An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

shenwen 申文, letter of objection

Oct 23, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Shenzhuang 申狀 (early term) or shenwen 申文 (Qing-period term), or zhuang 狀 and shen 申 for short, was a type of official document submitted by inferior institutions to superior ones, with the special purpose to to bring forward objections against unjustified or unreasonable orders.

The document type emerged in the Song period 宋 (960-1279) and was usually directed to high central-government institutions like the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省), the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省) or the Three Financial Bureaus (sansi 三司). The Censorate (yushitai 御史臺) was also allowed to present letters of objection to the Bureau of Military Affairs (shumiyuan 樞密院). Local governments could present such letters to higher levels, e. g. district magistrates to prefects.

The character zhuang 狀 is much older and came into use during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), when it was specifically used for memorials referring to the situation of an individual person. In order to discern it from "normal" memorials, the word shen 申 "to explain" was attached.

One of the most outstanding examples from the Song period is Zhu Xi's 朱熹 (1130-1200) Shenmian yijun zhizhuang 申免移軍治狀, in which he pointed at four administrative measures being harmful to the people and not beneficial to the government, and criticized the transfer of the seat of the military prefecture of Nankang 南康軍 to Hukou 湖口.

During the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods, letters of objection were used on the local level, but could also be presented by provincial surveillance commissions (anchasi 按察司) or directly administered prefectures (zhili fuzhou 直隸府州) criticizing institutions of the central government, mainly one of the Six Ministries (liubu 六部).

During the Qing period, letters of objection might include a booklet presenting details (xiangwen 詳文) or specifications (yanwen 驗文). The latter type of document was sometimes called shenwen, while the use of the word zhuang was restricted to documents of judicial character, like zuizhuang 罪狀, suzhuang 訴狀 or zhuanggao 狀告.

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