An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

shangshusheng 尚書省, the Imperial Secretariat or Department of State Affairs

Oct 26, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

The shangshusheng 尚書省 "Imperial Secretariat" (from the Tang period on "Department of State Affairs") was the head of the central government between the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and the Song 宋 (960-1279) periods. Its Director (ling 令) was often factually the head of the civilian government.

The Department had its origins in the secretarial apparatus of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) and emerged under the name of shangshutai 尚書臺. During the Qin 秦 (221-206 BC) and the Former Han 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) periods it was subordinated to the Chamberlain for the Palace Revenues (shaofu 少府), and its headperson was one of the Six Chief Stewards (liushang 六尚) that cared for headgear (shangguan 尚冠), wardobe (shangyi 尚衣), food (shangshi 尚食), the bath (shangmu 尚沐), the bedchamber (shangxi 尚席) and for writing (shangshu 尚書, literally "presenting writings"). The position of the chief secretary (shangshu) became more important under Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) who tried to free himself of the influence of his Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) and the Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史大夫) and therefore relied on trusted secretaries. The office of chief secretary was often taken over by eunuchs and was called Director of the Central Secretariat (zhong shangshu ling 中尚書令, short zhongshuling 中書令), and also Director of the Secretariat and Chief Receptionist (zhongshu yezhe ling 中書謁者令) because the chief secretary often concurrently held the post of Receptionist (yezhe 謁者).

Emperor Wu's most trusted chief secretary was Zhang Anshi 張安世 (d. 62 BCE), and under Emperor Yuan 漢元帝 (r. 49-33 BCE), Wulu Chongzong 五鹿充宗 (sic!) held the post of Director. At the end of the Former Han period, eunuch secretaries were very influential and wielded greatest power in the central government, like Hong Gong 弘恭 or Shi Xian 石顯 (d. 33 BCE). It was only under Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE) that the office of Director was taken over by regular state officials, often concurrently with other posts in high government. Huo Guang 霍光 (d. 68 BCE) and Wang Feng 王鳳 (d. 22 BCE), for instance, held not only the titles of General-in-chief serving as Commander-in-chief (da sima da jiangjun 大司馬大將軍), but were also Directors of the Secretariat.

Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (r. 25-57 CE), founder of the Later Han dynasty, intentionally decreased the power of the Three Dukes (sangong 三公), the Defender-in-chief (taiwei 太尉), the Grand Minister of Education (dasitu 大司徒, i.e. the Counsellor-in-chief) and the Grand Minister of Works (dasikong 大司空, i.e. the Censor-in-chief), and entrusted high responsibility to the Secretariat. It was headed by a Director (ling 令) and a Vice Director (puye 僕射 [sic!]), and its various duties were distributed among six chief secretaries (shangshu) that were the leaders of six sections (liu cao 六曹). It can be seen that the shangshu, once one of the six stewardships under the Qin, had become the head institution of the six departments under the Later Han. The Director and Vice Director were assisted by a left and right aide (cheng 丞) and 36 attendant gentlemen (shilang 侍郎), six for each section, as well as 18 clerks (lingshi 令史), three for each section. While the former were responsible for drafts, the latter were entrusted with finishing documents. The Secretariat had become a very complex institution with numerous duties for the functioning of the central government. It was therefore also called "Central Pavilion" zhongtai 中臺. Nevertheless, it was still nominally a sub-agency of the Bureau for Palace Revenues (shaofu), and the salaries of its officials were relatively low.

The six sections, in which various levels and channels of communication can still be clearly seen, were:

Table 1. Six Sections of the Imperial Secretariat during the Han Period
常侍曹 changshicao Section for Attendants-in-ordinary also called libucao 吏部曹; handling the emperor's relation with his highest ministers, later called Personnel Section
二千石曹 erqianshicao Section for Commandery Governors handling the court's relation with the local administrators with a salary of 2,000 bushels and more
民曹 mincao Section for the People handling the communication with lower officials and commoners
客曹 kecao Section for Receptions also called zhukecao 主客曹; handling relations with "barbarians"
三公曹 sangongcao Section for the Three Dukes handling judicial and other business between the emperor and the Three Dukes
都官曹 duguancao Section for Justice

These institutions gradually transformed into the Six Ministries (liubu 六部). This can also be seen in the fact that they were headed by a chief secretary (shangshu), a title that later is to be translated as "minister". The six chief secretaries, the Director (ling) and the Vice Director (puye) were together called the "eight executives" (bazuo 八座).

