The political institutions of Imperial China all took shape in ancient times, and were some of the most successful and durable in all world history.
Such was the respect they inspired that neighboring countries like Korea and Vietnam adopted them wholesale. Nor has their influence been limited to the Far East. When Europeans started visiting China on a regular basis (albeit in a very limited way), they were awed by the country’s imperial government. China became for them what a rationally-organized, meritocratic state should look like, and thus had a large impact on the political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers.
In a more direct way, they acted as the exemplar which the British were able to follow in setting up their administration of the Indian subcontinent – and which was later adopted as the model of the British civil service.
All the key elements of Chinese imperial government had come into being by the end of the second century BCE – at a time, in the West, when the Romans were conquering their empire. They were only beginning to unravel in the mid-nineteenth century, when the USA was moving towards its Civil War.
The political history of Ancient China is above all the story of how these governing institutions came into being. It saw China transformed from a collection of kingdoms into a unified empire.
In the course of this process, Chinese statesmen developed highly effective ways of governing their expanding realms. Above all, the key governing structures of Imperial China were developed and their roles defined: the monarch, the civil service (and the examination system on which it came to be based), and the army.
The first dynasty to emerge into the light of history was the Shang dynasty. The Shang state can best be seen as a confederation of states clustered around a central domain, acknowledging the Shang king as their overlord.
The Shang confederation was made up of different zones. In the center was the capital city itself. Surrounding it was countryside, directly control of the king. Further out was the rest of the Shang kingdom, divided amongst many subordinate lords. Finally, a large outer area of allied kingdoms and chiefdoms, who acknowledged the Shang king as their overlord.
Shang to Zhou
The Shang were replaced by the Zhou in c. 1100 BCE. The new dynasty kept the Shang state system more or less in place, but with one major difference. The Zhou kings placed members of their own clan, plus a few prominent supporters, in charge of the allied kingdoms. Each of these clan members held his new position, not as a king, a title which implies sovereignty, but as a subordinate prince.
These princes then parceled out much of their domains amongst local lords, who held a small territory consisting of, say, a small town and its surrounding farmland.
The early Zhou system unravels
Under the early Zhou kings, this system worked well, and the kingdom expanded. Sometime in the early first millennium BCE, however, the authority of the kings began to decline. They were gradually losing the loyalty of the regional princes, who were becoming more independent-minded.
in 771 BCE a rebellion reduced the king of Zhou to a powerless figurehead. Real power now lay with regional princes.
Hegemons and kings
From time to time an especially powerful lord would arise to dominate others. Such figures were called Hegemons. These never succeeded in converting their position into a permanent and hereditary pre-eminence, however. In any case, such a situation became less possible as, in the constant warfare, stronger princes annexed the territories of weaker ones. This led to the emergence of several powerful, and rival, states.
This trend culminated in the fourth century, when these princes took the title of King. This demonstrated that they considered themselves equal in status to the king of Zhou: they were now the rulers of independent states, no longer owing allegiance to anyone.
In 256 BCE the last king of Zhou was killed after the king of the state of Qin invaded and annexed his territory.
The First Emperor
A generation later, Qin went on to conquer all the other states, and by 221 BCE had united the whole of China under its rule. Its ruler took the title “First Emperor”.
Although this was short-lived, it paved the way for the rise of the long-lasting Han dynasty, which ruled all of China for some four hundred years. By the end of this final phase of Ancient China, all the major institutions which would govern the country through to the twentieth century had come into being.
In ancient China, as throughout the entire imperial period up to the 20th century, the ruler of the Chinese people was a divinely-sanctioned priest king who bore the title “Son of Heaven”. The term “Heaven” refers to the universe’s supreme but impersonal divine force.
This concept had many implications, which were the subject of an important strand of Chinese political thought, in ancient times and beyond. One of the most influential ideas which arose was the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven”. This held that, if an emperor or a dynasty ceased to govern well, it would lose the support of Heaven. In these circumstances, rebellion against the emperor became legitimate (more on this concept is given in the article, the History of China).
One Emperor under Heaven
Another implication of the ruler being the Son of Heaven, less often noticed in the West but very clearly recognized in China, is the idea that there could only by one legitimate ruler at any one time.
The Son of Heaven represented mankind to Heaven, and Heaven to mankind: he stood alone between the two spheres; he had responsibility for All under Heaven.
This meant that the king or emperor was ruler of the entire world – and that therefore there could be only one legitimate emperor. The natural state of China (and in theory the whole world) was to be ruled by a single government.
This idea acted as a powerful intellectual driver for brining China under unifying rule. It also governed the Chinese imperial governments’ attitude towards non-Chinese peoples, who they saw as being subordinate to the Son of Heaven.
