The Junjichu 軍機處 "Council of State" (Manchu name cooha-i nashūn i ba) was the highest central government institution of the Qing empire. In the beginning it only served as an informal deliberating council. The year of its foundation is unclear, but it must have been around 1730, when the Yongzheng Emperor 雍正帝 (r. 1722-1735) undertook the expedition against the Mongols of Qinghai. While he commanded one division by himself, the other was commanded by a council of princes and grand ministers that was called junjifang 軍機房. In 1732 it was named junjichu. When the young Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 (r. 1735-1796) acceeded to the throne this informal institution was renamed zongli shiwu chu 總理事務處 as a council of regents. A year later, the Qianlong Emperor took over regency himself, adopted the former name of the council and made it a permanent institution. It took over not only the deliberation of military matters but also of important decisions of civil government and thus replaced the Grand Secretariat (neige 内閣) as the heart of the central government.
The members of the Council drafted imperial edicts (yuzhi 諭旨), provided advice to the emperor in military and civil questions as well as in jurisdictional matters. In case of a military expedition they suggested great strategic plans, logistical and financial matters, and proposed appointment, promotion, reward, transferral and dismission of important military and civil officials or suggested inviting them for a court audience. They also played an important role in foreign politics.
There was no official building in which the Council met, but the Grand Ministers assembled in a small bureau behind the Longzong Gate 隆宗門 called Straight Chamber (Zhifang 直房). There were also no official scribes at hand but instead, a staff of secretaries (junji zhangjing 軍機章京, also called xiao junji 小軍機 "Small [Minister] of the Council") cared for the drafting of documents. The members of the Council were called Grand Ministers of the State (coohai nashun-i amban, Ch. junji dachen 軍機大臣). Because they were not "officials in the Council" they normally bore concurrently (jianchai 兼差) the title of Grand Secretary (daxueshi 大學士), Minister (shangshu 尚書), Vice Minister (shilang 侍郎) or governor-general (zongdu 總督).
The number of Grand Ministers was not fixed, nor was the time of their informal appointment. The Council included Manchu as well as Chinese Grand Ministers. The leaders of the two ethnic groups were called kuishou 揆首 and lingxiu 領袖, respectively. The submission of drafts to the emperor and the handing down of imperial edicts to the officialdom was taken over by one representative called lingban 領班. In the early Qianlong reign-period, the Emperor's brother-in-law Fuheng 傅恆 (1720-1770) took over this position. Newcomers to the Council were called with the prefix xuexi 學習 or jianxi 見習 "apprentices". The official ranks of the various members of the Council were naturally different, and therefore also their voice in deliberations. Some members, for instance, were only allowed to read memorials to the throne written in Manchu language, while newcomers were not allowed to read documents that had been corrected and approved in vermillion rescript (zhupi 朱批) by the emperor. There were no predefined rules (zeli 則例) for such procedures but they were a question of practice and imperial order.
In the course of time the Council took over a wide range of tasks. It prepared documents to be promulgated by edict and documents submitted to the emperor. For all important civilian or military questions, or in case of a charge against an official, the emperor consulted with the Grand Ministers. The members met with the respective ministries or institutions and prepared a suggestion to be submitted to the emperor. For some very important cases, the emperor directly ordered the Grand Ministers to draft a decision or to work out a suggestion with the respective institutions, for instance, the three judicial offices (sanfasi 三法司).
In case of a vacancy of a higher office, either in the central government or in the provinces, the Grand Ministers prepared a list of candidates from which the emperor chose the appointee. For the metropolitan examinations they also prepared a list of candidates and examination themes from which the emperor chose. For the palace examination they personally checked the essays delivered by the candidates. Grand Ministers often accompanied the emperor to serve for answering his questions. Finally, they had the right to act as representatives of the emperor as "imperially commissioned" ministers (qinchai dachen 欽差大臣) to carry out inspection or the execution of edicts. They also acted as supervisors (zongcai 總裁) of imperially endorsed compilations like those of the Military Annals Bureau (fanglüeguan 方略館), the Sino-Manchu Translation Office (neifan shufang 内繙書房) and, in the late 19th century, were concurrently ministers in the Foreign Office (zongli yamen 總理衙門).
The secretaries were selected from among the officials of the Grand Secretariat and the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省), from the Qianlong reign-period on from the Grand Secretariat, the Six Ministries (liubu 六部) and the Court of Colonial Affairs (lifanyuan 理藩院). In 1799 their number was fixed to 33, in 1906 to 20 Chinese secretaries. It consisted of both Manchus and Chinese. These two groups were led by a lingban zhangjing 領班章京.
The secretaries were subject to a strict selection process undertaken by the Grand Ministers. Their service in the Council of State allowed them to be promoted after successfully delivering their services. During the Guangxu reign-period 光緒 (1875-1908), statues (zhangcheng 章程) were promulgated determining ranks and procedures of appointment and promotion. They did the large paperwork for the Grand Ministers and cared for the archiving of documents. The higher-ranking secretaries were also allowed to actively take part in the drafting of documents. There was always a secretary-in-waiting ready to serve the emperor in case of need. Documents written in Manchu and those in Chinese were processed and archived by secretaries of the respective ethnic group and were kept in different archives, the Manchu Archive (Manwu 滿屋) and the Chinese Archive (Hanwu 漢屋). Affairs relating to the Banners and officials in the northwestern colonies (Xinjiang), as well as matters of the Inner and Outer Mongols, the Dalai Lama (see Tibet) and any non-Chinese exclusively, as well as appointment of the members of the Council were handled by the Manchu staff. The Chinese staff managed the civilian officials of the Capital and the provinces, the Chinese Green Standard Army (lüying 綠營), ennoblement of Chinese, foreign tributary missions, the handing down of edicts for investigation or any other procedures, the communication with the Council with other government institutions, and the archives of the Council.