The State in Ancient China


The Evolution of the State in Ancient China

The Monarch

The Civil Service

The Law

The Army

The Court

Further study

The Evolution of the State in Ancient China

The states of ancient China were all ruled by monarchs. In early times, divinely sanctioned kings ruled a state covering only part of China proper. Later, as their kingdom expanded, their authority became weaker and power increasingly passed to regional lords. Gradually, the more powerful lords conquered weaker ones to form several regional states. Later still, the more powerful of these states conquered the weaker ones until only one was left, the state of Qin. The ruler of this state took the title of “First Emperor”, and founded the first of the great imperial dynasties of China.

As the states of ancient China evolved and gave way to the unified empires, first of the Qin dynasty then of the Han dynasty, Chinese statesmen developed highly effective ways of governing their expanding realms. The political history of ancient China is above all the story of how the governing institutions of imperial China came into being. In this story lies the key to how these institutions came to have such durability that they emerged at the time when, in the West, the Romans were conquering their empire, and only began to unravel when the Americans were about to fight their Civil War.

The Monarch

The central importance to the monarchs to China – first kings, then emperors – is clearly shown in the fact that Chinese history has traditionally been divided into the dynasties to which the rulers belonged. They were the fount of all authority, absolute rulers to whom all others must bow. Even when they were nonentities, or infants, their very weakness was an important fact of political life.

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”. This concept had many implications, which were the subject of an important strand of Chinese thought in ancient times and beyond.

One of the most influential ideas which arose as the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven”. This held that the Son of Heaven’s underlying role was to maintain harmony between Heaven and mankind. That was his job, and no one else could do this. How could he do this? By conducting the great annual sacrifice to Heaven properly, of course. But also by ruling well, bringing order, justice and wellbeing to the people. If he failed to do so, the harmony of the Cosmos would be disputed. Heaven would send floods, earthquakes, diseases and all manner of other natural disasters to bring men and women back to into harmony with it. As for the ruler, he would cease to have Heaven’s blessing – his “mandate” to rule would be taken away from him and his dynasty.

This doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven was to prove one of the most influential in Chinese history. On the one hand, it gave kings and emperors an almost sacred legitimacy. On the other, when the people suffered from natural disasters, or even man-made disasters such as barbarian invasions or civil disorders, these were signs that the ruler had ceased to have the Mandate of Heaven. He could then come to be seen as having lost his legitimacy, and revolt against his rule was not, under these circumstances, a sin against Heaven, but an attempt to restore harmony by placing on the throne a ruler who could restore the harmony of creation. Thus peasant revolts in particular, such as the one which led indirectly to the fall of the Han dynasty, which more than any other kind of revolt represent a visceral rejection of misrule, have not been seen as aberrations, but an unhappy but essential part of the way things are.

Successive imperial regimes were therefore careful to heed public opinion. Some Western scholars have seen an almost democratic element in this doctrine. The Chinese and their rulers widely accepted that “Heaven sees and hears as the people see and hear” – in other words, Heaven’s favour or disfavour manifested itself in public opinion.

If this is going too far, it is certainly the case that the doctrine shared common features with the Western Enlightenment idea of the Social Contract, first articulated in the 18th century, which says that, to be legitimate, governmental power must rest on the will of the people. The Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven anticipated this idea by more than two thousand years.

Another implication of the ruler being the Son of Heaven, less often noticed in the West but very clearly recognized by the Chinese, 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 means that the king or emperor was ruler of the entire world – and that therefore there could only be 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 a powerful intellectual driver for unified rule in China; and also for the Chinese imperial governments’ attitude towards non-Chinese rulers as being subordinate to the Son of Heaven.

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven stimulated Chinese thinkers to pay close attention to what constituted good government, and encouraged rulers and statesmen to think about how best to exercise government authority. No civilization has devoted as much thought to these matters as have the Chinese, with eminently practical results.

This is seen most clearly in the efforts of succeeding dynasties to recruit the most suitable men for government service, and to consider what their education should be. This led to the rise of that key figure in Chinese history, the scholar-official, one of the most remarkable types of government servant in human history.

The Civil Service

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 the 19th century.

The Shang dynasty kingdom seems to have had bureaucratic elements within it. This was probably not as tightly organized as in contemporary states such as Babylon and Egypt, however, as 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.

The succeeding Zhou dynasty kingdom 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.

Under these circumstances, kings and regional lords would have needed comparatively small staffs of officials to assist them. To advise them, they had councils made up of the nobility, some of whom would have been given special responsibility for some aspect of administration.

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. Both external wars and internal struggles forced the rulers of the states to gather 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.

