Ancient Chinese Ranks and Titles

Ancient Chinese Ranks from Emperor to Peasant

Warning: This is a long post! I did a pretty deep dive into this.

This post is to help me gather all the ancient Chinese ranks with their Chinese and English translations in one spot! I use information from a variety of sources (See references below) along with my own informal knowledge from dramas. Ranks varied depending on the dynasty. This list is not specific to any dynasty but draws heavily on the Ming and Qing Dynasty titles. I strive for it to be a detailed all-encompassing list that should get you through any ancient setting novel! I hope you find it helpful!

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Introduction

Before starting, it’s important to note that ranks and positions were very, very important in ancient China.

Generally, ancient Chinese society was structured hierarchically by rank followed by age. Age was equally as valued in Chinese culture due to filial piety (孝道 xiàodào): a deeply-rooted Chinese cultural value that requires children to offer love, respect, support and deference to their parents, elders and ancestors, and by extension, to their country and its leaders. There are many interpretations but filial piety can be summed up by the following:

  1. Parents gave life to their children and provided for them. Therefore, their children have an eternal obligation and debt towards them that can never fully be repaid.
  2. To try and repay this debt, children are obliged to obey their parents’ wishes, take care of them in old age, and work hard to provide them with material comforts and social standing.

Filial piety could be considered the foundation of the hierarchical structure of the Chinese family unit, and society by extension. Remembering the concept of face (面子 miànzì) that came up in Chp 32 of Why Harem Intrigue, bringing honour to one’s family by ascending in rank (thus giving the family face by improving the collective perception and status of the family unit) was also a form of filial piety.

Similarly, losing face for one’s family went against filial piety and had both moral and social consequences (i.e. if a young person of marriageable age was known for not showing filial piety, their reputation would be ruined and they wouldn’t be able to get married! – more serious for females).

Another reason why ranks were important was because of courtesy and etiquette. People needed to know who to bow to!

  • Higher rank – bow
  • Same rank – bow to each other
  • Lower rank – no need to bow

If you didn’t pay respects properly you could’ve been severely punished or even killed! **Especially in the harem genre!** This was probably the cause of some revenge stories too…

Women took on their husband’s rank upon marriage, as was the norm in those days.

As a reminder, polygamous marriages were the norm, especially as a way to display one’s wealth and status. As such, there are many sub-ranks among the women. There was a difference in status between the main/legal wife and concubines which extended to their children. Children from the main wife would be known as 嫡 (dí) children and children from a concubine would be considered 庶 (shù) children. Differences in privileges included:

  • The main wife was allowed in the family’s ancestral hall but concubines were not.
  • The main wife would be given a full marriage ceremony and be carried into the house through the main door. Concubines were only allowed in through the side door if they even had a marriage ceremony at all.
  • The legal wife was recorded in the family register (by her family name) and allowed to be buried with her husband upon death. Concubines would not be added.
  • Children from the main wife would have more status and opportunities than concubine-born children.

Imperial Palace

Previous Generation

  1. Grand Empress Dowager (太皇太后 tàihuáng tàihòu): The grandmother of the current ruling Emperor. A mythical legend born from unusual sequences of succession.
  2. Late Emperor (先帝 xiāndì): The previous ruling emperor (deceased)
  3. Great Emperor (太上皇 tài shàng huáng): The abdicated emperor or living father of the current emperor. A rare unicorn who is only seen in select dynasties. [1]but Wikipedia was able to collect them!
  4. Empress Dowager (太后 tàihòu): The Emperor’s mother (legal or birth mother, depending on circumstances)
    1. It was a BIG DEAL to bestow the title 太后 tàihòu on one’s birth mother if the previous Empress (legal mother) was still alive. The reason for some political disputes and power battles between the Empress Dowager and the Emperor.
    2. Sometimes there were two 太后 taìhòus if the Emperor insisted on it.
  5. Dowager Consort (太妃 tàifēi): Consorts of the previous Emperor. Sometimes the Emperor’s birth mother if he was born from a concubine.

*Typically, when an Emperor died, his wives would be obliged to be buried alive with him or become nuns. If the new emperor was merciful, he may just let them leave the palace. The ones who remained in the palace under the new emperor’s rule were typically consorts at or above 妃 fēi rank. They would be given the title of 太妃 tàifēi and were considered the same rank (on the surface).

Ruling & Future Generations

  1. Emperor (皇上/皇帝 huángshàng/huángdì): Believed to be the son of heaven. Rules all.
  2. The Imperial Family (皇室 huángshì): Direct family members of the Emperor.
    1. Along with the highest six ranks of society, they enjoyed the Eight Privileges (八分 bāfèn): Red carriage wheels, purple horse reins, heated carriages, purple cushions, gemstone mandarin hat crests, two-eyed peacock feathers on mandarin hats, use of leather whips to clear the path, and the employment of eunuchs.
    2. As to be expected, they were one of eight groups that qualified for legal privileges in Ancient China.
      • The Eight Deliberations (八议 bāyì) were a set of legal principles used by ancient Chinese law to lessen legal punishment for members of royalty, nobility, and the upper class. The Emperor’s permission was required before any kind of interrogation or judgement could be carried out against offenders within these legally favoured categories.
      • These groups were: relatives of the sovereign, old acquaintances of the sovereign, individuals of great virtue, individuals of great ability, meritorious individuals, high officials, individuals who were exceptionally zealous at their government duties, and guests of the sovereign (i.e. descendants of preceding imperial families).

