Revisiting the Early Uses of Writing in Society Building: Cuneiform Culture and the Chinese Imperium.
Revisiting the Early Uses of Writing in Society Building: Cuneiform Culture and the Chinese Imperium
This plenary address reconsiders the impact of writing on culture and governance in the ancient Middle East and China.Recent studies of ancient documents illuminate how writing transformed governance, law, and culture in the two earliest re- gions where writing emerged: Mesopotamia and China. By 3000 BCE the profession of scribes had emerged in Sumeria, with scri- bes soon becoming central in finances, accounting, government, administration, law, courts, astronomy, agriculture, land surve- ying and ownership, magic and divination, medicine, literature, and prayers. An elite urban scribal culture supported the repu- tation, power, and administration of royalty and royal states. In China the Qin and Han dynasties created a unified state and ex- tended regulatory control over a large empire through a standar- dized written language, regulation, documentation, monitoring, and administration by literates. The hierarchical state enforced coherence and unity among layers of government administra- tors through systems of written regulation, documentation, and review backed by highly restrictive laws and draconian punish- ments. Ordinary inhabitants were documented, regulated, and held in geographic locales through registration; attempting to avoid documentary control by unauthorized travel was itself a crime of abscondence. In both regions literacy concentrated land ownership, property, and wealth in privileged and powerful classes. Ideology, beliefs, knowledge, and values become articu- lated, spread, maintained, and enforced through literate means,including religious artistic, social, and educational formations, as they continue to today.