[Review] 賈麗英:《出土簡牘與秦漢社會身份秩序研究》(Jia Liying: Unearthed Manuscripts and the Study of the Order of Social Identities during the Qin and Han Dynasties)

Jia Liying 賈麗英. Chutu jiandu yu Qin Han shehui shenfen zhixu yanjiu 出土簡牘與秦漢社會身份秩序研究 (Unearthed Manuscripts and the Study of the Order of Social Identities during the Qin and Han Dynasties). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2023. ISBN: 978-7-5227-1694-7, xiii+447 pages, 218 RMB.

Chun Fung Tong 唐俊峰 (Heidelberg University)

Since the seminal work by Nishijima Sadao 西嶋定生 in the early 1960s, the nature, institutional design, and social implications of rank (jue 爵) during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE) continue to attract scholarly attention. Using unearthed legal and administrative materials, recent research has substantially expanded, revisited, or even refuted Nishijima’s model. In light of the newest works of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scholars, Jia Liying’s book offers a timely synthesis of this long-standing academic debate.

Along with a preface written by Peng Wei 彭衛, the book comprises a foreword and ten chapters. Despite its brevity, the foreword serves two crucial purposes. First, it sketches the most important secondary literature, such as those of Nishijima Sadao, Liu Pak-yuen 廖伯源, Yan Buke 閻步克, Tomiya Itaru 冨谷至, Momiyama Akira 籾山明, and Takatori Yuji 鷹取祐司. Second, it outlines the book’s framework. Following the works of Takatori Yuji and Arnd Helmut Hafner (Sueyasu Ando 陶安あんど), Jia argues that the society during the Qin and Han periods was primarily a hierarchical one, in that individuals were positioned according to twenty-seven social identities that the author aptly calls “a nexus of rank and punishment” (juexing yiti 爵刑一體). Specifically, Jia tries to demarcate legal identities as positive or negative. She contends that positive identities consisted not only of the twenty orders of rank (ershi deng jue 二十等爵) but also of the so-called quasi-rank level (zhunjue ceng 准爵層), which encompassed gongzu 公卒 and shiwu 士伍.[1] In contrast, convict laborers—that is, sikou 司寇, wall-builders and grain-pounders (chengdanchong 城旦舂), gatherers of fuel for the spirits or white-rice sorters (guixin baican 鬼薪白粲), as well as bondservants and bondwomen (lichenqie 隸臣妾)—belonged to negative identities.

The ten main chapters are organized into three parts, each of which illustrates different dimensions of this “nexus of rank and punishment” hierarchy. The two chapters in part one aim to discuss the dynamics within this framework, especially the mobility of different social groups and the legal identities to which they were attached. Chapter one, for example, delves into the role played by the shuren 庶人 in the constructed social hierarchy. Whereas the nature of this identity remains controversial among legal historians of early China, Jia suggests that it served as the pivot (level 0) of the positive and negative identities in the “nexus of rank and punishment” hierarchy. As a type of legal identity, the social status of shuren was determined by their origin. First, if a rank-holder was demoted to a shuren, or if one’s shuren status was inherited from one’s parents, he or she would be classified as a legally free person. Second, if a private or government slave was released and became a shuren, he or she would often be partly dependent on the holder or government office and was thus not a completely free person. However, if a slave was redeemed by virtue of rank, cash, or other means, he or she would become a freed person. Jia’s analysis of shuren uncovers the intricacy of a social identity and, to some extent, reveals the high social mobility of Qin and Han society.

Chapter two focuses on the social implications of the emperor’s amnesty, discerning how it effected changes in the social order constructed by the “nexus of rank and punishment” hierarchy. Notably, Jia attempts to historicize the promulgation of amnesties—which were often coupled with the bestowal of rank—across the Qin and Han periods. Special attention has been given to the ceremony and procedures of promulgating such decrees, whose texts were to be orally announced or even publicly displayed in front of the populace. Also, rather than assuming that the Qin and Han amnesties shared identical purposes, Jia suggests that Qin amnesties were issued mainly under the consideration of transferring convicts to the state’s new territories. Han amnesties, by contrast, were usually in response to supernatural or historic events and were imbued with strong ideological sentiments. In them, the emperor sought to restart/renew (gengshi 更始) the relationship with his people by—sometimes even universally—bestowing rank upon them. Such a distinction, however, is one of the less convincing arguments in Jia’s book. It is worth noting that a similar idea can already be found in the inaugural edict of the Second Emperor of Qin, who proclaimed that he was “making a new beginning along the black-headed ones” (與黔首更始) by “exempting all the punishments of those who formerly committed crimes” (盡為解除故罪).[2] The commonalities between the decrees of the Second Emperor and later Han emperors indicate that the ideology behind Qin amnesties might not be far removed from their Han successors. That said, Jia is certainly right that both amnesty and rank bestowal would have elevated an individual’s position along the “nexus of rank and punishment” hierarchy. In this respect, they propelled upward mobility for one’s social status.

