An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Political System

Mar 19, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

The central government of the Ming empire 明 (1368-1644) was structured in the following pattern:

The Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣), successor of the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) was assisting the emperor and coordinated - by means of the Department of State Affairs (shangshusheng 尚書省) - the work of the Six Ministries (liubu 六部) for Personnel (libu 吏部), Revenue (hubu 戶部), Rites (libu 禮部), War (bingbu 兵部), Justice (xingbu 刑部), and Public Works (gongbu 工部).

The Censorate (duchayuan 都察院; before called yushitai 御史台) surveyed and assessed the work of imperial officials was also an old institution with a new name.

The imperial house
The Six Ministries (liubu 六部)
Local Administration
The Judicial System
The Military System
The State Treasury
Recruitment and Management of State Officials

The nominal heads of government were the Three Dukes (sangong 三公: the Grand Mentor taifu 太傅, the Grand Preceptor taishi 太師 and the Grand Guardian taibao 太保), but these posts were often vacant. This is also true for the traditional Three Minor Solitaries (sangu 三孤).

The first emperor of Ming, Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398), in his paranoia, abolished the Secretariat, the Censorate and the Chief Military Commission (dudufu 都督府) and personally took over the responsibility and administration of the respective ressorts, the Six Ministries, the Five Military Commissions (wu junfu 五軍府), and the censorate ressorts: A whole administration level was cut out and only partially rebuilt by the following emperors. The Grand Secretariat was reinstalled, but without being staffed with Ground Counsellors.

The ministries, headed by a minister (shangshu 尚書) and run by directors (langzhong 郎中) stayed under direct control of the emperor until the end of Ming, the Censorate was reinstalled and first staffed with investigating censors (jiancha yushi 監察御史), later with censors-in-chief (du yushi 都御史).

Of special interest during the Ming period is the vast imperial household that was staffed with thousands of eunuchs, headed by the Directorate of Palace Attendants (neishijian 內史監), and divided into different directorates (jian 監) and Services (ju 局) that had to administer the staff, the rites, food, documents, stables, seals, gardens, state-owned manufacturies and so on. Famous for its intrigues and acting as the eunuch's secret service was the so-called Western Depot (xichang 西廠).

Princes and decendants of the first Ming emperor were given nominal military commands and large land estates, but without title.

The Ming emperors took over the provincial administration system of the Yuan empire 元 (1279-1368), and the 13 Ming provinces (sheng 省) are the origin of the modern provinces. On the provincial level, the central government structure was copied, and there existed three provincial commissions: one civil, one military, and one for surveillance. Below province level were the prefectures (fu 府) administered prefects (zhifu 知府) and second-class prefectures (zhou 州) administered by prefects (zhouzhou 知州), the lowest unit was the district (xian 縣) headed by a magistrate (zhixian 知縣).

Like it had been use during the former dynasties, a travelling inspector or Grand Coordinator (xunfu 巡撫) from the Censorate controlled the work of the provincial administrations. New during the Ming Dynasty was the office of travelling military inspector (zongdu 總督) who was appointed ad-hoc according to need.

Official recruitment was exerted by an examination system that theoretically allowed everyone to link the ranks of imperial officials if he had enough time, money and strenth to learn and to write an "eight-legged essay" (baguwen 八股文). When passing the provincial examinations, scholars were bestowed the title of "Cultivated Talents" (xiucai 秀才), passing the metropolitan examination, they obtained the title of "Metropolitan Graduate" (jinshi 進士).