An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

tiequan 鐵券, iron certificates

Mar 25, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

"Iron certificates" (tiequan 鐵券 or tiequanwen 鐵券文) were a special type of document of investiture in ancient China. They were used for the granting of special hereditary ("iron" in the sense of "long-lasting") rights, for instance, exemption from punishment for certain offenses. The Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618), for example, granted ten times exemption from the death penalty.

Iron certificates were first mentioned during the early Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) as "vermillion words and iron certificates" (danshu tiquan 丹書鐵券). The court of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) made use of iron-certificate privileges to pacify the defence commands (fanzhen 藩鎮). The latter even handed out iron certificates to members of their own staff and thus appropriated the right of the sovereign. The inscription area was formed like a convex tile (fuwa 覆瓦), while the script was coloured with gold powder (jinjie 金屑). While one copy (the left part) was handed out to the holder of the privilege, another copy (the right part) was stored in the "golden cabinet of the stone house" (jingui shishi 金匱石室) of the dynastic ancestral temple. The historically last iron certificates are mentioned in the unofficial history Wanli yehuo bian 萬歷野獲編.

"Iron certificates" was also the designation for some treatises with foreign countries allowing them certain privileges like that of Emperor Min 晉愍帝 (r. 313-316) of the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) with the Di Tanguts 氐羌.

At least one iron certificate from the Tang period has survived and is stored in the National Museum of History (Zhongguo Lishi Bowuguan 中國歷史博物館, today part of the National Museum of China, Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan 中國國家博物館). It dates from 987 and was handed out by Emperor Zhaozong 唐昭宗 to Qian Liu 錢鏐 (Wu-Yue Wusuwang 吳越武肅王 (r. 907-931)), who was 節度使 of... 鎮海軍、鎮東軍. It has a size of 52 * 30 cm and a thickness of 4 mm. It is inscribed with 333 inlaid gold letters. Another, Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) iron certificate has a size of 40 * 21 cm and a thickness of 2mm. It bears an inscription of 219 characters and was presented in 1440 by Emperor Yingzong 明英宗 to Marquis/earl ? (bo 伯) Zhao An 趙安, native chieftain (tusi 土司) of Huichuan 會川 in Longyou 隴右, Gansu. It is owned by the Cultural Museum of Weiyuan in the province of Gansu (Weiyuan Xian Wenhuaguan 渭源縣文化館).

Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 73.
Liu Yunguo 劉運國, Liang Shipeng 梁式朋, eds. (1992). Gongwen da cidian 公文大辭典 (Beijing: Dianzi keji daxue chubanshe). 339.
Luo Zhufeng 羅竹風, et al. (1993). Hanyu da cidian 漢語大詞典 (Beijing: Hanyu da cidian chubanshe), Vol. 11, 1399.
Wang Zhibin 王志彬, ed. (2002). Xinbian gongwen yuyong cidian 新編公文語用詞典 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 305.
Zhao Chao 趙超 (1992). "Tiequan 鐵券", in Zhongugo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Wenwu bowuguan 文物·博物館 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 550.
Zhao Xinguo 趙新國 (1998). "Tiequan dang'an 鐵券檔案", 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), 828.