#AsiaNow Speaks with Charles Sanft

Charles Sanft is Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and author of Literate Community in Early Imperial China, published by SUNY Press and winner of the 2021 AAS Pre-1900 Joseph Levenson Prize Honorable Mention.

Cover of Charles Sanft, Literate Community in Early Imperial China

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Literate Community examines the ways that people in early imperial China interacted with text.

Literacy in the usual sense, with its focus on a specific set of individual abilities, is difficult to define and measure, even now. To better understand early imperial China, I set aside literacy as such. I instead shift the terms of investigation to a spectrum of interactions with writing at work within a community.

People at every level had meaningful contact with writing and written material in the Han period. Persons able to read and write at a high level are part of the picture. But so are those who learned only to read at a low level, or who listened to others read, or dictated, or otherwise experienced text in action in their lives. I argue that text was at work that had previously been misunderstood or undervalued, and the breadth of interaction with text in early society. The main sources of Literate Community are excavated documents from what was the northwestern border region in Han times, which encompassed parts of Gansu and Inner Mongolia. They bring difficulties with them, but offer much that falls outside of received historical sources.

What inspired you to research this topic?

Conversations with colleagues and friends about the roles of text in early society and related reading led me to the topic. My first book project, Communication and Cooperation in Early Imperial China (SUNY Press, 2014), argues that processes that employed text in in tandem with oral transmission had potent political effects. Rather than relying mainly on coercion, the Qin and early Han rulers created and perpetuated rule by means of highly effective communication that had profound political effects.

Even colleagues who expressed interest in that project’s argument asked keen questions about the role of text in that communication, particularly among non-elites. (Those conversations began already while I was writing Communication and Cooperation, but I think Huang Wen-Yi’s review of that book puts the questions most clearly.)

Literate Community is part of my response. But while Communication and Cooperation concentrated on the Qin period, I did not find the kinds of sources I wanted for the second project from that period, and I had been wanting to write about the Han northwest. I thus shifted to look at that period for Literate Community.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

The research for Literate Community took me into lots of unfamiliar territory. I was happy—and relieved—when, through a mix of advice from colleagues around the world and sheer good luck, the pieces somehow fit together into a more or less coherent framework.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

For me the single most interesting text I encountered was the one I call “Evaluating Swords.” The text explains in plain language how to determine whether a sword is of good make. The information it contains was so crucial in its context, and the text’s style is so limpid, it embodies why I think text was not the exclusive purview of professional literates in Han times.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

There is so much I could mention. We are in an exciting time for the study of early China and lots of great things are happening. I will limit myself to just a few.

Some is work I would recommend looking at alongside mine, because it fills out the picture in different ways. Christopher Foster has done outstanding work on scribal education in the same context that I wrote about. His 2017 dissertation, “Study of the Cang Jie pian: Past and Present,” has not yet appeared as a book but I understand a monograph is in the works, and he has articles out and forthcoming. Tsang Wing Ma and Armin Selbitschka have also published outstanding articles about the lives and practices of professional literates in the early context, too. Du Heng has a project underway based on her 2018 dissertation, “The Author’s Two Bodies: Paratext in Early Chinese Textual Culture.” She studies textual practice and formation in the early period and her work illuminates the formation and dissemination of written works in the early period. And although it does not treat early China, M. C. A. Macdonald’s long article “Literacy in an Oral Environment” challenges many common assumptions about how and why people use text.

My inspirations were (and are) many. If I had to point to a direct inspiration for my specific approach, it would be Miyake Kiyoshi’s 2009 article “Shin-Kan jidai no moji to shikiji—chikukan, mokkan kara mita.” It got me started down the specific road I followed. Tomiya Itaru’s Monjo gyōsei no Kan teikoku taught me, inter alia, much about making exciting arguments on the basis of bureaucratic texts. Roger Bagnall’s Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East influenced me, too, with all it tells us about non-elite writing and reading. Finally, Robin D. S. Yates has written about many of the topics that feature in Literate Community and I learned much from his works.

What are you working on now?

Alongside the usual plethora of smaller tasks and projects, I have a couple of main occupations.

I am writing a book about Xuanquanzhi 懸泉置, a Han dynasty post half way between Guazhou and Dunhuang. While being more or less in the middle of nowhere, the documents from the post show that it was a crossroads and place of contact between the Han centers and elsewhere within and outside the area of China.

I also have a longer-term project in the works, which will bring Chinese and Medieval Latin manuscript studies into direct conversation. I have been studying Medieval Latin and its manuscripts as part of that groundwork in recent years and plan to begin writing when the Xuanquanzhi book is finished. If there are others out there working in both Classical Chinese and Medieval Latin manuscript studies, I would love to hear from them!