Archival documents are not merely records produced by government agencies in the course of their administrative activities but also an important source of materials for the study of policy implementation and the forming of legal institutions.
Since ancient times an administrative system has existed to safeguard national archives for auditing purposes and on account of their value as reference materials. In the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), it is noted that King Cheng of the Western Zhou dynasty commanded his officials to store important archives in golden cabinets, indicating that the archive system in China dates back more than 3,000 years. Successive dynasties continued the practice of preserving archives, leaving treasure troves of historical documents for posterity.
Due to their high confidentiality, it was difficult for outsiders to have access to government documents. The Qing dynasty archives in the National Palace Museum’s collection include a variety of official documents from government agencies, resumes and biographies of officials, as well as veritable records, imperial diaries and edicts, and collection of official statutes. As they were considered of great importance in state affairs, such archives were carefully sealed and preserved by the Qing court. When the Manchus came to rule over China they adopted the archival management system of the previous Ming dynasty, and clear and strict regulations for archival practice, such as registering, copying, recalling, repairing, checking, and filing, were spelled out. For example, in consideration of their frequent use by officials and the resulting physical damages, the huge number of archival documents preserved in the Grand Council (Junji chu), which oversaw the highly confidential state affairs, was to be examined and repaired every few years. This provision gives us a sense of the importance the Qing court accorded to the management, maintenance, and preservation of national archives.
Imperial decrees are documents issued by the emperor to inform officials and the general public on the occasion of a major event or ceremony such as ascension to the throne, an imperial marriage, an end to regent rule, a death in the imperial family, abdication, the announcement of an honorific for the empress dowager, and any other matters that the emperor wanted to make known. The emperor could also issue imperial decrees of self-criticism to publicly take responsibility for the people’s suffering. Qing dynasty imperial decrees were written in Manchu and Chinese scripts and began with the phrase, “The Emperor, who governs with the Mandate of Heaven, declares that,” followed by the actual text of the decree, and ending with “Proclaimed to all under the Heavens, let it be known.” Imperial decrees were drafted by Grand Secretariat (Neige) ministers, reviewed by the Grand Secretary, and then presented to the emperor for final approval and promulgation. Decrees might differ in content, but what they have in common is that each announces a major event. The decrees selected for this section of the exhibition reveal a variety of interesting events taking place during the Qing dynasty.
Official Historiographical Compilations
Official historiographies are books compiled and published under the supervision of important ministers, often Grand Academicians or Grand Councilors, in historiography institutes set up at the order of the emperor. The actual writers were generally members of the Hanlin Academy or the Grand Council. During the Qing dynasty, a variety of agencies were set up by the emperors to compile and edit historiographical works: for example, the Veritable Records Office (Shilu guan) for compiling imperial annals, the Imperial Diary Office (Qijuzhu guan) for recording the emperor’s daily life and official activities, the State Historiography Institute (Guoshi guan) for assembling and editing the national history, the Office of Collected Statutes (Huidian guan) and the Office of Institutional History (Santong guan) for compiling and revising official statutes, laws and regulations, the Office of Military Archives (Fanglue guan) for collecting records of military affairs, and the Office of Imperial Decrees (Shengxun guan) for compiling teachings from previous emperors. The Wuying Palace was where the Imperial Printing Office was situated. The typefaces used in the books it released are neat and orderly, the paper carefully selected, and the bindings and decorative elements elegant.
Qingdai Lichao Qijuzhu Ce (Imperial Diaries of Successive Reigns of the Qing Dynasty)
Yellow silk-bound definitive edition
(Imperial Diaries) is an official historiography which main recorded emperor’s words and deeds. It’s a historical material of diary genre. Imperial Diary official of Qing Dynasty was founded in Kangzi early years. Imperial Diary official of Hanlin Academy must record directly per day about emperor meet officials, visit school to have speech, visit ancestral tomb, patrolling, suburban temple, foreigner doing the pilgrimage and suspect the prisoner… and so on. The record made a book per month and translated into 2 versions – Chinese and Man. It’s an important official historiography to understand what emperor’s official business events.
