In Han government, the emperor was the supreme judge and lawgiver, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and sole designator of official nominees appointed to the top posts in central and local administrations; those who earned a 600-bushel salary-rank or higher. Theoretically, there were no limits to his power. However, state organs with competing interests and institutions such as the court conference (tingyi 廷議)—where ministers were convened to reach majority consensus on an issue—pressured the emperor to accept the advice of his ministers on policy decisions. If the emperor rejected a court conference decision, he risked alienating his high ministers. Nevertheless, emperors sometimes did reject the majority opinion reached at court conferences.
Below the emperor were his cabinet members known as the Three Councillors of State (San gong 三公). These were the Chancellor or Minister over the Masses (Chengxiang 丞相 or Da situ 大司徒), the Imperial Counselor or Excellency of Works (Yushi dafu 御史大夫 or Da sikong 大司空), and Grand Commandant or Grand Marshal (Taiwei 太尉 or Da sima 大司馬).
The Chancellor, whose title was changed to ‘Minister over the Masses’ in 8 BC, was chiefly responsible for drafting the government budget. The Chancellor’s other duties included managing provincial registers for land and population, leading court conferences, acting as judge in lawsuits and recommending nominees for high office. He could appoint officials below the salary-rank of 600 bushels.
The Imperial Counselor’s chief duty was to conduct disciplinary procedures for officials. He shared similar duties with the Chancellor, such as receiving annual provincial reports. However, when his title was changed to Minister of Works in 8 BC, his chief duty became oversight of public works projects.
The Grand Commandant, whose title was changed to Grand Marshal in 119 BC before reverting to Grand Commandant in 51 AD, was the irregularly posted commander of the military and then regent during the Western Han period. In the Eastern Han era he was chiefly a civil official who shared many of the same censorial powers as the other two Councillors of State.
Ranked below the Three Councillors of State were the Nine Ministers (Jiu qing 九卿), who each headed a specialized ministry. The Minister of Ceremonies (Taichang 太常) was the chief official in charge of religious rites, rituals, prayers and the maintenance of ancestral temples and altars. The Minister of the Household (Guang lu xun 光祿勳) was in charge of the emperor’s security within the palace grounds, external imperial parks and wherever the emperor made an outing by chariot. The Minister of the Guards (Weiwei 衛尉) was responsible for securing and patrolling the walls, towers, and gates of the imperial palaces. The Minister Coachman (Taipu 太僕) was responsible for the maintenance of imperial stables, horses, carriages and coach-houses for the emperor and his palace attendants, as well as the supply of horses for the armed forces. The Minister of Justice (Tingwei 廷尉) was the chief official in charge of upholding, administering, and interpreting the law. The Minister Herald (Da honglu 大鴻臚) was the chief official in charge of receiving honored guests at the imperial court, such as nobles and foreign ambassadors. The Minister of the Imperial Clan (Zongzheng 宗正) oversaw the imperial court’s interactions with the empire’s nobility and extended imperial family, such as granting fiefs and titles. The Minister of Finance (Da sinong 大司農) was the treasurer for the official bureaucracy and the armed forces who handled tax revenues and set standards for units of measurement. The Minister Steward (Shaofu 少府) served the emperor exclusively, providing him with entertainment and amusements, proper food and clothing, medicine and physical care, valuables and equipment.
The Han Empire, excluding kingdoms and marquessates, was divided, in descending order of size, into political units of provinces (zhou), commanderies (jun), and counties (xian). A county was divided into several districts, the latter composed of a group of hamlets, each containing about a hundred families.
The heads of provinces, whose official title was changed from Inspector to Governor and vice versa several times during Han, were responsible for inspecting several commandery-level and kingdom-level administrations. On the basis of their reports, the officials in these local administrations would be promoted, demoted, dismissed or prosecuted by the imperial court.
A governor could take various actions without permission from the imperial court. The lower-ranked inspector had executive powers only during times of crisis, such as raising militias across the commanderies under his jurisdiction to suppress a rebellion.
A commandery consisted of a group of counties, and was headed by an Administrator. He was the top civil and military leader of the commandery and handled defense, lawsuits, seasonal instructions to farmers and recommendations of nominees for office sent annually to the capital in a quota system first established by Emperor Wu. The head of a large county of about 10,000 households was called a Prefect, while the heads of smaller counties were called Chiefs, and both could be referred to as Magistrates. A Magistrate maintained law and order in his county, registered the populace for taxation, mobilized commoners for annual corvée duties, repaired schools and supervised public works.
Kingdoms and marquessates
Kingdoms—roughly the size of commanderies—were ruled exclusively by the emperor’s male relatives as semi-autonomous fiefdoms. Before 157 BC some kingdoms were ruled by non-relatives, granted to them in return for their services to Emperor Gaozu. The administration of each kingdom was very similar to that of the central government. Although the emperor appointed the Chancellor of each kingdom, kings appointed all the remaining civil officials in their fiefs.
However, in 145 BC, after several insurrections by the kings, Emperor Jing removed the kings’ rights to appoint officials whose salaries were higher than 400 bushels. The Imperial Counselors and Nine Ministers (excluding the Minister Coachman) of every kingdom were abolished, although the Chancellor was still appointed by the central government.
With these reforms, kings were reduced to being nominal heads of their fiefs, gaining a personal income from only a portion of the taxes collected in their kingdom. Similarly, the officials in the administrative staff of a full marquess’s fief were appointed by the central government. A marquess’s Chancellor was ranked as the equivalent of a county Prefect. Like a king, the marquess collected a portion of the tax revenues in his fief as personal income.
At the beginning of the Han dynasty, every male commoner aged twenty-three was liable for conscription into the military. The minimum age for the military draft was reduced to twenty after Emperor Zhao’s (r. 87–74 BC) reign. Conscripted soldiers underwent one year of training and one year of service as non-professional soldiers. The year of training was served in one of three branches of the armed forces: infantry, cavalry or navy. The year of active service was served either on the frontier, in a king’s court or under the Minister of the Guards in the capital. A small professional (paid) standing army was stationed near the capital.
During the Eastern Han, conscription could be avoided if one paid a commutable tax. The Eastern Han court favored the recruitment of a volunteer army. The volunteer army comprised the Southern Army (Nanjun 南軍), while the standing army stationed in and near the capital was the Northern Army (Beijun 北軍). Led by Colonels (Xiaowei 校尉), the Northern Army consisted of five regiments, each composed of several thousand soldiers.When central authority collapsed after 189 AD, wealthy landowners, members of the aristocracy/nobility, and regional military-governors relied upon their retainers to act as their own personal troops (buqu 部曲).
During times of war, the volunteer army was increased, and a much larger militia was raised across the country to supplement the Northern Army. In these circumstances, a General (Jiangjun 將軍) led a division, which was divided into regiments led by Colonels and sometimes Majors (Sima 司馬). Regiments were divided into companies and led by Captains. Platoons were the smallest units of soldiers.