" Thou Art Understood !" Ch'ing Court Communication as Reflected in the Palace Memorials

"Chih-tao-le 知道了" was a concluding note frequently affixed by Ch'ing 清 emperors to palace memorials submitted by officials. It literally means "Understood" or "I get it," indicating that the emperor was fully comprehensive of what was conveyed in the official's report. In historical China, the tsou-che 奏摺 was a form of report submitted to the emperor by high court officials. Over the ages, these reports were given a number of different names, such as the chang 章, tsou 奏, piao 表, and yi 議 of the pre-Han 漢 period, as well as the shu 疏, ch'i 啟, shu 書, chi 記, chuang 狀, cha 札, chieh 揭, and feng-shih 封事 of the epochs that followed. The term tsou-che, or palace memorial, first appeared during the reign of Emperor K'ang-hsi 康熙 (r. 1662-1722) of the Ch'ing 清 dynasty (1644-1911). In the beginning, the tsou-che was used only by certain designated officials to make private reports to the throne, and privileges were given so that they, when presenting the memorials, could bypass regular bureaucratic procedures. Submitted directly to the emperor, the sealed memorials and the contents could be handled with the utmost privacy and promptness. This system, which gave the emperor considerable authority and flexibility, was expanded by his son, the Yung-cheng 雍正 emperor (r. 1723-1735), who also succeeded in formalizing the style and format of the tsou-che. By the time of the Ch'ien-lung 乾隆 reign (r. 1736-1795), the structure and form of the court communication became well established. All memorials personally reviewed and commented upon by the emperor bear his notes in vermilion ink, and are commonly known as chu-p'i tsou-che 硃批奏摺 (palace memorials with imperial rescripts in vermilion ink) or chu-p'i yü-chih 硃批諭旨 (imperial edicts in vermilion ink), or simply as chu-p'i (vermilion rescripts). During the K'ang-hsi reign, memorials were returned to the submitting officials. When Yung-cheng assumed the throne, however, all memorials were required to be returned to the palace, including those of the previous reign, thereby keeping them out of private hands. This procedure was strictly followed by each of the succeeding emperors until the end of the dynasty. This explains why the National Palace Museum is today home to more than 158,000 pieces of such tsou-che memorials. To understand how these memorials have come to be collectively referred to as Kung-chung-tang 宮中檔, or Palace Archives, one must realize that they were bundled and deposited in the palaces of the inner court, such as the Mao-ch'in-tien 懋勤殿 Palace, upon return by the submitting officials. In the mid-1920's, when the Documents Department of the Palace Museum of Peking began to organize the tsou-che memorials, they were called Kung-chung ke-ch'u tang-an 宮中各處檔案, meaning "archives from the palaces of the court," or, more briefly, Kung-chung-tang. The palace memorials on view in the exhibition are the original documents that were personally reviewed by the Ch'ing emperors. Rich in historical significance, they cover a wide range of subjects, including state, foreign, and military affairs, battles and expeditions, finance, agriculture, industry and commerce, flood prevention, and communication and transportation, as well as matters of cultural, educational, legal, religious, astronomical, geographical, ethnic, and social nature. They also offer a wealth of information on the private matters of Ch'ing government officials, and some of the most interesting comments made by the emperors. Featuring the K'ang-hsi 康熙 emperor's rendition of the expression in both Chinese and Manchu, the title is thought to be effective in orientating the audiences on how a memorial was presented, reviewed by the emperor, sent back to the submitting official, and returned to the court, and on how the Ch'ing emperors came to know what was going on throughout the land.