Inconsistent Dates in the Ming Veritable Records

I have long wondered about a question concerning the Ming Veritable Records (Ming shilu 明實錄), state-compiled works of history that recorded major political affairs in chronological order. The question is: do events recorded in the Veritable Records appear under the dates when they took place, or under the dates when they were discussed at court? For example, if an earthquake happened in Sichuan on the first day of the fifth month, was it recorded under this date, or did it appear, say, one month later, when the news reached the central court? I had always believed that the latter was the case, but never bothered to confirm this belief with concrete examples.

So I decided to investigate it further by comparing the Veritable Records against corresponding memorials of Zhu Xieyuan 朱燮元 (1566-1638), who served as grand coordinator of Sichuan (四川巡撫) during Tianqi 2-5 (1622-25). Zhu’s Sichuan memorials were later collected and published, making it possible to compare their dates of composition with the dates of Veritable Records entries that were based on Zhu’s reports. (These entries usually contain near-verbatim excerpts from Zhu’s memorials, so the process of tracking was not so difficult.)

As it turns out, the answer is not so clear-cut. The table below shows some of the memorials for which I was able to trace the corresponding references in the Veritable Records:

Memorial Title Date of
Composition
Appearance in
Veritable Records
Time
Elapsed
一次請告疏 Tianqi 2/3/16 Tianqi 2/5/20 63 days
報擒獲巨惡疏 Tianqi 2/7/4 Tianqi 2/8/22 47 days
優卹江門失陣文武疏 Tianqi 2/7/18 Tianqi 2/7/10 -8 days
京察自陳疏 Tianqi 2/11/24 Tianqi 3/1/20 55 days
克囤擒撫功次疏 Tianqi 3/5/2 Tianqi 3/6/28 56 days
塘報擒斬招降功次疏 Tianqi 3/7/8 Tianqi 3/7/4 -4 days
地震疏 Tianqi 3/7/8 Tianqi 3/8/19 41 days
塘報各路功次疏 Tianqi 3/9/2 Tianqi 3/run10/9 66 days
飛報擒獲首兇疏 Tianqi 3/12/1 Tianqi 3/12/24 23 days

As can be seen, most memorials made their ways into the Veritable Records in about 2 months, with the exception of one memorial, which seems to have reached Beijing in an astonishingly short span of 23 days. But the most intriguing are the two memorials whose appearances in the Veritable Records date back to before their dates of composition, presumably reflecting the dates of events that were reported in them.

At this point, it is not clear to me why the events reported in these two memorials were treated differently in the Veritable Records. At first sight, they do not seem to be particularly different in nature from matters reported in Zhu’s other memorials. My tentative hypothesis is that this inconsistency of dates might reflect a more fundamental inconsistency in the archiving system of the Ming government. Maybe the persons responsible for archiving incoming provincial memorials were not always consistent with their system of chronological filing (ie. whether to file them by the date of occurrence or date of receipt). Or perhaps, the Veritable Records were drawn from archives of several different government offices, each of which had different principles of chronological filing. Until further research is done (hopefully soon!), it is hard to draw any conclusions.

In any case, if Zhu Xieyuan’s case can be generalized, the answers to my initial question are as follows:

  1. In most cases, events in the Ming Veritable Records appear under the dates when they were processed at the court.
  2. However, there are some exceptions where the events appear under the dates when they took place.

The tricky thing is that just from reading the Veritable Records entries themselves, it is usually not possible to tell which is the case. So next time you see a local event reported in the Veritable Records, stop and think twice about what its date might actually mean.


Sources Used:

  • Zhu Xieyuan 朱燮元. Shaoshuai Zhu Xiangyi gong du Shu shucao 少師朱襄毅公督蜀疏草. 12 juan. Qing printed edition. Reprint, Siku quanshu cunmu congshu.
  • Ming shilu 明實錄. Collated by Academia Sinica Institute of History and Philology 中央研究院歴史語言研究所. Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan lishi yuyan yanjiusuo, 1966. (Accessed text version through Scripta Sinica online database.)
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