Jesse Watson

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Department:
History
Term:
AY 2015-16

While access to modern historical archives in China becomes ever more restricted, ancient archives in China are opened every year--by backhoe, pick, and by archeologist’s trowel. If the recent discovery of hundreds of thousands of inscribed bamboo and wood fragments across the Yangtze Valley has received relatively little attention abroad, within China these finds have spurred thousands of academic publications and the opening of manuscript research centers at many major universities. Clearly, the ancient past is very much alive in modern China. The question is, how do we narrate the past in light of these discoveries? At first sight, the sheer volume of these archives, compiled before the widespread use of paper, appears a testament to the might and the bureaucratic control of the early Chinese state. My dissertation challenges this widespread assumption. By bringing together case studies, drawn from the early empires of Qin and Han (221 BCE-220 CE), of four key aspects of imperial presence on the local level—law, ritual, transport, and imperial discourse—I demonstrate how local concerns shaped imperial power and authority. Most scholars have been content to fit these excavated texts into a largely pre-defined narrative of ever-increasing control, formed on the basis of received texts designed to gratify the court. I intend, however, to use these texts to critique the notion that early empires were centralizing juggernauts. The excavated texts reveal quite the opposite. Indeed cooption and adaptation of imperial forms–whether law, religion, or even the idea of the emperor itself— were the preconditions for the very existence of any kind of extensive empire in world where long-distance transport was almost unimaginably constrained.