A voluminous collection of imperial edicts and judicial decisions commonly known as Yuan dianzhang 元典章, organized as a handy legal reference work for administering the law. The main body of the work contains documents dating from 1257 to 1320. A supplement, titled “New collection of statutes and precedents from the Zhizhi era” (新集至治條例), includes records up to 1322. The 1322 woodblock print ed. held at Gugong Taipei is the only original copy surviving, the other eds. being either reprints of this original or based on flawed later manuscripts no longer extant (with the exception of the ms. ed. in the Wade Collection at Cambridge). The Mongol-Yuan government failed to promulgate a formal legal code. Instead, decisions issued by the court and its central offices served as the basis of adjudication at all levels of government. Yuan dianzhang is a collection of such decisions. The documents it contains include accounts of the original lawsuits or incidents that initiated the judicial proceedings as well as judgements by each level of the bureaucracy (often contradicting each other) as the cases were passed up for review. Final decisions were rendered by one of the Six Ministries, then approved by the emperor or Central Secretariat (中書省) and distributed to local offices. These documents were stored in local yamen archives as sources of law and filed according to which of the Six Ministries had been responsible for the decision. Yuan dianzhang appears to be a copy of such an archive, with some legal documents from other sources added in. The purpose of the work is confirmed by a decorative cartouche on the opening page reproducing a 1303 communication from the Central Secretariat calling for a compilation of “imperial edicts and statutes and precedents issued by the court” to serve as a reference book for officials (see Birge, Marriage and the Law, Appendix A, for a translation). Visual aspects of the text confirm that Yuan dianzhang was a product of the commercial publishing industry in Jianyang 建陽 (Fujian). Its publication was likely a collaboration between a provincial official with access to yamen archives and a Jianyang printer. Niida (see below) and others have concluded that Yuan dianzhang is an updated version of an earlier work titled Dade dianzhang 大德典章. The text we have today is likely the result of repeated revisions and updates—indeed, the supplement can be considered the last of such updates.
The documents in Yuan dianzhang record all aspects of governance and daily life in Mongol-Yuan China. They include direct testimonies of plaintiffs and defendants recorded in Yuan-era vernacular. The work also includes documents and passages in Sino-Mongolian, a form of direct translation of Mongolian into Chinese preserving Mongolian syntax, used to record any speech or writing originally in Mongolian, such as those of the emperors and many high officials. (Both types of writing—one regarded as vulgar, the other found unintelligible and attributed to uneducated clerks—led the editors of the Siku quanshu project to eventually exclude Yuan dianzhang from the collection (see Birge, Marriage and the Law, 70). The work is organized into ten sections, namely, “Imperial decrees” (詔令), “Sage [or Sacred] administration” (聖政), “Court principles” (朝綱), “Censorate principles” (臺綱), all quite short, plus six much longer sections for each of the Six Ministries. The organization of judicial decisions under the names of the Six Ministries likely served as a precedent for the Ming Penal Code, which departed in this way from earlier Chinese law codes. Moreover, language in the Ming code sometimes repeats verbatim decisions in Yuan dianzhang, suggesting that the latter influenced later law in multiple respects (see Birge, Women, Property, and Confucian Reaction, chap. 4). Within each of the Six Ministries sections are divisions by general subjects, and within these are subdivisions by more specific subjects. For instance, under the Ministry of Revenue we find topics such as marriage, fields and houses, paper money, and taxes and corvée; likewise, the heading “Marriage” has subdivisions for marriage of military personnel, divorce, levirate marriage, secondary wives, marriage between slaves and commoners, marriage of entertainers, and so forth. Within each subsection the cases are arranged chronologically. The subject titles are in large, bold print, and the titles of cases are flagged by a circle and set off in white on black characters. A detailed table of contents lists the titles of every case (with some errors). A chart appears at the beginning of most juan summarizing the decisions therein. Taken together, these could be read as a rudimentary law code. Indeed, Yuan dianzhang would have been of value to officials at every level, to private litigation specialists, then growing in number, and to the literate public at large.