Thou Art Understood

Tags: emperor | memorial | National Palace Museum

"Chih-tao-le " was a concluding note frequently affixed by Ch'ing emperors to palace memorials submitted by officials. It literally means "Understood" or "I got it." , indicating that the emperor was fully comprehensive of what was conveyed in the official’s report. Through these palace memorials that submitted by officials to emperor, we could find out how emperor and officials interacted, how the emperor grasped the conditions in various parts of country, what kind of viewpoint did the emperor have to the reported incidents from the officials, how the emperor governed the country, and further we can rebuild the history of the times.

Why Thou Art Understand –The System and Origins of Memories

The emperor, in order to understand the sentiments of the people in the capital and throughout the land as well as to effectively govern the country, depended largely on written reports submitted by high officials to him. The main form of government document in the Ch'ing dynasty was known as a memorial, and the system of memorials officially appeared, it is generally felt, in the middle of the K'ang-hsi reign (1662-1722). This followed the memorial and subject official reports of the Ming dynasty and gradually developed as a result. In the beginning, officials would write secret memorials for submission to the emperor, who would then personally review them and write his comments and responses, forming a secret channel of interaction between the two. Later, due to inclusion of both private and official interests, local interests, customs of the people, and matters large and small all could be treated in this complete system of memorials. The earliest memorial in Chinese with responses by the emperor in red ink in the National Palace Museum collection is dated to the eighth day of the sixth month of the 35 th year of the K'ang-hsi Emperor (1696), and it was written by Ts'ao Yin, the Silk Manufacture Supervisor of Kiangning, who was wishing the emperor well and congratulating him on his victory in quelling the rebellion of the Zunghar founder Dga'-ldan (Fig. 1). The earliest dated memorial in Manchu with vermilion rescripts by the emperor is dated to the fifth day of the third month of 1696, written by the crown prince Yin-jeng wishing the K'ang-hsi Emperor well (Fig. 2). Both memorials were written by officials, first paying respects to the emperor and mentioning personal matters, before discussing the issues they wanted to report on. This reveals the formal system of memorials and the close relationship in private exchange between the emperor and his officials.

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How Thou Art Understand –The Submission, Response and Return of Memorials

The system of written memorials followed that of oral personal instructions. Secret memorials were submitted and the private responses of the emperor were returned to form a personal channel of communication. Therefore, in addition to the memorial writer having to personally write out the report, there was also a strict set of procedures followed in the sealing and casing of the memorial to ensure secrecy. The handwritten memorial was first placed in a wrapper, the outside sealed with “hsüan” and yellow paper, and then placed in a memorial case. A bronze lock and sealing paper was used on the outside, and then this was finally wrapped in a yellow silk bundle, offering the memorial the greatest degree of secrecy. Some of the more unique memorials in the collection of the National Palace Museum include the “Small secret memorials” written by Wang Hung-hsü (Fig. 3), which include three “secret instructions” written by the K'ang-hsi emperor (Fig. 4) along with 49 secret memorials and memorials wishing the emperor well (Fig. 5). They are stored in a wooden case with eight yellow levels, preserving the basic appearance of secret memorials submitted at the time.

The appropriately bundled memorial also had to be sent with a corresponding degree of secrecy. In the early days, the person who wrote the memorial would have a family member or trusted follower personally hire a horse or mule to go on a special trip to send it. After memorials became more universal, urgent official business required a system of horse and relay stations to deliver them to the court's memorial bureau (Ching-yün Gate), from whence it would be directly delivered to the emperor. After the emperor had written his comments, the following day it would be sent back to the memorial bureau so as to be returned to the memorial writer. After the Yung-cheng Emperor assumed the throne, in addition to submitting and returning the memorials, it was also ordered that all officials who had memorials personally rescripted by the emperor return them to the court. No such memorials were to be held in private hands. Thus, after the memorial with vermilion imperial rescripts was reviewed by the memorial writer, they were resubmitted again to the court, thereby forming the later and complete procedure for submitting and returning memorials (Fig. 6).

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Why Art Understand – The Function and Purpose of Memorials and Their Attachments

The formation of the memorial system and the memorials wishing the emperor well are closely related, becoming a personal form of exchange between the emperor and his officials. Since the memorial paying respects was directed to the emperor, particular attention was paid to the paper used for writing and its surface. For example, in the K'ang-hsi reign, the General Commander of Kiangnan Tu Ch'eng-ssu wrote a memorial wishing the emperor well (Fig. 7) and used yellow-flecked paper, having the borders mounted with yellow silk. The surface of the memorial is also painted with two five-clawed dragons in gold ink that prance among mountains of longevity and waters of fortune. The pearl they are chasing bears the character for “memorial”, creating for a beautiful effect that offers a glimpse at the attention of the official that went into the making of this memorial.


