An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

liubu 六部, the Six Ministries

Jun 26, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The Six Ministries (liubu 六部, sometimes called "Six Boards") were important central government agencies in imperial China. These were, in hierarchical order, the Ministry of Personnel (libu 吏部), the Ministry of Revenue or Finance (hubu 戶部), the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部), the Ministry of War (bingbu 兵部), the Ministry of Justice (xingbu 刑部), and the Ministry of Works (gongbu 工各).

Table 1. The Six Ministries (liubu 六部)
吏部 libu hafan i jurgan Ministry of Personnel
戶部 hubu boigon i jurgan Ministry of Revenue
禮部 libu dorolon i jurgan Ministry of Rites
兵部 bingbu cooha-i jurgan Ministry of War
刑部 xingbu beidere jurgan Ministry of Justice
工各 gongbu weilere jurgan Ministry of Works
Note: The third column presents the Manchu designations during the Qing period.

This hierarchy was arranged in two parallel columns during the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song 宋 (960-1279) periods, with the ministries of Personnel and War at the head, that of Finance and Justice in the middle, and that of Rites and Works at the bottom of the double hierarchy, yet with the latter ones only in second place after that mentioned first (Works lower than Rites, Justice lower than Finance, ...).

The concept of six ministries is derived from the Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮 that describes the number, designations and duties of all state officials. These were arranged into six fields, corresponding to their duties.

Table 2. The Six Ministers in the Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮
Celestial Offices 冢宰 zhongzai (Counsellor) --
Terrestrial Offices 司徒 situ (Overseer of Public Affairs) Minister of Education
Spring Offices 宗伯 zongbo (Overseer of Ritual Affairs) Minister of Rites
Summer Offices 司馬 sima (Overseer of Military Affairs) Minister of War
Autumn Offices 司冠 sikou (Overseer of Penal Affairs) Minister of Justice
Winter Offices 司空 sikong (Overseer of Public Works) Minister of Works

Such might more or less the system of central administration have been at the court of the Zhou dynasty, and in the one or other of the regional states.

During the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods the respective fields of administration were taken over by the Nine Chamberlains (jiu qing 九卿). The transformation of these "ministries" into subagencies (cao 曹) of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省) was made during the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin 晉 (265-420) periods. The term bu became common from the Sui period 隋 (581-618) on.

At that time, the Six Ministries, still agencies under the Imperial Secretariat, were called libu (personnel), cibu 祠部 (rites), duzhibu 度支部 (revenue), zuohubu 左戶部 ("assisting the household", i.e. public works), duguanbu 都官部 ("supervising the officials' [performance], i.e. justice), and wubingbu 五兵部 (the "Five Armies"). The Ministry of Revenue was shortly later renamed minbu 民部, and was given the name hubu by the Tang dynasty in 649. The latter also renamed the cibu into libu, the zuohubu into gongbu, the duguanbu into xingbu, and the wuguanbu into bingbu. These terms were retained until the end of the Qing empire.

It seems that the Ministries were just administrative agencies under the Tang and Song periods. The Song dynasty even deprived them of their workload by establishing a parallel structure of administration, the Bureau of Military Affairs (shumiyuan 樞密院) taking over military affairs and the State Finance Commission (sansi 三司) regulating financial matters. The offices of the Ministries were honorific ones or brought their holders a salary, but no jurisdictional rights (jiluguan 寄祿官).

Under the reign of Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067-1085) the original state was revived.

The non-Chinese dynasties of the Western Xia 西夏 (1038-1227), Liao 遼 (907-1125) and Jin 金 (1115-1234) imitated the Ministries model.

The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) rearranged the structure of the central government and subordinated the Ministries to the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省). The Ming dissolved this linkage, abolished the Secretariat thoroughly (including the post of Counsellor-in-chief) and put the Ministries directly under the command of the Emperor. In this constellation the Ministries rose in importance.

The Ministry of Personnel arranged appointments in office, evaluated each official's performance and potential for promotion or reasons for demotion. The Ministry of Revenue controlled the land and household registers, as well as the tax revenue and financial policy. The Ministry of Rites organized the grand state rituals, supervised protocolary matters, carried out the state examinations and supervised state schools. The Ministry of War was responsible for military affairs and the supervision of the army. The Ministry of Justice promulgated law codes and checked the judicial system and revised verdicts of great importance. The Ministry of Works finally had the duty of supervising large construction projects, be it architectural ones or such of hydraulic engineering as the Grand Canal. It also controlled the military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田).

The head of each Ministry was called shangshu 尚書, his deputy shilang 侍郎. Each Ministry was divided into four courts (si si 四司), each headed by a director (langzhong 郎中), who was assisted by a vice director (yuanwailang 員外郎). The Ming divided the ministries of Finance and Justice into thirteen courts, while the Qing enlarged the structure of the Ministry of Finance into fourteen, and that of the Ministry of Justice into eighteen courts.

In 1901 the Qing dynasty founded a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (waiwubu 外務部), which was given the highest rank among the Ministries. In 1906 further changes took place by renaming the Ministry of Revenue duzhibu 度支部, the Ministry of War lujunbu 陸軍部, and the Ministry of Justice fabu 法部. The Ministry of Works was integrated into a new Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce (nong-gong-shang bu 農工商部). In addition to that, two new ministries were founded, namely the Ministry of Interior (minzhengbu 民政部) and the Ministry of Education (xuebu 學部). From then on, the term "Six Ministries" was obsolete.

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