Part two, which is comprised of four chapters, delves into the developments of internal divisions within the “nexus of rank and punishment” hierarchy. In chapter three, Jia discusses the composition and characteristics of the quasi-rank level. Comparing the regulations in the transmitted Book of Lord Shang (Shangjun shu 商君書) to the unearthed legal statutes from the Statutes and Ordinances of the Second Year (Ernian lüling 二年律令) of the Zhangjiashan tomb no. 247, Jia contends that the status of the holders of the gongshi 公士 (the first rank) became much higher at the turn of the Qin Empire (221–207 BCE). This resulted in the emergence of the quasi-rank level constituting gongzu and shiwu, both of whom enjoyed privileges in statutory labor service and land allotment despite having no rank.  Jia even suspects that the status of gongzu was higher than shiwu, although she does not provide any concrete evidence except their respective order in unearthed legal texts. In addition, Jia believes that the abovementioned shuren identity was not part of this quasi-rank level, even though sometimes it was listed together with gongzu and shiwu. The most decisive evidence that Jia presents is the newly surfaced Qin legal manuscripts housed in the Yuelu Academy. In them, holders of gongzu and shiwu were set as the lowest possible candidates for the election of village chiefs (lidian 里典) and village elders (lilao 里老), as well as for the appointment of minor assistants (xiaozuo 小佐). This threshold, Jia argues, indicates the superior social hierarchy of gongzu and shiwu to shuren.

The following two chapters (four and five) proceed to revisit a classic topic in the study of rank during the Qin and Han era: the division between the so-called “official’s rank” (guanjue 官爵) and “commoner’s rank” (minjue 民爵). Chapter four concentrates on the development of the “commoner’s rank” during the mid-Western Han period. Drawing on data extracted from the administrative manuscripts found in the northwestern frontier of the Western Han Empire, Jia observes several intriguing trends. First, her statistics reveal that an overwhelming majority of people held the gongsheng 公乘 (the eighth rank) or below. This confirms the theory that the gongsheng ceiling on the rank-holding of commoners and low-level officials already existed as early as the first century BCE. Second, Jia observes that the number of gongdafu 公大夫 (the seventh rank) and guandafu 官大夫 (the sixth rank) holders were exceptionally low. This tendency contradicts the assumption that holders of the gongsheng rank could transfer the extra rank that they received to others because such a practice should have increased the number of gongdafu and guandafu holders which were immediately under the gongsheng in the “nexus of rank and punishment” hierarchy. Indeed, existing examples of gongdafu and guandafu holders all came from a handful of commandery-level administrative units. In this view, Jia theorizes that these two rank orders might not have been conferred universally over the whole empire. Third, the average age of rank holders shows no salient differences. This implies that the state’s bestowal of rank might not be the major source for people to rise through the ranks. Rather, inheritance and transferal of rank were other possible—if not more decisive—factors contributing to the rise of rank.

In chapter five, the author deserves praise for probing into the issue of “official’s rank”—that is, the orders of rank from the ninth grade onward—from a somewhat refreshing perspective. She points out that although the “letters to the underworld” (gaodi shu 告地書) found in tombs in present-day Hubei often claim that the occupants possessed prestigious rank like the wudafu 五大夫 (the ninth rank) or even the guannei hou 關內侯 (the nineteenth rank), the authenticity of such records was at best dubious considering the meager grave goods being consigned in their tombs. In this light, Jia suggests that such exaggerated claims were motivated by the privileges attached to the “official’s rank” in reality, whose holders were exempted from paying land tax or performing statutory labor services. By declaring the tomb occupants as holders of “official’s rank” in the letters to the underworld authorities, the living sought to provide the occupants with the privileges they could not have enjoyed during their lifetime.

Almost seamlessly, chapter six goes on to discuss the transformation in the privileges attached to rank holders from three perspectives. To begin with, Jia examines the changes in the lowest order of rank, which was entitled to a fief. Based on the records in the Book of Lord Shang, she entertains that the holders of the dafu 大夫 (the fifth rank) already had the right to receive fiefs in the mid-Warring States period. As late as 202 BCE, the bar was raised to the holders of the gongdafu rank. After that, in 195 BCE, it was further raised one more level to the holders of wudafu rank and to those of zuo shuchang 左庶長 (the tenth rank) in the mid-Western Han period. Eventually, even holders of the Lord within the Passes were not guaranteed to receive fiefs, and even if they did receive one, the income to which they were entitled was limited to that of the land tax. Next, Jia suggests that in the Qin era, holders of the dafu rank were excluded from the group of five (wu 伍) in household registration, thereby avoiding the risk of being punished because of the mutual liability among group members. Such a privilege was nonetheless reserved only for people whose rank was above wudafu in the early Han era and then for those liehou 列侯 (the highest order of rank) from the mid-Western Han period onward. Last, a similar development can be found in the exemption of statutory labor service. Whereas in the time of the Qin, holders of bugeng (the fourth rank) were exempted from statutory labor service, the threshold was raised to dafu in the formative stage of the Western Han Empire. During the reign of Emperor Wen (r. 180–157 BCE), such a privilege was further limited to holders of wudafu rank. These pieces of evidence indicate a decline in the rank system.