At the end of the Later Han period, Xun Yu 荀彧 (163-212) occupied the post of Director of the Secretariat and controlled the central government, while Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220) campaigned against the various warlords. When he became King of Wei 魏, Cao Cao appointed a chief secretary (mishuling 秘書令) who organised his paperwork and the affairs of his court. Cao Cao's son Cao Pi 曹丕 (Emperor Wen 魏文帝, r. 220-226) ended the Han and founded the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265). At that time he transformed the princely secretariat into the imperial secretariat. He also appointed a Secretariat Supervisor (zhongshu jian 中書監) and several section directors (zhongshu lang 中書郎). These persons constituted the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) and were able to exert a certain control over the Director, with the result that the shangshusheng, from then on to be translated as "Department of State Affairs", was not able to wholly take control over critical decisions of the central government. Nevertheless, highest ministers sometimes were concurrently bestowed the title of Director. In the empire of Wu 吳 (222-280) in the southeast of China, this dual structure was imitated, while the third of the Three Empires 吳 (222-280), the Shu empire 蜀 (221-263) in Sichuan, continued to rely on the shangshusheng as the single secretarial institution of the central government.

Under the Western Jin dynasty 西晉 (265-316), the pattern of the Wei-period Secretariat was continued, but besides the Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省), another department was inaugurated, namely the Chancellery (menxiasheng 門下省). Yet the Director (shangshu ling) and the Vice Director (shangshu puye) of the Department of State Affairs (shangshusheng) were still the highest officials of the central government administration. They were therefore also called "Supporter of the Right" (duanyou 端右) and "Supporter of the Left" (duanzuo 端左), and their position was higher than that of the Secretariat Supervisor (zhongshu jian). The post of the Director was therefore often bestowed honorifically to highest ministers (called lu shangshu 錄尚書 "registered and salaried as Director of the Secretariat"). Sometimes even three or four persons held the title of Director, without actually acting in this function.

An outstanding example of this practice is Wang Yan 王衍 (256-311), who was during the Western Jin period bestowed the title of Vice Director of the Secretariat, then Director, and even Counsellor-in-chief (zaixiang 宰相), without ever participating in administrative matters, not to speak of policy making. Similarly, Xie Fei 謝胐 (441-506) of the Liang period 梁 (502-557) held these titles without ever submitting a document to the throne. A lot of sons of eminent families during the Jin 晉 (265-420) and the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589) periods were bestowed such vain titles of offices in the Secretariat. Emperor Xiaowu 宋孝武帝 (r. 453-464) of the Liu-Song dynasty 劉宋 (420-479) was the first to restrict the use of double appointments, in fear of the growing influence of his highest ministers. The real paperwork during that time was done by subordinated clerks (lingshi) whose influence accordingly rose over time. Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty therefore planned to decree that these posts were not any more to be held by common persons (hanren 寒人), but only by members of eminent families (the "nobility", shizu 士族). Yet the eminent families refused to have their sons appointed to such low positions as clerks. Furthermore, members of the secretariat refused to give information out of their hands, and stubbornly resisted Emperor Wu's plan.

In northern China, most governments of the Sixteen Barbarian States 五胡十六國 (300~430) laid the red tape work of administration into the hands of an imperial secretariat. Emperor Daowu 北魏道武帝 (r. 386-408) of the Northern Wei empire 北魏 (386-534) likewise founded a Department of State Affairs in 396. It consisted of 36 sections, but its structure and method of working was very unlike the Secretariat in the states of southern China, because the nobles of the Taɣ​bač (Tuoba 拓跋) people had a great influence on political decision-making. Only in 491 Emperor Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝 (r. 471-499) restuctured the central government according to the pattern of the Cao-Wei and the Jin dynasties. The Department of State Affairs became the pivot of policy making, while the Secretariat and the Chancellery did the paperwork. The position of the Director (shangshu ling) was accordingly very high and corresponded to that of the Counsellor-in-chief of former times. The emperors of the Northern Qi dynasty 北齊 (550-577) even disposed of two Departments, one in the main capital Ye 鄴, and one in the secondary capital Jinyang 晉陽. In the Western Wei empire 西魏 (535-556) "itinerant" branch divisions of the Department of State Affairs were common (shangshu da xingtai 尚書大行臺) that were headed by quite a number of eminent scholars and ministers like Zhou Huida 周惠大, Su Chuo 蘇綽 (498-546) or Lu Bian 盧辨. The institution of "branch" departments was probably a forerunner of the provincial administrations created during the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368).

