Respect for the elderly has a long history and tradition in China. It occupies a very important position in the ancient ritual society. Filial piety is regarded as the most important virtue.

With the average life expectancy of people in the Han Dynasty being only 50 years old, it was not easy to live to 70. The Han Dynasty treated the elderly very generously. People received a sceptre with a handle shaped like a dove (鳩鳥) from the Emperor when they turned 70. This dove sceptre (鳩杖) was also called Emperor sceptre (王杖). The privileges of the owner of a dove sceptre can be summarized as follows:

  1. Even if he violated the criminal law, as long as he was not the first offender, he could be exempted from prosecution (非殺傷人, 毋告劾也).
  2. Free access to the government offices (得出入官府節第) (without kneeling 不須下跪).
  3. Permission to use an imperial road (the road dedicated to the emperor) (行馳道中)
  4. To be exempt from rent and taxation in various commercial operations (列肆賈市, 毋租) and to be permitted to sell alcoholic drinks in market (沽酒醪列肆).
  5. To enjoy the same treatment as officials receiving the wage of six hundred Shí 石 (待遇與比六百石官吏)(1 Shí is equivalent to about 30 kg).
  6. No need to walk in small steps to enter the court (入官府不趨, i.e. 不用小步疾走)
  7. Anyone including officials who abused, beat or insulted the owner of a sceptre should be punished with ‘Qi Shi 棄市’, literally meaning ‘abandon the market’. This abandonment of the market was not to throw the transgressors into the market, but to execute them in public. (The corpse was exposed in the market for three days.)

In the 1950s and 1980s, two batches of wooden slips were unearthed in the Mozuizi Han Tomb (磨嘴子漢墓) in Zuoshan Village, Wuwei, Gansu Province (甘肅武威纏山村). In 1959, the first batch of 10 wooden slips (also known as ‘Ten Slips of the King’s Sceptre’ 王杖十簡) were unearthed. The content involves the two imperial edicts of Emperor Xiaocheng (孝成皇帝)(reigned from 32 BCE to 7 BCE) of the Western Han Dynasty regarding the gift of the Emperor’s sceptres to the elderly, and the judgments of criminals who insulted the elderly with the sceptre. The last slip was dated the fifteenth year of Yongping (永平十五)(72 CE).

In 1981, the second batch of wooden slips was unearthed, with a total of 26 slips (there were originally 27 slips and one was lost). The slips are 23.2 to 23.7 cm long and 0.9 to 1.1 cm wide. The official script on this second batch has clearer handwriting than the first batch unearthed in the 1950s. 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.  An earlier edict was dated the first year of Jianshi (建始元年)(32 BCE). A later edict was dated the third year of Yuanyan (元延三年)(10 BCE). The dates at which some of the slips were not mentioned. Wangzhang Zhaoshu Ling Ce (王杖詔書令册) is believed to be more ancient than ‘Ten Slips of the King’s Sceptre’ (王杖十簡).


The 26 Slips of Wangzhang Zhaoling Ce (王杖詔書令册)


The text of Wangzhang Zhaoling Ce is as follows :

  1. 制詔御史:年七十以上,人所尊敬也。非首殺傷人,毋告劾也,毋所坐。年八十以上,生日久乎?
  2. 年六十以上,毋子男為鯤(鰥),女子年六上以上,毋子男為寡。賈市,毋租,比山東復。復
  3. 人有養謹者扶持。明著令。蘭臺令第卌二。
  4. 孤、獨、盲、珠(侏)孺(儒),不屬律人。吏毋得擅徵召,獄訟毋得毄。布告天下,使明知朕意。
  5. 夫妻俱毋子男為獨寡,田毋租,市毋賦,與歸義同;沽酒醪列肆。尚書令
  6. 臣咸再拜受詔。建始元年九月甲辰下。
  7. 汝南大(太)守讞(讞字是字旁,非字旁)廷尉,吏有毆辱受王杖主者,罪名明白。
  8. 制曰:讞何,應論棄市。雲陽白水亭長張熬,坐毆抴(拽)受王杖主,使治道。男子王湯
  9. 告之,即棄市。高皇帝以來,至本始二年,朕甚哀憐耆老。高年賜王杖,
  10. 上有鳩,使百姓望見之,比於節;吏民有敢罵詈毆辱者,逆不道;
  11. 得出入官府節第,行馳道中;列肆賈市,毋租,比山東復。
  12. 長安敬上里公乘臣廣昧死上書。
  13. 皇帝陛下:臣廣知陛下神零(靈),覆蓋萬民,哀憐老小。受王杖,承詔。臣廣未
  14. 常(嘗)有罪耐司寇以上。廣對鄉吏趣未辨廣對質衣僵吏前郷吏.
  15. missing
  16. 下,不敬重父母所致也,郡國易(惕)然。臣廣願歸王杖,沒入為官奴。
  17. 臣廣昧死再拜以聞
  18. 皇帝陛下。
  19. 制曰:問何鄉吏,論棄市,毋須時;廣受王杖如故。
  20. 元延三年正月壬申下。.
  21. 制詔御史:年七十以上杖王杖,比六百石,入官府不趨,吏民有敢毆辱者,逆不道,
  22. 棄市。令在蘭臺第卌三。
  23. 汝南郡男子王安世,坐桀黠,擊鳩杖主,折傷其杖,棄市。南郡亭長
  24. 司馬護,坐擅召鳩杖主,擊留,棄市。長安東鄉嗇夫田宣,坐毄.
  25. 鳩杖主,男子金里告之,棄市。隴西男子張湯,坐桀黠、毆擊王杖主,折傷
  26. 其杖,棄市。亭長二人,鄉嗇二人,白衣民三人,皆坐毆辱王杖功,棄市。
  27. 右王杖詔書令左蘭臺第卌三。


Details of Slips 18 and 19 showing the beauty of the brush strokes in ink

The vertical stroke of the last character 下 shows the beauty of the hollow-stroke blankness (飛白之美). This contrasts well with the thick ink colour of the first character 皇.
The last stroke of the sixth character 吏 also shows the beauty of the hollow-stroke blankness (飛白). This contrasts well with the thick ink colour of the fifth character 鄉 on top and seventh character 論 below.

My copy is as follows:

Images of the sceptre
A sceptre discovered from a Han tomb. The right photo shows the detail of the dove handle. (Photo credits: 甘肅日報)


Copper dove head 銅鳩杖首 (discovered in 2010 at Xiwan Road, Guangzhou 廣州西灣路) (Photo credits : 知乎@听书读书共分享)
An old man with a dove sceptre in a Han portrait stone unearthed in Chengdu, Sichuan



The dove was regarded as a harbinger of spring (報春鳥), a symbol of life and kindness.

Eurasian collared dove (Photo credits : Wikipedia)

‘ 鳩 dove’ and ‘久 long’ have the same Mandarin pronunciation. The elderly man walking with a dove stick is healthy and enjoys a long life. The dove is the bird that does not choke (不噎之鳥). All this might be the reasons that the handle of the sceptre was shaped as a dove.


Bibliography  汉代的“养老令”和“敬老卡”——武威《王杖简》和鸠杖 “汉简”不敬老者死——《王杖诏书令》good images of han jian  (甘肃日报)  《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