Censorial reforms in early Qing mirrored government’s push to contain local officials

By CHEN CHEN / 05-28-2018 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pictured above is a xiezhi at the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The xiezhi is a legendary creature in Chinese mythology that was used as a symbol of justice and law. Officials of the Censorate of the Ming and Qing dynasties, who were responsible for monitoring the civil service, wore the xiezhi as a badge of office.


Censorial establishment was a vital component of political practices in ancient China. Through surveillance over territorial officialdom, the central government could effectively counterbalance and regularize the administrative authority of local officials while consolidating the centralization of power.

Regular inspection and temporary commission were the two major forms of supervision. However, censors designated by the central government were either dominated by local officials or failed to adapt to territorial administrative rules, which largely restricted the role of the supervisory system.
In the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), the supervision of the Metropolitan Area (zhili) and provinces (sheng) was adjusted a few times. During the reign of Emperor Shunzhi, there were several rounds of debate over whether to retain or abolish the regional-inspector (xun’an) system adopted in the previous Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Finally it was abandoned at the end of the emperor’s reign.

Thereafter, the Qing court implemented a secret palace memorial system while appointing high-ranking officials for special inspection purposes, filling the void of supervision left by the abolition of the regional inspector system and providing a new direction for the institution of regional investigators during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng.

The censorial reforms in the early Qing Dynasty in essence reflected the central court’s efforts to strike a balance between administration and supervision after reestablishing local political order.


Regional inspector system
The censorial establishment of the early Qing regime was nearly identical to that of the Ming, as investigating censors (jiancha yushi) of the Censorate (ducha yuan) were dispatched to inspect the Metropolitan Area and provinces. Though the censors were merely of the seventh rank in the nine-rank official hierarchy, they were so powerful that high-ranking local officials were subject to their surveillance.

However, the regional inspector system lasted for only 13 years in the Qing Dynasty, during which opinions were divided between Manchu and Han officials over whether to retain or abolish it.

The debate first centered on the quota of Manchu and Han inspectors. When the Qing Empire was just founded, it was mostly officials left over from the previous dynasty that assumed regional inspection duties. In the third year of Shunzhi’s reign when the imperial examination was resumed to enlist talent, the court leaned toward Han officials when selecting regional inspectors, which naturally was a source of dissatisfaction among excluded Manchu officials.

Moreover, the Manchu faction disagreed with their Han peers and questioned the need to assign regional inspectors. It is worth noting that the doubts voiced by Manchu officials did not shake the emperor’s confidence in the system. With the sudden death of the emperor, nonetheless, the regional inspector system was annulled for it encroached upon the interests of Manchu nobles and lacked institutionalized design.


Investigation system established
The removal of the regional inspector system signaled the weakening of institutional factors in the supervision of the Metropolitan Area and provinces as well as tradeoff between regular and special assignment.

The palace memorial was originally a confidential communication between the emperor and his henchmen, rather than an administrative document. After the middle period of his reign, Emperor Kangxi frequently capitalized on the channel to obtain information about regional affairs and scrutinize the conduct of officials, so that palace memorials became an alternative for supervision to some degree.

However, the appointment of dignitaries and secret palace memorials didn’t work to restrict growing power of governors-general (zongdu) and grand coordinators (xunfu). In the early days after he succeeded to the throne, Emperor Yongzheng faced a primary issue of how to effectively balance local authorities, yet he hesitated whether to resume the regional inspector system.
In January 1723, the first year of his reign, Emperor Yongzheng planned to dispatch one inspector to the Metropolitan Area and each province, but abandoned the plan for fear of repeating the grand debate that took place during Emperor Shunzhi’s reign.

Court officials also had various ideas about the separation of powers. Some advocated the secret palace memorial approach while others suggested hammering out a new model based on the regional inspector system. Eventually, Emperor Yongzheng decided to broaden the power of submitting palace memorials from governors-general and grand coordinators to provincial administration commissioners (buzheng shi) to widen the information channel. In the meantime, regional investigators (xuncha yushi) were assigned to each administrative region successively starting from the third year of his reign.

Regional investigators were charged with investigating bandits and patrolling posts and beacon towers. They seemed to shoulder different responsibilities from regional inspectors who took charge of supervising officials, pacifying the people and punishing vice, but the two posts were closely related.

