The Evolution of the Chinese Imperial Government


For Professor Friedman – Legal Systems Very Different from Our Own


by Colin Glassey

Version 1



<Note: What I need to do is go through this and foot note everything. The sourcing for this paper is a large project and I regret that I didn’t do this from the start, c’est la vie. This is only a draft of the final paper. – Colin Glassey, March 29, 2012>




One element of Chinese government which has been poorly presented in English is the way the Chinese system of Imperial government can be viewed as a system that evolved – slowly and fitfully – over 2,000 years. Far from being a monolithic or unchanging system there was change in the Imperial system from beginning to end. The change was driven not only by external forces but was also caused by the Emperors and their powerful advisers with the aid of the official historians who periodically wrote "report cards" about the strengths and failings of the previous dynasty in the form of official histories.


It is fair to say that most of the changes in the Imperial system of China were largely human directed changes based on a careful analysis of lessons from the past. This "evolution based on the examples of history" is nearly unique in governments (until the American revolutionaries consciously created their new government in the late 1780s). By sharp contrast, the European "method" (if one can call it such) for improving governments was "survival of the fittest". In other words, in Europe, states with good governments "ate" states with less effective systems and so, over time, good governments survived, and bad ones disappeared. (And yes, this is a gross generalization which slights people like Caesar Augustus, Peter the Great, Louis XIV, etc. who consciously attempted to modify their governments based on their own personal notions of how government ought to be changed).


In China, the period of greatest change was usually at the start of a new dynasty as the new Emperor felt singularly unconstrained by the examples and precedent of the past. Based on my reading of Chinese history the following major periods of change are seen:


1.     The creation of the first system by the First Emperor (Shi Huang Di): circa 215 B.C.E. The First Emperor (Shi Huang Di) took the government of his home state of Chin (Qin) and imposed it on the other states that he conquered (Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, and Chu). Powerful and effective in the short term but in many ways a failure and condemned by later historians and thinkers. Despite the failures, in broad outlines, the Imperial system of the first Emperor continued for hundreds of years into the Han.

Importance: This was the start of Imperial government. All subsequent governments in China can be traced to this first one. You can't get a bigger "change" than this.


2.     The Han of Emperor Wu Di: circa 90 B.C.E. Emperor Wu Di formally accepted the principals of Confucianism in his management of the state. This marks the point where Confucian ideology gained official (and permanent) approval as the ideology of Chinese government. The Legalist school of the First Emperor was officially "dead".

Importance: A small change, a mere matter of philosophy, and yet, profound in its implications.


3.     The response to the Wang Mang usurpation: circa 30 C.E. Wang Mang, a top official took over and ruled for some 13 years. The new "Eastern" Han made a number of changes to prevent any future "Wang Mang" events from happening. Specifically it resulted in the rise to power of the direct family members at the top level of decision-making, especially the male relatives of the mother of the Emperor.

Importance: A fairly small change but the fall of the Han can be directly traced to this change.


4.     The founding of the Sui Dynasty: circa 585 C.E. Following the collapse of the Han and hundreds of years of warfare between the successor states, the Sui created a new system of government that made significant modifications to the Han system. The Sui took their hybrid Chinese/Northern Horse Lord system and imposed it on the whole of China.

Importances: For a time, women had real power and the Emperor was a military figure. This was a major change in Imperial government.

5.     The response to the rebellion of An Lushan: circa 810. An Lushan's rebellion nearly destroyed the Tang and only gradually did the Imperial court figure out ways to reassert authority over the provinces. The reforms were not successful but they laid the groundwork for the Song.

Importance: The An Lushan rebellion forced the Imperial government into a wrenching and long lasting turn away from military power as the basis of the government and towards giving all real power to the educated elite. Initially this was a small change to the Tang government, and none of the Tang emperors were able to fully implement it. Later, this idea that primary power should be vested in the hands of civilian officials, became very important.

6.     The Song founding: circa 965. The Song instituted major – and very long lasting – changes to the Imperial system based on the failure of the Tang government. In many ways the Song system was a remarkable achievement. All later imperial systems were based on the Song.

Importance: The Song completed the transition started by the Tang and implemented the world's first "modern" government: a bureaucracy based on merit. There is a great deal to admire about the Song system but their military ineffectiveness is a major weakness. This was a huge change to the Imperial system. 


7.     The Ming founding: circa 1390. The Ming founder was one of the great political thinkers in history and while he kept a great deal of the Song system, he made many changes and then he tried to make them permanent by creating a book of "Ancestral Injunctions" – in some respects this was the first Constitution of China. Political change in the Ming after his death was glacial due to his efforts (for better and for worse).

Importance: The Ming tried to correct the problems of the Song – military leadership becoming a hereditary class, the Emperor by law forced to remain at the center of the government, etc. The problems with the Ming were subtle and took hundreds to years to manifest fully. The importance of the Ming changes grow upon careful reflection.


8.     The Manchu (Qing) government of the Kangxi Emperor: circa 1680. This was the final form of the Imperial system, a hybrid of the Ming system with special Manchu elements grafted on. It corrected some of the obvious problems with the Ming system and it allowed China to expand territorially and economically to the greatest extent in its history.

Importance: The Manchu (Qing) in turn tried to correct the weaknesses of the Ming system with a new hereditary military class, the "Banner system", and an expansionist attitude towards their northern and western neighbors. Under the three great Manchu emperors China was the largest, richest, and most powerful state in the world. The changes here were actually quite small. In a real sense the Ming could have "become" the Manchu if they had wanted to.


To reiterate, these eight periods of government change are somewhat inaccurate. To talk about change at these points while ignoring the gradual changes that occurred at other times within the Song or Ming dynasties is – clearly – a generalization. Hopefully the benefits outweigh the costs.


A note on the role of history in China.


For an historian, China is a dream nation because they love history and they wrote massive volumes of historical texts. Unlike most nation-states in the world which care very little about posterity and are focused entirely on the problems of the now[i], the Chinese have an ancient cultural appreciation for written history. The most celebrated Chinese intellectual, Confucius, was credited with writing the first history of China (Spring and Autumn Annals) and because everything Confucius did in his life was a perfect example to later generations of Chinese intellectuals, the writing of history was meritorious (as opposed to writing fiction, which was simply not done, hence the dearth of fiction in Chinese literature until the beginning of the modern era in China).


The Empire developed a tradition of writing summaries of the official records of the current dynasty (the veritable records) and then, after the dynasty fell, later historians would go through the records, and create an official history of the previous dynasty (


The result is that Chinese history is extremely well documented, though because the histories were “official” they were somewhat biased and subject to a small degree of deliberate falsifications. Oddly, these official histories were not widely published, few people were given the chance to read them outside of the Confucian mandarin class and relatively few copies were made. Over the centuries a few parts of some of the histories have been entirely lost. Never-the-less, the histories are monumental works and they allow modern historians  to understand what happend in China at a very detailed level. There are no comparable works from any other culture in the world until the 1600s in Europe.



Section 1 - The First Emperor (Shi Huang Di)



A Brief Introduction to the rule of the First Emperor


The first emperor, Shi Huang Di (roughly translated as: Shinning God or Bright Heaven (Mark Lewis pg. 52) was originally just the leader of one of the seven states in northern China vying for control over the fairly small area occupied by the “Chinese people” (he was the King of Chin, the other ancient states were Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, and Qi). During a remarkable 10 year run (231-221 B.C.) the state of Chin conquered all six of the other states and so unified China. The King of Chin gave himself a new name, Shi Huang Di, and all later Emperors took the same title.


Some of the details of his government are lost or are only poorly understood because his government only lasted for 15 years (till 206 B.C.) and then was destroyed by a revolution. For the the following 2,000 years, the historians of China condemned his government and no unbiased histories were written about the Chin Dynasty until quite recently. (The first real historian of China is Sima Qian who wrote during around the time 80 B.C., during the Han Dynasty and he was constrained by the Han’s dynasty’s bias against the previous dynasty.) Still, we can safely make the following statements about the first dynasty.


The first emperor had a chief advisor and a number of civilian administrators. He ruled much like a modern European dictator, hardly constrained by any law or custom, superior to all precedent.


1.1 Power in Rules, Not in People


The Chin followed a style of law and society which has been called “Legalism” (articulated by the philosopher Han Fei Zi). The core tenant of legalism is that the rules must be followed and harsh and unyielding punishments for breaking the rule must be enforced to maintain a functional society. Legalism was later portrayed as the polar opposite of Confucianism with the later’s emphasis on humanity and compassion as the clearly superior approach to managing human relations and government. (See Arthur Waley: Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China). 


