An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

zoushu 奏疏 or zouyi 奏議, memorial to the throne

Nov 26, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Zoushu 奏疏, also called zouyi 奏議, is a general term for texts presented to the throne that are subsumed under the term "memorial". In pre-imperial times, texts presented to the ruler were usually called shangshu 上書 or shangshu 上疏. The word zou 奏 "to submit a letter to a superior" was used from the Qin period 秦 (221-206 BCE) on. The word shu 疏 means "to communicate, to mediate".

Liu Xie's 劉勰 (c. 460/480-c. 522/538) literary theory Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 discerns three types of memorial, namely zhangbiao 章表 (zhang and biao memorial), zouqi 奏啟 (zou and qi memorial), and yidui 議對 (discussion and answer), and suggests the following criteria to tell them apart: zhang meant, "to make clear or to articulate one's feelings of gratitude" (xie en 謝恩), zou meant "to memorialize in order to investigate or to impeach" (an he 按劾), biao meant, "to express one's feelings" (chen qing 陳請[=情]), and yi meant, "to discuss or to maintain a difference of opinion" (zhi yi 執異).

Other types of memorials are itemized reports (shu 疏), letters of submission (shangshu 上書), secret memorials (fengshi 封事), memorials expressing a conflicting view or advising against a proposed course of action (boyi 駁議), detailed reports (zhazi 札子), accusation (tanzhang 彈章, tanshi 彈事, tanwen 彈文), solution to problematic issues (duice 對策), and explanations and memos (qi jian 啟箋).

As literary categories, memorials are counterparts of imperial orders and edicts, and subsumed under the category zouyi lei 奏議類. The collection of memorials or individual persons or on particular issues was very popular. Important collections are Lu Xuangong zouyi 陸宣公奏議 the memorials of Lu Zhi 陸贄 (754-805), Bao Xiaxu zouyi 包孝胥奏議, the memorials of Bao Cheng 包拯 (999-1062), Guo Songtao's 郭嵩燾 (1818-1891) Guo Shilang zoushu 郭侍郎奏疏 and Guo Songtao zougao 郭嵩燾奏稿, Zuo Zongtang's 左宗棠 (1812-1885) Zuo Zongtang quanji 左宗棠全集 (ch. Zougao 奏稿) as well as Yao Nai's 姚鼐 (1732-1815) anthology Gu wenci leizuan 古文辭類纂 and Zeng Guofan's 曾國藩 (1811-1872) collection Jingshi baijia zachao 經史百家雜鈔 which both include many memorials to the throne.

The fragments of Cao Pi's 曹丕 (187-226) Dianlun 典論, ch. Lunwen 論文 say that "official memorials and discourses on state matters should be formally elegant" (zou yi yi ya 奏議宜雅). Lu Ji's 陸機 (261-303) "Rhapsody on literature" (Wenfu 文賦) stipulates that memorials be written in a "quiet-tempered, articulate and elevated style" (zou pingche yi xianya 奏平徹以閑雅). Memorials were therefore written according to high literary standards and some of them served as paradigms of writings of stylistic and linguistic quality. Often-read memorials are Li Si's 李斯 (284-208 BCE) Jian zhu ke biao 諫逐客書, Chao Cuo's 晁錯 (200-154 BCE) Yan bing shi shu 言兵事書, Yan An's 嚴安 (c. 100 BCE) Yan shi wu shu 言世務書, Ban Zhao's 班昭 (49?-120?) Wei xiong Chao qiu dai shu 為兄超求代疏, Wei Zheng's 魏征 (580-643) Jian Taizong shi si shu 諫太宗十思疏, Li Bai's 李白 (701-762) Wei Song Zhongcheng zi jian biao 為宋中丞自薦表 or Hu Quan's 胡銓 (1102-1180) Wuxu shang Gaozong tanshi 戊午上高宗封事.

The most important types of memorial were:


Zou 奏, a term used from the early imperial period on. The Han dynasty used the word to denote a particular type of writing. The literary theory book Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 that zou memorials were used to narrate political affairs (chen zhengshi 陳政事), inform about rules and rites (xian dianyi 獻典儀), report urgent matters (shang jibian 上急變) and examine transgressions and false statements (he qianmiu 劾愆謬). In the early form, zou-type memorials started with the words "your servant, risking his life, says" (chen meisi yan 臣昧死言) and ended with the formula "bowing [my] head, [I] report this" (xi shou yi wen 稽首以聞). They were in use until the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), when they were called zouben 奏本. The form was abolished in the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911) and replaced by either routine memorials (tiben 題本) or confidential memorials (zouzhe 奏折).


Zhang 章, meaning "stanza" or "provision", was in early imperial times a document used to express gratitude for the grace of the sovereign, or to specify certain problems. During the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), zhang-type memorials were used for congratulations and also to criticize or reprimand earlier decisions. The type was used until the end of the Jin period. The words zouzhang 奏章 and benzhang 本章 are derived from this type of memorial.


