Late Imperial Primer Literacy Sieve

A digital tool for approximating how the primer-literate read texts
Sarah Schneewind and Joshua Day

Rationale and contents
In late imperial times, perhaps 5% of the population was fully classically literate, yet many more men and women could read a bit. The Primer Literacy Sieve is a computer program that removes (turns red and black, or grey for printing) from any text a researcher inputs any word that does not appear in the primer(s) the researcher selects. Studying what remains gives a rough idea of what a primer-literate reader would have read in the text.
The question of which primers people studied from is surprisingly hard to answer, but the Sieve offers:
• The Hundred Surnames
• The Trimetrical or Three-Character Classic
• The Thousand Character Classic
• The Elementary Learning
• Classic of Filial Piety
• The Great Learning
• The Heart Sutra
• The Guanyin Sutra

Demonstration with three Ming steles here.

The software is available for your own use here. If you notice any problems, let me know. If you find it useful, please acknowledge the tool in any resulting publication or talk and if you have time, drop me a line!

Or, through MARKUS, you can use “The Sieve Online,” available here:

For more on the Sieve, see Sarah Schneewind, “How the Primer-Literate Read Ming Steles: A Digital Speculation,” Journal of Chinese History (2019):1-25 doi:10.1017/jch.2019.43