The monarch lived in a royal court. This was a combination of the residence of the monarch and headquarters for the government. These two functions were reflected in the layout of the palace (in reality, a complex of many buildings), in which the private residential quarters for the emperor and his family were separated from the reception halls and offices where the ministers and officials of the central government worked. In later dynasties, the former would be labelled the “Inner Court”, and the latter, the “Outer Court”.
In the Inner Court, the emperor and royal family were attended by eunuchs, as no full males (i.e. those adult males who had not been castrated) were allowed to enter the private quarters of a ruler.
The inner court was all too often the seat of poisonous in-fighting. When an emperor was capable and hard-working, he could exercise control over those around him. When he was weak or a child, the environment at court could be toxic. The was notably the case under the Han dynasty when power-struggles between imperial wives and their relatives could be lethal, and undermine good government.
Beneath the emperor, the most important governing institution of imperial China was the civil service. It was this astonishing organization which kept the huge country together for long periods of time, and which, when functioning properly, provided a higher standard of governance than that of any other nation, right up until modern times.
The roots of the civil service in Ancient China
The Shang dynasty kingdom seems to have had bureaucratic elements within it. Chinese historians writing centuries later would draw a picture of a highly-organized, sophisticated bureaucratic state, but this is almost certainly a back-projection from their own times. In fact, the Shang state was probably not as tightly organized as contemporary states such as Babylon and Egypt. The Shang kingdom had a highly dispersed power structure. Beyond the capital and its surroundings, authority was largely exercised by local lords, and, on the kingdoms’ periphery, by subordinate kings and chiefs.
Nevertheless, there were undoubtedly scribes and officials working in the Shang royal palace, making up an at least rudimentary bureaucracy.
The same situation probably obtained in the succeeding Zhou dynasty kingdom. This also had a dispersed power structure, with a high degree of authority delegated to regional lords. They in turn delegated much of their authority to feudal nobles, who exercised considerable control within their own small fiefs.
To advise them, the kings and regional lords had councils of nobles, some of whom may have been given special responsibility for some aspect of administration. To paint these as departmental ministers, as they sometimes appear in the histories written later, must surely have been inaccurate. Authority was so dispersed amongst kings, regional lords and local fief-holding lords that there would not have been the need for large bureaucracies, at any level of government.
This situation began to change from mid-Zhou times (8th century BCE) onwards. The struggle for survival between regional lords transformed their territories into full-blown states. This process was often accompanied by bitter power struggles within the states themselves, which undermined the power of the old feudal nobility.
To deal with external wars and internal struggles, the rulers of the states were forced to centralize their governments by gathering more and more power into their own hands. They needed larger and better-organized staffs to help them run their states effectively.
These early bureaucracies were increasingly manned, not by hereditary nobles, but by educated officials selected from amongst the lesser landowners of the gentry class. They were appointed and promoted, not on their family connections but on their own merits: in the intense competition of the times, there was a premium on personal ability in public servants.
Of all the contending states, the Qin state had gone furthest in centralizing power. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the trends occurring in late Zhou times, outlined above, came to a head with the unification of China under the Qin. With that event, the First Emperor, Qin Shih Huang, and his able chief minister, Li Si, were able to pursue a rigidly centralizing policies across the whole of China.
The central administration (or Outer Court, in later parlance), was divided into ministries, each with clearly specified responsibilities for a particular area of government.
A chief counsellor was responsible for general administration; he had a large staff of officials reporting to him. A Grand Marshal was responsible for military matters; and a censor-in-chief was charged with keeping all governmental activities under surveillance and investigating any irregularities. Numerous junior ministers were responsible for court rituals, palace maintenance, imperial carriages, public treasuries and so on.
Away from the center, the Qin divided China into forty or so administrative units called commanderies. Authority in each of these seems to have been shared between a military commander and a civilian administrator. A large staff of secretaries, accountants, messages and so on aided the senior provincial officials in their duties.
The commanderies were themselves divided into counties, each under a county magistrate. He was the all-purpose representative of the emperor in his area, and had a small, locally-recruited staff to help him.
Senior officials of the censorate department toured the provinces on a regular basis, seeking out official wrong-doing.
The Han emperors kept in place most of the Qin governing system. A hierarchy of officials, ranked according to salary, administered the Han empire. Their careers could take them to anywhere within the empire, as well as to stints in the capital.
Central administration under the Han
As in the Qin court, three senior ministers answered directly to the emperor: the Chancellor, the Imperial Counsellor and the Chief of Armed Forces (though the latter office was not always filled). Their executive responsibilities overlapped, which must have caused some confusion, but their primary focus was on civil administration, personnel and military affairs respectively.
