Edicts and orders (zhaoling 詔令) is a general term for administrative or executive documents issued by the sovereign, the empress dowager or the main imperial consort in traditional China. They are documents "going down" (xiada 下達, xiaxing 下行), and are often juxtaposed to documents "going up" (shangtong 上通, shangxing 上行), namely memorials to the throne (zouyi 奏議), thus leading to the literary category of edicts and memorials (zhaoling zouyi 詔令奏議). In antiquity, both types had the form of letters (shuxin 書信) either from a minister to the sovereign, or from the sovereign to administrative bodies or individual functionaries. Edicts had the quality of judicial texts.
The most usual types of edicts and orders were letters of patent (cewen 冊文), decrees (zhi 制), instructions (chi 敕), ordinances (zhao 詔, zhaoshu 詔書), announcements (gao 誥), directives (zhi 旨), exhortations (jie 戒), strategic ordes (celing 策令), sealed letters (xishu 璽書), instructions (jiao 教) and proclamations (yu 諭). The oldest theory of literary genres, Liu Xie's 劉勰 (d. 522) book Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍, knows five types of edicts and orders, namely edicts (zhao 詔), patents of nobility (ce 冊), commands (ling 令), instructions (jiao 教), and "texts" (wen 文).
The genres of imperial sayings in the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" include speeches (shi 誓) and announcements (gao 誥) which can be seen as the earliest forms of edicts and commands. Yao Nai 姚鼐 (1731-1815) explains in his anthology Gu wenci leizuan 古文辭類纂 that the "speeches" had military use, while the "announcements" belonged to the civilian sphere. Another type, "charges" (ming 命), were used for the appointment of functionaries to duties and positions. During the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), the meaning of the word ming shifted somewhat towards the transcendental concept of "Heavenly mandate" (tianming 天命) and to the general connotation of "lifetime", i.e. the lifespan endowed to humans, and the word ming with the notion of "order" was replaced by the nearly homophonous term ling 令.
The Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE) made use of two different terms, namely zhi /tɕǐɛi/ 制 (with a similar sound as shi /ʑǐɛi/ 誓) for "words pronounced by the sovereign", and zhao /tɕǐɛu/ 詔 (pronounced similar to gao /kɑu/ 誥) for "orders to functionaries", while the word ling "order" was restricted for use by the empress and the heir apparent. The word zhaoling thus referred to official orders of the first and the second rank, namely such issued by the emperor, and such by his consort and the designated successor. The word zhi had the same meaning as the earlier word ming "order", while the earlier word ling was replaced by the expression zhao.
The Han dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE) continued the use of these two textual types of ordinances, but also made use of "strategic orders" (ce 策), and exhortations (jieshu 戒書 or jiechi 戒敕, short chi 敕). Strategic orders were written in seal-script style (zhuanshu 篆書) on oblong bamboo slips, and were used to invest princes and the Three Dukes (sangong 三公). For a dismissal of these dignitaries, short wooden slips were used, and the text was written in chancery style (lishu 隸書) and in two columns per slip. From the very late Han period on, orders (ce 策) were used for communication with all types of functionaries, while investitures of princes and the Three Dukes were written on patent letters (ce 冊). The textual type of exhortation (chi 敕) was used for instructional communication with civil and military functionaries on the local level, and thus adopted a more general term, in the sense of "edict".
These types of edict and command were retained through the period of division (300~600). The use of letters of patent was extended to the nomination of the heir apparent, and the empress. Edicts (zhao 詔) were used for general proclamation of particular policy issues, while the use of chi 敕-style texts was changed from exhortations to instructions of daily routine. Zhi 制-style texts were only rarely used and only as decrees for basic changes in the administrative system. The word zhishu 制書 was also used as a general word for "edicts".
The chapter on state offices in the official dynastic history on the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907), Xintangshu 新唐書 (47 Baiguan 百官志), expounds the use of types of edicts and commands. Letters of patent (ceshu 冊書) were applied for the nomination of an empress, a heir apparent, princes, and were read aloud in front of the throne hall (linxuan 臨軒). Decrees (zhi 制) were used for extraordinary punishments and rewards, dismissals or special appointments. A special subtype of decrees were reward decrees (weilao zhishu 慰勞制書), used to express gratitude and praise for extraordinary efforts. Edicts of dispatch (fachi 發敕) were used for the creation or abolishment of new administrative jurisdictions like prefectures and districts, or of offices and ranks, for the appointment of functionaries of rank 6 and higher, and for sending out armies. Directive edicts (chizhi 敕旨) were used to carry out suggestions brought forward in memorials to the throne. Edict letters (lunshi chishu 論事敕書) were used when functionaries were exhorted or admonished. If the throne promulgated a rule on issues concerning functionaries lower than rank 6, so-called edict slips (chidie 敕牒) were used.
