Governmental posts]. In Tongdian ?? [Collected institutes]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 801)

Huang T sung-his’s. (1993). Waiting for the dawn: A plan for the prince: Huang Tsung-his’s Ming-i tai-fang lu (W. T. de Bary, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Hucker, C. O. (1966). The censorial system of Ming China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ji Yun. (1987). Lidai zhiguan biao ????? [Governmental posts under different dynasties]. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe. (Original work published 1780)

Jia Yuying. (2004). Zhongguo gudai jiancha zhidu fazhanshi ??????????? [A history of China’s ancient supervisory system]. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.

Kuhn, P. A. (1990). Soulstealers: The Chinese sorcery scare of 1768. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ma, D. (1986). Zhiguan kao ??? [Commentaries on governmental posts]. In Wenxian tongkao ???? [Documented institutes up to the Southern Song dynasty]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 1324)

Metzger, T. (1973). The internal organization of Ch’ing bureaucracy: Legal, normative, and communication aspects. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Qiu Yongming. (1998). Zhongguo fengjian jiancha zhidu yunzuo yanjiu ???????????? [A study of China’s traditional supervisory system and its operations]. Shanghai: Shanghai shehui kexueyuan chubanshe.

Qing huidian guan. (Comps.). (1991). Ducha yuan ??? [The censorate]. In Qing huidian shili ????? [Collected governmental institutes of the Qing dynasty]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 1899)

Reed, B. W. (2000). Talons and teeth: County clerks and runners in the Qing dynasty. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Sun Wenliang. (1993). Zhongguo guanzhi shi ????? [A history of Chinese bureaucratic posts]. Taipei, Taiwan: Wenjin chubanshe.

Wang Pu. (1991). Yushi tai ??? [The censorate]. In Tang huiyao ??? [Collected institutes and documents of the Tang dynasty]. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe. (Original work published 961)

Wechsler, H. J. (1974). Mirror to the son of heaven: Wei Cheng at the court of T’ang T’ai-tsung. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wu, S. H. L. (1970). Communication and imperial control in China: Evolution of the palace memorial system, 1693-1735. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zang Zhifei, & Shen Hua. (2005). Fenzhi dingwei: lidai zhiguan zhidu ????: ?????? [Divisions and designated posts: Governmental institutes of different dynasties]. Changchun, China: Changchun chubanshe.

Zuo Yandong. (1989). Zhongguo zhengzhi zhidu shi ??????? [A history of Chinese political institutions] (Rev. ed.). Hangzhou, China: Zhejiang guji chubanshe.

Source: Xu, Yamin (2009). Supervisory System, Ancient. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2141–2145. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Supervisory System, Ancient (G?dài de ji?nchá zhìdù ???????)|G?dài de ji?nchá zhìdù ??????? (Supervisory System, Ancient)

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