An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Political System - Decision-Making

Dec 12, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Ming China 明 (1368-1644) was an absolute monarchy in which the sovereign had the last word in all political decisions. However, there were some legal mechanisms by which the emperor could consult the opinions of high ministers and other functionaries.

The most important legislative mechanism were the court sessions (tingyi 廷議, huiyi 會議 or jiyi 集議). The personal presence of the emperor (mianyi 面議) was not necessary, but active rulers took the role of onlookers on the discussions before taking a decision. There were no regulations how court sessions were organized, but during the early Ming period, they were guided by the Director of the Palace Secretariat (zhongshu ling 中書令), and after its abolishment, by the Ministers (shangshu 尚書) or Vice Ministers (shilang 侍郎) under whose jurisdiction the case was which was to be discussed. For affairs that were more complex, the Minister or Personnel (libu shangshu 吏部尚書) presided. The participants of court sessions were members of the Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣), the Nine Chamberlains (jiuqing 九卿), Supervising Secretaries and Censors (kedao 科道; see Censorate), and civilian and military functionaries related with the case. These were, for instance, representatives of the Five Chief Military Commissions (wujun dudufu 五軍都督府; see Ming military) for military affairs, the Brocade Guard (jinyiwei 錦衣衛) for penal matters. The emperor might also entrust the eunuch Director of Ceremonial (silijian taijian 司禮監太監) to observe the deliberations. The number of participants reached from 30 to more than 100 persons.

From 1511 on, participants had to present notes (jietie 揭帖) about their standpoints in advance. During the session, guards stood ready to lead away persons who were charged with improper speech.

Court sessions dealt with a wide range of topics of policy-making, from the investiture of princes and issues of residence to sacrificial and ritual matters, changes in the system of state officials and institutions, military campaigns, punishment of high officials, fiscal matters, problems of tribute grain transport, state granaries, disaster relief and local policy. When sessions were concluded, the chairman prepared a document on which all participants were named, and submitted it to the throne. If the case was not solved, the emperor could set a limit. From the Jiajing reign-period 嘉靖 (1522-1566) on, the finalized documents were submitted through the Grand Secretariat. Alternatively, individual persons could submit a memorial to the throne in which they presented their view of the case. The sovereign was free which recommendation he accepted, but he could also refuse the suggestions altogether. Another option of the emperor was to have the courtiers discuss the issue once more. The emperor's personal decision depended in quite a few cases on the advice of his eunuch entourage. Powerful eunuchs like Liu Jin 劉瑾 (1451-1510) could even signify the functionaries which result a court session was favoured by himself.

When the emperor had decided, his will was either proclaimed nation-wideas an edict (zhaogao 詔誥), or sent down as a imperial instruction (yuzhi 諭旨) to the institution in charge.

Apart from the court session, there were audience sessions (chaoyi 朝議), during which the emperor was present and could make his final decision on the spot, and ministerial sessions (buyi 部議) were held internally by one or two ministries in charge.

High ministers had the right to criticize edicts or point at formal or content-related errors in the memorials of other functionaries. The system of "secret critique" (fengbo 封駁) was introduced in 1384, but it had antecedents in earlier times, when it was called remonstrance (jian jian 諫). The responsible persons were the Supervising Secretaries of the Six Offices of Scrutiny (liuke jishizhong 六科給事中) under the Censorate. In the late Ming period, these institutions could influence policy decisions in a time when the emperor neglected his duties or when the court eunuchs and their supporters (see eunuch faction) tried to suppress critical voices from among the officialdom. This was later dubbed the "[government-]participation of the Offices" (kecan 科參). The members of the Grand Secretariat had also the right to remonstrate against imperial decisions by returning an edict in sealed form (fenghuan 封還). However, the sovereign could accept the objection, or ignore it.

A third instrument by which high functionaries could influence political decisions was the appointment into vacancies of high offices by the court, a system called "court recommendation" (tingtui 廷推; also called huitui 會推, huiju 會舉). If the emperor himself determined an appointee without consulting with his ministers, this was called "special appointment" (tejian 特簡; also called tezhi 特旨 or qinzhuo 親擢). Yet another method to determine an appointee for a high office was by divination (meibu 枚卜). The system of court recommmendation only took its shape in the mid-15th century, and was standard after 1496. The recommendation stood normally under the supervision of the Minister of Personnel, who invited, depending on the type of post, the institutions concerned. The system was used for vacancies in the Grand Council, for Ministers, Vice Ministers, Censors-in-chief (duyushi 都御史), the Commissioner of Transmission (tongzhengshi 通政使), the Chamberlain of the Court of Judicial Review (dali qing 大理卿), the Libationer (head) of the Directorate of Education (guozijian jijiu 國子監祭酒), supreme commanders (zongdu 總督), and provincial grand coordinators (xunfu 巡撫). The higher the post was, the greater the number of participants in the recommendation committee and the higher their ranks. Usually, only persons with experience could be taken into the list. The result was normally a shortlist of two candidates, a first-choice selectee (zhengtui 正推), and a second-choice candidate (peitui 陪推). Often, the Minister of Personnel made his choice first, to which the other members of the committee added their proposals. High functionaries could also individually submit memorials to the throne recommending a candidate of their choice independently from the common list. Which one of the candidates the emperor eventually selected, was up to himself, and he had the freedom to request the altering of the list.

Du Wanyan 杜婉言, Fang Zhiyuan 方志遠 (1996). Zhongguo zhengzhi zhidu tongshi 中國政治制度通史, Vol. 9, Mingdai 明代 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe), 109-129.