China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The northwestern border regions of the Han empire were part of its textual culture, despite their distance from the centers of power. In this presentation, I consider excavated Han-period materials from sites at and around Dunhuang and Juyan and the ways that they communicated the idea of the empire. The best-known texts from the region are bureaucratic documents, which preserve information about the functioning of imperial rule. Those texts instantiated and reflected the efficacy of Han government, and bore its unmistakable imprint. Yet other texts were present, too, written in classical language, distinct from the bureaucratic idiom. Some of these belonged to the group of texts that formed the intellectual core of the empire, and scholars have thus attributed their presence to a deliberate attempt to disseminate “Confucian” culture in the borderlands, which subsumes them in the same processes. That interpretation, however, gives insufficient attention to the many texts that do not fit into the narrative. I propose a better way to regard texts from the region is to see them as conveying an abstract conception of the multifaceted Han empire, which was more than a government, and which they implied even when they did not express it explicitly. The notion of empire along the border was conveyed neither through bureaucratic documents nor through cultural text alone, but rather emerged at the nexus of the two.