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Scribes in Early Imperial China


Scribes were the writing specialists of the ancient world. The study of scribes in ancient China appears to be less developed than those in other ancient civilizations due to the scarcity of the evidence. A group of highly educated intellectuals dominated the transmitted textual tradition in ancient China, and they portrayed scribes as corrupt officials manipulating the laws and documents to their own benefit. This situation has changed dramatically in recent years because of the modern excavation of administrative and legal texts from the workplaces and tombs of scribes in mainland China. These excavated texts allow for the recovery of the scribes’ world, which was previously overshadowed by that of intellectuals.

This dissertation presents a social, institutional, and material history of scribes in early imperial China (221 BCE—220 CE). By utilizing both the transmitted and excavated texts, the author argues against the stereotypical descriptions of scribes in current scholarship. Specifically, he examines how scribes evolved from a caste of hereditary specialists to a type of imperial officials during the political and social transitions from the Zhou to the Qin and Han periods; how scribes actually carried out the many administrative tasks under the unified empire and the problems and difficulties they encountered during their official service; and, finally, how the materiality of writing surfaces in early imperial China influenced the administrative work and qualifications of scribes.

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