Biao 表, literally "statement, avowal", were in early imperial times used for a wide range of issues, like critique, suggestions, requests, presentations, recommendations, examination of facts, settling juridical decisions, and even for consolation words. From the Tang period 唐 (618-907) on, the use was restricted to express thanks, for congratulations, and for presentation. The typical initial sentence used during the Han period was "Your servant X says" (chen mou yan 臣某言), while the closing formula was "with reverence and awe, your servant X bows his head and fears for his life" (chen mou chenghuang chengkong, dunshou dunshou sizui sizui 臣某誠惶誠恐,頓首頓首,死罪死罪). In late imperial times, the formulas were more complex, and biao-type memorials began with the words "servant X of Prince Y sincerely happy and pleased, kotows and bows his head, kneels down and declares that" (mou wang mou chen chenghuan chengbian,qishou dunshou shang yan, fu yi yunyun 某王某臣誠歡誠忭,稽首頓首上言,伏以云云), and ended with "your servants cannot await the joyful arrival of Heavenly bliss from above and respectfully submit this statement to express our compliments" (chen deng wu ren zhantian yangsheng yongyue huanbian zhi zhi, jin feng biao cheng he yi wen 臣等無任瞻天仰圣踴躍歡忭之至,謹奉表稱賀以聞, and with the date and the name of the presenter.


"Disputes" (yi 議) were reports about the outcome of discussions among high functionaries concerning problematic issues. Each discussant submitted a letter of his own (boyi 駁議) expounding his arguments in the case. The letter started with the words "Your servant X in the function of Y is of the opinion that" (mou guan mou chen yiwei rushi 某官某臣以為如是), and ended with the humiliating words "Your ignorant servant X fears for his life" (chen mou yuzhuang sizui 臣某愚戇死罪). This type of memorial was used until the Sui period 隋 (581-618).


"Conditions" (zhuang 狀, also called zouzhuang 奏狀 or juzhuang 舉狀) were originally used to recommend candidates among the erudites for the Five Classics (wujing boshi 五經博士). This narrow frame was soon given up, and zhuang-type memorials were used for recommendations of candidates for other positions. The texts included arguments why the particular person was competent. The type was used until the Song period 宋 (960-1279), when state examinations became the normal way of appointment. The shape of zhuang-type memorials was not fix, but the Song-period initial formula was "on the day X Your servant Y submits a memorial that" (mou nian-yue-ri mou guan zhuangzou 某年月日某官狀奏), while the standard closing words were "humbly presenting this memorial, [I] kneel down to await your Majesty’s order" (jin lu zou wen, fu hou chi zhi 謹錄奏聞,伏候勅旨).


The memorial type of "explanation" (qi 啟) was introduced during the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265). It was very similar to biao-type memorials and was accordingly used for a wide range of topics that required detailed descriptions. From the Sui period on, qi-type memorials were reserved for letters from high functionaries to princes (including the heir apparent), a regent, and the empress dowager. The shape of qi-type memorials was similar to zouben, but the cover page was inscribed with the character 啟. The letter itself started with the name of the presenter and a keyword on the content of the document. It closed with the formula "humbly [I] submit this explanation to your information" (jin ju qi zhi 謹具啟知) and the date and name of the functionary.


"Memos" (jian 箋, jianzou 箋奏 or jianji 箋記) were used to address an empress or a prince (including the heir apparent). From the Ming period on, jian-type memorials were reduced to the use of congratulations. They started with the words "X in the office of Y happily and pleased kotows and bows his head, and reports that" (mou guan moumou chen huan cheng bian xishou dunshou shangyan 某官某某,誠懽誠忭,稽首頓首上言 and were to be written in rhythmic prose (pianti wen 駢體文). The lengthy closing formula was "your servants cannot await the arrival of Heavenly bliss from above and respectfully submit this memo to express our compliments" (chen deng wu ren zhantian yangsheng huanbian zhi zhi, jin feng jian cheng he yi wen 臣等無任瞻天仰圣懽忭之至,謹奉箋稱賀以聞).

jietie 揭帖

There were two types of "notes" (jietie 揭帖).

The first type were "secret notes" (mijie 密揭) submitted to the throne by members of the Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣) with the Senior Grand Secretary (fuchen 輔臣). Notes were shorter than routine memorials (tiben) and were to be sealed by the Hall of the Profundity of Literature (Wenyuange 文淵閣) before submitted to the emperor.

The other type were attachments (fuben 副本) to the main text (zhengben 正本) of routine memorials, memorials to the throne (zou) or explanations (qi). Routine memorials could have up to four attachments, depending on the content. The Office of Transmission (tongzhengshi si 通政使司) might then distribute the attachments to institutions where the information inscribed was to be used. The cover of an attachment was to be inscribed with the characters 揭帖. The text started with the function, title, and name of the presenter, and a brief headline on the content, and ended with the explanation that apart from the routine memorial, an attachment had to be submitted by the presenter (chu ju ti wai, li he ju jie, xu zhi jietie zhe 除具題外,理合具揭,須至揭帖者. Date and the name and function of the presenter closed the document.

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