During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian 武則天, who acted as the sovereign (690-704), the word zhao was tabooed because it was pronounced similarly to her personal name, Zhao 曌. After her retirement, the word was reintroduced.
The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) added to these types of ordinances the (antiquated) genre of announcements (gao 誥), imperial notes (yuzha 御札), and order posts (chibang 敕牓). Edicts (zhaoshu 詔書) were used for grand occasions, like enthronement, amnesties, or the last will of a sovereign on the deathbed, but also for answers to the requests of high functionaries. In the last function, the word "annotated answer" (pida 批答) was used as well. Decrees (zhishu 制書) were used for the appointment and dismissal of high officials, extraordinary rewards and punishments or pardons, and also for the proclamation of amnesties. Instructions (chishu 敕書) had the function of announcing the appointment and dismissal of mid-level officials, and for documents of daily routine. The antiquated genre of gao 誥 was used in 626 by Emperor Tang Gaozu 唐高祖 (r. 618-626, d. 635) on the occasion of his retirement. It thus became the type of document used by retired sovereigns (taishang huang 太上皇). Imperial notes (yuzha) were personally written by the sovereign and served for communication to high ministers. All texts including an appointment to an office or an investiture into the status of nobility served as certificates (gaoshen 告身). Order posts (chibang) originated in the custom of the Tang dynasty to publish certain imperial decrees and orders of interest by posting them on the wall. The Tang and Song dynasties made use of two further, special types of public document, namely amnesties (sheshu 赦書 or shewen 赦文), and "virtuous sounds" (deyin 德音). While the purpose of the former becomes evident from the name, "virtuous sounds" were used for the announcement of extraordinary grace, the reduction of punishment, or tax waivers or tax reduction.
Important documents were drafted by academicians (xueshi 學士) of the Hanlin Academy (Hanlinyuan 翰林院). These were the so-called "inner edicts" (neizhi 內制), while the less important "outer edicts" (waizhi 外制) were written by drafters of the Palace Secretariat (zhongshu sheren 中書舍人) or other, mid-ranking functionaries xxx 知制誥頭銜.
At the courts of the Jin 金 (1115-1234) and Yuan 元 (1279-1368) dynasties, important decrees ordering the appointment of high functionaries were called "declarations" (xuan 宣), while those ordering the appointment of mid-level officials were known as "announcements" (gao 誥). The Yuan dynasty discerned between edicts (zhaoshu 詔書) in classical language (zhao 詔), and such in vernacular language (shengzhi 聖旨). The latter term, literally "sacred ordinance", originated in the custom that the emperors' orders to his ministers were transmitted orally by assistants-in-waiting, and not by the sovereign himself.
The terms of all these types of edicts and ordinances were retained by the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) dynasties, but their use changed over time. Since the 3rd cent. CE, drafts of imperial orders were usually carefully read and commented on by high dignitaries before they were finally promulgated or issued. When the founder of the Ming dynasty abolished the office of Counsellor-in-chief (zaixiang 宰相), the proofreading and commenting was taken over by the sovereign, while the publication was taken over by the Ministry in charge. During the Qing period, the State Council (junjichu 軍機處) might also take over this duty. This procedure remained practice until the end of the imperial era. Edicts (zhao, zhaoshu) were used for the announcement of important political events, military affairs, or certain rituals, or for grand occasions like an enthronement, the last will, the emperor's participation in a military campaign, extraordinary amnesties or rewards, etc. Announcements (gao) were exclusively used for the Empress Dowager. Instructions (chi or chiyu 敕諭) were used for routine decisions during the Ming, but were rarely made use of by the Qing, and mostly with the function of admonition (chuan chi 傳敕).
The term chishu 敕書 was reserved as certificates of appointment for the local officialdom, both civilian and military.
