An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

zouzhe 奏折, confidential memorial

Nov 28, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Confidential memorials to the throne (zouzhe 奏折, also written 奏摺) were a special type of memorial (zoushu 奏疏) used during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911).

It was introduced in an informal way by the Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 (r. 1661-1722), who wanted to be directly and personally informed on important matters. While routine memorials (tiben 題本) and memorials to the throne (zouben 奏本) were forwarded via the Office of Communication (tongzhengsi 通政司), certain functionaries were allowed to direct letters of information directly to the emperor. In this way, high functionaries could present confidential information before the rest of the officialdom knew it in advance. In this early form, there were no restrictions as to the length of the text or the form of the document, apart from the requirement that they were written by the presenter in person. The Yongzheng Emperor 雍正帝 (r. 1722-1735) continued the use of confidential memorials because of their usefulness. The use of confidential memorials was restricted to governor-generals (zongdu 總督), provincial governors (xunfu 巡撫), provincial military commanders and regional commanders (tizhen 提鎮), supervising secretaries and investigating censors (kedao guanyuan 科道官員), as well as vice prefects (tongzhi 同知).

The Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 (r. 1735-1796) finally formalized the use of confidential memorials and stipulated that organisational matters of military and war like money and grain, penal issues, military personnel and horses were to be reported on by routine memorials, issues of warfare, tactics and strategy were to be communicated by confidential memorials. The use was confined to central-government officials of the 4th rank and higher (including the Hanlin Academy, the Household Administration of the Heir Apparent, and the Censorate), persons of the rank of provincial surveillance commissioner (anchashi 按察使) and higher, high functionaries serving as special emissaries (qinchai 欽差), educational instructors (xuezheng 學政), superintendents of the maritime customs (haiguan jiandu 海關監督) and of the imperial silk manufactories (zhizao jiandu 織造監督), and in the military field, officers of the rank of regional commander (zongguan 總兵) and higher.

Confidential memorials had the usual leporello format with folded pages with a dimension of 23 × 10 cm, and a writing surface of 6 columns à 20 characters, including 2 characters of honorific head (taitou 抬頭). The cover leaf was inscribed with the letter zou 奏, and unlike routine memorials, a seal of office was not required.

Routine memorials were abolished in 1901, whereafter all reports to the throne became confidential memorials.

The text started with the presenter's rank and name, and the issue of the memorial. It ended with a summary and a suggestion for a solution, with a petition to the sovereign to decide. The closing words were jin zou 謹奏 "humbly submitting", and the date. If a petitioner submitted a further confidential memorial, it could be attached to the first one, and usually began with the word zai 再 "moreover", instead of recalling the petitioner’s rank and name again. Because the attached document was included in the first memorial, the additional one was called jiapian 夾片 "inserted strip". A secondary confidential memorial ended with the formula fu pian ju zou 附片具奏 "memorial submitted as an attachment".

Confidential memorials were enclosed in small boxes (zhexia 折匣) or were fixed between two boards (jiaban 夾板) and were dispatched either by a special messenger or via the courier system. Arrived in the Office for Provincial Memorials (zoushichu 奏事處) in the palace, they were forwarded directly to the emperor. The sovereign used red ink to mark the text of confidential memorials and to note down his answer. The result was called "confidential memorials with vermillion (i.e. the emperor's) notes" (zhupi zouzhe 硃批奏折). The Office for Provincial Memorials then forwarded this document to the State Council (junjichu 軍機處) for further decisions, or directly back to the sender. If the emperor did not note down any marks, or noted down the words "to be decided otherwise" (ling you zhi 另有旨), or "to be decided soon" (ji you zhi 即有旨), the State Council deliberated over the issue and requested and prepared an imperial edict (yuzhi 諭旨) on the issue. Memorials processed by the State Council were – including the reaction - copied as "copied of confidential memorials" (lufu zouzhe 錄副奏折). All confidential memorials received and for which imperial edicts were produced were included in daily registers (dengjibu 登記簿) and archived (suishou dengjidang 隨手登記檔, suishoudang 隨手檔).

Qin Guojing 秦國經 (1993). "Zouzhe 奏折", 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), 623.