Legalism certainly comes down to us as a cold, unfeeling system; lacking in nearly all virtues, only good at producing a powerful military and a state able to supply the mighty Chin war-machine with a great quantity of dedicated soldiers and competent generals<Lewis pg.33-34>. The other states (the ones that lost) were long considered superior to the Chin in the arts, and poetry. Soldiers of the Chin state seem to be rather inhuman, able to slaughter the men, women, and children of entire cities at their King’s command<Lewis pg. 38> (Several recent Chinese movies attempt to portray this dynamic: “Hero”, and “The Emperor and the Assassin”)


The rigid adherence to the law, untempered by justice or even pragmatic rationality is widely blamed for the swift collapse of the Chin Dynasty. The oft-repeated story takes place a few years after Shi Huang Di’s death. There was a law which stated “a military unit assigned to garrison duty had to arrive by the date specified”. Like most laws of the Chin state, the punishment for failure, was death for everyone in the late unit. The story goes on to say that a flood prevented a military unit from arriving at their destination on time. The men, all facing certain death from the inflexible Chin legal system, choose to revolt, and this became the start of the revolt which toppled the Chin Dynasty. The consensus view of Chinese historians is that violence is not a long-term method for ruling a state, a large state such as China, can only be ruled by benevolence.


Viewed in this light, the Legalist school was an abject failure, capable only of conquest not of holding onto the lands conquered. And yet, the picture is not so clear cut because all later Chinese governments maintained aspects of the legalist ideas about human nature. In fact, some recently discovered documents, buried in tombs since the fall of the Chin empire, show that the legal code of the Chin was quite similar to the code of future “benevolent” Chinese dynasties.


1.2 Is Man Good or Bad?


The legalist school followed the doctrine that man is inherently bad and needs to be controlled by rules and “corrected” by the strictest punishments. By contrast Confucian thinkers (most importantly, Mencius) came to believe that man is inherently good and all that is needed for a peaceful and harmonious society is education and proper examples from the ruling class.


Yet the Chinese government in practice, despite a public adherence to Confucian ideals, was never trusting of its officials and insisted on an oversight regime which legalists would have intuitively understood. I discuss the censor system of government oversight in the section on the Song but in brief, the Chinese government conducted assessments of its functionaries from the lowest to the highest level. The good officials were promoted, the bad ones were removed from office, and the average were shifted to new locations.


This policy of not trusting in the inherent goodness of the ruling officials was both rational and wise (based on what we know know about human nature, with 2,500 more years of experience than Confucius had). The consensus view of human nature today is that man is somewhat better than bad, and that education can help to create better people, and that peaceful and just societies can be built based on examples - but more is needed. All successful societies must punish as well as reward, a few humans will behave badly and must be prevented from carrying out their evil acts by force. Both the carrot and the stick are required. The Confucian view of man is rather too optimistic about human nature, while we can acknowledge that the legalist view of man is far too pessimistic.


In summary, the Chinese government, by retaining some parts of the legalist world view was far more successful than if it had entirely followed the Confucian school. And all future Emperors, though officially rejecting the example of Shi Huang Di, actually modeled their method of governing on the first emperor <Lewis pg. 74>. Some people have suggested that that China would never have been unified by a Confucian state, and that only the Legalists were sufficiently ruthless to conquer the warring states of ancient China. (A position that Mao himself articulated). But once conquered, only the Confucians, tempered by a substrate of legalist practice, could rule the united nation for any length of time, and that is what the Han Dynasty became.




The CHC is the place to start. Volume 1 covers the First Empire and the Han. It is the least well developed book of the whole series and is (perhaps) the most in need of revision.


Mark L. Lewis, “The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han” (Harvard Univ. Press, 2007).





Section 2 - The Han of Wu Di


How Did the Han Dynasty Start?


The Han Dynasty, founded in the chaos of the broken Chin empire by a peasant (Liu Bang) re-created the unified state of China after a long civil war. Even after his conquest, the nature of his government was in a state of flux for some decades. The Han ruled through military might though by all accounts the civilian population was happy to be free from the previous Chin Dynasty’s legalist system. Apparently even the ad hoc rules of the Han were better than the rigid rules and harsh punishments of the Chin Dynasty.


2.1 Confucianism Gains Official Approval


Although the legalist movement came under sustained intellectual attack during and after the revolution, all the senior officials of the new Han state were either former Chin officials or their proteges. But the Confucian scholars argued that only Confucian principles could serve as the basis for a stable government. This view went essentially unchallenged in intellectual circles as no other philosophical school emerged from the wreckage of the Chin. Over time, the Han emperors became more comfortable with the idea of Confucian ideas, and no alternative ideology made any headway against Confucianism. A non-Chinese might question why the state government needed an ideology - a coherent political theory - in the first place. Many other ancient states lacked such things, or had little more than “The Gods have Appointed Me (and my descendants) to rule over everyone in this land”. But the Chinese seem to have a burning desire to act in accordance with an overarching worldview that can be expressed and debated. (At one time it was believed that Daoism was an active philosophical school at this stage in history, but recent evidence suggests that Daoism wasn’t a coherent philosophy until at least one hundred years later.)


Under the mighty Emperor of War (Wu Di), the state government adopted Confucianism as its official ideology. Oddly, the Confucian ideology of humanity, of reciprocity, of self-control, didn’t stop the Han armies from conquering vast swaths of land, roughly doubling the size of the Chin empire. How much of this was conquest through battles versus simply marching into lands controlled by uncivilized tribal people and saying “You all are now under the control of the Son of Heaven” is unclear. By the end of Wu Di’s reign China appears to have “controlled” the land from Vietnam in the south, to north Korea in the north east. Most of the people in these lands were non-Chinese, speaking their own languages and with their own customs but over time, most became Chinese that we recognize today.


2.2 Rule by Aristocracy


In addition to replacing the official state ideology, the Han Dynasty had a more conventional  governmental structure. The core kingdoms were ruled (as provinces) by close relatives of the Imperial family while much of the vast, newly conquered territories were ruled by native leaders who nominally obeyed the directives of the Han government. Control was loose but outright rebellions were usually suppressed (as in Vietnam) or, in Korea’s case, the control was so light that newly formed kingdoms were able to emerge as independent states without any known conflict with the Han government.


The Han government looks very similar to the Persian government under Achaemenid rulers with Chinese provincial rulers directly equivalent to the Persian Satraps and with a great deal of autonomy granted to the tribal territories.


It is unclear how much of a change this represented from the Chin style of government. There are indications that the Chin tried to rule from the center, with all orders emanating from Shi Huang Di and carried out by a group of appointed government officials. It is important to recognize that the Chin system that was born out of the conquest of six other formerly independent kingdoms and also based on the personal style of the first emperor, a highly suspicious leader who constantly worried about assassination attempts.


The Han Dynasty was far more relaxed than the Chin, more comfortable with dispersed power, at least that is how the histories (which are very favorable towards the Han) have been written.




CHC Vol. 1.


Mark L. Lewis, “The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han” (Harvard Univ. Press, 2007).



Section 3 - The Later (Eastern) Han




The Han Dynasty nearly came to end around the year 0, after 200 years of fairly successful rule, due the take-over of the government by their chief minister, Wang Mang. Mang rose high in the government based partly on family connections and partly due to his great skills as a government minister. Appointed regent twice for infant “emperors” who both conveniently died before the age of 6, he eventually asserted that the Han Dynasty had come to an end and he was now the new Emperor of China (in the year 9 A.D., asserting a position he held de facto for nearly a decade).


After his government fell (due to a revolt led by distant relatives of the Imperial family of the Han), a few changes were made to the government to prevent any future Wang Mangs from taking over.


3.1 Chief Ministers Down, Close Relatives UP


The new Han Emperors (usually called the Eastern Han) reduced the power of the chief minister and also made sure that new regents would only be drawn from the ranks of relatives of the Emperor. While recognizing the danger of a regent who was unrelated to the royal family, this solution proved to have serious weaknesses of its own.


The common practice of the Eastern Han became as follows: the Emperor would marry an aristocratic woman from a powerful family. The Emperor would father one or two male children with the Empress and then often die before the age of 20, rather suspiciously young. The regent for his young son and heir would usually be the the father of the Empress, or sometimes her eldest brother.


Perhaps you can guess how this played out as the years passed? On several occasions, the new emperor would be married to a new empress, almost always a member of his mother’s family. After a few years, with a male child born, this emperor would conveniently die, and once again, there would be a need for a regent, again drawn from the ranks of the mother’s family. This pattern proved difficult to escape from and so the Han Dynasty collapsed, in part because the country was ruled by a succession of regents acting nominally on behalf of child-emperors but in reality they ruled through murder of the Emperor and the people eventually saw through this deception and the kingdom split up. Over the last 100 years, not a single Han emperor reached adulthood <Lewis, pg. 64>.


