China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - From Secretive Rulers to Leaking Officials: Status and the Regulation of Confidentiality in Early Imperial China

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Roosevelt Room 1, Exhibit Level

The complex bureaucracies that emerged during the Warring States period and early empires required equally complex decision-making processes as well as the capacity to maintain and transmit confidential information. Our sources, however, do not register extended and explicit legal regulation of confidentiality until the late Western Han, when elite residents of the capital began to be investigated and prosecuted for “leaking” (xie or lou) secret information. Concern about leaking was not new, having first emerged several centuries earlier in Warring States texts such as the Han Feizi and stories about the First Emperor of Qin. These sources described and theorized the politics of secrecy that made interactions between powerful rulers and advisors treacherous: since the former desired to maintain monopoly control information, the latter had to choose their words carefully, lest they reveal their access to privileged secrets. By contrast, the late Western Han proscriptions against leaking did not focus on the ruler. Rather, they were directed against leaking secrets from restricted areas of the imperial court writ large. Regulation of leaks, then, reflected cultural values and indexed elite privileges in a manner that had little to do with the authority of emperors and everything to do with the status of an increasingly autonomous corps of officials that rulers did not control. 

Luke Habberstad

University of Oregon, Oregon

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2 - From Secretive Rulers to Leaking Officials: Status and the Regulation of Confidentiality in Early Imperial China



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