An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yuzhi dagao 御製大誥

Jul 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

(Yuzhi) Dagao 御製大誥 "Great announcement, compiled by his Majesty", also known as Ming dagao 明大誥 or short Dagao 大誥, is a legislative instruction written by the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644), the Hongwu Emperor 洪武 (Ming Taizu 明太祖, r. 1368-1398).

Ming Taizu was known for his autocratic government and his extreme suspicion against intrigues by his ministers and officials ("all officials of the empire are useless for a ruler"). To prevent the officialdom from interfering into governmental affairs by corruption and forging court cliques he had published a jurisdictional code against offences by officials, especially those abusing powerful positions. One often-seen kind of corruption was the embezzlement of taxes or tax grain.

Emperor Taizu imitated a chapter of the Confucian Classics Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", the "Great Announcement" (Dagao 大誥) and proclaimed his own "Great announcement" in three sequences during the years 1385 and 1386: the "Great announcement" in 74 articles, the "Supplement to the Great announcement" (Dagao xubian 大誥續編) in 87 articles, and the "Third part of the Great announcement (Dagao sanbian 大誥三編) in 43 articles.

Eighty per cent of the "announcements" are law cases cited to demonstrate which offences officials could do, from embezzlement of money and grain, abuse of power or corruption and bribery. Corruption makes out about half of these cases, like bribery through tax grain, selling petty posts in the local government, abuse of corvée labourers for private purposes, exaggeration in reports about natural disasters in order to abtain higher disaster relief payments from the provincial government, or the embezzlement of such payments.

The abuse of government-owned objects and money, as well as the selling of posts was punished with the extermination of the offender's family in three generations (zuzhu 族誅). Taking bribes or report of excessive expenditure was punished with the slicing torture (lingchi 淩遲). Officials secretly selling state-owned grain were tatooed in the face (momian 墨面) and taken out their patella (quxi 去膝). Offences which were to be punished by the dismemberment torture, by decapitation (xiaoshou 梟首) or by the family's extermination numbered several hundred, public execution (qishi 棄市) was the punishment for almost 10,000 offences.

The severeness of punishments requested surpassed the sentences of the Da-Ming lü 大明律, the common law code of the Ming dynasty. Capital punishments very commonplace like never before. Even such sentences as cutting off a foot (yuezu 刖足), cutting of a toe (zhanzhi 斬趾), taking out the patella, or castration (yange 閹割) which had been abolished long before were reintroduced in the Dagao code. Other physical sentences like cutting off the hand (duanshou 斷手), chopping off a finger (duozhi 剁指) or "picking out" flesh (tiaojin 挑筋) were newly introduced. It was also possible that several sentences could be applied to the same offender or that several hundred people were punished for one single crime. The most extreme case is the embezzlement case of Guo Huan 郭桓 (d. 1385), a case in relation to which several ten thousand persons were executed.

Ming Taizu ordered that each (official) had to have one copy of the Dagao at home. The ownership saved an official from a harsh punishment: the degree of a sentence could be lowered if the delinquent was in possession of the Dagao. If not, the degree of the sentence was raised. Officals refusing to acquire the code were sent into lifelong exile. The code also became part of the educational system and was to be taught in the curriculum for the candidates of the state examinations.

An original print from the Ming period has survived.

In 1387 these three civil jurisdictional codexes were supplemented by a codex for military officials called Dagao wuchen 大誥武臣 "Great announcement to the military officials". It was printed one year later. The announcement to the military officials in the Capital and the local garrisons contains 32 articles of offences, among which the embezzlement of grain and clothing for the army was the worst. It was also forbidden have troops cultivated profit-earning land (the army was thus forbidden to engage in business), to set troops free if they pay a discharging sum, to force civilians into the ranks and files, to keep women in the barracks, to subtract provisions of underfed troops, to kill persons because of private quarrrels (money, women), to lend money from the civilian administration, to harass the civilian population for any reason, not to defend the coast against pirates, to sent troops out to cut firewood, to kill subordinated soldiers, and many offences more.

Like in the civilian Dagao the "Military Announcement" is written in a direct and plain language. Its main target is to prevent military officials (what we would call officers) from causing the troops running away or at least lessen their motivation and fighting spirit. The officers were to enhance the motivation of the troops to fight for the dynasty's sake. This could only happen through rewards and the chance to obtain merits and a higher rank.

A Feng 阿峰 (1989). "Mingdai zhongdian: Ming Daogao jianjie 明代重典——《明大誥》間介", Faxue 法學, 1989 (7).
Wang Yuquan 王毓銓 (1992). "Dagao wuchen 大誥武臣", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 136.
Yang Yifan 楊一凡 (1981). "Ming Dagao chutan 明《大誥》初探", Beijing Zhengfa Xueyuan xuebao 北京政法學院學報", 1981 (3).
Yang Yifan 楊一凡 (1981a). "Ming Dagao yu Zhu Yuanzhang de zhongdian zhili sixiang 明大誥與朱元璋的重典治吏思想", Xuexi yu tansuo 學習與探索, 1981 (5).
Yang Yifan 楊一凡 (1988). "Ming Dagao de banben 明大誥的版本", Faxue yanjiu 法學研究, 1988 (4).
Yang Yifan 楊一凡 (1989). "Ming Dagao de banxing shijian, tiamu he gaowen yuanyuan kaoshi 明《大誥》的頒行時間、條目和誥文淵源考釋", Zhongguo faxue 中國家法學, 1989 (3).
Yang Yifan 楊一凡 (1989a). "Ming Dagao de shishi ji qi lishi mingyun 明《大誥》的實施及其歷史命運", Zhong-wai faxue 中外法學, 1989 (6).
Zhang Xianqing 張顯清 (1992). "Dagao 大誥", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 135.