The innovation of trusting the family as opposed to the ministers was not effective. Some other method would need to be found.




The CHC Volume 1


Mark L. Lewis, “The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han” (Harvard Univ. Press, 2007).



Section 4 - The Sui-Tang




The Han government fell apart as revolts by generals and powerful families resulted in ceaseless warfare which lasted from 189 A.D. till 589 A.D. when the Sui finally unified the country of China once more. 400 years of warfare coupled with invasions from the north led to a profound transformation in the nature of Chinese government. The new rulers, the Sui, were from the north and represented a mix of Mongol culture married to more traditional Chinese Confucian ideals. (Note: Mongol is a suggestive though ahistorical term, as the Mongols would not dominate the northern horse tribes till 1210 A.D.).


4.1 The Emperor as War Leader


The Sui followed a pattern which Europeans would have no trouble recognizing, that of the war leader as supreme executive. Sui (and the early Tang) Emperors led their armies into battle, and went on extended campaigns which kept them away from their capital for years at a time. Much like Alexander the Great, these Emperors took pride in their skills as generals, as masters of the martial arts, as horseback riding warriors who commanded respect not for their learning but from their ability to defeat their enemies in battles and sieges.


This focus on Emperor as war leader made perfect sense given the 400 years of warfare which preceded the Sui Dynasty’s unification of China. But this was not a pattern that proved to be long-lasting. While the first two Sui Emperors (Wen and Yang) and the first two Tang Emperors (Gauzu and Taizong) were military generals who rode with the Imperial cavalry, very few later Emperors of any dynasty commanded the army in person and those that did relinquished the role as soon as it was feasible.


The serious question this raises is: why was this so rare in Chinese history? Emperor Taizong of Tang is commonly ranked by Chinese historians as one of the greatest emperors, if not the single greatest emperor. During his 23 year reign (626 to 649) his armies defeated all enemies that dared to contest with him and he never lost a battle, China was economically prosperous and, within the borders, peaceful and culturally superior. The standard model in Europe for more than 2,000 years - from Alexander the Great at one end to Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the other end - was for the King to prove his worth as King on the field of battle. Yet in China, this was an unusual behavior, and, although praised, it was rarely copied.


Was this an innovation for the Chinese or a temporary response to the unusual conditions facing China at this time?


The answer can perhaps be found in the Confucian critique of war, a very powerful logical argument which was rarely heard elsewhere in the world. The Confucian critique of the war leader was as follows: a war leader seeks a strong army so as to win victories. A strong army requires expenditures of money and attracts men of great talent and skill to the army, so the state is “impoverished” both by the spending of taxes on unproductive items (crossbows, arrows, spears, armor) and impoverished by the fact that talented men join the military as opposed to the civil service (the idea that talented men might go into business was unthinkable to the Confucians). Talented men in the military cause trouble for the state because they seek to gain fame through military action and as a result, they constantly pull the state into unneeded wars with neighboring countries. If successful, these men become threats to the stability of the Empire, if unsuccessful, tens of thousands of soldiers die for nothing.


The idea that the empire might be better off as a result of conquests was largely dismissed by the Confucian scholars, who argued that it was impossible for the Chinese state to rule over the northern lands (modern Mongolia and Siberia), nor was it possible to go too far south (due to heat, disease, and the jungle terrain). In a very real sense, the Confucian scholars argued that China had natural borders and it was infeasible to extend the state’s power beyond these natural borders.


Finally, the Confucians made the humanitarian argument that no one really benefited from warfare. The purpose of the state was not so individual emperors could gain “fame” by winning battles, the purpose of the state was to allow the most people to live their lives as free as possible from invasion, bandits, and taxes.


As a result, while the Chinese historians admitted that China was peaceful and prosperous during the rule of Taizong, they could also point to many examples where wars had gone badly or successful generals had challenged the empire and brought chaos and ruin through civil wars. The Confucian ideal was to have a military that was only strong enough to defend the state, and one that did not attract men of talent away from their correct role as civil advisers to the emperor or governors of the provinces.


The amazement of the Europeans when they first arrived in China in the early 1500s and learned the magnitude of the power of the Chinese state coupled with the disdain for the use of this military power, is palpable. The question the Europeans kept asking themselves was: why didn’t the Chinese state (this was the Ming at the time) use their power to conquer all their neighbors? For the Europeans, the Chinese attitude towards warfare, the emperor, and the purpose of the state was very hard to comprehend.


4.2 Is the Purpose of Empire War or Peace?


The Confucian critique of war is a very powerful argument. And yet, the Manchu proved that, in fact, the northern lands of Mongolia and Siberia could be conquered and controlled. The failure to conquer the northern barbarians was, in part, a failure of imagination. It could be done, but the Confucian scholars couldn’t figure out how to do it and so they claimed the problem could not be solved by the Chinese state.


Further, by keeping the army weak, and staffed by “low quality” men, when times of crisis emerged (and they inevitably did), the Chinese armies were often beaten, with massive negative consequences for the state. The Confucians failed to see that the strength and prosperity of the Tang state was, at least in part, due to the military strength of the Tang army.


The old Roman expression “Si vis pacem, para bellum”  (If you wish for peace, prepare for war) has a great deal of truth to it. Weak states are attacked, strong states are not. Are there dangers in having bright, ambitious men in the military? Yes. But equally there are dangers in having your military commanded by the stupidly brave, or by the foolish and uneducated. Modern Western nations have proved that you can have a military officer corps which is extremely bright and yet loyal to the state. The Confucian scholars could not see how this was possible, and so they deliberately sought to weaken and denigrate the military in every way.


In any event, the “Emperor as War Leader” ended with Taizong’s death, and was never revived.


4.3 Non-Chinese Generals


The early Tang came up with an interesting innovation where they entrusted military command into the hands of non-Chinese generals. The apparent thinking was that no non-Chinese could possibly dream of revolting against a Chinese emperor, they would not have the support of the army, the people, or the aristocracy.


This rather naive view about the nature of human loyalty and the devotion of ethnic Chinese to leaders of their own race was crushed when An Lushan (a non-Chinese barbarian general) revolted against the Tang dynasty and nearly won the war.




CHC Volume 3: The Sui and Tang. Perhaps the hardest of the series to read.


Embry: China



Section 5 - The Later Tang




The Tang experienced a crisis in 755 which nearly destroyed the empire, this crisis is usually referred to as the An Lushan Rebellion (more accurately the An Shi Rebellion, as it continued for 5 years after An Lushan’s death in 757). Briefly, An Lushan was a very successful general who was not Chinese. He was given command of larger and larger Tang military forces and, as was the custom at the time, he was made the military governor of two border provinces in the north, with the job of protecting China from the northern barbarians. His brother was also given command of a neighboring border province and between them, they controlled nearly half of the entire Tang army. For complex reasons, the relationship between the Emperor and An Lushan broke down and An Lushan raised the flag of revolt, starting a civil war which lasted for seven years and saw the Emperor flee from his capital, and wander for some years from one province to the other as various provincial leaders fought with each other.


5.1 Separate Military Authority from Civil Authority


After the rebellion was finally suppressed, the clear lessons learned were (1) never allow military leaders to control provincial administrations and (2) do not trust non-Chinese as military commanders. The practice of never appointing non-Chinese as generals was easy to implement but the problem of breaking the military-civil rule was hard.


From 810 onwards, the Imperial policy was fixed on the goal of dividing military authority from civilian authority. The unitary model of control, with a single provincial leader being responsible for both civil affairs and in command of the soldiers of the province was the chief goal of a number of late Tang emperors. They failed in this attempted separation, and ultimately felll prey to the powers of the provincial leaders who understood what the central government was trying to accomplish and resisted the effort by every means possible, including assassinations and force of arms.


However, when China was reunified under the Song, the separation of powers was enforced from the very start and it was continued in all later dynasties. From 950 onwards, the military chain of command did not lead to control over provinces. Instead the military was kept apart from the civil authorities and the civil authorities were only given control over the military units stationed in their territory in times of grave emergency.


This separation of the civil from the military is something that we see first in the Roman Republic but it was only maintained within Rome and the “home territory”. Outside of Italy, provincial governors were given unified civil and military authority over the legions stationed in their province. As the Roman Empire in the west succumbed to the barbarian invasions, the last vestige of civil authority being co-equal and independent of the military disappeared. With some exceptions, the standard mode of European government was joint military and civilian rule combined in one man (the feudal lords were supreme executives over their feudal domains).


