During the Han dynasty learning to read and write was known as “the minor learning,” while advanced education was called “the great learning.” In Szu-min yüeh-ling (The monthly decrees to the four peoples), Ts’ui Shi (103–170) said that during the first and eighth months, “young children are required to commence the minor learning, and they learn to write chapters.” The “chapters” they wrote were copied from primers, including Ts’ang Chie and Chi Chiu (Words in haste). In addition, children had to learn multiplication tables and the sexagenary cycle used in recording times and years. Literacy was regarded as the most important aspect of education, and primers were frequently revised during the Western and Eastern Han dynasties. “The minor learning” was effectively synonymous with primers.

Among the long, narrow strips of wood or bamboo inscribed with characters discovered in Chü-yen and Tun-huang are many fragments of exercise slips—passages from Ts’ang Chie and Chi Chiu, multiplication tables, and combinations from the sexagenary cycle. These, together with the discovery of an intact writing brush, prove that between the midpoint of the Western Han and the reign of Emperor Ming (57–75) of the Eastern Han, some soldiers serving along the frontiers were taught to write.

This special exhibition features a selections of Han slips, as the inscribed strips of wood are known, excavated in Chü-yen. Most bear passages from Ts’ang Chie or Chi Chiu, examples of the sexagenary cycle, or multiplication tables written in clerical script, cursive script, or seal script. Some of the artifacts were selected for their exquisite calligraphy, sure to fascinate connoisseurs and tyros alike.
  • I. Primers

    According to Han-shu I-wen-chi (Literature section of the history of the Han dynasty), the earliest primer in Chinese history is Shi Chou; the next was Ts’ang Chieh. As interest in literacy grew, Fan Chiang, Chi Chiu, and Yüan Shang were added to the curriculum. A survey of the exercise slips unearthed at Chü-yen and Tun-huang suggests that Ts’ang Chieh and Chi Chiu were the most important Han primers. In the collection of the British Library are over one thousand reused slips inscribed with passages from Ts’ang Chieh. This sort of volume shows that Ts’ang Chieh and Chi Chiu were important primers for Han soldiers guarding the frontiers.
  • Ts’ang Chieh

    Ts’ang Chieh
    Ts’ang Chieh may be regarded as the ancestor of all primers, yet by the T’ang-Sung transition it had essentially vanished. Copies exist on Han slips excavated in Chü-yen, Tun-huang, Fu-yang in An-huei province, and Shui-ch’üan-tzi in Kansu province, and Peking University has a fine collection; the slips from Fuyang account for the most complete chapters. The organization of Ts’ang Chieh was based on semantics. In other words, within a few broad categories characters and phrases with similar meanings were organized into groups of four and then ordered according to a rhyming scheme. Notably, the seven-syllable version of Ts’ang Chieh found in Shui-ch’üan-tzi has taught us a great deal about this work.
  • Chi Chiu

    Chi Chiu
    Compiled in the last years of the Western Han, Chi Chiu is, in its current form, more complete than any other primer from that era. Made up of lines that vary between three, four and seven syllables, the chapters are arranged by categories of objects, adding an educational dimension that took it beyond other primers. Chi Chiu was very popular in the Han dynasty and quickly becoming available in the empire’s frontier zones—some children were even named after passages in Chi Chiu. Even some of the bricks excavated from Han tombs were inscribed with passages from Chi Chiu, which shows that craftsmen studied it. After the Wei and Chin dynasties, Chi Chiu set vast numbers of elementary school pupils on their first steps toward literacy.
  • II. Writing Brushes and Traces Left by Primers

    II. Writing Brushes and Traces Left by Primers
    During the Han dynasty, the equipment used by writers included brushes, ink sticks, ink stones, blades, and slips made of bamboo or wood. To judge from artifacts found in Chü-yen, anyone who wished to practice writing tended to use a brush, a ku, and recycled slips. Besides Chü-yen, brushes have also been excavated from the ruins of the Han frontier settlements such as Ma-chüan-wan and Hsüan-ch’üan-chi in Tun-huang. The ku found in Chü-yen and Tun-huang was a writing medium used in making copybooks and primers. Thanks to its several surfaces, characters could easily be removed by using a blade to shave off a bit of wood, revealing a fresh surface for writing. The shavings are called “hsüeh-i,” or “shaving clothing.” On the frontiers, where resources were scanty, people tended to recycle slips or even twigs with bark still on them as copybooks.
  • III. Exercise Slips