Male Members of the Royal Family

  1. Lord National Uncle (国舅老爷 guójiù lǎoye): The brother-in-law of the Emperor (wife or concubine’s brother, specifically) or the Emperor’s maternal uncle.
  2. Crown Prince (太子 tàizǐ): The chosen one to rule all under heaven in the future.
    1. Only subordinate to the Emperor, Empress, and Empress Dowager
    2. Higher in rank compared to 王 or King.
      • Crown Prince = 王爷 Uncle because his position equalizes with the generational gap.
      • Crown Prince > 王爷 sibling because they are in the same generation.
  3. Prince (皇子 huángzǐ): Sons of the Emperor
    1. Usually vied for the position of Crown Prince and the throne
    2. It wasn’t uncommon for princes to kill each other. To my knowledge, there weren’t many emperors who kept all their brothers alive after ascending the throne.
  4. Wang (王 wáng): This position was usually reserved for adult sons of the Emperor. It means ‘king’ but usually referred to a prince after the Qin Dynasty when Qin Shi Huang united China. Typically when princes reached a certain age, the Emperor would bestow the title of Wang on them (usually named after a territory within the kingdom or after virtues). They would move out of the palace into their own manor or 王府 (wángfǔ). Remember that the only fertile male allowed in the palace was the Emperor so his sons were sent to live outside once they matured.
    1. Prince of the First Rank (亲王 qīnwáng): Blood-related sons of the emperor.
      1. The eldest son from his main wife is given the title, 世子 shìzí Heir Apparent to a Qinwang (Lit. Heir son/Son of the world) [2]I think the meaning behind the title was that the world is at their fingertips and that they have a bright future ahead of them.
    2. Prince of the Second Rank (郡王 jùnwáng): Given to non-blood-related subordinates who have usually fought valiantly or rendered extreme meritorious service to the country, i.e. someone who helped the Emperor obtain the throne.
      1. The eldest son from his main wife is given the title, 长子 zhángzǐ Heir Apparent to a Junwang (Lit. Eldest son or chief son).
    3. Wang is the title given to any foreign rulers. Since the emperor ruled all under heaven, the title Wang implied that the foreign monarch was inferior in rank and thus subject to the Chinese Emperor.
    4. Typically Qinwangs and Junwangs were both known simply as “X王” or 王爷 wángye. 
      1. After the Ming Dynasty, single-character titles (X王) were reserved for Qingwangs and 2+ character titles (XY王) were reserved for Junwangs to differentiate between the two.
  5. Fuma (驸马 fùmǎ): The Emperor’s son-in-law; A Princess’ husband. They would go by this title in addition to whatever noble or military title they already had before.

Female Members of the Royal Family

*The numbers are based on how many people were allowed for each position in the Ming and Qing dynasties when the system became much more simplified. The number of people allotted to each rank often changed depending on the Emperor.

**This section will not be as historically accurate. I’m mixing the ranks between the dynasties as a sort of catch-all based on my understanding of how the system changed over the years. Some authors tend to mix ranks as well so it might be helpful. (Am I just making this more complicated for myself?? ^^;;)

Inner Palace/Imperial Harem (后宫 hòugóng)

