The Northern Zhou dynasty 北周 (557-581) was inspired by the ancient Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮, which described a political structure that was believed to have been existed during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). According to the Zhouli Classic, the central government was arranged in Six Offices (liuguan 六官), namely the Celestial Office (tianguan fu 天官府), the Terrestrial Office (diguan fu 地官府), and an office for each of the four seasons. This structure of the central government is usually known as the "Six Offices of the Northern Zhou" (Beizhou liuguan 北周六官).
The idea for the re-introduction of this putative system had been brought forward already under the Western Wei dynasty 西魏 by Su Chuo 蘇綽 (498-546) and Lu Bian 盧辯 (d. 557), who memorialized to Counsellor-in-chief (da chengxiang 大丞相) Yuwen Tai 宇文泰 (507-556). In 556 Emperor Gong 西魏恭帝 (r. 553-556) decided to introduce this system. Apart from ideological reasons, the ancient Zhouli system would offer the ruling non-Chinese elite of the Western Wei dynasty – Xianbei 鮮卑 or Taɣbač 拓跋 – the support of the eminent Chinese families. Yuwen Tai's idea was thus also one of power politics.
Only a year later, Yuwen Tai's son Yuwen Jue 宇文覺 (542-557) was made emperor (Emperor Xiaomin 北周孝閔帝, r. 557) and founded the Zhou dynasty, which is known to historians as the Northern Zhou.
The Celestial Office (tianguan fu) was headed by the Grand Counsellor (da zhongzai 大冢宰), who had the status of a senior minister (qing 卿, see qing shi dafu 卿, 士, 大夫) and was assisted by two Junior Counsellors (xiao zhongzai 小冢宰) with the status of a Superior Grand Master (shang dafu 上大夫). The other five offices were subordinated to the Grand Counsellor.
In the early phase of the Northern Zhou, the emperor's cousin Yuwen Hu 宇文護 (513-572) was Grand Counsellor and concurrently Grand Preceptor (taishi 太師, see Three Dukes). His authority extended to the command of all troops. After Yuwen Hu's assassination, Emperor Wu 北周武帝 (r. 560-578) personally took over command over the army, as well as over the five offices. The post of Grand Councellor was therefore purely honorific during that time. The situation changed again under Yang Jian 楊堅 (541-604), who could strengthen the position again. The second person behind the Grand Counsellor was the Director of the Palace Secretariat (yuzheng dafu 御正大夫), and then the Director of the Chancellery (nayan dafu 納言大夫) and the Grand Master Accountant (sikuai dafu 司會大夫). The Grand Master of the Imperial Clan (zongshi dafu 宗師大夫) was responsible for the instruction of the princes, and the Left and Right Grand Master of the Palace Militia (zuo-you gongbo dafu 左右宮伯大夫) commanded the palace guard. The imperial household was administered by the Grand Master of the Palace Revenues (taifu dafu 太府大夫), the Grand Master of Revenues (jibu dafu 計部大夫), the Grand Master of the Catering Bureau (shanbu dafu 膳部大夫), and the Grand Master of the Palace Physicians (taiyi dafu 太醫大夫).
The Terrestrial Office (diguan fu) was headed by a Minister Grand Overseer of Public Affairs (da situ 大司徒), assisted by two Superior Grand Masters Junior Overseers of Public Affairs (xiao situ 小司徒). They were responsible for the compilation and archiving of household registers (Grand Master of Tax Revenues minbu dafu 民部大夫), the just allotment of fields, the collection of taxes, the organization of corvée delivered to the local public, and disaster relief (Grand Master Mentor of Labour, zaishi dafu 載師大夫), the administration of granaries (Grand Master of Granaries, sicang dafu 司倉大夫), education of the nobility (Grand Master of the Palace School, shishi dafu 師氏大夫), supervising discipline among the scions of the imperial house (Grand Master Palace Protector, baoshi dafu 保氏大夫), control of the gates of the capital city (Grand Master of the Gates, simen dafu 司門大夫), markets (Grand Master of the Markets, sishi dafu 司市大夫), imperial forests, pastures and hunting grounds (Grand Master of Forestry, yubu dafu 虞部大夫), as well as local administration (depending on the distance from the capital: xiangbo dafu 鄉伯大夫, suibo dafu 遂伯大夫, shaobo dafu 稍伯大夫, xianbo dafu 縣伯大夫 and jibo dafu 畿伯大夫).
