An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

zouben 奏本, memorial to the throne

Nov 28, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Zouben 奏本 was a type of memorial submitted to the emperor. It was in use during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and the early Qing 清 (1644-1911) period.

Regulations of the early Ming required that all communication from state functionaries to the sovereign was to be executed by memorials (zouben). In the early 15th century, the new type of routine memorial (tiben 題本) was introduced, with the stipulation that from then on, memorials were only to be used for personal matters like promotion, transfer, raise in rank (jiaji 加級), records of merit (jilu 記錄), mitigation of annulation of sanctions (kuanmian 寬免), demotion, demotion or dismissal with continuing service (jiangge liuren 降革留任) or expression of thanks for presents or acts of grace by the emperor. Depending on this context of personal career, memorials did not require placement of an official seal.

The Qing dynasty took over this use of memorials for questions of personal career, but restricted the use to high officials like heads of ministerial bureaus (tangguan 堂官) or high-ranking civilian and military personnel in the provinces. The length of memorials was to be restricted to 300 words. In spite of the restriction of memorials for personal information, it was not always easy to decide whether a document was dealing with personal information or with general public matters – into which the persons of individual functionaries are quite naturally involved. For this reason, zouben-type memorials were still occasionally used after their official abolishment in 1748.

Regulations from the late 16the century (e.g. Wanli huidian 萬歷會典, 76) stipulated that each paper of a memorial had six columns with 24 characters, including 2 characters of honorative top space (taitou 抬頭) in addition, which means 22 characters per column. The document had to start with the institution and the position of the presenter. The main text had to restricted length. The closing formula was "to the right respectfully submitted this memorial" (you jin zou wen 右謹奏聞), with a distance of full two characters between the words you 右, jin 謹, and zou 奏, while the last word wen 聞 was set on the top of a new column on the next page. Titles, name and position of the presenter were usually written in smaller characters with narrow distance to use no more than one single column.

This shape was inherited by the Qing dynasty. On the outside of the memorial, the character zou 奏 was written. The text started with the rank and name of the presenter, and a headline summarizing the content. The memorial closed with the words "respectfully submitting this memorial" (jin ju zou wen 謹具奏聞) or "to the right respectfully submitted this memorial" (you jin zou wen 右謹奏聞), and the total number of words and the number of leaflets, in order to make sure that the text was not altered by anyone. Even if the regulations stipulated the use of the "slim" writing style (fount) fangsong 仿宋, the common writing style kaishu 楷書 was often used in early Qing-period documents. There are also bilingual documents written in Chinese and Manchu. The language was to be concise, direct, and logical, as common in texts writing on politics and explaining actual situations. In order to make reading easier, memorials used a yellow sticker (tiehuang 貼黃) at the end on which the summary was written.

Memorials were first sent to the Office of Communication (tongzhengshi si 通政使司) which checked formal and linguistic criteria and then forwarded the document to the Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣), where a response was formulated (piaoni 票擬) and presented, as an attachment to the memorial, to the throne for decision. The sovereign might alter this draft for a response and decision (piaoqian 票簽, see also piao 票). The Endorsement-Copying Office (pibenchu 批本處) and the Grand Secretariat thereupon wrote the decision with red ink on the cover of the memorial (piben 批本 "annotated memorial"), like for instance, "the respective Ministry is [to be] informed" (gai bu zhidao 該部知道). The finalized document was then forwarded to the responsible one of the Six Offices of Scrutiny (liuke 六科) which cared for the promulgation and enactment of the emperor’s decision.

While the number of surviving zouben memorials from the Ming period is very low, more than a thousand survive from the Qing period, most dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of them deal with the promotion of functionaries or with congratulations, but quite a few contain information on military affairs and corruption.

Qin Guojing 秦國經 (1993). "Zouben 奏本", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Tushuguanxue qingbaoxue dang'anxue 圖書館學·情報學·檔案學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 622.