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zha 札 (劄), bureaucratic letter to subordinated institutions

Sep 13, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Zha 札 (also written 劄) was a type of document used in intra-bureaucratic communication, mainly in top-down direction. The character 札 originally meant a kind of wooden tablet or slip to write on (zha du 札牘), and was later used for the document itself. In early imperial times, the word zha referred to a private letter. In the sense of private letter, the terms zhahan 札翰, shuzha 書札 (書劄), shouzha 手札 or xinzha 信札 were used, too.

As an official document, zha became popular during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) and were both used for top-down (then called yuzha 御札, xingzha 省札 or zhazi 札子) as well as for bottom-up communication. Zhazi 劄子 (札子) were suggestions submitted directly to the emperor or high-ranking government officials. These suggestions (also called zouzha 奏札, zouzha 奏劄 or jianzha 箋札) had a less formal character than memorials (biao<(a> 表) or intra-bureaucratic memorials (zhuang 狀), and were similar to the documents of the type bangzi 牓子 (also written 榜子) or luzi 錄子 used during the Tang period 唐 (618-907). Most famous is Wang Anshi’s 王安石 (1021-1086) Benchao bainian wushi zhazi 本朝百年无事札子.

Yet the word was also used for instructions issued by the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省) or the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) - therefore called shengzha 省札 -, and was similar to the type of tangtie 堂帖 (tangzha 堂劄) documents used during the Tang period.

The word yuzha 御札 meant also "edict written by the emperor in person", used for the announcement of special events, like proclamations, suburban sacrifices, ancestral offerings or the execution of the fengshan offerings 封禪 on Mt. Taishan.

During the Yuan 元 (1279-1368) and Ming 明 (1368-1644) periods, the term zhafu 札付 (劄付) or zhawen 札文 was used for intra-bureaucratic communication, mainly regional commanderies-in-chief (dudu fu 都督府) writing to military commissioners (wei zhihui shi 衛指揮使), a ministry head writing to a subordinated bureau or provincial administration commissioners (buzhengshi 布政使) writing to subordinated offices.

During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), the word zhafu was only used by some local institutions submitting reports to the provincial governments, namely the Six Ministries (liubi 六部) or provincial governors (xunfu 巡撫) writing to regional vice commanders (fujiang 副将) or leading local military commandery, who were not directly subordinated or provincial military commanders (tidu 提督) writing to prefects or district magistrates, while the typical informal top-down communication was simply called fu.

This type of zha document was very widespread during the Qing period. In order to discern them from between private letters (zha 札), the character zha 劄 was used for official documents.

Zha-type documents were sometimes accompanied by informal letters providing more and clear information on the matter. With the increase of its use, the zha-type document became more or less an official part of communication in the mid-18th century and replaced other, more formal documents like instructions from central to the local governments (paiwen 牌文). Zha-type letters had a typically folded shape (zheshi 折式), on the outside of which the character zha was applied. There were no fix criteria for the letter itself, but it usually ended with the date and the sender's seal. When zha-type letters became part of the administrative routine, the sender marked important phrases of the document with red dots (biaozhudian 標硃點).

A response to a zha document was called zicheng wen 咨呈文.

The word zhaji 札記 (also written 剳記 or 劄記, full designation dushu zhaji 讀書札記) means notes or annotations to a text written by a reader. These notes are usually published separately.

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