Statue of Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang, considered the ideal example of the loyalty, integrity and Ruist shared governance between a lord and minister in Chinese history.[1]
Grand chancellor
Literal meaningoverseeing minister
Alternative Chinese name
Second alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Third alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Fourth alternative Chinese name
Fifth alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese內閣總理大臣
Simplified Chinese内阁总理大臣

The grand chancellor (Chinese: 宰相; pinyin: Zǎixiàng, among other titles), also translated as counselor-in-chief, chancellor, chief councillor, chief minister, imperial chancellor, lieutenant chancellor and prime minister, was the highest-ranking executive official in the imperial Chinese government. The term was known by many different names throughout Chinese history, and the exact extent of the powers associated with the position fluctuated greatly, even during a particular dynasty.

Professor Zhu Zongbin of Peking University outlined the role of "grand chancellor" as one with the power to oversee all jurisdictional matters, the right to decide and to draft edicts with other ministers, and the position of chief advisor to the emperor. This extended even to the ability to criticize the emperor's edicts and decisions.[2][3] Thus, the grand chancellor served as the emperor's chief of staff and main political advisor, often exercising power second only to the emperor. In practice, the grand chancellor was often a trusted executive aide to the emperor, but during political turmoil or power struggles between the two roles the grand chancellor could also be the emperor's primary political competitor and opponent.[4]

This balance of power means that the relation between grand chancellor (and the scholar-officials they represent) and emperor holds great significance in the Confucian thought of governance and the relation of "lord and subject" (君臣).[5][6]

"Grand chancellor" can denote several positions. During the Six Dynasties period, the term denoted a number of power-holders serving as chief administrators, including zhongshun jian (Inspector General of the Secretariat), zhongshu ling (President of the Secretariat), shizhong (Palace Attendant), shangshu ling and puye (president and vice-president of the Department of State Affairs).[7]


In the Spring and Autumn period, Guan Zhong was the first chancellor in China,[8] who became chancellor under the state of Qi in 685 BC. In Qin, during the Warring States period, the chancellor was officially established as "the head of all civil service officials." There were sometimes two chancellors, differentiated as being "of the left" (senior) and "of the right" (junior). After emperor Qin Shi Huang ended the Warring States period by establishing the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), the chancellor, together with the imperial secretary, and the grand commandant, were the most important officials in the imperial government, generally referred as the Three Lords.[9][10]

In 1 BC, during the reign of Emperor Ai, the title was changed to da si tu (大司徒).[11] In the Eastern Han dynasty, the chancellor post was replaced by the Three Excellencies: Grand Commandant (太尉), Minister over the Masses (司徒) and Minister of Works (司空).[12] In 190, Dong Zhuo claimed the title "Chancellor of State" (相國) under the powerless Emperor Xian of Han,[13] placing himself above the Three Excellencies. After Dong Zhuo's death in 192, the post was vacant until Cao Cao restored the position as "imperial chancellor" (丞相) and abolished the Three Excellencies in 208.[14] From then until March 15, 220, the power of chancellor was greater than that of the emperor. Later this often happened when a dynasty became weak, usually some decades before the fall of a dynasty.

During the Sui dynasty, the executive officials of the three highest departments of the empire were called "chancellors" (真宰相) together.[15] In the Tang dynasty, the government was divided into three departments: the Department of State Affairs (尚書省), the Secretariat (中書省), and the Chancellery (門下省). The head of each department was generally referred to as the chancellor.[16]

In the Song dynasty, the post of chancellor was also known as the "Tongpingzhangshi" (同平章事),[17] in accordance with late-Tang terminology, while the vice-chancellor was known as the jijunsi. Some years later, the post of chancellor was changed to "prime minister" (首相 shou xiang) and the post of vice-chancellor was changed to "second minister" (次相 ci xiang).[18] In the late Southern Song dynasty, the system changed back to the Tang naming conventions.

During the Mongol-founded Yuan dynasty, the chancellor was not the head of the Secretariat, but the Crown Prince (皇太子) was. After the establishment of the Ming dynasty, the post became the head of the Zhongshu Sheng again. The post was abolished after the execution of Hu Weiyong, who was accused of treason (though his conviction is still strongly disputed in present times because of a lack of evidence to prove his guilt).[19] Still, appointments of the people who held the highest post in the government were called "appointment of prime minister" (拜相) until 1644.