Given that all modern states clearly separate the civilian from the military (even to the point of having different legal systems apply as in the U.S.) this Tang innovation was a good idea. Once fully carried out by the Song, the Chinese military never again became a source of revolts against the Chinese government.




CHC Volume 3: The Sui and Tang. Perhaps the hardest of the series to read.


Embry: China



Section 6 - The Song




The Song Dynasty, regarded by most historians as the cultural and intellectual high point of all of Chinese civilization, took power after a brief 50 years period of complete chaos and massive warfare which marked the end of the Tang dynasty. The Song, having won the war and defeated all of their opponents, did something truly remarkable in the history of human civilization. At a famous diner following the capture of the last major kingdom, the newly proclaimed Song emperor praised his generals for their efforts and then “retired” all of them. The Song government was to be ruled by civilian officials, the military were emphatically not the basis of the Song power.

Time and time again, the story of the Song follows the same pattern: civilian officials rule, no matter the cost, even in the face of total annihilation, the Song Dynasty mis-trusted the military and never allowed “mere generals” to control state policy.


6.1 Increase the Power of the Civilian Officials


The Song fully implemented the later Tang efforts to keep the military firmly under the thumb of the civilian Mandarin officials. (CHC, pg. 229). They did this by separating the military chain of authority within a province. The senior provincial leader was a civilian official, appointed by the Ministry of Personnel. They had no authority over the military forces stationed in the province and they had only limited latitude to run the province and adjudicate disputes.


The military chain of command went up to the Ministry of War but for supplies, the military was dependent on the civilian government. The military was no longer a path to advancement for the bright and ambitious and the effect was soon seen in Song military inability.


This shows up in several ways, starting with the Song Emperor “firing” all his top generals once he unified China. The history tells us that just a month after conquering the last independent kingdom of China, the new founding Song Emperor held a banquet at which all his top generals were formally thanked and then forced to give up their positions, to live out the remainder of their lives in comfortable retirement (Mote pg. 103).


The Song never conquered Beijing and the lands north and east (including all of Manchuria). They made several attempts but all the Song wars against the rulers of this territory (the Khitan, who called their government the Liao Dynasty) - were unsuccessful. To keep the peace the Song paid a yearly tribute to the Khitan. When the Jurchen, a formerly subservient tribe in Manchuria, revolted against the Khitan, the Song seized this opportunity to again wage war on the Khitan, but again they were unsuccessful. The Jurchen, rapidly moved from an attitude of gratitude for Song aid, to contempt due to the ineffectiveness of the Song armies. Once the Khitan had been defeated, the Jurchen attacked the Song and conquered the capital (Xian) in 1127 (CHC pg. 646).


Finally, with the capital lost and complete destruction imminent, the Chinese found extremely capable military leaders, a number of generals took command of the Song armies and fought the Jurchen armies to a stalemate. The strong suspicion is that the Mandarin officials were so disorganized and disheartened by the loss of the capital (and all of northern China) that the generals were finally given a free hand to fight. (CHC pg. 663). The result was that the Jurchen armies were defeated in their efforts to reach the Yangtze River and the Southern Song survived for another 150 years.


However, the principle of military subservience to the civil authority was brought home in a most dramatic fashion when one of the heroes of the Song, General Yueh Fei, was executed in 1141, ostensibly for speaking out against a proposed peace treaty with the Jurchen (CHC p. 686).  (The Jurchen now called themselves the Jin or Gold Dynasty). From this point on, while the Song proved to be tough and determined when holding defensive positions, they never again staged a successful military offensive, until the end of the dynasty when the Mongols (under Kublai Khan) conquered the Southern Song capital in 1276.


It is quite true that the Song never suffered from a revolt like that of An Lushan, but the apparent cost they paid for complete control over the military was weakness which nearly lead to the utter destruction of the state in the 1120s and 30s. Later Chinese historians would criticize the Song for their military weakness and all later dynasties tried to raise the status of the military, with varying degrees of success.


6.2 Recruit the Best and the Brightest via Tests


The second major organizational innovation of the Song was the creation of nationwide exams to select the best and brightest to staff the Imperial administration. The Song achieved remarkable levels of literacy, some historians believe that more than half of the adult male population in Song China was literate. We know that huge numbers of people took the exams, hoping to get one of the coveted government positions which success in the exam granted.


The Song were not the first dynasty to hold exams, the Tang held exams and allowed a small number of exam winners to join the government. Detailed studies of the history of Tang government officials shows that less than 5% gained entry to the administration via an exam. But later Chinese historians concluded that those few “exam officials” were among the best and most successful government officials. In other words, looking at the 300 year history of the Tang government showed that the best officials were disproportionately those men who had passed the exam. As a result, the Song decided to embrace the exam wholeheartedly.


Where the Tang had selected 95% of their officials based on recommendations from trusted individuals, the Song selected more than 80% of their officials from the exam winners. Almost all the top ministers in the Song dynasty were exam winners. No other government in the history of world was like the Song, and not until the British copied the Chinese exam system for their civil service in the mid-1800s would any government look like the Song. Now we take it for granted that institutions should be staffed by the best (a meritocracy) but the Song were the first to implement such a system and the example they set was only copied by Korea and Vietnam for several hundred years.


Did the exam system work? There is a great deal to praise about Song Dynasty China, it was during this time that the great inventions of China were developed: moveable type printing presses, gunpowder, paper currency, the mechanical clock, and the compass as a tool for navigation. It is not possible to prove that any of these inventions were due to the fact that very bright men were training to pass a written exam so as to gain entry into the government, but the connection seems suggestive.


Song Dynasty China seems to have been incredibly wealthy. The tribute they paid to the Khitan and then the Jurchen was quite large, yet records from the time indicate that they were nearly trivial expenses compared to what was flowing into the government in the form of taxes. Song Dynasty China appears to have been richer than any Chinese government until the year 1700. This also seems to be indicative of an extremely effective and well run government.


Yet, this was a government that was beset on nearly all sides, in retreat or on the defensive throughout its entire existence. It was unable to form effective alliances with its natural allies (Korea and Vietnam) and it even went to war with Vietnam on two occasions (losing both times).


6.3 Reduce the Power of the Eunuchs


The power of the eunuchs in the court of the Tang was very well understood by the Song. For the last 70 years, the eunuchs essentially controlled the emperor, killing emperors who threatened their power and eventually reducing the emperor to a figure without any authority. The solution of the Song was to create a government run by civilian administrators who would run the imperial state. The head of the civilian administration was the Chief Minister and he came to rule China much like the Prime Minister rules England, with a near figurehead Emperor acting like the Queen of England. The Chief Minister of China could be (and was upon occasion) replaced by order of the Emperor, but generally, the Song Emperors left the administration of their country in the hands of the often ferociously smart Chief Ministers. (One can argue that this  is a vast over-simplification, the Song Government was quite complex and it changed as the decades passed. For example, early on there three three chief ministers and the Emperor met with each one individually).


The problem of this system was obvious after 100 years: why bother to have an Emperor if he doesn’t do anything? The whole Song system was based on a meritocratic selection of the smartest men to serve as government officials, yet at the very top was a hereditary leader who often had little more than good calligraphy and rich clothing. Some Song Emperors made a real effort to stay engaged in the government and some (like the founder of the Southern Song) had greatness thrust upon them by the disasters of history, but most Song emperors had little personality and gave every indication of being uninvolved in the government.


No later Chinese Dynasty fully copied the Song government structure, and in Korea and Vietnam, the Song government was both admired and viewed as cautionary example of an unwise extreme.


6.4 The Yuan Dynasty


The Mongols, under Ghengis Khan, waged a long war against the Jurchin (Jin Dynasty), ultimately destroying it over some 15 years. At the end of his life, Gheghis Khan attacked and annihilated his former allies the Xi Xia <or Western Xia> (Note: Ghenghis did not survive the campaign). During this long war, the Song remained completely uninvolved, despite suggestions from their generals that this was (at last) a chance to regain control over northern China (which had been lost to the Jurchin 100 years earlier). The Mongols had an ideology which told them their destiny was to conquer all the nations of the world and reign supreme over them and so they were thinking about attacking the Song as soon as the Xi Xia were destroyed in 1227.


For a number of reasons, the Mongol conquest of the Song was delayed. An initial assault was called off in 1260 and it did not resume until 1265. The resulting war lasted 11 years but when it was over, the Song Empire was utterly defeated, millions were killed, entire cities were reduced to rubble, and the Song Emperor surrendered his capital to Kublai Khan’s victorious army in 1276 (some pro-Song forces continued to fight on in the south until 1279).


