Scribes, Assistants, and the Materiality of Administrative Documents in Qin-Early Han China: Excavated Evidence from Liye, Shuihudi, and Zhangjiashan 


In: T'oung Pao

As a result of the increasing administrative needs in the early imperial period, the profession of scribes was liberated from being the exclusive reserve of traditional hereditary families and opened to aspirants from non-hereditary families. Based on the excavated legal and administrative texts from Liye, Shuihudi, and Zhangjiashan, this paper explores the complementary nature of the scribes and assistants to understand the opening of the scribal profession. This paper also coins a concept of “administrative literacy,” which suggests that the materiality of written surfaces is a significant factor in understanding the literacy of administrative officials in early imperial China.


Du fait des besoins croissants de l’administration aux débuts de l’époque impériale, la profession de scribe a cessé d’être l’apanage des familles qui traditionnellement en avaient l’accès exclusif, et a été ouverte à des candidats venus d’autres familles. En se fondant sur les documents administratifs et juridiques exhumés à Liye, Shuihudi et Zhangjiashan, cet article explore la nature complémentaire des rôles de scribe et d’assistant, en vue de comprendre une telle ouverture de la profession de scribe. Ce faisant, il propose le concept de “compétence administrative” et suggère que la matérialité des supports d’écriture était un facteur important pour comprendre les niveaux de compétence des fonctionnaires de l’administration aux débuts de l’ère impériale.


  • 44

      See Yates, “Social Status in the Ch’in,” 216.

  • 53

      See also Yates, “Bureaucratic Organization of the Qin County of Qianling,” 55. There is another register of merits and days of service from Liye, but some of the graphs are not recognizable. See Zheng Shubin 鄭曙斌 et al., Hunan chutu jiandu xuanbian 湖南出土簡牘選編 (Changsha: Yuelu shushe, 2013), 115, slip [10-15].

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  • 67

      See Zhao Yan, “Liye Qin jiri jiandu zhaji,” 250.

  • 86

      See Ma, “Qin Management of Human Resources,” 5. In addition, a Qin legal case from the Yuelu Academy collection records that Probationary Magistrate Wan 綰 and Assistant Magistrate Yue 越 of Zhouling 州陵 county failed to submit a doubtful case to the Commandant of the Court (tingwei 廷尉). Along with them, Huo 獲, the official who handled (shou) the submitted document, was also fined with the same charge, one shield (dun 盾). It is clear from the case that Huo shared the collective accountability with his superiors.See Yuelu shuyuan cang Qin jian (san), 104; see also Lau and Staack, Legal Practice in the Formative Stages of the Chinese Empire, 114-17.

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  • 90

      See Guolong Lai, Excavating the Afterlife: The Archaeology of Early Chinese Religion (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2015), 147.

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  • 111

      See Brian Street, “What’s ‘New’ in New Literacy Studies? Critical Approaches to Literacy in Theory and Practice,” Current Issues in Comparative Education, 5.2 (2003), 77-91; David R. Olson, “Why Literacy Matters, Then and Now,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, ed. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), 385-403; Literacy for Life: EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006, UNESCO, accessed May 11, 2017. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001416/141639e.pdf.

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  • 112

      Rosalind Thomas, “Writing, Reading, Public and Private ‘Literacies’: Functional Literacy and Democratic Literacy in Greece,” in Ancient Literacies, 14. For representative studies on literacy in early imperial China, see Tomiya, Bunsho gyōsei no Kan teikoku, 106-40; Eno Gīre エノ・ギーレ(Enno Giele), “Kodai no shikiji nōryoku o ikaga ni hantei suru: Kan dai gyōsei bunsho no jirei kenkyū” 古代の識字能力を如何に判定する-漢代行政文書の事例研究-, in Kanji bunka sanzennen 漢字文化三千年, ed. Takata Tokio 高田時雄 (Kyoto: Rinsen Shoten, 2009), 133-54; Yates, “Soldiers, Scribes, and Women,” 339-69; Barbieri-Low, “Craftsman’s Literacy: Uses of Writing by Male and Female Artisans in Qin and Han China,” in Writing & Literacy in Early China, 370-99; Hsing I-tien, “Qin Han pingmin de duxie nengli: Shiliao jiedu pian zhi yi” 秦漢平民的讀寫能力——史料解讀篇之一, Disijie guoji Hanxue huiyi lunwenji: Gudai shumin shehui 第四屆國際漢學會議論文集:古代庶民社會, ed. Hsing I-tien and Liu Tseng-kuei 劉增貴 (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan, 2013), 241-88; “Han dai biansai suizhang de wenshu nengli yu jiaoyu: dui Zhongguo gudai jiceng shehui duxie nengli de fansi” 漢代邊塞隧長的文書能力與教育: 對中國古代基層社會讀寫能力的反思, Zhongyang yanjiuyuan lishi yuyan yanjiusuo jikan 中央研究院歷史語言研究所集刊 88.1 (2017): 85-144.

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  • 115

      Duan Yucai, Shuowen jiezi zhu, 15.10a-13b. See also LSS, 1090-91.

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