Grand Council Archives
In addition to making copies of palace memorials, the Grand Council was also responsible for producing a second transcription of each palace memorial in standard script. Copies from the same month were bound together, for future reference, into monthly memorial dossiers (Yuezhe dang). The Grand Council, a body assisting the emperor in state affairs, kept a large archive of records of the receipt and expedition of official documents, open and confidential edicts of successive emperors, files chronicling the quelling of local unrest or military campaigns, and the Council’s own day-to-day tasks. The documents selected for this section shed light on the important role the Grand Council occupied in the Qing dynasty government structure following its establishment by the Yongzheng Emperor.
Archives of Telegram Transcriptions
The national telegraph net laid gradually completed after the Qing Dynasty Guangxu ten years (1884). Since then, it opened the communication modernized process at the late Qing Dynasty. Local officials report and the court to convey the decree, all through the telegram. It started a major innovation on the Qing Dynasty instruments to convey. The museum collection of telegraphs are focused on the Xuantong period in the late Qing Dyneasty. The text is short but the content is extensive. It’s first-hand historical data to study the late Qing Dynasty built roads, open up a mine, financial business, education reform, foreign affairs, repression of revolution and military war and so on.
Palace Memorials with Imperial Rescripts in Vermilion Ink
Qing dynasty “palace memorials” were documents submitted to the emperor by officials, some reporting local affairs, and others expressing gratitude to the emperor. Originated with the Kangxi Emperor, the memorial system was developed further under the Yongzheng Emperor, and became firmly established during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign as an important channel of communication between the emperor and his officials. With contents covering state and military affairs, matters of the imperial household, local affairs, the appointment and recall of officials, finance, agriculture, matters of custom, and education, the memorials are important historical documents for the study of major events of the Qing dynasty. The National Palace Museum holds in its collection a large quantity of Qing dynasty palace memorials. Annotations in vermilion ink left on the memorials by successive emperors give an indication of their personalities and styles of governance and also reveal their accomplishments in calligraphy.
The National Palace Museum holds a large number of biographies of Qing dynasty figures, including drafts, biographical packets, compilations edited by the Qing dynasty State Historiography Institute and the Institute of the History of the Qing (Qingshi guan) of the early Republican era, and court manuscripts written in red-lined columns presented to the emperor. All these materials record the biographical information and achievements of eminent figures and officials of central and local governments. They come in many different forms – anecdotes, records of conduct, résumés, chronologies, collected writings, palace memorials, obituaries, etc. These files are treasure troves for students of Qing dynasty personages and illustrate the criteria according to which the Qing government assessed its officials.
BTW, we have been misled by TV shows since young. Until recently did I know that 皇帝詔曰 should be read as 皇帝詔 “The emperor’s decree” <pause> 曰 or “as follows”. Though you might want to know 😉
About the National Palace Museum
The National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) was originally founded within the walls of the Beijing Forbidden City in 1925, the present-day National Palace Museum moved to Taipei’s Shilin District following the Republic of China government relocation in 1949 with an official opening for the public in 1965.
Over 600,000 of the most precious artefacts within the collection were moved to Taiwan to prevent their desecration during and after the Chinese Civil War.
Due to the enormous numbers of collection spreads over 4 floors and 2 exhibition halls, the museum’s exhibits continuously rotate, as only a small percentage of the museum’s collection can be displayed at a given time to prevent wear and tear, so there will always be a new series of collection being exhibited on each visit!
National Palace Museum
No.221, Sec. 2, Zhishan Rd., Shilin Dist., Taipei City 111001, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
Tel : 886-2-2881-2021
Date Visited : Oct 2018
This is all very interesting! I clicked on the museum link and ended up on a video of a jade cabbage. That was really cool to see 🙂 I’m fascinated by history, and I’ve tried to express to my friends how United States history is so short compared to Chinese history. When it comes to Chinese history, I’m never sure where to start!
Interesting blog, as always 🙂 Thanks for sharing!