The Mongols (who named their government the Yuan Dynasty in 1271) had little sympathy or interest in Chinese culture, history, or theories of governance. They ruled under completely different principles (might makes right, war is good, the the purpose of a state is to provide military forces for the Emperor to conquer new lands). The examination system was abandoned, Confucian learning counted for nothing in getting ahead in the Mongol government, poetry was not valued, and so forth. As a result, the Yuan Government is not really logically related to either the previous Song Dynasty, nor did it offer any lessons to the successor Ming Dynasty.


Later Chinese efforts to maintain that the Yuan was a “Chinese Dynasty” and that the Mongol Khans had “the mandate of heaven” strike this author as ahistorical and, to a degree, examples of wishful thinking. Certainly the Ming had nothing but hatred and contempt for the Mongol leadership, although the Ming did offer very large sums of gold to the Mongols in exchange for a formal admission that they were no longer the rulers of China. The Mongol Khans never accepted the deal.




Alexander Woodside, “Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History”, Harvard Univ. Press, 2006.


Jacques Gernet “Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276”, Stanford Univ. Press. English Translation 1962.


CHC Volume 5 Part 1 – Part 1 is the only volume currently available, part 2 is as yet still unpublished. It is, as usual, the best history.


CHC Volume 4 is also very good, offering perhaps the best history of the Khitan (Liao) and the Jurchen (Jin) states.


F. W. Mote “Imperial China, 900-1800”, Harvard Univ. Press, 1999. Professor Mote’s book is the best single-volume history of Imperial China but, if you have the time, the CHC Vols 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are better.


Embry: China.



Section 7 - The Ming




The Ming founder (called the Hongwu Emperor, birth name Yuanzhang of the Chu family) was a man perhaps unique in world history: born dirt poor, an orphan at the age of 12 (losing nearly his entire family to starvation and disease in one year), who by luck, by cunning, by courage and intelligence ended up at the fairly young age of 40 in control of all of China. He then ruled China for the next 30 years till his death. I believe no man in the history of the world has ever risen from such poverty to such a height of power and authority. His armies defeated the Mongols and three other nascent Chinese states to achieve mastery over the lands from the Gobi desert in the north to the mountainous border of Vietnam in the south.


With his remarkably broad background (for example it is widely believed that for some years he traveled through central China as a beggar) he knew - intimately - the problems of bad government. During his 30 year reign as Emperor he constantly tinkered with the design of his own government. 10 years into his reign he began writing down his rules of government. They were called the "Ancestral Injunctions" and they were to be binding upon all his descendants.[1] The historian Charles Hucker has called them a type of constitution, the first in Chinese history. The final version was created and promulgated throughout the Empire just three years before his death in 1398. It remained in force (with some modifications) for the remainder of the Ming dynasty (which ended in 1644) and although the Manchu rulers were not bound by it, they continued to follow many of the injunctions till their end in 1910.


The Ming founder initially tried to copy the Song system of government, when he could. And in its final form, his government looks much like the Song. In broad terms: the Ming continued the Song’s merit-based bureaucracy with government officials drawn from educated elite who could pass the Imperial examinations. The Ming founder’s changes were aimed at fixing key problems that he and his advisers saw in the Song government.


7.1 Strengthening the Military


Chinese historians have long criticized the Song for their ineffective military. The critique is valid. As pointed out above, time after time the Song armies would be sent out against the Khitans, or the Hsi Hsia, or the Jurchen, and they would be defeated. The one time when the Song actually won victories (the period 1132 to 1141) came to a sudden halt when the top generals were removed from office and the best of the generals (Yue Fei) was executed on trumped up charges.


The solution of the Ming founder was to make the Chinese military leadership (and to some degree the common soldiers) a hereditary class. At least one son in every generation (usually the eldest) – starting with the leaders and soldiers in his own victorious armies – would be required to join the Ming military as an officer or ordinary warrior. He also gave his best military leaders special ranks – titles of nobility (often translated – somewhat misleadingly – as Duke, Count, Baron, etc.). Only a few non-military men were ever given these special ranks and none after the Ming founder’s death.


Now, his own generals (and lower ranking leaders) really were extra-ordinary. Considered as a group they were perhaps the finest collection of generals in all of Chinese history. It was not wrong to think they would sire capable sons  but how long could this be expected to continue? Their grand children were no better than average leaders and by 1550 Ming military leaders had a well deserved reputation for bravery in battle coupled with great stupidity. Often it was the military skill of the Mandarin officials who were responsible for the occasional successes of the Ming armies in the last 100 years of the dynasty.


The special ranks of nobility gradually fell out of use, especially as later generations of generals had few victories to boast of. The Tumu debacle of 1449, when the Oirat Mongols defeated a huge Ming army and captured the Zhengtong Emperor, coming just 80 years after the founding of the dynasty, represented the end of the ideal of a capable Ming military which would be better than the Song. From this point on, the educated Confucian scholars dictated military policy to the marginalized hereditary officer class. Military innovation ceased and the Ming government began plowing significant amounts of funds into building the so-called “Great Wall” (an effort that was regarded by historians from the Manchu period as a monumental waste of resources).


Making the Chinese military a family “business” and giving the top leaders special ranks of nobility to try and give them status so as to compete with the highly intelligent Mandarin class proved to be an unsuccessful innovation. On the other hand, it is hard to keep a functional and successful military when the culture as a whole promotes and rewards peaceful pursuits and disdains martial values (as China did during the Song and Ming dynasties). For a modern example of this, look at Europe, and compare its overall values today vs. the values that were celebrated just 100 years ago.


Somewhat curiously, the hereditary nature of the Chinese military was kept by the Manchu when they took over in 1644. However they did so for their own reasons which I discuss in the section on the Manchu.


7.2 The Emperor Must Make the Decisions


The Ming founder started his reign as Emperor with a chief minister who ran the civilian bureaucracy just like the Song. But mid-way through his reign he became convinced that his own chief minister was about to assassinate him and so he executed his chief minister and wrote in his Ancestral Injunctions that no Chief Minister was to be appointed – ever – and anyone who even suggested that the Chief Minister position should be revived was to immediately face the death penalty! From that point on, the Emperor of the Ming was by law, required to be the head of the Imperial administration. All decisions had to be approved by him; he was the essential decision maker.


There was more behind this than just a treacherous Chief Minister. The Chinese historians faulted the Song for letting several Chief Ministers “take over” the government and making a hash of things when they did. For example, the great general Yue Fei was executed by the all-powerful minister of the time, a man named Qin Hui (Chin Kuai) who ran the Song government for nearly 22 years. The end of the Song dynasty was overseen by the equally vilified Minister Jia Sidao, who failed to stop the Mongol conquest of the Song - despite 15 years of warnings. The Song Emperor Huizong (who effectively lost Northern China to the Jurchens), spent most of his time on poetry and painting and left the government in the hands of a series of ministers who failed to keep peace inside China and failed - in a spectacular fashion - to keep the capital safe from attackers. Looking back on this history, the Ming founder decreed that his descendants would have to work hard when they were Emperor, there was to be no delegating the essential decisions of government to some official.


In practice, this imposed a huge burden on the Emperor, a man who was raised from birth amidst the greatest luxuries in the world. Some of the successor Ming Emperors did try to live up to their ancestor’s vision of the Emperor’s job. Others rebelled against it (and usually died at a young age). One of the last Ming Emperors, the Wanli Emperor, developed a hatred for his government administrators and refused to attend meetings or sign documents that needed his approval. As a result many government offices went unfilled for years, and the overall policy of the Empire became chaotic. The increasing breakdown of the Ming government under the Wanli Emperor led Nurhachi (the founder of the Manchu state) to believe that the Ming had become a paper tiger. In 1618 Nurhachi declared war on the Ming and humiliatingly defeated their invading army in 1619. Twenty five years later his son Dorgon marched the Manchu army into Beijing and started the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty’s rule over China. (The Wanli Emperor’s tragic history is well described in Ray Huang’s book about the decline of the Ming titled “1587 – A Year of No Importance”.)


While the Ming founder correctly viewed a Chief Minister as a threat, his solution put a huge burden on the Emperor’s shoulders. It was a burden that some Emperors were simply not capable of handling. Note that the Manchu continued the Ming policy in this area and they also had the same problem the Ming had during the 1800s, namely a series of below-average quality Emperors. Personally I believe there is no good solution to this problem; vesting supreme executive power to the vagaries of a family’s lineage is going to fail – eventually. Although many modern Chinese historians argue the Ming system failed because of the elimination of the Chief Minister position, the historical record does not fit that analysis. In fact, it can be argued that the Ming solution was the least bad solution possible. It did result in a successful government which lasted a very long time (from 1368 till its breakdown in the 1630s). And it was copied by the Nguyen Dynasty when they conquered all of Vietnam in 1802.


