Literate Community in Early Imperial China

The Northwestern Frontier in Han Times

By Charles Sanft

Subjects: Chinese Studies, History, Anthropology
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Hardcover : 9781438475134, 276 pages, May 2019
Paperback : 9781438475127, 276 pages, January 2020

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Table of contents


1. Interacting with Text in Early Imperial China and Beyond

2. Contexts and Sources

3. Posted Texts

4. Statements of Individuals and Groups

5. Composite Texts

6. Practical Texts

7. Cultural Texts

8. Letters


Through an examination of archaeologically recovered texts from China’s northwestern border regions, argues for widespread interaction with texts in the Han period.


Winner of the 2020 James Henry Breasted Prize in Ancient History presented by the American Historical Association

Honorable Mention, 2021 Joseph Levenson Pre-1900 Book Prize presented by the Association for Asian Studies

This book examines ancient written materials from China's northwestern border regions to offer fresh insights into the role of text in shaping society and culture during the Han period (206/2 BCE–220 CE). Left behind by military installations, these documents—wooden strips and other nontraditional textual materials such as silk—recorded the lives and activities of military personnel and the people around them. Charles Sanft explores their functions and uses by looking at a fascinating array of material, including posted texts on signaling across distances, practical texts on brewing beer and evaluating swords, and letters exchanged by officials working in low rungs of the bureaucracy. By focusing on all members of the community, he argues that a much broader section of early society had meaningful interactions with text than previously believed. This major shift in interpretation challenges long-standing assumptions about the limited range of influence that text and literacy had on culture and society and makes important contributions to early China studies, the study of literacy, and to the global history of non-elites.

Charles Sanft is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the author of Communication and Cooperation in Early Imperial China: Publicizing the Qin Dynasty, also published by SUNY Press.


"Sanft's analysis fills out what is still a rather sparse picture of life in non-elite, nonofficial social circles. For the first time ever, we learn how women might have been included in a literate community along the ancient northwestern frontier, and we also learn how soldiers and other members of the uneducated or semiliterate public made use of the extensive knowledge that texts conveyed in their work and lives. None of this information is apparent from traditionally received texts. Sanft therefore does the field a great favor by systematically laying the foundations for a broader understanding of all levels of society, as well as an understanding of how these levels interconnect through systems of knowledge expressed through text. " — Erica Fox Brindley, author of Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BCE–50 CE