The final part of Jia’s work revolves around convict laborers, who constituted social groups of negative legal identities and, therefore, occupied the lower echelon of the “nexus of rank and punishment” hierarchy. Benefitting from the newly excavated administrative and legal documents, the four chapters in part three contain some of the most original and insightful observations in the entire book. Chapter seven first surveyed the semantic field of “tuli” 徒隸 and suggests that the term denotes different groups of convict laborers under different contexts. Drawing on the “Registers of Convict Laborers” (zuotu bu 作徒簿) and other administrative documents from the Liye (present-day Liye Town, Longshan County, Hunan) corpus, the author keenly points out that the Office of Convict Labor (sikong 司空) and the Office of Granary (cang guan 倉官) were administering the affairs of wall-builders/grain-pounders and bondservants/bondwomen, respectively. Such a distinction is highly plausible and unveils a crucial aspect of Qin institutions concerning the management of convict laborers.

Along with the inquiry of the preceding chapter, the eighth chapter endeavors to discern the living conditions and everyday lives of different categories of convict laborers. Based on legal materials from the Yuelu manuscripts, Jia notes that male convict laborers—including the wall-builders—could have wives of commoner status, and a grain-pounder might become the wife of a male convict laborer. Whereas previous studies have long pointed out that bondservants or bondwomen could maintain their own families, Jia’s discovery renews our traditional understanding that the families of wall-builders and grain-pounders were to be disbanded and confiscated by the state. The marriage between convict laborers naturally implies that such couples would conceive their own children, whose number even became one of the evaluations for officials serving in the Offices of Convict Labor and Granary.

The major differences between wall-builders and grain-pounders and bondservants and bondwomen lay in their financial conditions and the tasks they handled. Although the production tasks with which both groups were assigned were mostly identical, Qin administrative records do reveal that bondservants and bondwomen undertook a wider range of tasks than wall-builders and grain-pounders. For example, tasks such as transmitting administrative documents, guiding doors and gates, and running errands for officials were always given to bondservants and bondwomen. Jia suggests that such a difference was because bondservants and bondwomen were not confined within a restricted area like wall-builders and grain-pounders and, therefore, had more freedom of movement. This advantage of bondservants and bondwomen may also account for their more flexible financial position, in that they were allowed to be hired privately by officials or serve as traders in the market, thereby receiving income to sustain their livelihood. Wall-builders and grain-pounders, however, could only earn extra income in the form of bounties or rewards.

Chapter nine focuses on another negative identity: sikou. Jia tries to contextualize different usages of the term, thereby distinguishing their nuanced meanings. As Jia notes, the “sikou” appearing in Qin legal and administrative texts refers to the task of “overseeing convicts” on the one hand and to a legal identity on the other. Despite being a negative identity, holders of the sikou identity not only could serve as householders (huren 戶人) but also would be granted a small house and a small piece of land from the state. That said, these people were, after all, not commoners and thus had to provide long-term, intense labor services for government organizations. By the mid-Western Han period, however, sikou became a technical term denoting a type of light punishment; its holders had completely lost their former privileges. Jia ascribes these changes to the state’s efforts to eliminate the duality of sikou, thereby resolving the ambiguity surrounding this term. Additionally, Jia disagrees with the idea that women could be labelled as sikou, suggesting that the latter was reserved exclusively for men.

Rather unexpectedly, Jia’s book ends with a concise, eight-page chapter on the term zhang chengdan 仗城旦. After enumerating various primary sources, Jia concludes that the term might have referred to those convict laborers who were responsible for measuring (zhang 仗/丈) items and objects when building walled cities. Given the nature of such duties, zhang chengdan enjoyed a greater degree of freedom compared to normal wall-builders. While the arguments presented in chapter ten are unproblematic by themselves, the scale and depth of this chapter resemble more of an appendix than a full-fledged chapter, resulting in a structural imbalance between chapter ten and the other nine chapters.

Overall, what Jia Liying offers is a solid book about the identity politics of the Qin and Han regimes. The thorough preparatory work of the author is evident in the book’s appendix, which includes five long tables of more than one hundred pages. Although the discussions in this book are occasionally too descriptive, anyone who is interested in the institution of rank, the identity politics, and the social history of early imperial China will learn and benefit from the many insights and interesting historical details that the book presents.


[1] For an English translation of these orders of rank, see Anthony J. Barbieri-Low and Robin D.S. Yates, Law, State, and Society in Early Imperial China: A Study with Critical Edition and Translation of the Legal Texts from Zhangjiashan Tomb no. 247 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), p. xxii.

[2] For the transcription of this edict, I follow Chen Wei 陳偉, Qin jiandu xiaodu ji suojian zhidu kaocha 秦簡牘校讀及所見制度考察 (Wuhan: Wuhan daxue, 2017), p. 358. For an English translation of the text, see Anthony J. Barbieri, The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022), p. 105.



Cite this blog post
Chun Fung Tong (2024, April 1). [Review] 賈麗英:《出土簡牘與秦漢社會身份秩序研究》(Jia Liying: Unearthed Manuscripts and the Study of the Order of Social Identities during the Qin and Han Dynasties). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w51e

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.