During and after the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, the Mongols continued the use of a title Chingsang, from Chengxiang (丞相) for various high leaders, such as Pulad, the Yuan ambassador to the Ilkhan[20] and for the deputy of the Western Mongol leader, the taishi.[21] The title was also used in the Ilkhanate, for the vizier Buqa.[22]

List of chancellors of China

This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (August 2008)

Further information (in Chinese): List of Chinese grand chancellors [zh]

List of chancellors of Shang dynasty

Pinyin (romanization) Chinese characters
Yi Yin 伊尹
Zhong Hui 仲虺
Yi Zhi 伊陟
Wu Xian 巫咸
Wu Xian 巫賢
Gan Xuan 甘盤
Fu Yue 傅說
Ji Zi 箕子

Zhou dynasty

Qin dynasty

Han dynasty

Cao Cao, who controlled the Late Han dynasty, is one of the most famous Chinese chancellors.

Three Kingdoms

Eastern Wu

Shu Han

Cao Wei

Sui dynasty

Tang dynasty

Main article: Chancellor of the Tang dynasty

Song dynasty

Northern Song

Southern Song

Ming dynasty

Note: after the death of Hu Weiyong, the title of grand chancellor was abolished. The office of the Grand Secretariat assumed the de facto powers of the chancellery after the reign of the Hongwu Emperor.

Qing dynasty

See also: Grand Council (Qing dynasty)

The Qing dynasty bureaucratic hierarchy did not contain a chancellor position. Instead, the duties normally assumed by a chancellor were entrusted to a series of formal and informal institutions, the most prominent of which was the Grand Council. Occasionally, one minister may held enough power in the government that he comes to be identified, figuratively, as the "chancellor".

In 1911, the Qing court adopted reforms which, amongst other changes, established the position of prime minister. This position existed for less than a year before the Qing government was overthrown.

Premiers after 1911

For a more comprehensive list, see List of premiers of China.


See also



  1. ^ "魚水君臣 ("Fish (and) water lord (and) subject") refers to the term "君臣魚水" from Records of the Three Kingdoms, where Liu Bei refers to gaining Zhuge Liang's service as if "a fish gaining water"
  2. ^ 祝总斌 (1990). 两汉魏晋南北朝宰相制度研究. 北京市: 中国社会科学出版社. pp. 1–14. ISBN 7-5004-0700-9.
  3. ^ Theobald, Ulrich. "chengxiang 丞相, Counsellor-in-chief".
  4. ^ 陈克礼. "中国古代宰相制度的演变". 温州大学人文学院2002级汉语言文学专业. Retrieved 13 October 2023.
  5. ^ Yü, Ying-shih (2021). "Confucian Culture vs. Dynastic Power in Chinese History". Asia Major. 34 (1–2).
  6. ^ Gardner, Daniel K. (26 June 2014). Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 33–44, 54–58, 98–100. ISBN 9780190236809.
  7. ^ Cunrui Xiong, Victor (2017). Historical Dictionary of Medieval China. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 100. ISBN 9781442276161.
  8. ^ (in Chinese) Guan Zhong Memorial Opened in Linzi Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine, Xinhuanet, September 19, 2004.
  9. ^ Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. North-China Branch (1876). Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 10. SHANGHAI: The Branch. p. 85. Retrieved June 28, 2011.
  10. ^ Li (2007), 75.
  11. ^ Wang (1949), 144.
  12. ^ (in Chinese) Chancellor of China,
  13. ^ Book of the Later Han Vol.72; Records of Three Kingdoms Vol. 6.
  14. ^ Records of Three Kingdoms Vol. 1.
  15. ^ (in Chinese) The History of the Chancellor System in China.
  16. ^ (in Chinese) Tong Zhongshu Menxia Pingzhangshi[permanent dead link], Encyclopedia of China.
  17. ^ (in Chinese) "Chancellor in the Song Dynasty"
  18. ^ (in Chinese) The Change of Central Administration in Tang and Song Dynasties Archived 2005-04-25 at the Wayback Machine.
  19. ^ (in Chinese) The History of Chancellor of China Archived 2007-08-11 at,
  20. ^ Paul D. Buell; Francesca Fiaschetti (2018). Historical Dictionary of the Mongol World Empire. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 131. ISBN 9781538111376.
  21. ^ Charles Bawden (2013). Mongolian English Dictionary. Routledge. ISBN 9781136155956.
  22. ^ Michael Hope (2016). Power, Politics, and Tradition in the Mongol Empire and the Īlkhānate of Iran. Oxford University Press. p. 136. ISBN 9780198768593.


  •  This article incorporates text from Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 10, by Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. North-China Branch, a publication from 1876, now in the public domain in the United States.
  • Li, Konghuai (2007). History of Administrative Systems in Ancient China (in Chinese). Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co., Ltd. ISBN 978-962-04-2654-4.
  • Wang, Yü-Ch'üan (June 1949). "An Outline of The Central Government of The Former Han Dynasty". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 12 (1/2): 134–187. doi:10.2307/2718206. JSTOR 2718206.