Regional investigators represented an integration of the legacies of the regional inspection system practiced during Emperor Shunzhi’s reign and the model of surveillance by high-ranking officials that was adopted during Emperor Kangxi’s reign. Furthermore, the selection model and appointment procedure for regional investigators were fixed, which was similar to regional inspectors. Also some new low-ranking posts were devised to supervise high-ranking officials as in the past.


Double-edged sword
Although regional investigators were not so powerful as regional inspectors, they often took advantage of their identity as “officials of the central government” to directly interfere in territorial administration.

In the early Qing Dynasty, the power of regional inspectors was as mighty as to read out imperial edicts, inspect whether local leaders were virtuous, examine the morality of officials of all ranks, and concern about the sufferings of ordinary people.

Regional investigators were commissioned to investigate robberies and thefts and inspect posts and beacon towers. Emperor Yongzheng ordered regional investigators not to meddle in local affairs, but it was never the case in reality.

Not only did they keep an eye on regional routines like official management, people’s livelihood, legal practices and public security, but they also stepped in new policies carried out by the emperor.

With the consent of the emperor, certain acquiescence of local officials and by their own political means, they did what must and mustn’t be done alike without institutional and legal backing.

The flexible, covert authorities of regional investigators not only helped the emperor to adjust and control territorial administration but also cut the proportion of local officials in the surveillance realm to some extent, so that they functioned as central censors independent of the local system.

In fact, the ill-defined, flexible power of regional investigators was a double-edged sword. The mismatch between title and power alongside unclear responsibilities often resulted in extreme consequences: either regional investigators and local officials acted evilly in collusion or their relations were strained. Thus the institution lasted for less than 10 years, abandoned by one region after another.

At the time, Emperor Yongzheng’s new policies were implemented progressively and territorial leadership was assumed by competent officials. Under such circumstances, regional investigators became redundant who might affect the overall situation.

During the reign of Emperor Qianlong and after, the Qing court further delegated the palace memorial power while endowing circuit intendants with inspection authority, so specially assigned regional investigators were no longer necessary.


Reflection of changing times
The abolition of the regional inspector system can be attributed to the conflict between Manchu and Han officials as well as the evolution of territorial administration from the Ming to Qing dynasty.

In the early Ming Dynasty, censors were assigned to carry out regional inspection. The practice was gradually institutionalized, as regional inspectors oversaw the performance of local officials like surveillance commissioners (ancha shi).

Regional inspectors were directly subordinate to the Censorate. Despite their low rank, they quickly became more powerful than surveillance commissioners.

During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong and Yingzong, civil officials were assigned as grand coordinators to conduct regional surveillance. They were normally censors-in-chief from the Censorate whose responsibilities somewhat overlapped with those of regional inspectors.

After Emperor Daizong took office, the grand coordinator system was entrenched. Grand coordinators shifted their focus from surveillance to civil affairs, while governors-general were tasked with military or border commissions. Therefore, regional inspectors were specially appointed for territorial supervision in the Ming Dynasty.

Things were different in the early Qing Dynasty. Governors-general and grand coordinators during the reign of Emperor Shunzhi and Kangxi were mostly from Han banner armies, charged with stabilizing local administration and checking Han officials. They were de facto supreme military-political officials of a province who were entitled to participate in local affairs extensively, enjoying much stronger power than they had in the Ming Dynasty.

Hence governors-general and grand coordinators also played supervisory roles. Of higher ranks, from better backgrounds and in closer relations with the central court, they completely overrode regional inspectors. The increasingly complicated power relations between the two became a focus of contention to abolish the regional-inspector system. The central court also tended to assign grand coordinators to share some duties of regional inspectors.

The growing clout of governors-general and grand coordinators made the strategy to “contain higher-ranking officials via lower-ranking ones” difficult to sustain. During the reign of Emperor Yongzheng, the regional-investigator system was abrogated exactly because the central court realized it couldn’t float over territorial administration and disentangle from local political interests.

Eventually the court found a tradeoff to carry on the legacies of regional inspection and investigation, and irregularly assigned personnel to oversee certain places. Moreover, it attempted to delegate the power of surveillance further, striving to change the model of central external supervision into local internal counterbalance.


Chen Chen is from the Institute of Qing History at Renmin University of China.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)