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Ancient Chinese Checkpoints and How They Possibly Worked

UCLA Center for Chinese Studies presents a discussion by Enno Giele on the functionality of ancient checkpoints in China.

May 11, 2009 4:00pm to 5:30pm

Pre-imperial ancient Chinese states as well as the unified empire since the late 3rd c. BCE used a very elaborate system of traffic control through a series of major checkpoints or guan and jin—often translated as "passes" and "fords." The intent was not only to prevent the enemy across the border from gaining any weapons or weapons-grade material, like large quantities of metal or horses, but also to control the movement of people, in order to prevent both the loss of taxpayers (or reproductive members of society) and the evasion of fugitives from the law. Integral to this system was the use of documents, mostly written on wood, that have been described as passports or visas (zhuan) and tallies (fu), among others. The common explanation on the basis of a few definitions in traditional sources for how these documents worked is that these were carried by the traveler to the checkpoint and if the record or the two halves of a tally matched, he was granted passage. This, however, is an unsatisfactory explanation. What exactly was written on a passport or a tally? Who wrote them? Who issued them? For how long? Under what circumstances? How exactly were tallies divided and later rematched? What happened to these travel documents after passage was granted? How easy would it have been to fake them? Not in every case will it be possible to answer these and other more concrete questions in detail. But thanks to a considerable amount of manuscript sources, including genuine passports and tallies, that have been excavated from original border areas, much more can be known today than some decades ago. The rest can be at least approached by more of logic than has been hitherto applied.

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Enno Giele (PhD, Free University, Berlin) has done more than nine years research in Taiwan and Japan and taught courses in premodern Chinese history, and language, thought, and civilization in Muenster, Germany, and Berkeley, California. Presently teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His research interests focus on early China (up to the Han and Sanguo periods), its institutions, social structure, and material as well as everyday culture. Pet projects include early Chinese manuscripts, ancient literacy and the public, as well as games and the loo in early China.