Military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使) were high officials nominally contolling the military affairs of one circuit (lu 路, dao 道), but who were increasingly gaining control over civilian matters. The office was created during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) and played a major role in the disintegration of the Tang empire. The many secessions of independent empires during the late 9th and the 10th centuries were initiated by military commissioners.
The term jiedushi is derived from their symbol of office, an emblem or banner (jingjie 旌節). The word jiedu first appeared in 108 CE, when Liang Dong 梁懂 was appointed (special) military commissioner for all troops (zhujun jiedushi 諸軍節度使) of the western armies of the Later Han empire 後漢 (25-220 CE). In 263, the conquest of the empire of Shu 蜀漢 (221-263) by the armies of Wei 曹魏 (220-265) stood under commanders with special warrant (jiedu 節度), a title conferred to them by the regent Sima Zhao 司馬昭 (211-265).
The second emperor of the Tang dynasty, Li Shimin 李世民 (Emperor Taizong 唐太宗, r. 626-649), also bore the title of jiedu in the sense of being a supervisor of the troops of the circuit of Shaandong 陜東. In all these cases, jiedu was just a temporary function, like area commander with special warrant (shi chijie dudu 使持節都督), and not an office yet.
Nonetheless, these special commanders had extraordinary judicial rights, not just in the military field, but also in civil law. During the Southern and Northern dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600), regional inspectors (cishi 刺史) often had the additional title "with special military warrant" (jia tejie dudu 加持節都督), yet their jurisdictional rights were quite narrow. The short-lived Northern Zhou dynasty 北周 (557-581) called this function "area commander-in-chief" (zongguan 總管). Holders of this title controlled large regions, but could not interfere into civilian rights. Emperor Yang 隋煬帝 (r. 604-617) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) abolished this office, yet the Tang reintroduced it, with the name commander-in-chief (dudu 都督). The area commands (dudufu 都督府) were soon abolished in the central regions of Tang China, and only remained a crucial administrative unit in the Chinese-colonized Western Territories (xiyu 西域).
The basic unit of the military administration of the Tang empire were garrisons (zhenshu 鎮戍). For large campaigns, the central government had therefore to dispatch a general-in-chief (dajiang 大將) who administered the assembling of the army by mobilizing the garrisons and recruiting additional troops. These "recruitment generals" were called *commanders-in-chief of the headquarters (xingjun zongguan 行軍總管), in case of larger campaigns *marshals of the headquarters (xingjun yuanshuai 行軍元帥) or *heads of the commanders-in-chief of the headquarters (xingjun da zongguan tongling zhu zongguan 行軍大總管統領諸總管, also called jinglüe dashi 經略大使, see jinglüeshi 經略使). In sensitive regions, the early Tang central government garrisoned "ready troops" (zhengxing jundui 征行軍隊) that were each year moved to another garrison in a rotation system.
This procedure was expanded and intensified in the late 7th century because of the increasing danger of raids from the Tibetan empire 吐蕃, the Türks 突厥 or the Kitans 契丹. The rotation system was given up and the number of troops in these crucial garrisons around the capital raised. The importance of the dispatched commanders-in-chief of the headquarters rose, and they were given not just the right to care for the recruitment and preparation of troops, but also given permanent command over them. The "armies on campaign" (xingjun 行軍) became large standing armies, particularly in the circuits west of the capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). The commanders-in-chief of the headquarters were permanently-employed commissioners called *commissioners-in-chief of all area troops (zhujun jiedu dashi 諸軍節度大使).
The first instance of a military commissioner on a regular post was Heba Yansi 賀拔延嗣 (a person of Taɣbač origin), who was in 711 appointed commander-in-chief (dudu) of the province of Liangzhou 涼州 in the function of military commissioner (jiedushi) of Hexi 河西. In the first half of the 8th century a series of regular military commands took shape in the north and northwest, namely Pinglu 平盧, Fanyang 范陽, Hedong 河東, Shuofang 朔方, Longyou 隴右, Hexi 河西, the Four Defence Commands of the Pacified West (Anxi sizhen 安西四鎮, see Western Territories 西域) and the eight military commissions of Beiting 北庭 (today's Ürümqi) and Yizhou 伊州 (today's Hami 哈密). Apart from these, military commissions were established in the southwest and south, namely ten area commands (zhen 鎮) in the provinces of Jiannan 劍南 and Lingnan 嶺南 (southwest and southern China). The bureaus of military commissioners were the seat of the local commander-in-chief (dudu), the aide to the area commander-in-chief (da dudu changshi 大都督長史) or the protector-general (duhu 都護). With the appointment by the emperor they were handed out a double banner and emblem (shuang jing shuang jie 雙旌雙節).
Military commissioners had the full right over local military law, signified by a special seal (jianjie 建節) and a large banner with six faces (liudu 六纛), controlled the activities of the local fiscal commissioner (zhidushi 支度使) to organize the military supply, and supervised the local military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田), with the help of which the garrisons were supplied. Military commissioners thus wielded greatest authority in their jurisdiction. From the Tianbao reign-period 天寶 (742-756) on they were even given jurisdiction over the local investigation commissioners (caifangshi 採訪使), and thus unified the power over military, civilian and judicial administration, as well as the financial revenues in their circuit. Because they had the control over several defence commands (zhen), they were also called *commissionary defence commands (jiezhen 節鎮). The highest emblem was that of jointly manager of affairs with the Secretariat-Chancellery (tong Zhongshu Menxia pingzhangshi 同中書門下平章事, short shixiang 使相), a title signifying that a military commissioner had influence on decisions of the central government.
