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An edict that is far older than the one found in July was on display in Beijing. Photo: SCMP

Ming dynasty edict found in northern China offers valuable insight into imperial government

  • The edict was made in 1606 to bestow honour on the parents of Ji Shu, an imperial official
  • Families often used edicts to legitimise their role in a community and help them contend for local power

Archaeologists in northern China announced at the end of July that they had found a 17th-century imperial edict from the Ming dynasty in Hebei province.

The edict was issued to the parents of a Ji Shu, a government official, in 1606, according to Wang Wei, director of the Wuan cultural relics protection and management department in an article on Xinhua, the state-run newswire.
Edicts were often presented as an honour for people or families of those who had made important contributions to the Ming empire, and often could help a family legitimise its ambitions for local power, according to Bian He, an associate professor of History and East Asian Studies at Princeton University.
Bian told the South China Morning Post that edicts were top-down proclamations from the emperor – although the process was more complicated and usually involved a Grand Secretariat drafting the documents in collaboration with various offices.

“In this case, it is likely that the emperor in question was not personally involved in issuing the edict. The family being honoured locally must have put in some advocacy or had their allies advocate for their eligibility of honour,” she said.

Imperial edicts are precious pieces of archaeological evidence as they are official government communications that offer a window into political and social realities at that moment in time.

“Not all edicts are legislative in nature. This one, for instance, bestows a special honour to a family, while others affect real changes in how the state functions, such as adjusting the tax rate,” Bian said.

The Ming dynasty edict that was recently discovered in northern China. Photo: Xinhua

Ming-era edicts are rarer than their counterparts from the younger Qing dynasty (1636–1912) but, interestingly, also less common than edicts from the older Song (960-1279) and Tang (618 to 907) dynasties.

“Ming dynasty documents are perhaps less thoroughly studied, and so every new discovery is a welcome development for historians,” she said.

The recently discovered edict contains 455 characters and would have been written during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor (r. 1620-1627), who was famously illiterate and abdicated the administration of the empire to Wei Zhongxian, a powerful eunuch.

Tianqi was, however, a gifted carpenter and famously launched a spectacular renovation of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Edicts were a significant part of Chinese governance for most of its history, such as a famous edict from Emperor Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210BC), the first ruler of a unified China, that ordered authorities to bury scholars alive and burn books.

They also provide historians with a window into significant events or government priorities.

In 2019, the auction house Christie’s sold a package of documents that included three Ming dynasty edicts, along with paintings, for US$81,250 that described the promotion of a General named Qi Mian during a siege of what is now Zhangjiakou in Hebei.

The edict offers evidence that defending Zhangjiakou was a priority for the Ming emperor because a group of “northern nomadic peoples” were likely remaining loyalists of the Yuan dynasty, the successor state of the Mongol empire that had lost power 187 years earlier.

The edict and artwork described the events that led to the promotion of General Qi, including the death on the battlefield of a General named Li Guangqi. The edict was likely made to commemorate Qi, glorifying his accomplishments and was probably given as a gift of honour to his family.


Ming dynasty Great Wall fort ruins revealed in northwest China’s Shaanxi province

Ming dynasty Great Wall fort ruins revealed in northwest China’s Shaanxi province

Edicts were also subject to change according to the whims of history. For example, Bian explained that “during the late Ming factional struggle, one side sought to obliterate the honours received by the other side”.

The proclamations are often found in tombs. This is because an edict can have a significant impact on the lives of the receivers while also granting them honour and prestige.

The belief was that this legitimacy extended beyond death and would be relevant to the person’s journey through the afterlife.