Tier 1: Empress
  1. Empress (皇后 huánghòu) (x1): The official wife of the Emperor. She is in charge of managing the Inner Palace/Imperial Harem and oversees all Imperial concubines. When the Emperor dies, amongst all the wives, she is the only one who gets the privilege of being buried next to the Emperor in the imperial tomb. If I remember correctly, she is also the only one who can wear the phoenix crown or have any phoenix-related embroidery on her clothing, amongst other things.
    1. Similar to a boss, she would bear responsibility if any of the other concubines committed a fault. That’s why you hear Empresses apologizing to the Emperor if any concubine dies or anything bad happens in the harem.
    2. All imperial offspring must call her “母后 (mǔhòu)” and she is considered their mother as well as the main wife.
    3. An empress is usually selected for the position not because of love but because of her maiden family’s power. Historically, this is really a marriage of convenience exchanging the maiden family’s support for the comfort, power, and glory of being an Empress (and by extension relatives of the Empress).
    4. She could command 10 palace maids and has her own palace.
    5. Phrases referring to the Empress include “母仪天下 (mǔ yí tiānxià)” or “Mother of all under heaven” and “六宫共主 (liùgōng gòngzhǔ)” or “the master of the six palaces.” This referred to the six western and six eastern palaces in the forbidden palace.
Tier 2: Consorts
  1. Imperial Noble Consort (皇贵妃 huáng guìfēi) (x1): Usually assumes the duties of the Empress if she is indisposed. It’s one step down from officially being promoted to the position of Empress.
    1. If promoted to Empress after the original Empress passes away, she would be known as the “继后 jìhòu” or “Substitute Empress.” [3]Note: this is the same character used as “继母 jìmǔ” or “step-mother”
    2. Typically she was the “most favoured” in the harem or the one the Emperor loved the most. I believe the Turkish Ottoman Empire had a similar position called “Haseki Sultan.
    3. She could command 8 palace maids and had her own palace.
  2. Noble Consort (贵妃 guìfēi) (x2): Typically daughters of prominent officials in court i.e. the prime minister’s daughter or a general’s daughter.
    1. She could command 8 palace maids and had her own palace.
  3. Consorts (妃 fēi) (x4): Usually 4 spots and only one individual can hold any of the titles at one time. The character given depends on the Emperor/Author-sama.
    1. Typically named after the 4 virtues [4]I include their WHI translations in ‘[ ]’:
      • 贤 (xián) Able, Virtuous, Worthy [Worthy]
      • 良 (liáng) Respectable, Kind, Worthy [Gracious]
      • 淑 (shū) Virtuous, Pure, Gentle
      • 德 (dé) Moral, Kind [Virtuous]
    2. Other titles that I’ve heard of (but could possibly be based on surnames or first names) are:
      • 惠 (huì) Benevolent, Favoured
      • 慧 (huì) Bright, Intelligent
      • 宁 (níng) Peaceful, Tranquil, Quiet
      • 康 (kāng) Healthy, Abundant
      • 宸 (chén) Imperial
      • 丽/麗 (lì) Beautiful
      • 華 (huá) Magnificent, Splendid
    3. Each Consort could command 6 palace maids and had their own palaces.
Tier 3: Concubines
  1. Imperial Concubines (嫔 pín) (x6) [Ming-onwards]: This is a mid-tier position.
    1. They commanded 6 palace maids but did not have their own palace. Instead, they lived together with others of the same rank. – The same for everyone below this rank.
    2. Sometimes threw in their lot with a higher ranking concubine as a supporter to be recommended to the Emperor and gain favour in return – The same could be said for all other concubines below this rank.
  2. Lady of Handsome Fairness (婕妤 jiěyú): This position appeared and disappeared throughout the dynasties. It also moved above and below the other imperial concubine ranks (listed below) several times.
    1. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the jiěyú rank was below 嫔 pín but above 昭仪 zhāoyí.
  3. Other Imperial Concubine Ranks Across Dynasties: The order for these mid-lower ranks changed drastically depending on the dynasty. They could be organized by higher-, mid-, and lower-sub-tiers within the same rank bracket OR everyone could be given different titles but be of equal rank.
    1. From my observations, rank suffixes generally abided by this order: 華>儀>容>媛
    2. These were imperial concubine ranks that (to my knowledge) fall under the “tier” of Imperial Concubine.
      Chinese Pinyin Dynasty English Translation 
      淑儀 shūyí Song Lady of Gentle Deportment
      淑容 shūróng Song Lady of Gentle Countenance
      順儀 shùnyí Song Lady of Favourable Deportment
      順容 shùnróng Song Lady of Favourable Countenance
      婉儀 wǎnyí Song Lady of Graceful Deportment
      婉容 wǎnnróng Song Lady of Graceful Countenance
      昭儀 zhāoyí Tang Lady of Bright Deportment
      昭容 zhāoróng Tang Lady of Bright Countenance
      昭媛 zhāoyuán Tang Lady of Bright Beauty
      修華 xiūhuá Jin Lady of Refined Splendor
      修儀 xiūyí Tang Lady of Refined Deportment
      修容 xiūróng Tang Lady of Refined Countenance
      修媛 xiūyuán Tang Lady of Refined Beauty
      容華 rónghuá Jin Lady of Magnificent Countenance
      充華 chōnghuá Jin Lady of Satisfying Splendor
      充儀 chōngyí Tang Lady of Satisfying Deportment
      充容 chōngróng Tang Lady of Satisfying Countenance
      充媛 chōngyuán Tang Lady of Satisfying Beauty
  4. Lower-Ranked Positions: In some dynasties, these were known as “scattered” positions because there could be an unlimited number of people who could have these titles.
    Chinese Pinyin English Translation  Notes
    贵人 guìrén Noble Lady
    美人 měirén Beautiful Lady
    才人 cáirén Talented Lady
    中才人 zhōng cáirén Average Talented Lady
    良人 liángrén Good Lady This is another position that moved around a lot, like Jie’yu. It used to be a higher position in older dynasties.
    选侍 xuǎnshì First-Class Female Attendant (Ming)
    常在 chángzài First-Class Female Attendant (Qing)
    答应 dāying Second-Class Female Attendant
    采女 cǎinǚ Female Attendant
    御侍 yùshì Imperial Attendant (Unofficial Title) Song Dynasty – Women who have entered the palace but have not slept with the emperor
    官女子 gōngnǚzi Female Attendant Qing Dynasty – Granted to female servants who were chosen to be minor concubines

If you’d like to see all the ranks according to each specific dynasty, I came across this incredibly helpful webpage that breaks the system down. I haven’t been able to find any other resource nearly as comprehensive (and in English) about harem ranks.

Daughters of the Emperor
  1. Princess (公主 gōngzhǔ): Daughters of the Emperor
    1. They may be known by their name or birth order i.e. First Princess, Second Princess etc.
    2. Similar to Princes, after they reach a certain age, they are bestowed with an official title and are known by this title to the world.
    3. You might hear of a 和亲公主 héqīngōngzhǔ or Marriage Alliance Princess, a title given to any princess being married off far away to establish a marriage alliance with another power. Sometimes if the Emperor couldn’t bear to part with his own daughter, they might adopt a commoner (in name) and make her the Marriage Alliance Princess.
    4. Separated into Princesses of the First Rank and Princesses of the Second Rank during the Qing Dynasty (and likely unofficially before that) based on whether they were born to the Empress or a consort or concubine.
  2. Princess Royal (长公主 zhǎng gōngzhǔ): A title given to the eldest princess of the Emperor.
    1. I would say that this is one step above a regular princess.
    2. Other translations include: Princess Imperial, Elder Princess
    3. This title is also given to the Emperor’s sisters and aunts after he ascends the throne. This is to differentiate them from his daughters who are in a younger generation than them. A princess might keep her title but she may also go by her husband’s title upon marriage.

