In 1670, when the Kangxi Emperor of China's Qing dynasty was sixteen years old, he issued the Sacred Edict (simplified Chinese :圣谕; traditional Chinese :聖諭; pinyin :shèng yù), consisting of sixteen maxims, each seven characters long, to instruct the average citizen in the basic principles of Confucian orthodoxy. They were to be publicly posted in every town and village, then read aloud two times each month. Since they were written in terse formal classical Chinese, a local scholar was required to explicate them using the local dialect of the spoken language. This practice continued into the 20th century.
In 1724, the second year of his reign, the Yongzheng Emperor issued the Shengyu Guangxun (simplified Chinese :圣谕广训; traditional Chinese :聖諭廣訓; pinyin :shèng yù guǎng xùn; "Amplified instructions on the Sacred Edict") in 10,000 characters. Evidently worried that the seven character lines of his father’s maxims could not be understood by local people, the Yongzheng Emperor's Amplified Instructions explains "Our text attempts to be clear and precise; our words, for the most part, are direct and simple." The prose is relatively easy to understand for those with a beginning understanding of the literary language. The Amplified Instructions was also published in a Manchu translation and then in a combined Chinese, Manchu, and Mongol version.
The village lecturer might point out that #7 the “strange beliefs” included shamanic, Buddhist, and Taoist beliefs which many villagers did not regard as at all strange, though they might agree with the edict on the strangeness of Christianity. They would not need to be told that the mulberry mentioned in #4 was fed to silk worms.
By the reign of the Kangxi Emperor there was a long tradition for the explanation of imperial edicts in popular language. Systematic village lectures began at least as early as the Song dynasty, when Confucian scholars expounded the virtues of cooperation and self-cultivation to neighborhood audiences.
The authoritarian Hongwu Emperor (Ming Taizu) wrote the Six Maxims which inspired the Sacred Edict of the Kangxi Emperor,
Following the publication of the original edicts, several versions in the Chinese vernacular were published, some with detailed commentaries or illustrations. The most widely popular was the Shengyu guangxun zhijie (Direct explanation of the Amplified Instructions on the Sacred Edict) by Wang Youpu (王又樸 1680-1761), a jinshi scholar and official. Like Yongzheng’s Amplified Instructions, it was meant to be read to the people, but not to be read aloud word for word. It might have been difficult to understand the lecturer if the audience spoke local languages, and for him to elaborate in their dialect.
Wang Youpu not only interpreted the maxims in more understandable language, he explained them with stories and anecdotes. He might begin by saying “Let all of you — scholars, farmers, artisans, merchants, and soldiers — take care in practicing ceremonial deference. If one place becomes good, then many places will become so, and finally the entire realm will be in excellent harmony. Won’t we then have a world in perfect concord?”
Then he might go on:
Wang would conclude:
The 19th-century missionary and translator of the Sacred Edict William Milne describes the scene:
Country magistrates sent to frontier areas could use the occasion to deliver lectures to non-Han peoples on the virtues of Confucian culture. One commented on the need to expound the Edicts: "though the Yao are a different type of people, they possess a human nature. I ought to treat them with sincerity."
Many Chinese and outsiders agreed that by the 19th century, the readings had become empty ritual. Yet others respected the power of the Sacred Edicts. Guo Moruo, the Marxist and New Culture iconoclast, wrote in his autobiography that in his youth he and other villagers loved to hear the lecturer on the Sacred Edict who would come around. He set up tables with incense and candles on a street corner as offerings to the book. Then lecturer would first knock his head on the ground four times, recite the maxims, and start telling stories. Victor Mair comments that this popular form of story telling was probably more effective in spreading Confucian values than the condescending lectures of the scholars and officials.
One western scholar traveling in China in the 1870s reported that the widespread dissemination of the Sacred Edict following the mid-century Taiping Rebellion "proved a serious blow to the immediate spread of Christianity."
Since the language was relatively straightforward and the significance apparent, many western students of Chinese made translations. The first appeared in 1817, by William Milne, a missionary. It included Wang Youpu's Direct Explanation, as well. The Sacred Edict; Containing Sixteen Maxims of the Emperor Kang-He (London: Black, Kingsbury, Parbury, and Allen, 1817; rpr. 1870).F.W. Baller in 1892 published The Sacred Edict: Shen Yü Kuang Hsün, with a Translation of the Colloquial Rendering 聖諭廣訓. (Shanghai; Philadelphia: China Inland Mission, 6th ed., 1924).
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