SOAS University of London

SOAS China Institute

The Diffusion of Scribal Literacy in the Western Han

Dr Christopher Foster (Pembroke College, Oxford)

Date: 6 March 2018Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 6 March 2018Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B104

Type of Event: Seminar


Among the Han period bamboo and wood-strip manuscript discoveries of the past century, the Cang Jie pian 蒼頡篇 stands out as curiously ubiquitous, not only in the large number of its finds, but also in their diverse geographies and archaeological contexts. The Hanshu 漢書 “Yiwenzhi” 藝文志 bibliography treats the Cang Jie pian as a foundational primary education (xiaoxue 小學) work, and it is my contention that this text was indeed a primer used extensively for formal scribal training during the early Western Han. Lost for nearly a millennium, the new Cang Jie pian manuscript discoveries give us unique insight into what this education actually entailed. In this talk, I will argue that during the Western Han period scribal literacy was “diffuse” in two senses. First, study of the Cang Jie pian equipped scribes with a sophisticated written vocabulary well beyond the demands of their daily bureaucratic duties. Second, a case study of the Yumen Huahai archaeological site reveals that access to the Cang Jie pian transcended its formal (hereditary) constraints, allowing scribal literacy to trickle down informally to a much broader segment of Han society. Taking into account these circumstances, I discuss both the development of primary education as field, as well as the formation of a literati identity tied specifically to the art of writing.


Christopher Foster is Stanley Ho Junior Research Fellow in Chinese at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. He received his A.B. from Dartmouth College, and both his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Chris is interested in the manuscript culture of early China, focusing primarily on newly excavated texts from the Qin and Han periods. He has co-authored a translation of Liu Guozhong's Introduction to the Tsinghua University Bamboo-strip Manuscripts, and recently published the article “Introduction to the Peking University Han Bamboo Strips: On the Authentication and Study of Purchased Manuscripts” in Early China.

No registration is required. However, admission is on a first-come, first-served basis.

For further details please contact Professor Bernhard Fuehrer (

Organiser: Dept of East Asian Languages and Cultures, SOAS China Institute and the London Confucius Institute

Contact email: