Admonitions (zhen 箴) were a literary genre of premodern China in which the author either instructs subordinated persons on proper conduct, or speaks to himself. The character 箴 seems to be a variant of zhen 鍼 (or 針) "needle", a word used here figuratively to advise or adhort someone. In his introduction to the genres of ming 銘 and zhen 箴 (inscriptions and admonitions), Liu Xie 劉勰 (d. 522), author of the literary theory Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍, says that zhen was "something to attack sickness and prevent disease" (suo yi gong ji fang huan 所以功疾防患), and the genre is thus compared with "[acupuncture] needles and stones" (zhen shi 針石). Needles were painful, but contributed to the healing process, just like exhortations inspired better and desired behaviour.
The expression is first used in the Classic Zuozhuan 左傳 (Xianggong 襄公 4), where a remonstrance of Zhou Xinjia 周辛甲 and the overseer of hunts to the King Wu of Zhou 周武王 is mentioned (Yu ren zhi zhen 虞人之箴, Yu zhen 虞箴). In this place, the admonition is directed towards a superior. In the same book (Xuangong 宣公 12), it is told how the king of Chu 楚 exhorted (zhen) his army.
In the same sense, literary texts use the word quan 勸 "exhortation", as for instance, in the genre quannong 勸農 "exhortation to engage in agriculture". The genre of zhen-type adhortations was popular before the Tang period 唐 (618-907), whereafter it declined, but did not wholly disappear. In the field of administration and statecraft, it found a particular place, for instance, in “admonitions to officials” (guanzhen 官箴, see Guanzhen 官箴). Examples for this use are Yang Xiong's 揚雄 (52 BCE-18 CE) Baiguan zhen 百官箴 (also known as Ershiwuguan zhen 二十五官箴), Zhang Hua’s 張華 (232-300) Nüshi zhen 女史箴 (admonitions of the court ladies, included in the anthology Wenxuan 文選), Wen Jiao’s 溫嶠 (288-329) Shichen zhen 侍臣箴 or Chen Liang’s 陳亮 (1143-1194) Jiancheng zhen 鑒成箴. To the private field of admonition (sizhen 私箴) belong Han Yu’s 韓愈 (768-824) Wuzhen 五箴, Li Ao's 李翱 (772-841) Xinji zhen 行己箴, Sima Guang’s 司馬光 (1019-1086) Youzhen 友箴, Cheng Yi’s 程頤 (1033-1107) Shiting yandong zhen 視聽言動箴 or Wang Zhen’s 汪中 (1745-1794) Bianzhen 褊箴.
Admonitions might originate in the speeches of the early Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) kings to their functionaries (see Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents"), and found shape in written texts. In order to make them public, some admonitions might be incised or engraved into objects like bronze vessels or stones. The genre of zhen is thus directly related to inscriptions (ming 銘), resulting in the expressions zhen-ming 箴銘 or ming-zhen 銘箴. Liu Xie says that admonitions (zhen) were recited at court (song yu huan 誦于宦), while inscriptions (ming) were inscribed on vessels (ti yu qi 題于器). Even if the shape of presentation was different, both were equal in their spirit of warning (jing jie shi tong 警戒實同). The matters dealt with in admonitions must be appropriate and clearly presented (bi he yi bian 必核以辨) and the language used should be simple and yet profound (bi jian er shen 必簡而深). However, there was a difference in the use of expressions, because (oral or recorded) admonitions required a more solid and pertinent wording (queqie 確切), while inscriptions often included laudatory parts (zan 贊, song 頌, bao 褒), and were therefore more grand and brilliant (tigui hongrun 體貴弘潤). Good examples for such inscriptions of exhortation are Liu Yuxi’s 劉禹錫 (772-842) Loushi ming 陋室銘 or Su Shi’s 蘇軾 (1037-1101) Sanhuaitang ming 三槐堂銘.
Exhortations and inscriptions stand also side by side in the anthology Wenxuan.