Crown Prince and Wang’s Manor (东宫 dōnggōng/王府 wángfǔ)

Tier 1: Main Wife
  1. Crown Princess (太子妃 tàizifēi): Main/legal wife of the Crown Prince
  2. Prince Consort (王妃 wángfēi): Main/legal wife of any 王.
Tier 2: Side Concubines
  1. Side Concubines (側妃 cèfēi) (x2): The Crown Prince and other princes could have 2 side concubines. Since they are not the main/legal wife their children are recognized as 庶 (shù) children. Only sons would be registered in the family record.
    1. In many dramas, when a prince is facing pressure to choose whether to marry their love v.s. the one their parents chose for them, you might see both appointed as a 側妃 first before one of them is chosen as consort.
    2. As concubines, they weren’t allowed to be carried through the main door of the manor during their marriage ceremony, only the side door.
    3. They also were not allowed to wear red since red was reserved for the main wife.
Tier 3: All Other Concubines
  1. Concubine (诗妾 shìqiè): The prince could have an unlimited number of concubines. There was no wedding ceremony, unlike the wives of 妃 rank.
  2. Bedfellow (同房 tóngfáng): This is the lowest rank of a concubine. Usually, this position was given to a maid who the prince favours for one night or a maid that prince’s mother is trying to get him to sleep with (typically for the sake of producing an heir). Needless to say, there’s no wedding ceremony.
Daughters of a Wangye
  1. A daughter of a Qinwang would be given the title, 郡主 jùnzhǔ Princess of the Third Rank (Lit. Master of a Commandery[5]A historical administrative division ).
  2. A daughter of a Junwang would be given the title, 县主 xiànzhǔ Princess of the Fourth Rank (Lit. Master of a County).

Servants of the Imperial Family

Their status was lower than any of the “masters” of the palace but once outside the palace walls, their social standing would improve quite a bit. Anything related to the palace was more highly regarded. It was not unheard of for eunuchs to have “nieces and nephews” and flaunt their power outside of the forbidden city. Though considered “old maids” for the times, maids who previously served in the palace were looked upon favourably for having learned court etiquette and poise. Some made it a profession to teach etiquette to young nobles before they formally debuted in society.

  1. Imperial Guards/Forbidden Troops (禁军 jìnjūn): Responsible for guarding the Imperial Palace and its inhabitants. They were the only military force that remained under the direct control of the Imperial Court (and the Emperor) after the An Shi Rebellion in the Tang Dynasty.
    1. Commander of the Imperial Guards (大统领 dàtǒnglǐng): Usually a general who rendered great military service was given the honour to guard the palace.
      1. In dramas, you might find the Commander of the Guards is the one who turns against the emperor and helps the rebels usurp the throne.
      2. Or, he might be super loyal to the emperor like Commander Meng in Nirvana in Fire.
    2. Imperial Guards (羽林军 yǚlínjūn): Literally “feathered forest guards”, this was a unit of guards under the direct control of the Emperor who was responsible for standing guard during Court sessions and imperial processions. [6]This is the reason why there was such an uproar in Chp 32 and Chp 33 of Why Harem Intrigue – Punishing guards solely under the Emperor’s control was like giving him a slap in the face
      • In the Han Dynasty, they were recruited from sons and grandsons of fallen soldiers.
    3. Embroidered Uniform Guard (锦衣卫 jǐnyīwèi): The imperial secret police that served emperors of the Ming Dynasty. They were originally a unit of personal bodyguards for the Emperor but later became an imperial military body. Tasked with gathering military intelligence, these guards wore a distinctive golden-yellow uniform with a tablet on the torso and carried a special blade weapon.
  2. Imperial Physicians (太医/御医 tàiyī/yùyī): They primarily treat royalty and are allowed in the Inner Palace. They were commonly bribed by Concubines to harm their rivals and were crucial allies in preventing miscarriages and surviving in the harem.
    1. Female Physicians (医女 yīnǚ): Some dynasties also had female physicians that assisted the imperial physicians with things like childbirth where it was believed that men’s yang energy would be harmed by the extreme yin energy that was supposedly prevalent during labour [7]Why you always see men in ancient dramas anxiously waiting outside the building when their wives are giving birth. They were generally regarded as inferior to imperial physicians except when it came to women’s health matters.
    2. Midwives (产婆 chánpó): Alternatively, one might also summon a local midwife from outside the palace to handle the birth. They were handsomely rewarded or beheaded depending on whether the birth was successful.
  3. Eunuchs (太监 tàijiàn): Castrated male servants in the Imperial Palace. The Emperor was the only fertile male allowed in the Inner Palace but they still needed to hire help. They could amass quite a bit of wealth in their lifetimes. Unlike maids, they were allowed (with permission) to exit the palace to run errands and were generally given higher positions as well.
    1. I must put a plug here for Held in the Lonely Castle ~ The MC is a eunuch so I imagine we’ll learn much more about them from that series. I will add any interesting details to this post!
  4. Maids (宫女 gōngnǚ): Just like for the concubines, a big selection would happen every few years amongst the commoners to recruit new maids into the palace. One could enter the palace to become a maid at any age. From the minute they step foot in the forbidden city, they are required to stay chaste until they’re released from service, usually at the age of 25, to marry. If they were lucky and were assigned to a high-ranking master, their master would prepare a dowry for them as thanks for their service when the time came.
    1. Elder maids were called 嬷嬷(mómo) or 妈妈 (māma): Sometimes they were nursemaids of princes and princesses called 乳母 (rúmǔ) or 奶妈 (nǎimā). They were often still addressed as 嬷嬷 (mómo). [8]Fun fact: In modern times, 嬷嬷 means ‘grandmother’ in Cantonese and 妈妈 means ‘mom’
    2. Senior maids were called 姑姑 (gūgu) (Usage: Miss but Literally meaning Aunt) to denote their higher status. E.g. The Empress’ chief maid.

Nobles, Civil Officials, and the Military

All government personnel were ranked using the “official rank” system (品 pǐn). This system had 9 numbered ranks and each one was subdivided into upper and lower levels, as well as an unranked level. This determined their salary, uniform, privileges, and order of precedence.