    III. Exercise Slips
    The novice began to learn to write by mastering the brush so as to reliably draw the various strokes—horizontal, vertical, dot, falling, and turning—or by copying simple characters. Many items in primers called for repeating specific strokes, as did the exercises for brushstrokes alone. The easiest and most effective way to learn to write was to take as one’s model a familiar text of the day, then copy it over and over. This permitted the learner to absorb commonly used expressions and syntax while working on his writing. Accordingly, learners often copied some words or expressions onto the blank portions of waste slips, repeatedly tracing a single character or copying a literary work of the day.
  • IV. Clerical Script

    IV. Clerical Script
    Clerical script and seal script were essential to official documents and other types of texts composed during the Han dynasty. Of the two, clerical script was dominant. Among the slips excavated in Chü-yen, most were written in clerical script, but there are examples of cursive script and few of the slips found there were written in seal script. Normally only one sort of script was used on a given slip, but in a few cases clerical and cursive scripts were both used, or clerical and seal scripts. Most of the wooden slips found in Chü-yen date from the period beginning in the latter half of the Western Han and ending in the early Eastern Han, the very period when clerical script evolved towards its fully mature form. The transformation is evident as one surveys many years of slips. The distinctive calligraphy on the Han slips, those diagonal strokes that sweep down like waves, was a result of how reading and how writing was taught during the Han dynasty.
  • V. Cursive Script

    V. Cursive Script
    The clerks of the Han dynasty had to learn clerical and seal scripts as well as cursive script; this is attested by the exercise books that survived, with their cursive characters and sentences. Beginning late in the Western Han, cursive script became more common on slips, in time far outstripping seal script. To judge from unearthed Han slips, the most junior officials had to transcribe or draft simple documents. For these transcripts and drafts, cursive script was handier than clerical script and in official paperwork the former became the standard writing style. Slips excavated at Chü-yen display the fully developed cursive script used by clerks.
  • VI. Seal Script

    VI. Seal Script
    While clerical script was the norm in the Han dynasty, the primers prepared by officials were still mostly composed in seal script. The shavings found in Tun-huang that bear passages from Ts’ang Chieh exhibit a vigorous seal script style. Others found in Chü-yen bear a seal script with a slim and rounded character. While this sort of script was not used in their everyday documents, soldiers on the frontiers still had to practice it.
  • VII. The Sexagenary Cycle Texts

    VII. The Sexagenary Cycle Texts
    Han-shu Shi-hou-chi (the Chapter on food and money in the history of the Han dynasty) says, “At the age of eight, [children] commence the minor learning, studying the sexagenary cycle, the five directions, written records, and arithmetic.” In addition to studying Ts’ang Chieh or Chi Chiu, primary school students had to master the sexagenary cycle. That cycle, called “the six chia” for short, comprised sixty enumerative terms—each is a single Heavenly Stem and paired with a single Earthy Branch—used to group days and years. (The first six all began with a character pronounced chia.) Slips used to practice this cycle were found in Chü-yen, Tun-huang, and Tung-p’ai-lou in Ch’ang-sha; the British Library also owns many shavings exhibiting examples of the sexagenary cycle. Some of were written in seal script while others stand stylistically between seal and clerical scripts.
  • VIII. Multiplication Tables

    VIII. Multiplication Tables
    Attested in the Warring States period, the “nine-nine” multiplications resemble the “nine-nine table” memorized by primary school pupils in the present day; they have changed little in more than two thousands years. The Han formula that had to be committed to memory began with the largest digit: “Nine nines: eighty-one.” The first number decreased progressively until all permutations had been exhausted—a bit different from the modern version of the table. The earliest examples of nine-nine multiplication occur on slips dating to the Ch’in dynasty that were found in Li-yeh, Hunan province; slips were also found at Chü-yen and Tun-huang. A brick inscribed with the “pithy nine-nine formula” was excavated from a Han tomb in Shen-chen, Kuangchou, demonstrating the wide circulation and use of nine-nine multiplication.