In the Qing period China was governed by the Manchus, an ethnic group from beyond its frontiers. The Manchu court governed its vast territory through a combination of the bureaucratic tradition of China and the tribal structures of Manchuria and Mongolia.

Administrative positions were in principle open to all, but at the highest levels of the central bureaucracy each ministry was headed by two officials, one Chinese and one Manchu. Although the Qing rulers aimed to portray themselves as the rightful inheritors of the mandate of heaven in the Chinese dynastic tradition, they cherished their separate ethnic identity.