For investitures into ranks of nobility, the document types ce 冊, gaoming 誥命, and chiming 敕命 were used. Ce were used for the investiture of princes, dukes, the nomination of the heir apparent and of consorts, honorific titles for the Empress Dowager or late emperors. Gaoming were used for the ennoblement of officials of rank 5 and higher, and chiming for officials of rank 6 and lower.
Decrees (zhi 制, zhiwen 制文 or zhishu 制書) had the function of announcing grand ceremonies like sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, the nomination of an heir apparent, marriage and investiture of an imperial consort or the wedding of an imperial princess. Decrees were usually presented to persons participating in these ceremonies. They might be recited aloud (xuan zhi 宣制, chuan zhi 傳制). The expression "decree words" (zhici 制詞) referred to the texts of certain documents, namely "yellow postings" (huangbang 黃榜 or 黃牓), i.e. the announcement of the list of metropolitan graduates, and of gaoming, and chiming.
Sacred instructions (shengzhi 聖旨), or edict instructions (yuzhi 諭旨) were, during the Ming period, not drafted by the officialdom, but announced by chief eunuchs. The Qing dynasty restricted the public function of eunuchs and used edict instructions for matters of daily routine. They were drafted by academicians, checked by the emperor, annotated with red ink (therefore called zhupi yuzhi 硃批諭旨 "edicts annotated with vermillion [ink]"), and then sent to the respective institution for execution. In rare cases, the emperor drafted such edicts personally. They were called "vermillion edicts" (zhuyu 硃諭) because the text was written with red ink.
It can be seen that the use of the various terms for "edict" changed from dynasty to dynasty. The Tang, for instance, preferred the words chi 敕 and gao 誥, and the Song made use of the expressions yuzha 御札 and chidie 敕諜. The Yuan introduced the term shengzhi 聖旨. The Ming went back to the old term zhaoshu 詔書, but also invented the term chiyu 敕諭 that was adopted by the Qing as shangyu 上諭. Another Qing-period term for a secret, personal letter from the emperor was the word jixin 寄信 (also known as tingji 廷寄).
The literary style of edict also changed over time. The Qin dynasty preferred majestic, heroic wording, while the Han tended to a subtle and refined style, in which words and meaning supported each other in beauty. From the third century CE on, the verse-prose style (pianti 駢體) became popular, according to which each sentence had equal length. Texts of this period were lengthy and very sophisticated. The Tang dynasty returned to a simple writing style. Documents of the Yuan period include many colloquial words that are not easy to understand for persons of later ages.
The refined literary style of many edicts and commands makes them valuable literary pieces, and some edicts belong to the most often read texts of classical literature. Such are the King Zheng of Qin's 秦王政 edict of his adoption of the title of First Emperor's 秦始皇 (r. 246-210 BCE), Chu bing tianxia Yidi haoling 初并天下議帝號令, Emperor Gaozu's 漢高祖 (r. 206-195 BCE) search for worthies to serve him, Qiuxian zhao 求賢詔, and his proclamation when entering the Guanzhong region 關中, Ru Guan gaoyu 入關告諭, Emperor Wen's 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) abolishment of mutilation as punishment, Chu rouxing zhao 除肉刑詔, Cao Cao's 曹操 (155-220) military order Junce ling 軍策令, or the discussion with the heir apparent on the Prince of Pengcheng, Yu taizi lun Pengcheng wang zhao 與太子論彭城王詔, by Emperor Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝 (r. 471-499) of the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534). Edicts were usually drafted by high functionaries, and some edicts are therefore deemed as literary products of these authors, like Ren Fang’s 任昉 (460-508) command for the empress, Xuande Huanghou ling 宣德皇后令, Lu Zhi's 陸贄 (754-805) amnesty Fengtian gaiyuan dashe zhi 奉天改元大赦制, Wang Zao's 汪藻 (1079-1154) quasi-proclamation of the Southern Song with "virtuous sounds", Jianyan san nian shiyi yue san ri deyin 建炎三年十一月三日德音, or Lu Xiufu's 陸秀夫 (1237-1279) testament for the Jingyan Emperor (Emperor Duanzong 宋端宗, r. 1276-1277), Ni Jingyan Huangdi yi zhao 擬景炎皇帝遺詔.
The use of edicts and commands is not restricted to certain fields, but encompasses the whole range of statecraft, from military affairs to laws and regulations, investitures, punishments, taxes and labour service, state rituals, or changes of the calendar. Edicts and orders were in 1912 abolished as instruments of official communication.