Head of the Spring Office (chunguan fu 春官府) was a Minister Grand Overseer of Ritual Affairs (da zongbo 大宗伯), assisted by two Superior Grand Masters Junior Overseers of Ritual Affairs (xiao zongbo 小宗伯). They were responsible for court rituals and ceremonies, offerings and sacrifices, the calendar and court entertainment. The Grand Master Interior Scribe (neishi dafu 內史大夫) drafted documents promulgated by the emperor and took place in councils on punishment and reward and on military affairs. His position corresponded to that of the Vice Director of the Palace Secretariat (zhongshu shilang 中書侍郎). The various duties of the Office were the arrangement of ceremonies of the nobility and at religious occasions (Grand Master of Rites, libu dafu 禮部大夫), official court ceremonies (Grand Master of the Imperial Clan, sizong dafu 司宗大夫), protection of the dynastic ancestral temple and offerings (Grand Master Protecting the Temples, shoumiao dafu 守廟大夫), offerings to Heaven and Earth (Grand Master of Sacrifices, diansi dafu 典祀大夫), astronomy and astrology (Grand Master Great Astrologer, taishi dafu 太史大夫), musical entertainment (Grand Master of Music, yuebu dafu 樂部大夫), recording of the imperial diary (Grand Master Historian, waishi dafu 外史大夫), administration of the National University (Grand Master of Erudites of the National University, taixue boshi dafu 太學博士大夫), divination (Grand Master Great Diviner, taibu dafu 太卜大夫), incantation to spirits and ghosts (Grand Master Great Supplicator, taizhu dafu 太祝大夫), chariots and insignia (Grand Master of Carriages, sichelu dafu 司車輅大夫) and funeral rituals (Grand Master of Mourning, xiacai dafu 夏采大夫).
The Summer Office (xiaguan fu 夏官府) was directed by a Minister Grand Overseer of Military Affairs (da sima 大司馬) and his lieutenants, two Superior Grand Masters Junior Overseers of Military Affairs (xiao sima 小司馬). They supervised the army, military supply and the imperial guards. The most important department heads were responsible for military honours (Grand Master of Merit Awards, sixun dafu 司勳大夫), the protection of the emperor and the court (*Left and Right Grand Master of Defense, zuo-you wubo dafu 左右武伯大夫 and Grand Master of Imperial Lances, siyou dafu 司右大夫), chariots (Grand Master of Charioteers, dayu dafu 大馭大夫), archery (Grand Master of Archers, sishe dafu 司射大夫), pastures and cavalry (*Grand Master of Cavalry, jiabu dafu 駕部大夫), weapons and equipment (*Grand Master of the Arsenal, wucang dafu 武藏大夫), unified troops (Grand Master Cavalry Commander, jun sima dafu 軍司馬大夫), and of military personnel (Grand Master of Military Staff, bingbu dafuzhifang dafu 職方大夫), promotion and appointment (Grand Master of Personnel, libu dafu 吏部大夫), and evaluation of officials (Grand Master of Servicemen, sishi dafu 司士大夫).
The Minister Grand Overseer of Penal Affairs (da sikou 大司寇) and the two Superior Grand Masters Junior Overseers of Penal Affairs (xiao sikou 小司寇) were mainly the masters of the justicial system, but in their jurisdiction fell also the issue of foreign affairs. The resorts were justice (Grand Master Censor, sixian dafu 司憲大夫), sentencing (Grand Master of Punishment, xingbu dafu 刑部大夫), public security (Grand Master Promulgator of Law, buxian dafu 布憲大夫), "private law" (*Grand Master Justifier, sitiao dafu 司調大夫), court administration (Grand Master Controlling the Court, zhangchao dafu 掌朝大夫), penal slavery and penal servitude (Grand Master of Slaves, sili dafu 司隸大夫), the elimination of pests in the fields (*Grand Master of Field Adjustment, tianzheng dafu 田正大夫), relations with tribal leaders (*Grand Master of Foreign Tribes, fanbu dafu 蕃部大夫), relations with other states (*Grand Master of Guests, binbu dafu 賓部大夫).
The Winter Office (dongguan fu 冬官府) regulated public work. It was headed by a Minister Grand Overseer of Public Works (da sikong 大司空) and two Superior Grand Masters Junior Overseers of Public Works (xiao sikong 小司空). The Grand Minister of Works (gongbu dafu 工部大夫) was responsible for the "hundred types" of public work (baigong 百工) in general, while the other Grand Masters regulated one field of work each: architecture (jiangshi dafu 匠師大夫), carpentry (simu dafu 司木大夫), earth work (situ dafu 司土大夫), metalwork (sijin dafu 司金大夫), hydraulic works (sishui dafu 司水大夫), jade (siyu dafu 司玉大夫), leatherwork (sipu dafu 司皮大夫), dyeing and lacquering (sise dafu 司色大夫), spinning and weaving (sizhi dafu 司織大夫) and braiding with grass and bamboo (sihui dafu 司卉大夫).
In 581 Grand Counsellor Yang Jian overthrew Emperor Jing 北周靜帝 (r. 579-581) and assumed the title of emperor (Emperor Wen 隋文帝, r. 581-604) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618). He abolished the system of the six offices and re-introduced the Three-Department system (sansheng 三省) created by the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin 晉 (265-420) dynasties. In this system, the Six Ministries (liubu 六部) were subordinated to the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省).
In Chinese history, the Six-Offices System of the old Zhou dynasty was several times revived: Once under the usurper Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-23 CE) , who ended the Former Han dynasty 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE); once by the Northern Zhou, and a third time under Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (regent 684-690, ruler 690-704), who also called her own dynasty Zhou.