7.3 Reduce the Power of the Empress


The Ming founder married a poor peasant girl when he was young. She became the Empress Ma and was the official mother to all of the Ming founder’s children (historians now believe that she was not the real mother of any of his surviving male children). The Ming founder’s 4th son (and the 3rd Ming Emperor), the Yongle Emperor (reigned 1402 – 1424) decreed that from then on, all future Empresses would be women whose fathers were junior officers in the Chinese military. Not only that, but the father of the Empress was not given much in the way of special recognition (a small upgrade to his rank and a small increase in his salary). This rule was followed to the end of the dynasty.


In all previous dynasties (and in just about every government on Earth) the royal family intermarried with families of equal or near-equal status. This resulted in men with real power on their own gaining even more power and status by virtue of their daughter or sister being married to the Emperor. As mentioned in the section on the Han, the family of the Empress represented a real threat to the Emperor’s power. During the Tang the power of some Empresses was so great that they actually ruled the country. In the Song dynasty a group of women (the Empress and two former Empresses) allied with the Chief Minister and forced one Emperor (Guangzong of Song) to resign his position. Later another Empress arranged for the assassination of a different Chief Minister.


The Yongle Emperor himself made good use of his wife’s family connections in his successful bid to overthrow his nephew and take the throne. But he concluded that the risk to the Emperor’s position did not justify the benefit (of alliance with a powerful family) and so he made sure that all future heirs to the throne would marry ordinary women. The Ming Founder proved that the Emperor did not need to ally himself to a major family in order to rule China, and so the Yongle Emperor ended all interference in the running of the Empire by the family of the Empress. By and large this was a successful modification to the Chinese government.


7.4 Dealing with Imperial Family Members


The Han, the Tang, and to a lesser extent the Song dynasties were occasionally thrown into chaos when a member of the Imperial family started a revolt against the current emperor. The Tang were in fact close relatives of the Sui rulers. Various schemes were adopted by the different dynasties to reduce the dangers inherent in Imperial Princes getting involved in Court politics.


The Ming solution was to forbid the members of the Imperial family from living in the capital city, and forbidding them from holding any job what-so-ever. They were well cared for, they were able to lead lives of idleness (enforced) and luxury but they were forced into a meaningless, empty existence. The one thing they could do was reproduce, which they did. By the end of the Ming there were approximately 100,000 members of the Imperial family, all being taken care of at government expense.


What started out as a reasonable (and fairly effective) policy turned into a huge burden on the state all because the Ming founder made no provision for having his heirs ever “turn into ordinary people”. One might think that after three or four generations there would be no point in keeping these distant imperial relatives isolated from the rest of society. But in this case the Ming founder’s “Ancestral Injunctions” were not modified and the Imperial family became a real parasite on the Chinese state.


As it happens, the entire Ming royal family was hunted down and executed by the Manchu in the 30 years following their take-over in 1648. Given that they had been forbidden from actual participation in Chinese society, few mourned their permanent removal. So, what began as a rational and fairly successful policy, turned into a large problem with the passage of 250 years.


7.5 Increase the Power of Imperial Eunuchs


Because the Emperor traditionally had a large number of concubines (ranging from 30 to 100), he clearly could not monitor them all. And since by tradition any child born to an Imperial Concubine was the Emperor’s child, that meant that no man who could father children was ever allowed unsupervised contact with one of the Imperial Concubines. Since there were jobs in the Concubine’s palace which demanded men (repairs, protection, supervision), the system that was adopted from very early days in China was eunuchs.


Eunuchs aroused intense feelings of hatred among the Confucian scholar class (in part because fathering children was a very important act of filial piety, but also because eunuchs could become quite powerful without having any literary talent). In the histories, the Confucian scholar historians never lost the opportunity to attack the eunuchs in the palace as evil, corrupt, and the source of all the bad decisions by the Emperor. There is no question that the eunuchs managed to destroy the Tang dynasty.


The Song tried out an alternative system which gave a number of previously eunuch-only jobs to men (usually from the family of the Empress). This resulted in some powerful men with special access to the Emperor; they were criticized by the Confucian scholars for being unworthy men who operated outside the normal channels of government.


The Ming founder had to build his administration from scratch and he made use of just a few trusted eunuchs, no more than four. The Yongle Emperor also had to build up his administration from a small size, because many of the Confucian scholars refused to work for him (because he usurped the throne). The Yongle emperor made much greater use of eunuchs to carry out his orders and to spy out potential traitors and this set the precedent for the rest of the Ming dynasty. To some degree the eunuchs were necessary to the functioning of the Ming court,  because the Emperor had to review and approve nearly all the paperwork of the entire Chinese government (this was thousands of documents a week according to one exhaustive study done in the mid-1960s).


However, the use of eunuchs grew and grew to the point where there were probably as many as 70,000 eunuchs working for the last Ming Emperors. They formed a second “shadow” government that sometimes behaved in a rapacious and power-hungry fashion. At least four eunuchs achieved near dictatorial powers due to their ability to shield the Emperor from the vast flow of paper that was flooding into the palace every day. Eventually, after a few years, the Confucian mandarins would manage to expose some glaring example of corruption by these eunuchs and they would be removed from power (and nearly always executed).


Although the Confucian scholars hated the eunuchs, the reality was that they were necessary to the system. The Emperor needed a staff that was loyal to him alone and who could be trusted (more or less) to see that his wishes were carried out and that documents were processed correctly. On the other hand, it is fair to say that the eunuch administration expanded beyond any rational need and it was often out of anyone’s control, including the Emperor. For a modern parallel one need look no farther than the great expansion in the size and power of the White House staff in the U.S. Back in the days of F.D.R. there was essentially one man who worked for the President (Harry Hopkins) and now, 70 years later the White House staff numbers at least 2,000 people and has been growing larger with every new administration. The recent proliferation of “Czars” under President Obama is an especially worrisome trend along these same lines.


The use of eunuchs did not cause the destruction of the Ming dynasty. Yes there were abuses and the size of the Imperial government became excessively large but this is a problem which is common to all bureaucracies. While some eunuchs for a time became like mini-dictators, they were always removed from power and executed after a few years. The Ming could have avoided the need for any eunuchs at all if they had simply practiced monogamy but that was not in the cards for the Emperors of China.


7.6 Censorial System


While the Tang, the Song, and Yuan all implemented government oversight, the highpoint of the system was that which was implemented by the Ming. Western historians have called this system “The Imperial Censorate”. The modern meaning of a government censor is quite different from the older idea so to clarify: the Censor under the Ming Dynasty was a government official whoes job was to provide oversight on government officials. In the U.S. today, this function is provided by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and in police departments, this job is usually found under the Internal Affairs division.


The Censors in the Ming were selected from the near-top of the winning candidates in the Imperial Exams (the very top candidates had a different, even more prestigious career path). Being young and (one assumes) ambitious, they were sent out to the provinces to root out evidence of corruption and abuse of power by regular government officials. Although their official rank was low (9 through 7), they had a direct connection to the Emperor via messages which went directly to the Palace, and then to the Board of the Censorate.


Each censor was supposed to visit every government office within their assigned geographical area at least once per year. They were to report on whether the government official was keeping accurate records, whether the graineries were filled to the level they were reporting, and to verify that the taxes they were taking in were the same as the taxes they were sending on. The censors also were responsible for oversight of schools, making sure that each school was correctly reporting how many students they had in attendence, and, most importantly, how many students actually passed the initial round of the state exams. Schools that failed to get at least one passing student over 9 years were ordered closed.


Censors had a great many responsibilities and the travel requirements for censors assigned to large but sparsely populated provinces were ounerous. It was very rare for a censor to stay with the job for more than six years. Most censors would transfer to one of the six main ministries (Public Works, War, Rites, Personnel, Tax, or Justice) and spend the rest of their career at that ministry. Only the best, and most dedicated censors stayed and moved into the top ranks of the Imperial Censorate.


The Ming censorial system was one of the great innovations in the history of governance. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, when he proposed changing China’s government, talked about keeping very few of the old Imperial Government systems, but the censorate was one which he thought should be part of the new reformed government of China. Sadly, his vision of reforming the Chinese government was never implemented which is perhaps one reason why stories about corruption in the Chinese government are so commonplace today.