This existed in parallel to the noble peerage system that separated rankings by gender. I know some ranks were equivalent to others but I’m not knowledgeable enough to make a comparison table (though that would have been ideal!). According to Wikipedia, apparently the equivalencies were informal for convenience rather than official. Essentially, everyone was siloed into their own ranking system and regarded accordingly by society.

Nobility – Peerage

Nobles could become officials or enter the military. One could hold several titles based on one’s birth and occupation. Noble titles were awarded for valour, achievement, distinction, other imperial favour, and to imperial consort or princess clans. The titles were also hereditary, typically passed onto the eldest son from the main wife.

From the Zhou Dynasty, there were traditionally 5 aristocratic peerage ranks called 五等爵位 (wǔ děng juéwèi).

  1. Duke (公 gōng): Typically family members of the emperor from changes of lines within an imperial house or between dynasties. One may also gain the title of duke upon marriage i.e. a princess’ husband may be awarded the title of Duke.
    1. Imperial Duke (国公 guógōng): Awarded to generals or high-level civil officials
    2. Commoner Duke (民公 míngōng): A sub-rank of dukes to differentiate from those with actual power. My guess is that these Mingong were nobility from previous dynasties who have kept their positions for a long time but lack any real political power.
    3. Sons and grandsons of a duke were known as 公子 gōngzi (Lit. Duke’s son) and 公孙 gōngsūn (Lit. Duke’s grandson), respectively. Eventually, 公子 gōngzi became a generic honorific for all young male gentry.
    4. 公 also means “public” and was used in other titles, ordinary names, and honorific names besides the peerage.
  2. Marquis/Marquess (侯 hóu): Usually with the same emphasis on being a national borderland march lord like the European title, Marquess.
  3. Count (bó): I have also seen this translated as “Earl.”
  4. Viscount (子 zǐ): Literally meaning “child,” this character was used in other contexts to mean “master” like Confucius (孔夫子 kǒngfūzǐ), a famous Chinese thinker and social philosopher.
  5. Baron (男 nán): Literally meaning “male.”

Government Personnel

The Imperial Court was divided into two divisions, Civil Officials (文官) and Military Personnel (武官). They were both known as and called Qīng (卿) by the Emperor.

[Brief History of the Official System in China] by Xie Baocheng is a very comprehensive resource! It includes Chinese characters, pinyin (without tones), and English translations for each rank and seems to go through them by dynasty. I skimmed it briefly but will review it and add my findings this list.

Civil Officials (文官 wénguān)

Civil officials gained their position through the imperial examination or through connections. Their positions could not be inherited. Officials work their way through 9 ranks with 9 being the lowest and 1 being the highest. Each was further divided into sub-ranks to form a total of 30 separate grades.

Organizational Structure – Overview

Across dynasties, the central government reorganized itself in this order:

  1. Structure laid out in zhōulǐ [ZL], the Confucian Classic (Brief description here but I’m mostly ignoring it for this post)
  2. The Three Lords, Nine Ministers System [3/9]
  3. The Three Departments, Six Ministries System [3/6]
  4. Just the Six Ministries with oversight by the Grand Secretariat.

The central government first used the Three Lords and Nine Ministers System (三公九卿 sāngōng jiǔqīng) [3/9] beginning from the Qin dynasty until it was replaced by the Three Departments and Six Ministries System (三省六部 sān shěng liù bù) [3/6] starting from the Sui dynasty.

Below, I outline the structure for the Three Departments and Six Ministries System [3/6]:

The Three Departments (三省 sān shěng) were:

  1. The Central Secretariat (中书省 zhōng shū shěng): Responsible for drafting policy
  2. The Department of State Affairs (尚书省 shàng shū shěng): Responsible for implementing policy
  3. The Chancellery (门下省 mén xià shěng): Responsible for reviewing policy

*The Three Departments were abolished by the Ming Dynasty but the Six Ministries continued under the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The Six Ministries or Six Boards (六部 liù bù) were (in hierarchical order):

  1. Ministry of Personnel or Appointments (吏部 lìbù): Responsible for court appointments, merit ratings, promotions, and demotions, and granting honorific titles. – So basically, your modern-day HR department.
  2. Ministry of Finance or Revenue (户部 hùbù): Responsible for gathering census data, collecting taxes, and handling state revenues.
  3. Ministry of Rites (礼部 lǐbù): Responsible for state ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices. It oversaw registers for Buddhist and Taoist priesthoods, foreign relations (i.e. reception of envoys), and managed the imperial examinations.
  4. Ministry of War or Defense (兵部 bīngbù): Responsible for military appointments, promotions, and demotions, the maintenance of military installations, equipment, and weapons, as well as the courier system.
    1. During wartime, high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Defense would serve as strategists and advisors to frontline commanders, if not as frontline commanders themselves.
  5. Ministry of Justice or Punishments (刑部 xíngbù): Responsible for judicial and penal processes but had no supervisory role over the Censorate.
  6. Ministry of Works or Public Works (工部 gōngbù): Responsible for government construction projects, hiring temporary workers (i.e. artisans and labourers), manufacturing government equipment, maintaining roads and canals, standardizing weights and measures, and gathering resources from the countryside.

