In July 1959, archaeologists from the Gansu Provincial Museum (甘肅省博物館) discovered a dove sceptre (鳩杖) together with a group of 10 wooden slips with writings during the excavation of the Han Tomb No. 18, Mozuizi, Zhuanshan Village, Xinhua Township (新華鄉纏山村磨嘴子), Wuwei City (武威). The string which tied the wooden slips together was broken and the 10 wooden slips were scattered, not in order. Scholars tried to arrange them into order from 1 to 10.
The dove sceptre is about 2 meters long, and the top is decorated with wooden dove birds (鳩鳥). It was regarded as the Emperor sceptre (王杖). The 10 wooden slips are brief texts showing the importance and the honour of being awarded the Emperor sceptre to the seniors. People at that time generally believed in life after death. The probable purpose of burying the sceptre and the 10 wooden slips is to show the underground world the glory of the tomb owner’s life.
The text of Wang zhang shi jian is as follows:
者, 比大逆不道, 建始二年九月甲辰下。
The content of ‘Ten Slips of the Emperor’s Sceptre’ consists of two parts.
The first part contains two edicts (制詔) from the Emperors.
The first edict was recorded on Slips 1 and 2. It was copied from an imperial decree issued in the Second year of Jianshi (建始二年)(32 BCE). ‘Jianshi’ was the first era name of Emperor Xiaochengdi (孝成皇帝) of the Western Han Dynasty. The content was mainly about the system of respecting the elderly. The elderly at the age of 70 could receive a dove sceptre together with preferential treatment from the government, similar to those of the officials receiving a wage of six hundred ‘Shí’ (石) (待遇與比六百石官吏) (one Shí is equivalent to about 30 kg). He could enter government offices without the etiquette of seeing officials (入官廷不趨).
Slip 1 犯罪耐以上，毋二尺告劾，有敢徵召侵辱-… In the legal system of the Han Dynasty, two to four years’ imprisonment was collectively referred to as 耐罪 ‘nai zui’. These 3 phrases may be interpreted as ‘Despite the elderly had committed a crime which could lead to more than ‘2 to 4 years’ imprisonment’, if no one accused him, the elderly could not be insulted or given force labour. This shows how the elderly was respected’ (Chen Zhi ,1961).
The second edict was recorded on Slips 3-9. It was copied from an imperial decree issued in the second year of Heping (河平二年)(27 BCE). ‘Heping’ (河平) was the second era name of Emperor Xiaochengdi (孝成皇帝). Since the time of Emperor Gao (高皇帝) (Liu Bang 劉邦), the Emperors had been very sympathetic to the elderly and decided to bestow a sceptre with a dove ornament on it. People could see at a glance and distinguish it. If civilians dared to abuse and humiliate the owner of the sceptre, they committed a grave crime. The dove sceptre bearer can enter government offices (官府) without practising the etiquette. He could use the use the wayside (旁) of the road used by the Emperor (馳道 chí dào), etc.
Slip 5 如山東復有旁人養謹者，常養扶持，復除之。…旁人( pángrén) meant a person, other than one’s own offspring. That person who supported and looked after the elderly were exempted from servitude. This was filial piety.
At the end of Slip 5 and the beginning of Slip 6 杖不鮮明。得更繕治之。means if the sceptre (got impaired and) lost its brilliance, it could be repaired and restored to its former glory (by the government).
In the First year of Heping (河平元年)(28 BCE) Wu Shuang (吳賞), a junior official in Xiling County, Runan (汝南西陵縣) ordered his servant (使從者) to beat an old man (either named Xian (先) or it is simply referring to an elderly person 先輩). Wu Shuang violated the court’s old-age respect rules. After receiving the lawsuit, the local prefect (太守) sentenced Wu Shuang to Qi shi (棄市) literally meaning ‘abandon in the city’. In fact Qi shi meant to be executed in public. The edict came from Lantai Order (蘭台令). Lantai was a specialized institution for the collection of imperial edicts and legal documents in the Han Dynasty.
The second part of ‘Ten Slips of the Emperor’s Scepter’ has only one sentence. The name of the tomb owner was You Bo (幼伯). (You Bo might be interpreted as a young uncle not a name. ) He was born in the fifth year Yuanshi (元始五年) (5 CE) of Emperor Xiaoping (孝平皇帝). He received the sceptre in the fifteenth year of Yongping (永平十五年)(72 CE) of Emperor Xiaoping (孝明皇帝), the second emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. You Bo was not even seventy years old when he received the sceptre. It can be seen that the stipulation of the imperial edict of ‘taking the sceptre rod at seventy’ might not be strictly implemented.
My copy of Wang zhang shi jian is as follows:
In 1981, the second batch of wooden slips was unearthed, with a total of 26 slips. The slips are 23.2 to 23.7 cm long and 0.9 to 1.1 cm wide. The last slip has the words ‘Wangzhang Zhaoshu Ling’ (王杖詔書令). The 26 slips were collected in an album called ‘Wangzhang Zhaoshu Ling Ce’ (王杖詔書令册). The album records edicts on respecting the elderly, caring for the widowed (鰥寡), lonely (孤獨) and disabled (such as 侏儒), giving sceptres to the elderly, and executing criminals who humiliate and injure them. ‘Wangzhang Zhaoshu Ling’ (王杖詔書令) and Wang zhang shi jian (王杖十簡) supplement each other. For more information, please visit my webpage:
I would like to thank Professor P. Lam for his consistent guidance and encouragement.
Chen Zhi 陳直 (1961) 甘肅武磨咀子漢墓出土王杖十簡通考。Wenwu Cultural Relics Issue 3 文物第3期
https://twgreatdaily.com/zh-hans/61jf5G4BMH2_cNUgrint.html “汉简”不敬老者死——《王杖诏书令》good images of han jian
http://www.faxueyanjiu.net/Admin/UploadFile/publish_article/1999/2/19990212.pdf 《王杖十简》与《王杖 诏书令册》法律思想研究 ——兼及“不道”罪考辨 崔 永 东
Ouyang Z S, W C Fong, Y F Wang (2008) Chinese Calligraphy, Yale University, ISBN 978-0-300-12107-0