The Ming government tried to fix problems evident in the Song, and Tang dynasties. The solutions adopted were in general good solutions. They didn’t always work over the long term but most of them worked for one or two hundred years. The fact that most of the structures of the Ming government were adopted with only trivial changes by the Manchu is a strong testament to the overall effectiveness of the Ming system. The Ming system had many serious weaknesses (most notably a complete lack of appreciation for the value of international trade and basic economics) but I believe it is fair to say that the strengths outweighed the weaknesses.




As usual, the CHC is the prime source. The Ming Dynasty is covered by two books: Volume 7 (which covers the history) and Volume 8 (which covers specific topics such as the arts, religion, social structures, etc.).


F. W. Mote “Imperial China, 900-1800”, Harvard Univ. Press, 1999


Ray Huang, “1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline” (Yale Univ. Press, 1981. Mr. Huang’s book is a wonderfully interesting book but it only makes sense once you already know the history of the Ming.


Charles O. Hucker “The Censorial System of Ming China”, Stanford Univ. Press, 1966.

This is the best work in English on the Censorial system of government oversight.


Charles O. Hucker “The Traditional Chinese State in Ming Times”, Univ of Arizona Press. 1961. Short. Summarizes what ended up as Chapter 1 of the CHC Vol 7.


Charles O. Hucker “The Ming Dynasty: Its Origins and Evolving Institutions” Michigan Papers, Univ. Michigan. 1978. A longer version of what was published in the CHC Vol 7.



Section 8 - The Manchu




The Manchu, like the Mongols before them, actually conquered China and so replaced the government the old-fashioned way, by conquest. However, unlike the Mongols who I do not discuss because they threw out the Song government and completely replaced it with their own highly dysfunctional governmental system; the Manchu kept most of the Ming governmental system and simply grafted a few of their own ideas on top of the Ming system.


The Manchu were a tribal militaristic society of horse-based warriors, much like the Mongols and the Jurchen before them. In fact, the Manchu claimed descent from the Jurchen and their choosen Dynasty name (Qing) may have been selected as an echo of the Jurchen “Jin” dynasty name. Like the Jurchen, the Manchu emerged from a very small tribe in eastern Manchuria. Under a family of aggressive and highly capable leaders(Nurhachi, his eldest son Hong Taiji, and his second son Dorgon), the Manchu grew from a small band of less than 100 warriors to a military force that was able to defeat a joint Chinese-Korean invasion of their homeland in 1620 and then conquer the Ming capital in 1644.


From 1620 to 1644, the Manchu waged a continuous campaign of warfare and raids against the Ming government, while at the same time they launched two invasions of Korea and several other campaigns of conquest and assimilation against neighboring Manchurian and Mongol tribes. The pressure exerted by the Manchu on the Ming state, coupled with other serious problems, ultimately led to the collapse of the Ming government in the face of wide-spread peasant revolts. The largest of the peasant uprisings managed to occupy the capital of the Ming in the spring of 1644. The last historically recognized Ming emperor committed suicide as the “Forbidden City” was ransacked by the invading peasant soldiers.


The Manchu army, at the time camped in Manchuria, was allowed to cross into China by the Ming general Wu Sangui, whose army was stationed at the border (in and around the fort protecting Shanhai Pass, guarding against future Manchu invasions). But with the peasant revolutionary army marching towards him, General Wu was stuck between a lion and the raging sea and he choose to make a deal with the Manchu. So the Manchu army under Prince Dorgon entered China, in alliance with General Wu they defeated the revolutionary peasant army and then captured the capital without a fight, proclaiming the end of the Ming and the emergence of a new Imperial Dynasty. Prince Dorgon offered to restore order and promised the maintenance of the old system in exchange for the loyalty and obedience of the government officials. By and large, this “deal” was accepted and while the Manchu spent several years in military operations against die-hard Ming loyalists, much of China was captured without a fight, including nearly all of the major cities.


So it is the case that the “Forbidden City” of Beijing (which hundreds of thousands of tourists visit each year) was built almost entirely by the Ming, with only a few modifications made by later Manchu emperors. When modern tourists visit the palace grounds, what they are seeing is a Ming conception of a palace complex. The Manchu were a bit like wealthy renters, happy to keep up the repairs on the place, but content with the original design.


8.1 Governmental Changes by the Manchu


The foremost governmental change was that there was almost no change to the underlying Ming system of government. The Manchu left intact the governmental structures of the Ming, the exam system, the 3-year review system, even the six-branches of government were left essentially as though the Ming were still in charge.


8.2 Manchu Ethnic Control


The largest change was the Manchu nearly doubled the size of the Imperial administration. They did this by creating a “mirror image” of the Ming government, with all the new “mirror image positions” staffed exclusively by men of Manchu descent. So, at every level of the government in the capital, where there was once a single official, now there were two. And in every case, the new official had to be of Manchu descent and that official was the superior of the equivalent ranked Chinese official. Outside the capital, the old system was left almost exactly as it was under the Ming, although the Censorate was also doubled with a Manchu censor “shadowing” the Chinese censor (The Manchu Way pg. 59).


This was done both as a form of control (there were roughly 300,000 Manchu warriors ruling over a native Chinese population of around 150 million) as well as a way to provide employment and income to the entire Manchu military “officer” class. The Manchu were able to pay for this without raising taxes because, at the same time, they killed off the entire Ming royal family (by 1644 numbering some 100,000 men, women, and children) who were supported at government expense in a life of enforced idleness. By the bloody removal of these non-productive citizens from the government expense column, the Manchu were able to afford the doubling in the size of the civil service (growing from roughly 9,000 to 20,000 men).


Manchu men were not allowed to take up a trade or farm, instead they were a new hereditary warrior caste, just as the Ming military was mostly a hereditary organization. Note that Manchu men were not allowed to marry Chinese women for hundreds of years but that did not stop them from taking Chinese women as concubines (or 2nd wives). Officially the Manchu men had children who were pure Manchu, unofficially there was a great deal of intermarriage between the Chinese elite and the Manchu rulers. (Efforts by Chinese Ming loyalists to portray the Manchu as “alien” to China were increasingly inaccurate as the centuries passed.)


In practice, the Manchu “mirror image” officials, were selected largely because of blood or kinship ties to the top leaders of the Manchu state, and many of them did very little actual work. They were content to let the hard-working (and nearly always much smarter) Chinese officials do all of the actual “work” of running the government. The Manchu officials did act as an alternative power structure and some measure of abuses could be corrected by direct appeals to them, and through them to the Emperor. But mostly the lower level Manchu officials were lazy and corrupt and the upper level officials (the top leaders in Beijing) were engaged in an unending power struggle for control over the leadership of the state as a whole.


The situation can be analogized to the dual nature of the federal government officials in the U.S., where we have political allies of the president appointed to serve as the heads of the various executive agencies while the long serving government staff members keep the day-to-day business of the government running. However, since the Manchu were never replaced (by elections), they gradually became a huge dead weight on the system and in later years, they worked to prevent the Imperial government from responding to the real threats that came upon China in the form of the industrial-age British, French, and Russian governments. They did so because any “rationalization” of the Manchu government would have started with the removal of their dead weight from the system.


So, while the Manchu “mirror image” method for controlling China made some sense in the short term, over the long term it was an ineffective and harmful modification to the Ming system.


8.3 Military Power


As mentioned in the Ming section, the Ming attempted to maintain the status and prestige of the military by making the role of officer a largely hereditary position. The Manchu followed the same path but, because they conquered China as a military elite with a different ethnic background, the Manchu were able to preserve the power and status of the military for longer than the Ming. Also, the Manchu military was organized on very different lines from the Chinese military and civilian officials were never given authority over military units.


8.4 The Manchu Banner System


The Manchu, around 1600, created a system for organizing their military which is called “the banner system”. This system divided the Manchu military into separate groups, each with its own officer class and rank-and-file membership. Each “banner” (and initially there were four, later expanded to 8) had its own support network of slave-farmer-artisans. These slave-farmer-artisans of the 8 banners were a mix of people, some from subjugated tribes living in Manchuria, others were former prisoners of war, and more were ethnic Chinese captured during the great raids the Manchus staged in the years 1620 to 1644. The banner slaves appear to have provided the surplus food which allowed the Manchu military to go out on campaigns as well as providing weapons, and armor. This system appears to be somewhat similar to the Spartan system with the military elite (the Spartans) being maintained thanks to the efforts of the Helots, the farmer-slaves of the Spartan state. Note: it is possible that “serf” is a better term than “slave” as the conditions the banner slaves lived under were not especially harsh but they were not free to move or change their jobs, nor were they paid for their labor (?).