Other departments of note [9]Some had equal status to the Three Departments include:

  1. Department of the Palace (殿中省 diàn zhōng shěng): Responsible for the upkeep of the imperial household and palace grounds.
    • May have been known in other dynasties by:
      • 内务府 (nèiwùfǔ) Imperial Household Department
      • 禁城司 (jìnchéngsī) Imperial Household Bureau
  2. Department of Secret Books (秘书省 mì shū shěng): Responsible for keeping books about astronomy and astrology.
  3. Department of Service (内侍省 nèishì shěng): Responsible for staffing the palace.
  4. The Censorate (御史台 yùshǐ tái [Pre-Ming] or 检察院 jiǎn chá yuàn  [Post-Ming]): A branch of the centralized bureaucracy parallelling the Six Ministries under the direct control of the Emperor. They were the Emperor’s eyes and ears and checked the administrators at each level of government to prevent corruption and malfeasance. Generally, they were feared and disliked by the other ministers.
  5. The Grand Council (军机处 jūnjīchù): Lit. the “Office of Military Secrets,” the Grand Council was an important policy-making body in the Qing dynasty. It was originally in charge of military affairs but gradually attained the role of a Privy Council and eclipsed the Grand Secretariat in function and importance.

Check out the list of characters and place names from Held in the Lonely Castle! It goes in-depth into different departments within the palace during the Song Dynasty.

Official Ranks
Three Ducal Ministers/Three Excellencies

The top three official ranks were known collectively as The Three Ducal Ministers or The Three Excellencies (三公 sāngōng). Their titles and positions changed depending on the dynasty and together, they were the Emperor’s closest advisors.

I will list them all below because you might come across them depending on what dynasty your novel is set in!

Shang Dynasty to Zhou Dynasty

All three positions were the Emperor’s teachers. Collectively, they were considered the highest official positions in court but generally did not have any real power.

  1. Grand Preceptor (太师 tàishī): The senior-most civil position of the Zhou dynasty and oversaw both civil and military matters.
    1. Out of the three, this position seems to be the only one that survived through the ages, at least until the Ming Dynasty, to my knowledge [10]because of Grand Preceptor Shen in Why Harem Intrigue~.
    2. The power of this position seems to have decreased over time and became more of an honorary position in later dynasties.
  2. Grand Tutor (太傅 tàifù): Responsible for civil affairs.
  3. Grand Protector (太保 tàibǎo): Responsible for military affairs.

Not the same as the Crown Prince’s teachers who were known as:

  1. Grand Preceptor of the Crown Prince (太子太师 tàizǐ tàishī)
  2. Grand Tutor of the Crown Prince (太子太傅 tàizǐ tàifù)
  3. Grand Protector of the Crown Prince (太子太保 tàizǐ tàibǎo)

Western Han Dynasty [3/9]

These three titles were the most well-known within the Three Lords and Nine Ministers System.

  1. Chancellor (丞相 chéng xiàng): Highest civil official
  2. Grand Secretary (御史大夫 yùshí dàfū)
  3. Grand Commandant (太尉 tàiwèi): Supreme military commander

Eastern Han Dynasty [3/9]

  1. Minister of War (大司马 dà sīmǎ)
  2. Minister of the Masses (司徒 sītú)
  3. Minister of Works (司空 sīkōng)

Collectively, the three ducal ministers were called Sānsī (三司) because all three titles had the word ‘司 (sī)’ in them.

Eventually, Cao Cao abolished the Three Excellencies and restored the position of Prime Minister/Grand Chancellor/Imperial Chancellor (丞相) making it the highest-ranking executive official position in the imperial Chinese government.

  1. [3/9 and 3/6] Prime Minister/Grand Chancellor/Imperial Chancellor
    (丞相 chéngxiàng, 宰相 zǎixiàng, or 相爷 xiàngyé):
    The most senior minister in the Imperial Court

    1. May be split into two positions – Right Chancellor (右丞相 yòu zǎixiàng) and Left Chancellor (左丞相 zuǒ zǎixiàng)
      • Left Chancellor > Right Chancellor in terms of seniority
    2. They typically held the most power in court.
    3. This rank is equivalent to a duke and a marquis – any noble below that must bow to the Prime Minister/Grand Chancellor
  2. During the Sui Dynasty, the executive officials of the Three Departments were collectively called (Lit.) “The Real Chancellors”(真宰相 zhēn zǎi xiàng) [11]Sounds like a snub against the actual chancellor of the time period.
Grand Secretariat (内阁 nèigé)

Starting in the Ming Dynasty, the government adopted the Yuan Dynasty’s model having only one department instead of three. It was called the Grand Secretariat (内阁 nèigé) which was responsible for overseeing the six ministries. There were six Grand Secretaries known collectively as 內閣大學士 (nèigé dàxué shì). The most senior one was called the Senior Grand Secretary (首輔 shǒufǔ).

  1. The Grand Secretaries were mid-level officials (lower than the Six Ministers) but since they screened documents submitted to the emperor from all governmental agencies, senior Grand Secretaries could dominate the whole government, acting as the de facto Chancellor.
  2. Later on, the word, 内阁 nèigé, referred to the modern cabinet in Chinese.
Six Ministers

The concept of six ministries is derived from the Confucian Classic, 周禮 zhōulǐ [ZL], which describes the number, designation, and duties of all state officials.

To review, the central government reorganized itself in this order across the dynasties:

  1. Structure laid out in zhōulǐ [ZL], the Confucian Classic
  2. The Three Lords, Nine Ministers System [3/9]
  3. The Three Departments, Six Ministries System [3/6]
  4. Just the Six Ministries with oversight by the Grand Secretariat.

Generally, the head of each of the Six Ministries (Minister) was called 尚书 shàngshū.