This circumstance gave greatest military and financial power into the hands of single men in the remote regions of the empire. The commissioners An Lushan 安禄山 (703-757) and Shi Siming 史思明 (703-761) threatened the capital and critically endangered the survival of the Tang dynasty. After the suppression of their rebellion (see An Lushan rebellion), the central government decided to create similar military commands in the central regions of the empire, in order to forestall a similar invasion from border regions. In the second half of the Tang period there were more than twenty regions controlled by military commissioners. In some regions, where no office of a military commissioner had been created, defence commissioners (fangyushi 防禦使) were appointed which had nearly the same rights, but did not carry the emblem of a military commissioner. Some of them were concurrently investigation commissioners (caifangshi), an office later renamed surveillance commissioner (guanchashi 觀察使). Alternatively, defence commissioners were concurrently holding the posts of chief military training commissioner (du tuanlianshi 都團練使) or chief defence commissioner (du fangyushi 都防御使). In the northeastern border regions, military commissioners also concurrently held the post of pacification commissioner (anfushi 安撫使).
The bureaus of military commissioners was staffed with vice commissioners (fushi 副使), agents (zhishi 支使), adjutants (xingjun sima 行軍司馬), administrative assistents (panguan 判官) and judges (tuiguan 推官). The staff of the garrisons (jiangxiao 將校) was controlled by officers (yaya 押衙), military inspectors for discipline (yuhou 虞候) and commanders (bingmashi 兵馬使).
The commissioners themselves were appointed and dispatched by the court, but the subordinates were chosen by the commissioners themselves, and the court just approved them. Also offices as high as regional inspectors (cishi) were filled with persons convenient to the local power-holders, the commissioners. Even if the civilian subordinates like prefects and magistrates were nominally just accountable to the central administration, they were in fact just liable to the military commissioners. Revenues in the circuits were nominally allotted to three treasures. One part was sent to the capital, a second part remained in the circuit, and the third one in the prefectures. The share of the circuit was in most cases the largest one, and was at disposition to military commissioners. Many of them were bold enough to refuse sending the share of the central government to Chang'an. The central government suffered under these circumstances from a substantial lack in finance.
In the second half of the Tang period, military commissioners had in many cases full control over their jurisdiction, and were more or less independent from the central government. Circuits were even renamed and called by their military designation, e.g. the circuit of Zelu 澤潞 (modern Changzhi 長治, Shanxi) was called Zhaoyi jun 昭義軍 "military prefecture of Zhaoyi". The military character of the local administration during the late Tang period can be seen in the designation fanzhen 藩鎮 "defence command" which replaced the words lu "circuit" or even zhou 州 "prefecture".
Following the needs of the time, some military commissioners joined alliances against others or against the central government. Some even dared to assume the title of emperor, the most daring of them also introduced new reign mottos. The result of this tendency was the disintegration of the Tang empire and the rise of a dozen or so independent states. Even within the territories of these states, known as the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960) and the Ten States 十國 (902-979), military commissioners resisted territorial unification and overthrew the one or other regime. Military commissions even became inheritable positions, and produced their own "dynasties" of commissioners.
The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279), also emerging from military rule, did everything to avoid military commissioners obtaining too much influence. Some military commissioners only controlled one prefecture (zhou), others also "branch commanderies" (zhijun 支郡), and possessed military, administrative, and financial control over this territory. Emperor Taizu 宋太祖 (r. 960-975) decided to deprive the military commissioners of their financial power, and left them just what was needed to pay and supply the troops in their jurisdiction. In 965 he ordered that from all military commissions, the best troops were to be sent to staff the metropolitan garrisons. In this way, the central government was protected against any further attempts of military commissioners to conquer the capital and threaten the ruling dynasty.
After the conquest of central China, Taizu subordinated all local troops to central command and did not appoint any military commissioner in this region. In 977 he applied this measure for the whole empire, and left only small contingents of troops in the hands of military commissioners. He also deprived them of "branch commanderies", and thus reduced the size of military commissions. Prefectures were headed by civilian personnel directly sent from the capital and chosen from a pool of trustworthy men. This measure deprived all military commissioners from the right to interfere into civilian matters. More and more, the title of military commissioner lost its concrete meaning and was transformed into a formal title without real powers. It was bestowed on members of the imperial house, on kinsmen of empresses (waiqi 外戚), on chieftains of aboriginal tribes in the southwest (see jimi system 羈縻), or on the sons of meritorious generals. All had the right to show the colours of a military commissioner and were treated with greatest ceremonial honours.
The office of military commissioner was also used by the Liao 遼 (907-1125) and Jin 金 (1115-1234) empires. The Tangutan dynasty ruling over the empire of Western Xia 西夏 (1038-1227) also hailed from a family of military commissioners. The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) decided to do away with the title, even if it had just honorific means by the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279).