The chief responsibility of these senior-most ministers, however, was to advise the emperor. Indeed, Han emperors seem to have valued sounding out the opinions, not only of their chief ministers, but other senior court officials as well. The court records show regular court conferences took place, in which numerous officials were asked to give their opinions on all kinds of matters.
Below the top tier came nine more junior ministers. To modern eyes their responsibilities seem to have been a bit of a hotchpotch: alongside a minister of justice and a minister of finance, there were several ministers with what we would deem much lesser responsibilities – for supervising the imperial household, palace ceremonies and the royal guard, for example.
In the provinces, the Han retained the Qin system of commanderies and county magistrates, under officials appointed centrally.
With the expansion of the Han empire and the subdivision of some commanderies, the number of commanderies progressively increased under the early Han, to about 100. This made the central administration’s task of supervising them more difficult. From about 100 BCE, therefore, they were brought under tighter central control by becoming subject to inspection by regional commissioners, each taking a group of commanderies under their authority.
In later Han times these senior officials acquired more and more authority, so that by the mid-2nd century CE they were in effect regional governors, with widespread powers over their territories. A tier of provincial government whose original aim had been to increase central control throughout the empire was now taking control away from the center.
The capabilities of the Han dynasty civil service can be seen in the fact that it organized and conducted a series of population counts – censuses – throughout the entire empire – a major undertaking for the governments of many modern countries.
As well as commanderies, the founder of the Han dynasty was obliged to establish territories under hereditary kings. These were later reduced in number, and those that remind were gradually brought within the administrative framework of the rest of the empire. They were eventually almost indistinguishable from commanderies.
Towards the end of Western Han Dynasty there were 120,285 officials in the administration. The need for able administrators led to the foundation of a central training institution in 3 BCE, where students were taught by scholars versed in Confucian ethics.
Under the Qin and then the Han, all officials, from county magistrates to chief ministers, were supposedly appointed and promoted on their merits. As we have seen above, in the section on the imperial court, factionalism could play a large part in the selection of senior officials. Nevertheless, merit-based promotion did determine the careers of the majority of officials, especially at the more junior rungs of the hierarchy and in the provinces.
In early Han times, an innovation of the greatest importance for the future was made. In order to ensure a high calibre of senior officials, commandery governors were called upon to recommend capable men in their areas for “fast track” promotion. The recommended candidates would then travel to the capital and be examined (sometimes by the emperor himself) to ensure that they were indeed suitable for high office in the empire.
From the outset, these examinations largely focussed on testing the candidates’ knowledge of the Confucian Classics. There do also seem to have been questions on practical aspects of government.
This was a significant advance on those under the late Zhou , and even the Qin, dynasties. Under the Han, the figure of the scholar-official begins to start coming into clear focus, even though his full evolution will not be complete for another few hundred years.
It should be stressed that an official career in Qin and Han times was, in the normal course of events, open to only a narrow group within society. This group was the gentry, that class of minor landowners who had come to staff the bureaucracies of Zhou period. Members of this group, though not great landowners in the mould of the old feudal nobility, still had enough wealth and leisure to afford a good education for their sons, usually at the hands of private tutors, and so qualify them for a career in the civil service.
These various methods of selecting officials, plus the on-going evaluation they faced for promotion and the ongoing surveillance of their work by officials of the chief censor’s department, aimed to ensure that the Han administrative apparatus gave the empire firm but just government.
In this it succeeded to a remarkable extent, for a pre-modern state. It was a completely unique system of government in the world at this time; no other state was administered by a hierarchy of appointed officials who held office mostly on their merits. It was only towards the end of the Han dynasty that the quality of administration declined sharply.
Law codes began appearing in China at least from 536 BCE, when the government of the state of Zheng issued a code of laws, the first to be mentioned in Chinese history.
When the state of Qin unified China under its rule, it imposed its law code across the entire empire.
The general principle underlying the Qin law code were derived from the harsh legalist school of thought: subjects should so fear punishment that they would obey the ruler and his officials without question. All, of whatever class, were treated equally by the law. Similar crimes attracted similar punishments, whatever the circumstances. The law was applied rigidly and severely: one of the death penalties specified was boiling alive.
The Han emperors based their law code on the Qin’s, but made the law codes more humane. Even so, the code was still very harsh indeed by modern standards. The death penalty could involve cutting in two at the waist. Lesser crimes were punishable by the amputation of nose or feet, or castration; hard labor in state service was common for more minor offenses.