*In this section, because there is overlap, I try to equalize the titles using all three systems to show their progression. It goes from newest to oldest (left to right)

Minister (EN) [3/6] Minister (CN) [3/6] Minister (CN) [3/9] Ministers (CN) [ZL] Other Titles [EN]
Minister of Personnel 吏部尚书
lìbù shàngshū
(1)光祿勛
guānglùxūn
(2)宗正
zōngzhèng
司徒
sītú
(1) Supervisor of Attendants [3/9],
(2) Minister of the Imperial Clan [3/9], Overseer of Public Affairs [ZL], Minister of Education [ZL]
Minister of Revenue 戶部尚书
hùbù shàngshū
(3)大司農
dàsīnóng
(4) 少付
shàofǔ
(3) Minister of Finance [3/9], (3) Grand Minister of Agriculture [3/9],
(4) Minister Steward [3/9], (4) Small Treasurer [3/9]
Minister of Rites 礼部尚书
lǐbù shàngshū
(5)太常
tàicháng
(6)太仆
tàipú
(7)大鴻臚
dàhónglú
宗伯
zōngbó
(5) Minister of Ceremonies [3/9], (6) Minister Coachman [3/9], (7) Grand Herald [3/9], Overseer of Ritual Affairs [ZL]
Minister of War 兵部尚书
bīngbù shàngshū
(8) 衛尉
wèiwèi
司馬
sīmǎ
(8) Commandant of Guards [3/9], Overseer of Military Affairs [ZL]
Minister of Justice 刑部尚书
xíngbù shàngshū
(9) 廷尉
tíngwèi
司寇
sīkòu
(9) Commandant of Justice [3/9], Overseer of Penal Affairs [ZL]
Minister of Works 工部尚书
gōngbù shàngshū
(3)大司農
dàsīnóng
司空
sīkōng
(3) Grand Minister of Agriculture [3/9], Overseer of Public Works [ZL]

* There was an extra minister in the [ZL] system called Counsellor 冢宰 zhǒngzǎi. My understanding is that this was the first Chancellor position that oversaw the rest.

  1. Each Minister had a Deputy Minister called 侍郎 shìláng.
  2. Each ministry was divided into 4 Courts/Bureaus (四司 sìsī) with their own department heads called Directors (郎中 lángzhōng) and Vice Directors (員外郎 yuánwàiláng).
  3. Other subordinates~

Military Personnel (武官 wǔguān) {Military Rankings}

Okay, onto the military! Anyone could join the military, though commander positions were usually given to sons from noble families or hereditary generals. One could gain a position by taking the military exam, inheritance, or work their way up through the ranks. Fighting for your country was one way to bring honour to your family (like in Mulan!). To my (very limited) knowledge, the military ranking system and their equivalent Chinese counterparts were:

  1. Commander-In-Chief/Great General (总兵 zǒngbīng or 大将军 dà jiāngjún): Headed the entire military hierarchy and possessed the supreme authority of command in the military. The top-most rank in the ancient Chinese military hierarchy.
  2. Vice Commander/Deputy Great General (副总兵 fù zǒngbīng or 副将 fújiàng): The second-in-command responsible for taking charge in the absence of the commander and to assist the commander in various operations.
  3. Vanguard General (参将 cānjiàng): A third-rank general responsible for leading the troops in defence of the borders.
  4. General (将军 jiāngjūn): Officer responsible for the supervision and training of army officers. The top-most military rank of a division and responsible for all the military operations of that division.
  5. Lieutenant General (将帅 jiàngshuài or 统军 tǒngjūn): Responsible for assisting the general in leading a division of the army and taking charge as general in his absence. A senior general in the military chain of command.
  6. Guerilla General (游擊將軍 yóujī jiāngjūn): Responsible for guerrilla tactics on the battlefield.
  7. Assistant General (佐擊將軍 zuǒjī jiāngjūn): Responsible for the transportation of grains and supplies.
  8. Colonel/Provincial Commander (校尉 xiàowèi or 提督 tídū): Head of a regiment and responsible for the supervision, training, and leading the military operations of that regiment.
    1. Commander of the Nine Gates (九门提督 jiǔmén tídū) – In charge of security for the nine gates of the capital city; Usually also in charge of the city garrison.
  9. Lieutenant Colonel (军副 jūnfù): Responsible for assisting the colonel in the activities of the regiment.
  10. Major (司马 sīmǎ): Mid-level officer in the Han Dynasty
  11. Captain (队主 duìzhǔ or 哨官 xiàoguān or 军侯 jūnhóu): The senior-most officer of a company (175-225 people) consisting of 2 platoons.
  12. Lieutenant or Squadron/Platoon Leader(队副 duìfù or 队正duìzhèng or 屯长 túnzhǎng): Junior officer responsible for fighting on the battlefield. Commands a platoon (42-55 people) consisting of 2 auxiliary units (approx 50 people).
  13. Auxiliary Officer (偏师 piānshī): Led an auxiliary unit consisting of 5 squads (approx 25 people).
  14. Squad Leader (伍长 wǔzhǎng): Led a group of 5 people.
  15. Detachment Commander (創主 chuàngzhǔ): The leading officer responsible for a detachment unit that has been separated from the major army for a specific reason.
  16. (Local) Garrison Commander (戍主 shùzhǔ): In charge of a certain military facility (i.e. a local garrison) and responsible for the day-to-day operations of the facility.

Please correct me if I’m wrong!
I have a very rudimentary knowledge of Chinese military history. 

*There were a few titles that I found but had to omit since I couldn’t seem to find their Chinese equivalents i.e. ‘Jinzhou’ for Provincial Commander. While I’ve heard of it before, I don’t know what the Chinese characters would be and the only results I get are the city/prefecture of Jinzhou. 🙁

Edit July 9, 2020: I learned it’s actually Zhizhou or Prefecture Magistrate – will add later!

