An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

die 牒, documents of intra-bureaucratic communication

Aug 30, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Die 牒, in early imperial times also called qian 簽, was a type of official document, and a literary genre as well. The word originally denoted a kind of writing material, like wooden slips or boards that were tied together to form a scroll or fascicle. From the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) on, the word was used to denote the text, and not just the material. During the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600), wooden slips were still used for communication between administrative agencies, both laterally and vertically.

The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) defined specific types of documents for communicative use. While fu 符 was the term used for documents going upwards (shangxing 上行) in the hierarchy, zhuang 狀 or shenzhuang 申狀 was used for top-down documents (xiaxing 下行), while the word die was used for documents exchanged between institutions on various or equal levels (pingxing 平行).

There were also strict rules established as to the form of a diewen 牒文. A document sent to a superior institution or to one of equal standing had to begin with the name of the institution, followed by the verb die (shang) 牒(上) “to send (up)”, and a space of several characters (kongque 空闕 or kongyi 空抬) expressing respect towards the recipient, whose name appeared thereafter. The text of the document was ended by the words jin die 謹牒 “respectfully sent”, and the date, followed by the name, rank, and signature of the author. Documents sent to an inferior institution did not include a space of respect, but ended with the words gu die 故牒 “sent with special purpose”. The expressions were still used during the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). They were used in top-down communications until the end of the Qing dynasty. For laterally-sent documents between the sections of the Six Ministries (liubu 六部), the term gongdie 公牒 was used during the Song period.

During the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368), the directions of “sending up” and “down” were further specified by the ranks of the officials sending and receiving, resulting in strict differentiation between lateral dispatches (pingdie 平牒), dispatches to superiors (die shang 牒上, die cheng shang 牒呈上), and such to inferiors (jin gu die 今故牒). The use was during the Yuan period restricted to the communication on the local level, from the level of routes (lu 路) downwards. While communication of 3rd-rank officials to those of lower ranks was considered top-down, that between 4th and 5th-rank officials was deemed lateral. During the Ming period, lateral communication between bureaus belonging to different institutions were also rated as top-down, and thus the term gudie was used for them. Guard or escort commands (huwei zhihuishi si 護衛指揮使司 wrote top-town orders to prefectural administrations, provincial surveillance commissions (tixing ancha si 提刑按察司) to guard bataillons (shouyu qianhusuo 守御千戶所) and salt distribution commissions (yanyunsi 鹽運司).

The administration of the Ming dynasty used dispatches to superiors (diecheng) if the metropolitan prefecture (Yingtian fu 應天府) wrote to regional military and provincial administration commissions (dusi buzhengsi 都司布政司), if prefectures (fu 府)上書十衛指揮使按察司,and if surveillance commissions wrote to provincial administration commissions (buzhengsi 布政司). The expression dieshang 牒上 was used for military documents sent by infantry and cavalry commands (bingma zhihui 兵馬指揮) of guard bataillons to prefectural administrations.

The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) limited the use of die documents to the communication of local administrative units on the level of prefectures and districts and of local educational institutions. The expression die shang 牒上 was fully replaced by die cheng 牒呈. The type of diecheng 牒呈 document was specifically used by prefectural administrations writing to the provincial surveillance commission (anchasi 按察司), by directly administrated prefectures (zhilizhou 直隸州) writing to prefects (zhifu 知府), by sub-prefectures (ting 廳) writing to provincial military commanders (tidu 提督, see Green Standards), by subofficial functionaries (zuo-ni 佐貳) of first- (fu 府) and second-class (zhou 州) prefectures and districts (xian 縣) writing to the respective chief administrators, subofficial functionaries of the provincial administration commission and the provincial surveillance commission (liangsi shouling 兩司首領) writing to prefects or heads of prefectural and district administrations writing to regional vice commanders (fujiang 副將) and schools (ruxue 儒學) writing to prefectural or district administrations.

Liu Xie explained in his literary critique Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (ch. Shu ji 書記) that "die means literally leaf (ye 葉)" because short bamboo slips were bound into die were "like leaves on the branch" (ru ye zai zhi 如葉在枝). The word "leaf" also referred to a kind of draft for reference and discussion not yet made ready for the archives.

Imperial patents (chidie 敕牒)

A certain type of imperial decree addressed to relatively high officials was called chidie 敕牒. The expression was used during the Tang period for imperial orders issued by the Administration Chamber (zhengshitang 政事堂), a section of the Chancellery (menxiasheng 下省), and drafted by drafters (zhongshu sheren 中書舍人) of the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省). During the Five Dynasties period 五代 (907-960), the term was used for certificates of (irregular) promotions in rank (fengguan jinjue 封官晉爵). The Yuan dynasty used it for bestowing nominal titles to parents and ancestors of functionaries (fengzeng 封贈).

According to the system of the Tang dynasty, patents for the appointment to offices of rank 6 and lower were called chishou 敕授, those of ranks 4 and 5, zhishou 制授, and such for ranks 3 and higher were called ceshou 冊授. The Song dynasty altered the use of this type of document and applied it for the following orders to district magistrates (zhixian 知縣) and higher, as well as to successful graduates of the palace examination (jinshi jidi 進士及第) if they were temporarily appointed examination officials (keju kaoshi guan 科舉考試官), sent abroad or received foreign emissaries, and for orders to Buddhist and Daoist monks to take over special duties in monasteries and temples. Such orders were issued by the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省).

Other uses

Patents issued by the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) were during the Song period called jiandie 監牒 "Directorate patents", jiantie 監帖 "Directorate slips", budie 補牒 ("additional patents"), lingdie 綾牒 ("white silk patents") or juandie 卷牒 ("roll patents").

In the world of the state examinations during the Song period, younger brothers, relatives or retainers of public servants could only be examined in educational institutions of other jurisdictional areas. For this purpose, they were temporarily sent to a “dispatch examination” (dieshi 牒試, also called zhoushi 胄試). Over the years, legal rules for the examination of relatives were widened, and the custom was given up in 1237.

The Tang dynasty exempted the Buddhist clergy from tax payment, for which purpose tax-exemption certificates (dudie 度牒) were issued.

The word wendie 文牒 means “document” in general, and land contracts (shuqi 書契, hongqi 紅契) of the Tang period in particular.

The expression tongdie 通牒 is similar to the modern word tongzhi 通知 "circular", but also refers to interstate communication that requires a certain reaction of answer.

The word diezhuang 牒狀 (diesu 牒訴, songci 訟辭) for indictments or charges came up in early imperial times, and the term was occasionally used until the Qing period, when it referred to reports issued by censors accusing officials of inefficiency.

The word die is also used for family registers or genealogies (jiapu 家譜), as pudie 譜牒 or jiadie 家牒 for commoners, and yudie “jade tablets” 玉牒 for the imperial house.

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