In contrast to the rigid Qin code, the Han code was designed to reflect the Confucian idea that all actions are relative – there is no absolute wrongdoing. All crimes should thus be judged accordingly. Whereas under the Qin killing a person would have automatically meant the death penalty, for example, under the Han it depended on who had done the killing and who was killed: if a son had killed a father, even by accident, the death penalty must be invoked; if a father killed a son, he would be unlucky to be found guilty of any crime.
The Han law code became the basis for all law codes of all the succeeding dynasties, though modified repeatedly. The purpose of Chinese law would never change: to make clear what subjects must avoid doing, and if they did do them, what punishments they would suffer. The prerogatives of the emperor and his officials were never defined, still less limited. In this, Chinese law contrasts with Western law, as expressed for example in Roman law and Medieval European legal documents such as Magna Carta. In China, the emperor and his officials were assumed to be all-powerful, and there was no room for citizens’ rights (apart from the assumed right for all subjects to live in an ordered society in which crime does not go unpunished).
Law at the local level
At the most local level, village authorities were expected to deal with minor cases of petty crimes themselves. Also, disputes between villagers were expected to be sorted out at this level; the official courts were concerned only with criminal law.
The most local level of official justice was administered by county magistrates; there was no system of courts separate from the civil service in ancient China (nor late Chinese imperial history). Juries were unheard of – the magistrate sat as both judge and jury. He was also responsible for investigating crimes and bringing the miscreants to justice, for which he had a small staff of constables to assist him. Those accused with crimes were usually tortured as part of the interrogation process; and so were witnesses. Wealthy people could often have their punishments commuted to payment of a fine.
Armies under the Shang and early Zhou dynasties
Shang and early Zhou armies were built around powerful chariot forces. Since fighting from chariots took much training and practice, which only aristocrats had the leisure for, this force was essentially the ruling class at war. It was supported by levies of peasant farmers following their local lords to war for the duration of a campaign, and fighting in a purely secondary capacity as archers, slings-men or scouts.
Large armies could be assembled, with the king calling upon regional lords to follow him to war, these in turn calling on their subordinate lords to follow them; and each lord ordering a body of his peasants to follow him.
With the fragmentation of the Zhou kingdom into numerous states during the later Zhou period, endemic warfare between the states undermined the old military system. The spread of iron meant that large numbers of peasants could be armed with metal weapons and given basic training as infantry soldiers.
If a sufficient number of well-drilled infantry could be put into the field, in most terrains they were more than a match for the much smaller aristocratic chariot forces. Later Zhou armies came to be made up of large formations of infantry fighting as organized units, supported by small bodies of cavalry on the wings. The infantry soldiers were either hire mercenaries or peasant masses directly recruited into a prince’s army, rather than following local lords.
Ever larger armies took to the field, composed of massed infantry armed with a new weapon, the crossbow. The troops were mostly conscripted peasants serving for several years at a time. The large infantry formations were supplemented by smaller, more mobile cavalry, no longer using chariots but riding and fighting from horseback, a technique learnt from the steppe nomads.
These developments brought the states’ armies more directly under the princes’ own control. To command these armies, the princes looked to capable officers of proven experience and ability. They found these men increasingly from the new gentry class, rather than the old aristocracy.
The more powerful states were able to field huge armies numbering tens of thousands of men. The crossbow came into widespread use at this time in Chinese armies, giving the infantry arm an added advantage.
States on the northern and western borders of China, at most danger from raids by steppe nomads, began to build long walls made of beaten earth to keep these raids out. After the unification of China under the Qin dynasty, the new imperial regime merged these walls into a single system of defense. This was the earliest manifestation of the Great Wall.
The logistical organization needed to supply large numbers of troops received a great deal of attention in the late Zhou period. Once in control of the whole country, the Qin laid out an empire-wide network of roads, constructed to a standard width, so that armies could be easily moved and supplied over long distances. The Qin’s logistic capabilities enabled them to project military power far beyond their original borders, for example in the conquest of huge swathes of land to the south.
The military system of the early Han was no doubt based on that of the Qin. All males were liable for military service, and were supposed to service for one month a year, plus when called upon to serve in the capital’s garrison, or in a frontier garrison or a foreign campaign.
This system soon proved too cumbersome for maintaining frontier garrisons as well as campaign armies. Instead of actual military service, therefore, men had to pay a “substitute” tax, which paid for volunteers to man the frontier and fight on campaign. As time went by the whole military establishment became a long-term professional force.
To supply their armies, and to move troops around the empire, the Han maintained and developed the road system inherited from the Qin. Like the Qin they also operated an efficient governmental postal system along which the government could send messages quickly.
From the later 2nd century CE, as weakness and corruption spread throughout governmental institutions, the complex and costly system of manning and supplying frontier garrisons began to fail. Defense of the empire fell increasingly into the hands of “loyal” tribesmen from across the border.
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