Emperor Wen 隋文帝 (r. 581-604) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) reunited the empire. He abolished the custom of concurrent titles and went back to regular appointment of the highest offices in the Department of State Affairs. Yet the position of Director was often left vacant, and therefore the Vice Director was in fact the highest official in the department. For almost twenty years the position was occupied by Gao Jiong 高熲 (d. 607), later by Yang Su 楊素 (544-606), who was finally promoted to the post of Director.

Also under the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907), the post of Director was rarely occupied, and if such cases occurred, it was filled by the heir apparent, like Li Shimin 李世民 (Emperor Taizong 唐太宗, r. 626-649), or Li Shi 李適 (Emperor Dezong 唐德宗, r. 779-804). In order to curtail the power of the Vice Director, who was the factual head of the institution, this post was duplicated, with a Left (zuo puye 左僕射) and a Right Vice Director (you puye 右僕射) in charge, the former being the senior official of the Department. The Vice Directors were assisted by left and right aides (zuocheng 左丞, youcheng 右丞). The Department was divided into the Six Ministries (liubu 六部) and 24 bureaus (si 司). Each Ministry was headed by a Minister (shangshu 尚書) and a Vice Minister (shilang 侍郎). Each bureau was headed by a ministerial director (langzong 郎中) and a ministerial vice director (yuanwailang 員外郎). These Ministries (or Boards) were:

Table 2. The Six Ministries under the Imperial Secretariat
吏部 lìbu Ministry of Personnel
戶部 hubu Ministry of Revenues
禮部 lǐbu Ministry of Rites
兵部 bingbu Ministry of War
刑部 xingbu Ministry of Justice
工部 gongbu Ministry of Official Works

A series of special tasks was taken over by the Nine Courts (jiusi 九寺), headed by the Nine Chamberlains (jiuqing 九卿):

Table 3. The Nine Courts under the Imperial Secretariat
太常寺 taichangsi Court of Imperial Sacrifices
光祿寺 guanglusi Court of Imperial Entertainments
衛尉寺 weiweisi Court of Imperial Regalia
宗正寺 zongzhengsi Court of the Imperial Family
太僕寺 taipusi Court of the Imperial Stud
大理寺 dalisi Court of Judicial Review
鴻臚寺 honglusi Court of State Ceremonial
司農寺 sinongsi Court of Imperial Granaries/td>
太府寺 taifusi Court of the imperial Treasury

There were also the Three Directorates (sanjian 三監):

Table 4. The Three Directorates under the Imperial Secretariat
國子監 guozijian Directorate of Education
將作監 jiangzuojian Directorate for Palace Buildings
少府監 shaofujian Directorate for Imperial Manufactories

The sixfold structure of the Ministries was imitated in the local administration, where the prefectural institutions directly reported to the Ministries in the central government.

The Vice Directors wielded greatest power in the central government. In the early decades of the Tang period, Fang Xuanling 房玄齡 (579-648) occupied this position and overshadowed the Counsellor-in-chief. Yet in the course of time, the Department of State Affairs again lost its influence on decision-making to a new institution under the Chancellery (menxiasheng), namely the Administration Chamber (zhengshitang 政事堂), where the Counsellor met with the emperor to discuss political matters. Vice Directors from then on could only participate in political discussions when they were bestowed the additional designations of "cooperating with third-rank officials of the Secretariat-Chancellery" (tong zhongshu menxia sanpin 同中書門下三品) or "jointly Manager of Affairs with the Secretariat-Chancellery" (tong zhongshu menxia pingzhang shi 同中書門下平章事). Li Ji 李勣 (594-669), for instance, held both titles in order to be allowed to participiate in the process of decision-making.

From the mid-Tang period on the Counsellors had largely won back their position as the heads of government, and only few Vice Directors had large influence on policy making. The Department and its subordinated agencies were reduced to an executive apparatus. From the reign of Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) on a lot of new ad-hoc posts were created that allowed the emperor a more direct control of critical matters, especially in the field of fiscal administration, where agricultural development commissioners (quannongshi 勸農使), tax commissioners (duzhishi 度支使) and agricultural commissioners (yingtianshi 營田使) cared for the registration of households and the tax revenue and made the administrative work of the Ministry of Revenue and its sub-agencies superfluous.

From the late Tang period on the Department of State Affairs was a vain institution that provided posts and income for a lot of officials, but without influence on legislation, and even without administrative importance. It continued existing during the Song 宋 (960-1279) and Yuan periods but was abolished thereafter. The Six Ministries, Nine Courts and Three Directorates nevertheless continued to exist until the end of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911).

Chen Zhong'an 陳仲安 (1992). "Shangshusheng 尚書省", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 905-907.
Designations, as far as possible, according to Charles O. Hucker (1985), A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press).