An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Han Empire Government, Administration, and Law

October 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The governmental system of the Han empire 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) was a mixture of a central bureaucracy and semi-independent regional states (princedoms). The imperial princes were given the title of "kings" (wang 王) or marquesses (hou 侯), territories that had to stay in the hands of their familiy until the line died out. Highly merited ministers could also be bestowed the inheritable title of marquess, and were given a domain from whose revenues they lived. During the mid-Former Han period the kingdoms (or "princedoms", guo 國) gained more and more power and even rebelled (see Rebellion of the Seven Princes 七國之亂), so that the emperor decided to curtail their power by substantially cutting down the size of princedoms. The rest of the empire, especially the territory around the capital, stayed in the hands of the emperor. It was administered - following the pattern of the Qin empire 秦 - as commanderies (jun 郡) under a civil governor (taishou 太守) and a military governor called "defender" (duwei 都尉). Commanderies were divided into counties or districts (xian 縣) under a civil magistrate (ling 令) and a military defender (wei 尉). The princedoms (wangguo 王國) and marquisates (houguo 侯國) were largely autonomous, especially in the first few decades of Former Han 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), and they had their own political administration with a couselor-delegate (guoxiang 國相) as head of government. A kind of intermediate administrative unit between the commanderies/princedoms and the central government were the inspective regions or provinces (bu 部 or zhou 州). The regional inspectors (cishi 刺史) and governors (zhoumu 州牧) were installed as a controlling unit to inspect and assess the work of the regional administrators. The central region around the capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi), and under the Later Han 後漢 (25-220 CE), Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan), was controlled by the Three Guardians (sanfu 三輔), i.e. the Metropolitian Governor (jingzhao yin 京兆尹), the Guardian to the Left (zuofengyi 左馮翊) and the Guardian to the Right (youfufeng 右扶風), later by a metropolitan commandant (sili xiaowei 司隸校尉).
The central government was run by one (sometimes two) chancellors or counsellors-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相), the Defender-in-chief (taiwei 太尉), the Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史大夫) and the Imperial Mentor (taifu 太傅). Chancellor, Great Commander and Censor-in-chief were called the Three Dukes (sangong 三公) or Grand Counsellors (zaixiang 宰相).
The Imperial Board of Secretaries (shangshutai 尚書臺, later called Zhongshu 中書) was the center of paper bureaucracy. Tasks of the imperial household and central administrative works of the government like the imperial offerings, law enforcement, the imperial insignia, and so on, was run by the Nine Courts (jiusi 九寺) under chamberlains (qing 卿). The Central Censorate was called yushitai 御史臺.
The military was divided into several armies (jun 軍 under generals (jiangjun) 將軍. During certain campaigns, a General-in-chief (dajiangjun 大將軍) was appointed . During the later half of the Former Han period, holders this temporary office (combined to the title of Marshal-in-chief General-in-chief, dasima dajiangjun 大司馬大將軍) gained more and more influence on the governmental decisions. The office was often bestowed to brothers of Empress Dowagers.
The creators of the administrative system of the Han empire were the first politicians in Chinese history that developed a systematical training and education for the officialdom. But in this early stage of official recruitment, recommendation was still more important than examinations - although a National University (taixue 太學) was established during Former Han
This system of central government was the foundation of an administration structure that more or less kept up through the whole imperial history of China. The major parts of it were not invented by the Han politicians but were simply taken over from the Qin administration system.
Many aspects of Han law were likewise inherited from the Qin dynasty, and many cruel punishments like physical tortures, mutilations and tatooed stigmatizing were inly abolished in the late 190es and 180es BCE. The embryonic corpus of three chapters was widened to nine and then twenty-seven chapters until the end of Former Han. The law codex of the Han dynasty and subsequently of much of the imperial period of China constisted of two parts: penal law ( 律) whose main parts stood in the tradition of the legalist Qin state, and administrative - not civil - law (ling 令). The administrative law was implemented by imperial edicts (zhao 詔) and decrees (ling 令) that were proclaimed by the emperor. In the daily practice, paradigmatic cases (bi 比) and precedences (li 例) were taken as comparative measure for judgements. In many cases death penalty could be lowered to a fine or to penalies by labour at the frontier garrisons or for official work.

Denis Twitchett, Michael Loewe (ed. 1986), The Cambridge History of China., Vol. 1. The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.-A.D. 220 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Charles O. Hucker (1985). A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).
Tong Jianyin 佟建寅, Shu Xiaofeng 舒小峰 (ed. 1994), Baijuanben Zhongguo quanshi 百卷本中國全史, Zhongguo Qin Han zhengzhi shi 中國秦漢政治史 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe).