The chengxiang 丞相, translated as "Counsellor-in-chief" (literally "administrative aide"), was the highest official advisor to the emperors and head of the central government during the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE), Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and Three Kingdoms 三國 (220-280 CE) periods. It is often replaced by the archaic titles dazai 大宰 "Grand Steward", zhongzai 冢宰 "Minister of State" of zaixiang 宰相 "Grand Counsellor" that originally designated the chief official of the central government of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE).
The regional state of Qin 秦 was the first to create the offices of the left and the right counsellors-in-chief (zuo chengxiang 左丞相, you chengxiang 右丞相, in combination called zuo-you chengxiang 左右丞相). These posts were, however, not always occupied, and some influential persons managed to dominate the position of Chief Counsellor alone as "counsellor of the state" (xiangbang 相邦), like Wei Ran 魏冉 (Marquis Rang 穰侯) or Lü Buwei 呂不韋 (d. 253 BCE). The Han dynasty inherited the administrative system of the Qin empire, but with the difference that the solitary office of one Counsellor-in-chief was much more regularized. The founder of the dynasty, Han Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206-195 BCE), for instance, appointed Xiao He 蕭何 (d. 193 BCE) as "counsellor of the state" (xiangguo 相國) who was succeeded by Cao Shen 曹參 (d. 190 BCE). It was only a short period during the reign of Emperor Hui 漢惠帝 (r. 195-188) and the regency of Empress Dowager Lü 呂太后 (r. 188-180 BCE) that two counsellors were appointed. Each of the princedoms (wangguo 王國) was administered by a staff headed by a Counsellor-in-chief. In order to avoid confusion and to downgrade the status of the princedoms, Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE) renamed this office xiang 相 "administrator" or "manager", while the title of chengxiang was reserved for the central government.
In case of important political decisions it was common that matters were not to be dominated by the Counsellor alone, but were discussed by a several high officials. Yet for ordinary affairs the Counsellor had the right to decide and to draft an edict, or even to criticize an edict by the emperor. The Counsellor had the right to make use of the administrative apparatus of the central and the local governments, to recommend persons for promotion, to investigate local officials and to initiate their promotion, dismission or punishment. He was the chief person making use of the administrative and penal law and oversaw all jurisdictional matters. The Counsellor had to control the peace of the empire's regions and was entrusted with the pacification of local commanderies in trouble. He was in charge of military matters and border defense and had to oversee the compilation of household and tax registers throughout the empire.
The official rank of the Counsellor-in-chief was determined by his nominal salary of 10,000 bushels (shi 石) of grain per annum, yet his factual monthly salary was 350 fivepecks (hu 斛) of rice and 60,000 copper cash (qian 錢).
During the Former Han period the Counsellors-in-chief were assisted by the Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史大夫) who practically was the Vice Counsellor. The Councellor's direct aides were two senior clerks (zhangshi 長史) as well as several junior clerks (shaoshi 少史) and Verifier (zhengshi 徵事). The office of the Counsellor-in-chief was divided into several bureaus, like the Western Section (xicao 西曹), Eastern Section (dongcao 東曹), Memorials Section (zoucao 奏曹), Accounts Section (jicao 集曹) or the Consultation Section (yicao 議曹), each headed by and administrator (yuanshi 掾史). In 118 BCE the office of Rectifier (sizhi 司直) was added that allowed the Counsellor-in-chief a greater control of the various state officials and to punish them in case of corruption of misbehaviour.
At the beginning of the Han period the Counsellors belonged to the eminent men that had participated in the foundation of the dynasty and were therefore highly venerated persons that had a great influence on political decisions that often ran counter to the plans of the emperors. Wang Ling 王陵 (d. 180 BCE), for instance, warned Empress Dowager Lü not to ennoble her relatives as princes. Zhou Yafu 周亞夫 (d. 143 BCE) contradicted in 145 BCE the ennoblement of Wang Xin 王信 as a marquis (hou 侯) and the deposement of Prince Li 栗太子 (160-148 BCE) as Heir Apparent. Gongsun Hong 公孫弘 (200-121 BCE) was the first Counsellor who was concurrently made marquis, and this became custom thereafter. Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) gradually altered the personal structure of the central administation and less relied on the political advice of his Counsellor. Quite a few Counsellors serving under him, like Xue Ze 薛澤 (end of term 124 BCE), Zhao Zhou 趙周 (d. 112 BCE), Zhuang Qingdi 莊青翟 (d. 115 BCE), Shi Qing 石慶 (d. 103 BCE) or Tian Qianqiu 田千秋 (d. 77 BCE), were not very strong persons and had not political influence at all. In the late years of his reign, Emperor Wu relied on the advice of Huo Guang who occupied the newly created position of General-in-chief serving as Commander-in-chief (dasima dajiangjun 大司馬大將軍). The Minister of War (da sima 大司馬) thus occupied in practice a higher position than the Counsellor-in-chief.
Until the end of the Former Han period, this situation remained basically the same. The informal office of the General-in-chief serving as Commander-in-chief was often occupied by kinsmen of imperial consorts (waiqi 外戚). Counsellors with a sense for responsibility for the dynasty, like Wei Xuancheng 韋玄成 (d. 36 BCE) or Kuang Heng 匡衡 (end of term 29 BCE) were virtually powerless in face of the destructive power of the Generals-in-chief. During the reign of Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE)， He Wu 何武 (d. 3 BCE) suggested restructuring of the office of the Counsellor into three different sections with different tasks, in order to release the administrative burden posed on the shoulders of the Counsellor. The office of Counsellor so became one of the Three Dukes (sangong 三公), the other "Dukes" being the Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu, then called da sikong 大司空 "Minister of Works") and the Minister of War. During the reign of Emperor Ai 漢哀帝 (r. 7-1 BCE) the office of the Counsellor was renamed to "Minister of Education" (da situ 大司徒).
At the beginning of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) the three offices were renamed into situ 司徒 (former chengxiang "Counsellor"), sikong 司空 (former yushi dafu "Censor") and taiwei 太尉 (former sima "Minister of War"). The latter was the most important and most powerful office among the Three Dukes, yet these three offices gradually became merely vain titles, while the tasks formerly managed by the bureaus of the Counsellor were now taken over by the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省). Real power at that time was wielded by the relatives of the imperial consorts and the Empresses Dowager and the eunuch cliques.
This situation changed only at the very end of the Later Han period when the powerful warlords Dong Zhuo 董卓 (d. 192 CE) and Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220 CE) occupied the office of Counsellor-in-chief. Cao Cao restored this office, as well as that of the Censor-in-chief. The difference to the Former Han period was that the real position of Counsellor was that of an informal regent for a weak emperor. Powerful persons of the Wei 曹魏 (220-265), Jin 晉 (265-420) and Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589) periods continued making use of the office of Counsellor.
During the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song 宋 (960-1279) periods the title of left or right chengxiang was sometimes applied to the vice directors (puye 僕射) of the Imperial Secretariat (zhongshusheng) or the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省). While the titles of director of the secretariat (shangshuling 尚書令, zhongshuling 中書令) were mainly vain titles, these counsellors held the real power within the secretariats.
During the early years of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) there were even no directors appointed. The Hongwu Emperor 洪武 (r. 1368-1398) then abolished the secretariats altogether and later replaced them with the Grand Secretariat (neige 内閣). This was also the end of the title of chengxiang.