Three Kingdoms History: Symbols of Authority

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Chinese Representations of Authority
Relative to the Han and Three Kingodms Periods

Fu 符, Hufu 虎符 (Tiger Tallies), Jie 節, Zhijie 持節, Fujie 符节, and more...

Authored by James Peirce
Return to: Tiger Tally (Hufu 虎符; Sometimes Fujie 符节)

Like any other culture the Chinese used a number of methods to signify and authenticate authority in the military, government and cities. While reference is commonly made to the various symbols and concepts of authority and authentication in biographies and other historic texts, the actual appearance and nature of these elements is often confused, and English information on the subject is so difficult to come by. Similarities in usage and names also sometimes lead translators into confusion—I attempt to touch up on common mistranslations herein. Please enjoy!

Additional Reading

Fu : Identification Tallies

In Han (and Three Kingdoms) times a fu () or ‘tally’, a translation which is not particularly clear, was an object, usually split in two and sometimes carved in the likeness of an animal (e.g. a tiger), and used as some form of credential or authority. Because validation of a two-piece fu would require both parties to be in contact, fu were probably used most commonly in limited areas such as in the palaces at the capital and were given in grades. Bielenstein, Bureaucracy, p33 provides a good description: regular visitors had iron tallies, with half kept at the relevant gate; temporary visitors were issued with ones in wood, which were collected when they came out. Fu, as defined here, were probably not used in distant communication for this reason.

More generally a fu was not necessarily a real tally, but simply a document giving authority to travel not unlike our present-day passport and visa system. Loewe, Records of Han Administration I (Cambridge University Press 1967) had an excellent discussion, and at p. 112 he cites a bamboo strip which is described as a fu ; he renders the term as “passport” which seems an accurate translation. Loewe also describes how such authorities to travel might be needed not only on the frontier but also at various passes within the empire (e.g. to enter the territory about the capital). (1)

1: With many thanks to Dr. Rafe de Crepigny for this knowledge.

Cao Cao, for example, was granted a hufu covering the first through fifth grades (第一至第五) presumably granting him clearance at a greater level than those possessing hufu at a lower grade. Also demonstrating that fu come in different forms, Cao Cao was also granted a bamboo tally (竹使符 literally ‘bamboo to use as a tally’) at first through tenth grades (2).

2: Chen Shou, Sanguozhi: Wei 1.

Guo Dan is described in Sanguozhi (三國志) as using a fu to gain passage through Xiangu Pass (3). Dongguan Han Ji (東觀漢記) goes into more detail, saying Guo Dan didn’t have a fu with him, forcing him to purchase one from a commoner of Wan before he could pass. Clearly the fu is used in this case as a passport.

3: 後從師長安,買符入函谷關,乃慨然歎曰:

Hufu 虎符: Tiger Tallies

Tiger Tallies, or hufu (虎符), were two-piece fu formed in the shape of a tiger. The material from which tiger tallies were created varied through Chinese history and included everything from jade and gold to bronze. According to Hou Han shu tiger tallies made of bronze were used for kings, heads of commanderies, and similar high and comparatively static ranks. They were not common. The Hou Han shu’s explanation applies accurately to the the Han and Three Kingdoms periods and to surrounding periods to a degree. At different points the material from which tiger tallies were created varied, but the fundamental purpose remained the same.

No small amount of confusion exists behind the way in which tiger tally is rendered in Chinese. Hufu (‘tiger mark’ or ‘tiger symbol’), the literal and most obvious rendering, does not appear commonly. Tiger tallies at times may be described simply as fu and at other times, including some later-era historic texts, as fujie (符节) the term most commonly used today, and often in error (see ‘Fujie’). Striving for accuracy, a translator must be careful in rendering this term.

Jie : As ‘Staff of Authority’

Jie () can be rendered either as ‘credentials’, referring to a level of authority, or as ‘Staff of Authority’, a physical representation of authority. Citing numerous references in Hou Han shu, a staff of authority was a staff, frequently adorned on the top with fur (usually from a yak’s tail) of a specific color (e.g. red or yellow; combined with other physical characters likely representing the level of a person’s authority). Xu Tianlin (徐天麟), Dong Han Huiyao (東漢會要) (4) compiles references from Han-era histories for a more comprehensive picture: “In the 6th year of Zhongping (AD 189-190) the red yak-fur on jie was reinstated. […] At the beginning of the Han dynasty the yak-tail on jie was purely red. The Emperor Wu, considering how Crown Prince Wei held a red [yak-tailed] jie, changed the jie to feature yellow yak-tails. The Eastern Han followed this tradition. In the 6th year of Jian’an (AD 201-202) Dong Zhuo conferred about deposing the emperor. Yuan Shao thus hung his jie by the yak-tail on the eastern gate and left. Dong Zhuo, because Yuan Shao abandoned his jie, changed the top-ranked jie back to the color of red.” (5)