These trends came to a head with the unification of China under the Qin. Of all the contending states, the Qin state had gone furthest in centralising power, and now the First Emperor, Qin Shih Huang, and his able chief minister, Li Si, pursued rigidly centralising policies across the whole of China.

The central administration was divided into ministries, each with clearly specified responsibilities for their own field 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, governmental treasuries and so on.

To govern the provinces, 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. The commanderies were themselves divided into counties, each under a county magistrate. He was an all-purpose representative of the emperor in his area.

Senior officials of the censorate department toured the provinces on a regular basis, seeking out official wrong-doing.

The Han emperors largely kept in place most of the Qin governing system. A hierarchy of officials, ranked according to salary, came to administer the Han empire. Their careers could take them to anywhere within the empire, as well as to stints in the capital.

At the top, three senior ministers answered directly to the emperor: the Chancellor, the Imperial Counsellor and the Chief of Armed Forces. Below them came nine more junior ministers, one of whom oversaw the finances and the management of the economy.

In the provinces, the Han retained the Qin system of commanderies and prefects, under officials appointed centrally. However, as well as commanderies, the founder of the Han dynasty was obliged to establish territories under hereditary kings. These were gradually brought within the administrative framework of the rest of the empire, eventually functioning almost exactly as 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.

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 AD 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 centre. 

Government Personnel

Under the Qin and then the Han, all officials, from county magistrates to chief ministers, were appointed and promoted on their merits. 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 positions in the empire.

It should be stressed that an official career in Qin and Han times was 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 selection of 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. 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 so entirely on their merits. It was only towards the end of the 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 on the entire empire.

The general principles underlying the Qin code was that subjects should so fear punishment that they would be obedient subjects: for example, one of the death penalties specified was boiling alive.  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.

The Han emperors based their law code on the Qin’s, but made the law codes more humane. Even so, the code was till 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 labour in state service was common for more minor offences.

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, as they were in Western law: the emperor and his officials was 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).

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. 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.

The Army

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, slingsmen 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. 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. These consisted mostly of infantry troops, but they also had cavalry arms as well, increasingly (under the influence of nomadic forces from the steppes) made up of horsemen rather than chariots. The crossbow came into widespread use at this time in Chinese armies, giving the infantry arm an added advantage.

Northern and western states bordering 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, the new imperial regime merged these walls into a single system of defence. 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 he 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, 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 AD, as weakness and corruption spread throughout governmental institutions, the complex and costly system of manning and supplying frontier garrisons began to fail. Defence of the empire fell increasingly into the hands of “loyal” tribesmen from across the border.

The Court

The royal court, being the residence of the monarch, stood at the very heart of Chinese government. When not on campaign it was here that the king, and later the emperor, lived with his family and personal attendants, and here that he met with his ministers to discuss affairs of state. The power dynamics at work in the royal court had a deep effect on the quality of government, and in the final analysis, on whether a dynasty endured or perished.

Emperors’ wives

One development which affected the stability of government became increasingly evident in the first two centuries of Han rule. This was the power of imperial wives and their families.

The emperor’s wife had often been brought to the emperor’s attention by an already powerful family. Once such a family had one of its daughters firmly planted at the centre of power, in a position, as wife but even more so as mother (empress dowager) of a young emperor, such families could gain a huge degree of power over the imperial court. They could have their members appointed to many of the topmost positions in government.

This led to intense power struggles between family-based factions, especially when one family was challenging another one (often when a young emperor was choosing a wife for himself). These struggles could end with the complete elimination of the defeated family, including distant relatives far from court.


The palace was divided into the private residential quarters of the emperor and his family, on the one hand, and the reception halls and offices where the ministers and officials of the central secretariat worked. In later dynasties these two parts would be labelled the “Inner Court” and the “Outer Court”, a distinction that was real enough even from the very outset of imperial rule, under the First Emperor, that we shall apply it to both the Qin and the Han periods.

The Inner Court housed the ruler, his wives, his concubines and his personal attendants. From quite early times, these latter were all 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. Eunuchs had been the personal attendants of kings and princes, and their harems, since early Zhou times. They had unequalled opportunities to win the ruler’s favour. This was a source of recurring irritation for senior ministers and government officials, and a eunuch who gained such a hold over an emperor that he exerted real power over government earned their bitter resentment. The resulting tensions between inner and outer court could destabilize a dynasty, a factor which manifested itself as early as the short-lived Qin dynasty, in which a powerful eunuch was able to bring about the condemnation, torture and execution of a chief minister. These tensions resurfaced in late Han times, and contributed powerfully to the fall of the dynasty.

Further Study 

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