An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Political System - The Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣)

Nov 18, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

The Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣) was introduced by the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). It was a central organ for the processing of first-class documents until the end of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) and was run by so-called Grand Academicians (daxueshi 大學士). It was the successor of the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) and replaced, as a collective body and in the person of the Senior Grand Secretary (shoufu 首輔), the ancient institution of the Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相, zaixiang 宰相) that was abolished during the early Ming.

With the foundation of the Ming dynasty, the Palace Secretariat of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) was adopted. It controlled not only the Six Ministries (liubu 六部), but also the Provincial Secretariats (xing zhongshusheng 行中書省) and their civil, military, and judicial functions. All memorials submitted to the throne, and all imperial edicts pronounced by the sovereign passed the Palace Secretariat. The founder of the Ming, Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398), interpreted this wide array of pivotal functions as a threat to his authority. Moreover, the staff of the Palace Secretariat was too large. In the course of the 1370s therefore, Emperor Taizu demoted the highest functionaries to offices of lesser influence, mostly Ministers (shangshu 尚書) or Vice-Ministers (shilang 侍郎). He also transformed the Provincial Secretariats into Provincial Administration Commissions (buzhengshi si 布政使司) with smaller ranges of jurisdiction. For official communication, he established in 1377 the Office of Transmission (tongzhengshi si 通政使司), and thus cut the link between the Palace Secretariat and the Ministries, and with the provinces. Two years later, Taizu decreed the abolition of the Palace Secretariat, and in 1395 that of the Counsellors-in-chief and their subordinates, the Managers of Governmental Affairs (pingzhang zhengshi 平章政事), and Assistant Administrators (canzhi zhengshi 參知政事). He forbade his descendants to re-introduce it – a decision that is part of Taizu's order to generally never alter the system he had established. This was later known as "the Ancestor's system" (zuzhi 祖制). In 1380, Taizu abolished the Chief Military Command (da dudufu 大都督府) and distributed its functions over the Five Chief Military Commissions (wujun dudufu 五軍都督府), and thus also deprived the central government organization of military commands.

This step of autocratization, however, gave on the one hand rise to direct personal influence on the emperor by his entourage, and eunuchs in particular, and on the other, burdened the sovereign directly with decisions to be made that had formerly been in the hands of experienced bureaucrats. In 1380 therefore, he introduced the offices of the Four Supports (sifu guan 四輔官), which had to advise the emperor in turn, according to the sequence of the four seasons. They were mainly entrusted with judicial affairs and questions of personnel, but in fact, Taizu only chose elderly scholars for these offices which could not threaten his authority. Their lacking competence in political affairs forced him after 1381 to rely on scholars of the Hanlin Academy (Hanlinyuan 翰林院) to decide on judicial matters, for which purpose he founded the official position of *Grand Academician of the Palace Halls (diange daxueshi 殿閣大學士), from whose ranks he chose his administrative supporters. Most of them were officially working in the Hall of Literary Profundity (Wenyuange 文淵閣). The emperor consulted them for formulating drafting edicts, and sometimes also to make political decisions.

With the accession of the Yongle Emperor 永樂帝 (1403-1424), the support of Grand Academicians became a regular custom. The Empress and the Heir Apparent likewise made use of their support for the organization of the required ceremonies. In fact, the Grand Academicians advised the emperor in all decisions and even managed the central government during the military campaigns against the Mongols. However, none of the Grand Academicians had an official rank higher than 5, nor did they belong to a proper institution with an institutional seal of its own.

A substantial elevation of their position was realized under Emperor Renzong 明仁宗 (r. 1424-1425), who bestowed to his three advisors Yang Shiqi 楊士奇 (1365-1444), Yang Rong 楊榮 (1371 1440), and Jin Youzi 金幼孜 (1368-1432) nominal posts in various high institutions, thus upgraded their official position to rank 3, in addition to that of Academician. In 1424, they were also granted the honorary titles of Junior Mentor (shaofu 少傅, see Three Dukes) and Junior Guardian (shaobao 少保), with the corresponding ranks. In the same year, they obtained the right to officially cooperate with the Three Judicial Offices (sanfasi 三法司, i.e., the Censorate [duchayuan 都察院], the Ministry of Justice [xingbu 刑部], and the Court of Judicial Review [dalisi 大理寺]). Thus, the three advisors had positions above that of ministers (shangshu).

With his accession to the throne, the Xuanzong Emperor 明宣宗 (r. 1425-1435) officially decreed the introduction of the Grand Secretariat (neige), but as a council residing in the Hall of Literary Profundity. Yet until the end of the reign, the Secretariat was still not an official institution with a determined number of functionaries. Their members still formally "entered" (ruzhi 入直) the imperial quarters to serve the sovereign in special cases. When the under-age Emperor Yingzong 明英宗 (r. 1435-1449, 1457-1464) came to the throne, he was assisted by the "Three Yangs" (Yang Shiqi, Yang Rong, Yang Pu 楊溥 [1372-1446]), even if the regency was nominally in the hands of the Grand Empress Dowager (taihuang taihou 太皇太后). The Three Yangs had the right to suggest (piaozhi 票旨, piaoni 票擬, tiaozhi 條旨) imperial answers (pida 批答) to memorials submitted, and to control the flow of documents from and to the throne. In 1442, Yingzong granted the Yangs the honorific title of *Elder Support-Counsellor (fuxiang yuanlao 輔相元老), which was practically a revival of the title of Chief Counsellor (xiang 相) in the shape of the *Secretariat Ministers (gechen 閣臣). In order to handle the high number of incoming documents more efficiently, the *Proclamations Office (gaochifang 誥敕房) and the *Decrees Office (zhichifang 制敕房) were established, each headed by a secretariat drafter (zhongshu sheren 中書舍人).