4: Dong Han Huiyao (東漢會要) is basically an encyclopedic index of the Hou Han shu and various historical books on the Eastern Han, written by Xu Tianlin (徐天麟) during the Song dynasty.
5: 東漢會要:節
中平六年,始復節上赤葆。 (百官志注)

Hou Han shu (1A, 10), in commentary quoting Ying Shao, Hanguan yi (漢官儀), describes the jie as “an eight chi (184.8 cm) staff with three yak’s tails fastened to the top as tassels.” References describing more than one tail, however, are rare. Chen Shou, Sanguozhi (Wei 6) says, “[The Emperor] appointed Yuan Shu General of the Left and granted him the title of Yangzhuo along with jie privileges. Grand Tutor Ma Midi was sent to conduct the proper ceremonies for the bestowal of honors. Yuan Shu seized the jie from Midi and detained him, refusing to send him back.” (6) From this we can see that the jie was still granted at least toward the end of the Later Han.

6: 三國志:以術為左將軍,封陽翟侯,假節,

In addition to most common references of a Staff of Authority (jie) conferring exceptional authority, having been granted to officers, there are also instances where a messenger was sent with a jie for a comparatively minor purpose, as for example to grant promotion to a general in the field. The purpose of a jie depend very much on the individual commission and each entry must be read in context for proper understanding. Most of the time, though, the occasions mentioned in history are the ones in which the jie granted considerable power. (7)

7: With thanks to Dr. Rafe de Crespigny.

Jie : As ‘Credentials’

Jie () was also rendered in less material terms to represent jie authority. Jie authority was a level of power afforded an officer beyond that of his regular office. Please see Zhijie below for more information.

Zhijie 持節: “Bearing the Staff of Authority”

Zhijie (‘Bearing the Staff of Authority’ or ‘Bearing Credentials’) represented the act of granting authority, or simply having a specific authority (see below), well beyond the the basic power granted by an individual’s substantive office (jie credentials). Zhijie is also sometimes referred to using the basic term, jie. An officer’s authority varied their individual commission, but in general terms this act conferred plenipotentiary authority (i.e. the right to make decisions independently of the throne or leadership). During the Eastern Han, Three Kingdoms, and Jin periods there were three ‘levels’ of jie:

Jiajie, for example, was frequently granted to a commander by his sovereign prior to leading troops, or represented to subordinates to imply execution or punishment should they disobey orders. Dr. Rafe de Crespigny explains that for a considerable period of time the Director of Retainers (sili xiaowei), head of the capital province about Luoyang, and the Inspector of Jiaozhi, in the very far south, both held zhijie rights: the one because he needed authority to control officials at the capital, the other because he was too far away for meaningful communication on every matter.

Fujie 符节: Symbol of Authority

Fujie, though sometimes presented or mistranslated as a term for ‘tiger tally’, usually holds a different meaning. Fujie is more properly used as a physical representation of an officers official rank insignia. The real sign of official position was the seal and ribbon. The Han dynasty had an official known as the fujie ling (符節令), which was rendered as Prefect of Insignia and Credentials by Bielenstein Bureaucracy of Han times. It was through this office that these insignia were issued. Seals varied in size and material—the emperor had seven, all in jade, but carried only one, the Great Seal of State. Senior officers had gold, and there were also different colors of ribbon: the ribbon was looped through a ring at the top and then used to tie the seal to the belt. The combination was rather like our modern medal and ribbon for fighting men, and would show a man’s rank quite clearly. (8)

8: Description of the emperor and officers’ seals provided by Dr. Rafe de Crespigny.

Back to the Prefect of Insignia and Credentials (符節令): take notice of the way in which the title is rendered? Fujie (符節) commonly appears in compound forms such as this. As such a translator should take great care to ensure any occurrences of this term are properly identified and presented.

Jiechuan and Fuchuan: Official Insignia

Jiechuan is a general term, perhaps best translated as ‘official insignia’, which can describe various forms of credentials. Fuchuan is only referenced once in Hou Han shu [23/13.810-11] where it again seems to be a general term for insignia of office, though with the caveat that the commentary says the insignia did take the form of a tally. (9)

9: Again with thanks to Dr. Rafe de Crepigny.

Copyright © 2005–2007 James Peirce. All rights reserved.
With great thanks to Dr. Rafe de Crespigny for insight and elaboration.
Sources cited as referenced.