Commanders-in-chief (dudu 都督), full designation dudu zhuzhou junshi 都督諸州軍事, were high military commanders in charge of the military forces of a wide area or of the whole empire. Their bureau or the jurisdiction was called area command (dudufu 都督府). The title was introduced in the late Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE) by the warlord Yuan Shao 袁紹 (d. 202 CE). There were also area commanders-in-chief (da dudu 大都督). During the early Wei period 曹魏 (220-265) the commanders-in-chief were receiving the reports not only of the regional inspectors (cishi 刺史), but also of the civilian administration. In the Shu 蜀漢 (221-263) and Wu 吳 (222-280) empires, commanders-in-chief were only appointed in critical areas. Both the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589) and the Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386-581) made use of the title, yet the designation was occasionally replaced by that of zongguan 總管. The office was not joined to a certain rank, because it was temporary (jiajie 假節) or endowed with special warrants (shi chijie 使持節, chijie 持節).
The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) finally created three levels of area commands, whose highest commanders had three different ranks (2B, 3A, 3B). The office itself was a permanent one. The title was bestowed on native chieftains in the northeastern, northern and southwestern border regions, as a precursor of the title of pacification commissioner. From the Kaiyuan reign-period 開元 (713-741) on the military power was given into the hands of military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使), and the title of commander-in-chief was only honorific.
The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) bestowed the titles of dudu 都督, da dudu 大都督 and xia dudu 下都督, mainly to princes, who then controlled the military forces of one prefecture. They reported to the civilian prefects. The title was also concurrently held by the Counsellor-in-chief as the nominal highest commander of imperial forces.
The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) created the jurisdiction of the Qincha qinjun dudu fu 欽察親軍都督府, with an army command of three area commanders-in-chief (da dudu, rank 2A) executed by fierce Turkish Kipchak (Chinese transliteration Qincha) troops. In the early Ming period 明 (1368-1644), there was the institution of the Area Command of the Five Armies (wuju dudu fu 五軍都督府) around the capital, with a left and right commander-in-chief (zuo dudu 左都督, you dudu 右都督, rank 1A). The title gradually lost its function and became merely honorific. It was abolished after the end of the Ming, but was revived in the early Republican Era for provincial military commanders.