An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

jiuqing 九卿, the Nine Chamberlains

Dec 21, 2015 © Ulrich Theobald

The Nine Chamberlains (jiuqing 九卿) were the highest members of the central government of the empire below the Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相). From the 3rd century CE on they gradually lost their political function, and the nine titles were more or less honorific. They were in use until the end of the imperial state in 1912.

What offices belonged to the group of the nine differed from period to period. The term "three dukes and nine chamberlains" (sangong jiuqing 三公九卿) was already in use during the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), but seems to have been rather a collective designation for high ministers, just like the terms lieqing 列卿 or zhongqing 眾卿 "the many ministers". Other interpretations see the term jiuqing as applied to the Six Ministers (liuqing 六卿) and the "Three Juniors" (sanshao 三少) or "Three Solitaries" (sangu 三孤):

Table 1. The Nine Ministers of the Zhou Period
冢宰 zhongzai Chief Minister
司徒 situ Minister of Education
宗伯 zongbo Minister of Rites
司馬 sima Minister of War
司寇 sikou Minister of Justice
司空 sikong Minister of Works
少師 shaoshi Junior Preceptor
少傅 shaofu Junior Mentor
少保 shaobao Junior Guardian

The Grand Preceptor (taishi 太師), Grand Mentor (taifu 太傅), and Grand Guardian (taibao 太保) belonged to the Three Dukes (sangong 三公).

The Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and early Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) dynasties did in fact not apply the term to concrete offices. This happened only when the Confucians won over the fight for ideological dominance under the reign of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE). The term was then used for officials with a salary of 2,000 shi 石 of grain. The term jiuqing was regularly used in imperial edicts thereafter, but applied to a wide range of high offices in the central government. The usurper Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-23 CE) was the first who determined which nine offices were to be subsumed under the name jiuqing. The Later Han 後漢 (25-220 CE) followed this precedent and determined the following offices as those of the nine Chamberlains:

Table 2. The Nine Chamberlains of the Han Period
N.B. Term in brackets used by the Qin
太常 (奉常) taichang (fengchang) Chamberlain for Ceremonials
光祿勳 (郎中令) guangluxun (langzhong ling) Chamberlain for Attendants
衛尉 weiwei Chamberlain for the Palace Garrison
太僕 taipu Chamberlain for the Imperial Stud
廷尉 tingwei Chamberlain for Law Enforcement
大鴻臚 (典客) dahonglu (dianke) Chamberlain for Dependencies
宗正 zongzheng Chamberlain for the Imperial Clan
大司農 (治粟內史) dasinong (zhili neishi) Chamberlain for the National Treasury
少府 shaofu Chamberlain for the Palace Revenues

Yet disputes remained. Liu Xi 劉熙 (fl. 160 CE), author of the glossary Shiming 釋名, for instance, argued that there were in fact twelve chamberlains (shi'er qing 十二卿), and Wei Zhao 韋昭 (204-273), author of the critique Bian Shiming 辯釋名, was of the opinion that the Nine Chamberlains were the "principal chamberlains" (zhengqing 正卿), and there were also some more "outer chamberlains" (waiqing 外卿). This arrangement remained more or less stable during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600). The office of Chamberlain for Law Enforcement (tingwei 廷尉) was renamed dali 大理, and the Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534) called the Chamberlain for the Palace Revenues (shaofu 少府) taifu 太府.

During the Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907) periods, therefore, the Nine Chamberlains were called (and had a somewhat different rank order) taichang 太常, guanglu 光祿, weiwei 衛尉, zongzheng 宗正, taipu 太僕, dali 大理, honglu 鴻臚, sinong 司農 and taifu 太府. They were mostly powerless and purely honorific.

A deepgoing change took place during the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). The term "Nine Chamberlains" was then applied to the heads of the Six Ministries and three other high-ranking officials of the central government:

Table 3. The Nine Chamberlains of the Ming Period
吏部尚書 lìbu shangshu Minister of Personnel
戶部尚書 hubu shangshu Minister of Revenue
禮部尚書 lǐbu shangshu Minister of Rites
兵部尚書 bingbu shangshu Minister of War
刑部尚書 xingbu shangshu Minister of Justice
工部尚書 gongbu shangshu Minister of Works
都御史 duyushi Censor-in-chief
大理寺卿 dalisi qing Chief Minister of the Court of Judicial Review
通政司使 tongzhengsi shi Commissioner of the Office of Transmission

The ministers were also called da jiuqing 大九卿 "Greater of the Nine Chamberlains", the other three xiao jiuqing 小九卿. Yet the latter term, "Lesser of the Nine Chamberlains", was during the Ming period also used to refer to a variety of second-rank officials:

Table 4. The Lesser Chamberlains of the Ming Period (alternative)
太常寺卿 taichangsi qing Chief Minister of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices
太僕寺卿 taipusi qing Chief Minister of the Court of the Imperial Stud
光祿寺卿 guanglusi qing Chief Minister of the Court of Imperial Entertainments
詹事 zhanshi Supervisor of the Household of the Heir Apparent
翰林學士 hanlin xueshi Academicians of the Hanlin Academy
鴻臚寺卿 honglusi qing Chief Minister of the Court for Dependencies
國子監祭酒 guozijian jijiu Chancellor of the Directorate of Education
苑馬寺卿 yuanmasi qing Chief Minister of the Pasturage Office
尚寶司卿 shangbaosi qing Chief Minister of the Seals Office

The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) replaced the Academicians by the Director of the Court of the Imperial Clan (zongrenfu fucheng 宗人府府丞), the Minister of the Pasturage Office by the Metropolitan Magistrate (fuyin 府尹) of the Prefecture of Shuntian 順天府, and the Chief Minister of the Seals Office by the Left and Right Mentors of the Secretariat of the Heir Apparent (zuoyou chunfang shuzi 左右春坊庶子). In the official language the Six Ministers were not counted among the Nine Chamberlains, but these offices were separated by the expression liubu jiuqing 六部九卿, referring to a large group of in fact more than 15 chief officials. It thus also included the highest representatives of other institutions, like the Imperial Procession Guard (luanyiwei 鑾儀衛).

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