An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

shengzhi 聖旨, sacred instruction

Feb 2, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

"Sacred instructions" (shengzhi 聖旨) was a special form of imperial edicts used during the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368). They existed in two different shapes, namely literary (Classical) Chinese, and in colloquial language – the latter was easier to understand for the ruling Mongolian elite.

The version in colloquial language (baihua shengzhi 白話聖旨) was a direct translation of the Mongol versions and began typically with the words "In the power of Heaven's everlasting breath, with the secret support of great blessings, his August Majesty [delivers] a sacred instruction" (sheng tian qi li li, da fu yin huo zhu li, huangdi shengzhi 長生天氣力裡,大福蔭護助裡,皇帝聖旨), and ended with the formula xxx (有聖旨么道。無體例勾當休行者,行呵,他們不怕那甚么。聖旨俺的). The version in Classical language (wenyan shengzhi 文言聖旨) began typically with the words "Heaven above has granted its mandate, and the Emperor [issues this] sacred instruction" (shangtian juanming, huangdi shengzhi 上天眷命,皇帝圣旨), and ended with the formula "Whoever adheres to this [decree] will not act unreasonably and recklessly. [Our] dynasty has eternal rules, and rather than not following [the principle of] sincerity, it is proper to grant this" (bi huo shi ci, fei li wang xing, guo you chang xian, ning bu zhi shen, yi ling zhun ci 彼或恃此,非理妄行,國有常憲,寧不知慎,宜令準此).

This was different from zhao-type 詔 edicts, which ended with the formula "therefore [We] announce this so that [the persons in question] shall know everything appropriately" (gu zi zhao shi xiang yi zhi xi 故茲詔示想宜知悉).

The expression shengzhi itself is first mentioned in a memorial submitted to the throne by Cai Yong 蔡邕 (132-192) during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), namely the text Chen zhengyao qishi shu 陳政要七事疏. It is also mentioned in Zheng Chong's 鄭沖 (d. 274 CE) memorial Quan jin jiuxi wen 勸進九錫文, and in Du Fu's 杜甫 (712-770) poem Jiangling wang xin shi 江陵望辛詩. During the Tang period 唐 (618-907), imperial edicts were called chizhi 敕旨, while the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) first used the expression shengzhi in a regular way for edicts promulgated by the sovereign. Decrees issued by the Empress were called jiaozhi 教旨, and such pronounced by the Heir Apparent, were known as lingzhi 令旨.

The expression shengzhi was occasionally used during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods.

Liang Yunguo 劉運國, Liang Shipeng 梁式朋, eds. (1992). Gongwen da cidian 公文大辭典 (Beijing: Dianzi keji daxue chubanshe), 353.
Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 252.
Wu Shuchen 武樹臣, ed. (1999). Zhongguo chuantong falü wenhua cidian 中國傳統法律文化辭典 (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe), 350.
Zhao Xinguo 趙新國 (1998). "Shengzhi 聖旨", in Tang Jiahong 唐嘉弘, ed. Zhongguo gudai dianzhang zhidu da cidian 中國古代典章制度大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 697.