Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 October 2021
Literacy and the exercise of power are intimately entangled. Claude Lévi-Strauss once famously argued that, by enabling “the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes … the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery” (Lévi-Strauss, 1973: 299). An analogous hegemony is propagated in academic discourses that rely upon the textual products of past elites. This is especially pertinent to the study of early China, which until recently “has concentrated, expressly or not, on the relationship between exceptional individuals, elite classes, power holders, and the written word” (Sanft, 2019: 2), influenced largely by the received canon of classics, histories, and masters literature. It would be presumptuous, however, to deny non-elite agency in the power dynamics contested through literacy; and it is therefore equally imperative that our scholarship reaches beyond elite texts to accommodate non-elite actors. To these ends, this chapter examines the impact of non-elite access to scribal literacy in early China, through the analysis of an archaeological context in which manuscript fragments of a scribal primer were recovered.