The top leadership of the banners was always drawn from the extended family of the Manchu founder and these men could be moved from banner to banner as the situation required. At the lower levels it was impossible to move from one banner to another. The Manchu conquered many Manchurian and Mongol tribes during their rise to power, and as they conquered a tribe, they would add the members to one or more banners.[2] The banners appear to have been used as means of breaking down tribal loyalties in addition to operating as a sophisticated method of organizing the society so that the military arm could be kept in a state where it was ready to fight on very little notice.


Even before China was conquered, the Manchu began creating banners composed of Mongols and then ethnic Chinese soldiers. This was how the Manchu incorporated artillery and infantry units which were found necessary to capture forts and cities. This also allowed the Manchu to increase the size of their military while keeping the Manchu banners “ethnically pure” (the Manchu always assumed the Manchu would remain loyal whereas they remained somewhat less certain about the loyalty of the Mongol and Chinese banners.


The banners were never placed under civilian control, they reported directly to the Imperial family. Although the Ming army was retained (called The Green Flag Army) it was always secondary to the Manchu Banners and was always under the control of the Manchu commanding general when it took to war. The banner system was the single largest innovation which the Manchu made to the Chinese Imperial government.


For many years, the banner system was successful and the Manchu were able to expand their control of territory throughout Mongolia, and west into regions where no Chinese state had ever previously exerted control. Under the Manchu, the Mongols were completely neutralized as a threat and the long, 2000 year conflict between the Chinese state and the northern barbarians was finally ended. The Manchu state was, for a time, the most powerful state in the world and it was the largest Chinese state in all of China’s history.


Eventually, the banner system proved incapable of modernization and the Manchu warrior class lost their military edge. In the 1840s, the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion proved that the banners were no longer a military force of any real power or skill. Even small groups of English and French soldiers armed with muskets and cannons were able to scatter Manchu banners of 50,000 men. China’s long and difficult decline in the 1800s has many causes, but the banner system is surely one of the problems. So, a successful innovation for the first 100 years, gradually becoming an ineffective hind-bound organization for the last 100 years.


8.5 The Imperial Family


One area where the Manchu differed from the Ming was in the management of the Imperial family. Unlike the Ming who had to live under the “constitution” of the Ming founder’s ancestral injunctions, the Manchu tore up the Ming injunctions and never replaced it with an official document. In practice they followed some of the traditions established by the Manchu founders but each emperor had the latitude to change his administration as he saw fit.


Perhaps the largest change was that the Emperor ruled with the advice of an “Inner Court” consisting of the most powerful relatives. This “inner court” was similar to how the Tang had ruled China, and it was also seen in the Khitan and Jurchen states. It is a fairly obvious solution to the problem of government, when you don’t have (or do not trust) the educated leadership, the Mandarin officials. The Manchu very explicitly did not trust the Chinese Mandarin officials on issues of state policy. The Six Ministries were kept intact but the chief ministers seem to have had very little influence over state policy. Instead the rule was based on aristocracy of ethnic Manchu men.


In practice, this inner court worked very well. Under strong emperors, the inner court appears to have largely deferred to the will of the Emperor (the Kangxi, the Yongzheng, and Quinlong being the classic examples of strong emperors) while still offering advice and sharing some of the burden of government. Under weak emperors, the inner court was able to control the government and make decisions. Towards the end of the dynasty, the inner court was split by factions (one group favored modernization and the other was opposed to any changes based on European technology). This split in the inner court helps to explain China’s vacillating policy from 1850 till the end in 1911. Unlike the Mongols who tore each other apart in vicious factional fighting (helping to end the Yuan Dynasty while the Ming were gathering strength) the Manchu carried on their disputes in a rather less bloody and more civilized fashion.


However, this inner court system cannot be considered an innovation born from a considered analysis of the problems of the Ming. Instead it was a return to the past based on distrust of the ethnic Chinese.


Another change was the Emperor reserved the right to select any of his sons to be his heir. The Ming system of strict primogeniture was abandoned. One Manchu emperor (the Yongzheng Emperor) famously kept the selection of hir heir a complete secret. He wrote the name of his successor on a scroll placed inside a sealed box hanging over the Imperial throne. When he died, the scroll was taken out and read and so the Qianlong Emperor was appointed as the new ruler of China. This system worked for several generations but then it broke down as the disadvantages of such a system eventually outweighed the advantages.


The disadvantages are: the heir is surrounded by brothers, each of whom “could have been” emperor were it not for a whim of the emperor at or near his time of death. Scheming by concubines to get their child placed on the throne became an increasing problem. False accusations, poisoning, assassination, were all tools employed during the later years of the Manchu dynasty to get one man or another onto the throne.


The Ming system often put mediocre men onto the throne, but it put them there reliably and without much question as to who would take over. Also, the eldest son was raised from birth with the expectation that he would eventually take over. The eldest son was given the best tutors and given the best possible education, while his younger brothers were kept off the main stage, “in reserve” and never allowed to gain any political power or allies in the capital. By contrast, the Manchu imperial children were all educated in the capital and they all had the chance to gain political power and allies and many of them waged vicious political battles with their brothers for the ultimate prize: imperial favor and the throne.


In retrospect, the Manchu system produced three great emperors and a series of weak ones who lost control of the country. This was not clearly an improvement over the Ming system, though it was not notably worse.




The Manchu system kept most of the highly functional Ming government and created a stronger military which allowed China to expand, surpassing even the Tang dynasty. However, like the Ming, the system proved highly resistant to change and during the 1800s it was obviously ineffective in comparison to the European states. Although it was hardly a perfect system, it provided peace and prosperity to hundreds of millions of men, women, and children for more than 150 years. The disasters of the 1800s are not, in my opinion, the only measure by which the Manchu system should be judged. Few systems of government can survive periods of technological change, we ourselves in this era of budget deficits and increasing governmental sclerosis should not be quick to pass a negative judgement on the failings of the Manchu government. The Manchu government lasted from 1645 to 1912, nearly 270 years. We have yet to match that and already the strains in our government are showing.




The Manchu, being the last of the Dynasties (surviving all the way till 1912) is quite well documented by European and Chinese historians.


As usual, the place to start is the CHC. Volume 9 covers the first 150 years of the Manchu Dynasty, Volume 10 covers the last 112 years.


F. W. Mote “Imperial China, 900-1800”, Harvard Univ. Press, 1999


Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China, Stanford University Press, 2001


Tung-Tsu Chu “Local Government in China Under the Ch’ing (Stanford Univ. Press, 1962).



Overall Conclusion


One could argue that the changes in the Imperial system seem fairly small. The differences between the Egyptian Pharonic system, the Athenian Democracy, and the Roman Republic (to take three European governments) are probably greater than any of the differences in the Chinese Imperial system from beginning to end. So – from the perspective of people schooled in huge differences found in European systems of government over 4,000 years of history – the changes in the Chinese Imperial system could be thought of as of little consequence. I believe the changes are very interesting, because I see the modifications as conscious efforts to correct the mistakes of the past on the path toward making a more perfect government, much like we see modern governments trying to react "intelligently" to changes in the world around them. In this limited way, the Chinese governmental changes exhibit a modern mind-set.


I will go futher and argue that the Chinese Imperial government improved over the centuries. At the least, they fixed problems that led to serious breakdowns in earlier years. The Imperial system in its final form was far from a perfect government but it was a system I believe we in the present day can learn from.




[i] For example: the Champa, a nation-state that survived in central Vietnam for more than 1,500 left not a single history. All we know about the Cham is their artifacts, and the documents written by the Vietnamese and the Chinese. Similarly, the Khmer kingdom that built the giant temple complex of Angor Wat left nothing behind except for temples and lakes that were later buried by the jungle.



[1] Some of the ancestral injunctions were: (1) No attacking neighboring countries without prior provocation. (2) All imperial princes were to live outside the capital except for the eldest “crown prince” (heir). (3) Imperial consorts were to be selected from the families of the mid-level military (humble origin). (3) No prime minister - ever! (4) Members of the royal family were not allowed to do any job, hold any position in government, or serve in the military. (5) No changes to the Ancestral Injunctions allowed. (6) The Emperor could be dethroned and replaced by a younger brother for good cause. (See Ray Huang p. 28).

[2] Oddly, when Mongol and Chinese were added to the banners, they were formally added as part of one of the 8 Manchu Banners but they were organized into a separate ethnic element of the banner such as the Mongol part of the Plain White Banner or the Chinese element of the banner. For example, the Plain White Banner in Beijing consisted of 15,000 Manchu soldiers, 6,000 Mongol soldiers, and some 12,000 Chinese soldiers. Each banner had a different size and a different ethnic make-up.