The main differences between the officer class and common soldiers would be that the officers would be mounted on chariots or horses to improve their respective mobility and ability to assess and command across a battlefield. On the other hand, common soldiers would form the infantry ranks and be armed with a combination of spear/dagger-axes/halberds [12]戟 (jǐ) According to Wikipedia, a 戟 was a Chinese polearm that was a hybrid between a spear and a dagger-axe.. There were archery units as well! Archery (射箭 shèjiàn) was considered one of the Six Arts (六藝 liùyì) which formed the basis of education in ancient Chinese culture. The others were: rites/etiquette 禮教 (lǐshù), music 音樂 (yīngyuè), charioteering/equestrianism (御 yù or 騎馬車 qímǎchezhě), calligraphy (書法 shūfá) (a.k.a. recognizing characters), and mathematics (數學 shùxué).

Honorary Titles

These are titles typically bestowed to religious or cultural leaders.

  1. National Preceptor/State Teacher (国师 guóshī): Granted to scholars or religious leaders of the state religion by the monarch for their high morals and ethics. A figurehead position with no real power; Cannot interfere with state politics.

Commoners – Caste System

  1. Warriors/Scholars (士 shì): Beginning as a warrior caste, eventually this evolved to encompass aristocratic scholars who studied in order to occupy official positions in court. Scholars were never really rich but they were respected because of their knowledge. Scholarly pursuits were extremely challenging in those times because access to information was limited. Most people didn’t know how to read.
    1. Martial artists from the Jianghu would likely fall under this caste.
  2. Peasant Farmers (农 nóng): Produced food to sustain society. Valued for their hard work.
    1. Owned land and paid taxes to the government – a big source of revenue for them.
  3. Artisans and Craftsmen (工 gōng): Identified by the Chinese character for “labour”, they were craftsmen who produced essential objects. Most did not have land of their own. They were more respected compared to merchants because of the specialized crafting knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Artisans formed their own guilds as well.
    1. I suspect that doctors and pharmacists fell into this caste as “makers of useful things.”
    2. Painters, dancers, poets, musicians, and courtesans fell into this caste as practitioners of the arts.
  4. Merchants and Traders (商 shāng): They were held in low esteem because they did not produce anything but instead transported and traded goods made by others. While successful and essential members of society, merchants and traders were held in low-esteem because of public perception as being greedy and immoral.
    1. Sometimes merchants would buy land in order to be considered farmers and command more respect in society.
    2. Many used their wealth to buy a good education for their descendants so that they could become scholars.
  5. Slaves (奴仆 núpǔ) and Labourers (苦力 kǔlì)
    1. (Bondage) Slaves: Slavery was legal at the time. Oftentimes, poor families would sell their children off to have one less mouth to feed. Rich families would buy them as servants and they would have a “slave contract” that denoted their status. Sometimes they may be released from service if their master was kind but oftentimes, slaves (and their children) would continue to serve the same family for generations.
      • In the case of courtesans, many started off as slaves. They would have a debt with the establishment they were sold to and would have to work to pay off the amount that they were bought for along with any incurred interest – clothes, food etc. As you can imagine, this added up. Their position in society was one step up from a slave and they could earn social prestige by having noble or powerful patrons.
      • Courtesans were also usually branded with a mark denoting their status.
    2. Labourers: They could be peasants, slaves, or criminals who were banished to mines and quarries to perform hard labour (lit. meaning of 苦力 kǔlì). If they were traitors to the crown, they would be branded or tattooed with a mark that denoted their status.

Congrats on reaching the end! 😀

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you found this post helpful to navigate any Chinese dramas/novels you encounter set in ancient times! This was quite fun to put together. If you have any questions, I can try to answer to the best of my ability. Likewise, if you have any topics you’re curious about, please let me know!


References

Ranks

Cultural Concepts

Other

  • Baidu

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Translator Notes   [ + ]

1. but Wikipedia was able to collect them!
2. I think the meaning behind the title was that the world is at their fingertips and that they have a bright future ahead of them
3. Note: this is the same character used as “继母 jìmǔ” or “step-mother”
4. I include their WHI translations in ‘[ ]’
5. A historical administrative division
6. This is the reason why there was such an uproar in Chp 32 and Chp 33 of Why Harem Intrigue – Punishing guards solely under the Emperor’s control was like giving him a slap in the face
7. Why you always see men in ancient dramas anxiously waiting outside the building when their wives are giving birth
8. Fun fact: In modern times, 嬷嬷 means ‘grandmother’ in Cantonese and 妈妈 means ‘mom’
9. Some had equal status to the Three Departments
10. because of Grand Preceptor Shen in Why Harem Intrigue~
11. Sounds like a snub against the actual chancellor of the time period
12. 戟 (jǐ) According to Wikipedia, a 戟 was a Chinese polearm that was a hybrid between a spear and a dagger-axe.

6 Comments

  • Hi! Thank you for compiling such an informative page together!! I can see how much effort you’ve put in, considering you also put in extra descriptions as to what each character does and even put in proper english pinyins. Moreover, look at those list of references! This work is amazing! Even though I’m Chinese, I’m not very well versed with a lot of Chinese history since I grew up on foreign land but having all of the titles in one place really helps a lot if I need to research something.

    Please keep up the good work!

    • Thank you so much <3!! It was really fun to put together! I'm so glad that it's helpful. I'm thinking of putting together another post like this about the Forbidden City since historical dramas/novels always reference the different palaces and gates.

  • Thanks so much! this was very helpful. Very informative. You worked hard!

    • Thanks Nina! I’m so happy you found it helpful ^ ^

  • it is very informative….i’m very much impressed with you…like how can this person be so dedicated to his/her work ,when she/he is not even getting money to do it. i feel that you are very much underrated…Hope that you will never ever feel downhearted in your life (if you do read this comment again…hehehe)

    • Wow, thank you for your high praise, Sarah! I really appreciate your kind words. If I ever feel downhearted I’ll be sure to read your comment ^ ^

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