Though memorials wishing the emperor well were often quite ornate, their contents tended to be very simple, mostly just including the phrase, “Reverently asking for the sacred peace of the imperial above”. However, after the emperor read this, he would sometimes take the opportunity to show concern about the health of his officials. For example, in 1726, the Chekiang-Fukien Governor General Kao Ch'i-cho wrote a memorial wishing the emperor well (Fig. 8), and the Yung-cheng Emperor wrote in response, “The Emperor is personally fine. After the Emperor assumed the throne, he has not yet visited T'ang-shan. If he has a free moment, he would like to take a leisurely trip, but he has not had the opportunity to do so. Fearing that you are busy, the Emperor especially inquires as to how you are.” In addition to showing concern about the health of his officials, the Yung-cheng Emperor also offered words of imperial encouragement or asked about local conditions of the people. There are many such memorials paying respects and all provide a means of private communication between officials and the emperor, offering an important channel for the latter to understand major matters of national importance.

Memorials only wishing the emperor well gradually developed into memorials that pay respects and provide other information. They often started by wishing the emperor well and then went on to deal with other matters. Take, for example, the memorial by the Chih-li Governor General Chao Hung-hsieh, in which he offers his respects to the emperor and then reports on local rainfall and planting conditions (Fig. 9). After the memorial system gradually became standardized, the memorial just for reporting on certain matters became the dominant format, and the range of subjects encompassed both private and official ones. This included a list of successes and failures of government (Fig. 10), rectifying official administration and encampments, rectifying local finances, dealing with water and river projects, providing relief to people during natural disasters, and preparing for military needs (Fig. 11). Memorials were the eyes and ears of the emperor allowing him to learn about affairs of both the capital and local regions and understand the effectiveness of local administration, forming a tight information network.

In addition, vermilion rescripted memorials not only included the memorial themselves, but they also often included fascinating attachments, such as tables of rainfall and grain prices (Fig. 12), examination questions (Fig. 13), taxes and finances, and confessions and various illustrations (Fig. 14), providing auxiliary explanations for the matters reported in the memorials.

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Thou Art understand-Vermilion Rescripts by the Emperor

Through memorials from officials, the emperor could gain an understanding of people's affairs in the capital and local areas. After reading the memorial, the emperor would personally write instructions or comments in vermilion ink and have the memorial returned, allowing the memorial writer to put the instructions into practice. Therefore, the red rescripts reflect instructions of the emperor (Fig. 15), his concerns and expectations (Fig. 16), anger (Fig. 17), and joy, as well as the emperor's thoughts on officials and various matters. At the same time, memorials also represent the emperor's achievements in calligraphy (Figs. 18, 19). The example in Figure 18 is a compilation of the phrase “Thou art understood” that was written by the K'ang-hsi Emperor down to the Kuang-hsü Emperor. Figure 19 is a phrase written personally by the Hsüan-t'ung Emperor that translates roughly as “The responsible agency has been informed for processing”. These examples express the direct, fluent, and strong brushwork of these emperors as well as the flowing lines of characters produced in their calligraphy.
When the emperor wrote his instructions on a memorial, he used vermilion ink. However, with the death of an emperor or empress, the new ruler would temporarily change to black or blue ink out of respect (Fig. 20). For example, the Tz'u-hsi Dowager Empress died on the 22 nd day of the 10 th month of 1908, and the country went into a period of mourning. Hsin-ch'in, Supervisor of Border Affairs and General of Sui-yüan, memorialized on the third day of the following month to resume affairs of government and included an attachment that all was in order. The regent Wang Tsai-feng wrote the character “reviewed” in blue ink for the emperor as an expression of grief (the Kuang-hsü Emperor had passed away the day before the Tz'u-hsi Dowager Empress, so the regent wrote in his place).

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The Database of Online Searching- An understanding of Vermilion Rescripts and memorials

Memorials were important government documents of the Ch'ing dynasty and often conveyed important matters of the times, providing useful information for Ch'ing historians. The 340,000 memorials in the National Palace Museum collection will be completely digitized by the end of 2006, and nearly 280,000 of them have already been made available for text catalogue searching as well as image viewing. Those interested may visit the website for the “Ch'ing Palace Memorials and Grand Council Memorials Full Text and Image Databank” at (Chinese Version Only) for more information and searches.