In 1457, the Grand Secretaries Xu Youzhen 徐有貞 (1407-1472) and Li Xian 李賢 (1408-1466) were for the first time said to "manage" (zhang 掌) affairs. Their suggestions were discussed with the respective ministries before being decided by Emperor Yingzong. In documents from 1477 on, the Grand Secretariat and the Hanlin Academy were treated as two different institutions.

Another aspect of regular institutionalization was the decision to have members of the Grand Secretariat recommended (tingtui zhidu 廷推制度) by the Nine Chamberlains (jiuqing 九卿) and the supervising secretaries and investigating censors (kedao guanyuan 科道官員) – apart from the sovereign's own decision (tejian 特簡), and – in very late Ming period – selection by lot (meibu 枚卜) or examination (kaoxuan 考選). Yet the recommendation system became more important over time. When the Wanli Emperor 萬曆帝 (1573-1619) appointed Zhang Siwei 張四維 (1526-1585) and Zhang Wei 張位 (1534-1605) without consulting his ministers, he was criticized. From the Tianshun reign-period 天順 (1457-1464) on, the jinshi degree, and membership in the Hanlin Academy, was a precondition for entering the Grand Secretariat.

During the Zhengde reign-period 正德 (1506-1521), the Grand Secretariat was seen as a regular institution and the successor of the Palace Secretariat. Li Shi 李時 (1471-1538) was the first Grand Academician who was an official Grand Secretary. During that time, the Hall of Literary Profundity was reconstructed to serve as an official reception hall where the sovereign could confer with the Grand Secretaries. After the enormous growth of power of the eunuch faction (see "Eight Tigers" [ba hu 八虎]) in the early 16th century, the Jiajing reign-period 嘉靖 (1522-1566) saw a strengthening of the Grand Secretariat, but Yang Tinghe 楊廷和 (1459-1529) was constantly attacked by the eunuchs. Emperor Shizong 明世宗 (r. 1521-1566) accepted Yang's proposal that the Nine Chamberlains shall be selected by the Grand Secretariat. Apart from Yang Tinghe, Yang Qiqing 楊一清 (1454-1530) and Zhang Cong 張璁 (1475-1539) headed the institution as Senior Grand Secretaries (shoufu 首輔). They were assisted by Secondary Grand Secretaries (cifu 次輔) and several *Ordinary Grand Secretaries (qunfu 群輔). Senior Grand Secretaries had a life-long right to occupy the first position in the Grand Secretariat, also when they had been transferred to another post and returned to the institution. The highest number of members of the Grand Secretariat was nine persons, as in 1623.

This gave persons like Yan Song 嚴嵩 (1480-1567) enormous power and allowed them to abuse their position for personal gains. Less abusive was Gao Gong 高拱 (1513-1578), who was himself aware that the Grand Secretaries possessed too much power. Zhang Juzheng 張居正 (1525-1582) used this power to carry out some reforms, like the Single-whip method of taxation (yitiaobian fa 一條鞭法), or the strengthening of the military under Qi Jiguang 戚繼光 (1528-1588).

From 1506 on, many Grand Secretaries retained their titles and functions as ministers, and thus concurrently acted in two positions. In the late Ming period, the Grand Secretaries Liu Yuliang 劉宇亮 (jinshi degree 1620), Yang Sichang 楊嗣昌 (1588-1641) and Li Jiantai 李建泰 (d. 1649) were concurrently Minister of War (bingbu shangshu 兵部尚書), and also conducted military campaigns.

The reason why it took so long from the practical initialization of the Grand Secretariat to the formal establishment is to be found in Emperor Taizu's decree to never change the structure he had created. The duties and jurisdiction of the Grand Secretariat were therefore never clearly defined. In all statecraft compendia, as for instance, the Ming huidian 明會典, the Grand Secretariat was treated as a sub-institution of the Hanlin Academy, and its documents used the official Hanlin seal. The origin of most Grand Secretaries from the Hanlin Academy, which was specialized on clerical work and literary finesse, was of no great help to make them excellent policy makers. It was enough that they delivered suggestions to the sovereign, without too much interfering into political matters or allowing them to supervise or control the emperor. The chance to gain control over the sovereign fell therefore into the hands of chief eunuchs.

Another competitor for power was the Directorate of Ceremonial (silijian 司禮監), an institutions controlled by eunuchs. While the Grand Secretariat had the right to formulate suggestions (piaoni quan 票擬權), the Directorate had the right to write vermillion remarks on behalf of the emperor (pizhu quan 批朱權), as if the emperor himself had written them. The lack of formal legitimacy of the Grand Secretariat allowed the Six Ministries from time to time to resist orders of Grand Secretaries. Another origin of conflicts in the Grand Secretariat under the Ming was the hierarchical difference between the Senior and the Secondary Grand Secretaries which led to personal in-fights for power.

The Qing dynasty therefore downgraded the Grand Secretariat from an unofficial state council to a central secretariat in the literal sense.

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), 70-95.