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From its proliferation in the second millennium BCE, when paper-like materials made written communication more feasible, correspondence served both a political and a socioeconomic function, asserting authority but also representing personal emotions and attitudes of the author. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected via technologies, written communication continues to change both in speed and fluency.
Correspondence, the process by which people communicate over distance, is intricately connected to the technology of writing, which emerged 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. Written correspondence marked a transition from oral communication as civilizations became more complex and permanent records of transactions became increasingly necessary.
Political and Social Functions
Writing systems existed by around 3000 BCE, but mobile written communication only became practical in roughly 1200 BCE when papyrus, bamboo, silk, and other types of paper-like materials replaced bone, shells, and stone, most of which were controlled by elites.
The Chinese development of paper by the second century CE facilitated communication for commoners, especially for sending ritual messages venerating familial ancestors. Because paper was cheaper than silk or bamboo, more people could write letters, and its function expanded beyond a merely economic or political role. Outside China, correspondence continued to be written on more expensive material such as parchment, which increasingly replaced papyrus after the eighth century CE. In Mesoamerica, correspondence, also written on animal hides, often showed the genealogies of dynasties, the boundaries of power, and social contracts. Globally, then, technological changes created practical and mobile mechanisms of communication across long distances.
Before this, official correspondence was the primary form of written communication in societies. Thus, the political form of correspondence preceded the social function usually ascribed to letters, serving as a way for leaders to correspond with their subjects by delegating laws and responsibilities. But it also served as a means of diplomatic exchange to solidify alliances, establish economic contact, or deal with conflicts.
Correspondence and Cultural Contact
Another important function of correspondence is the exchange of ideas and knowledge across cultural boundaries. The Islamic world, for example, maintained communication throughout the vast kingdoms through the narratives of travelers like Ibn Battuta (1304–1368 or 1369 CE), who discussed his encounters with Muslim communities in Africa. Ibn Battuta’s travels, like Marco Polo’s (1254–1324 CE) to China, provided readers with cultural descriptions of other regions, and were important elements of cultural contact in a growing world network.
In addition, the spread of paper from China to Southwest Asia to Europe in the first millennium CE further transformed the nature of communication between peoples. As printing became more mechanized, rapid diffusion of texts enabled writers to reach larger audiences. The development of the newspaper and political pamphlet, both forms of public correspondence, was only possible because of the emergence of Chinese block printing during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), and the subsequent emergence of the printing press in Europe around 1450 CE. Once people gained access to public forums, letters and pamphlets encouraged political and social confrontation. As an example, Martin Luther (1483– 1546 CE) wrote public letters to the German nobility soliciting their support against papal authority; his writings challenged political and religious alliances throughout Europe and helped launch the Protestant Reformation.
Class and Gender
Throughout this period, however, letter writing remained confined to a relatively small portion of any given population, though the changing technologies incorporated more classes of people. As early as the eleventh century CE, manuals emerged in Europe that taught people correspondence skills. By the eighteenth century, autodidactic manuals were fairly widespread and cultivated business and social writing as well as accounting skills designed to facilitate correspondence between business owners and their clientele. Similar types of manuals emerged toward the end of the Ming dynasty in China (1368–1644 CE).
Especially important in the social function of correspondence was the uniform inclusion of women. Women’s roles as letter writers are occasionally described as autobiographical, but women’s letters equally portrayed knowledge of political affairs, frequently listed business transactions, or subtly undercut perceived social roles. In China, the historian Ban Zhao (45–116 CE) wrote a tract for her daughters on proper feminine behavior in a patriarchal society. The family letters of the English matriarch Margaret Paston (d. 1484) reflect her belief in the importance of letter writing as a form of power and persuasion in medieval England.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Correspondence became more widespread in the nineteenth century as education globally became more accessible and as postage, paper, and writing utensils became less expensive. In so-called semiliterate societies, where the practice of writing maintains connections to oral traditions, letters were not so much private affairs, but very public forums of communication. For example, into the late twentieth century in the Sudan, a letter between family members was often transcribed in public; once received, someone who could read then conveyed its contents in a public space. In this way, the community kept abreast of familial issues, and oral and written traditions remained balanced. Another example is twentieth- century Polynesia, where people managed family affairs and conducted business via letters after the introduction of writing.
Finally, in regions where writing systems had been co-opted or transformed (such as the Yucatan Peninsula or South Asia), letters—both public and private—served as venues for social conflict. During the British Raj in India (1858–1947), for example, Indians vocalized their discontent with internal affairs or imperial policy through their access to public correspondence in newspapers. Thus, written correspondence served not only the elite; subordinate groups and classes utilized the same technologies to challenge the system.
As the world becomes increasingly interconnected via technologies such as e-mail, text messages, or facsimiles, written communication continues to change both in speed and fluency. On the one hand, it is becoming increasingly democratic, with the Internet fostering instant global communication. On the other hand, it is also subject to potentially insidious effects as seemingly very personal letters are capable of being sent to mass recipients for financial or other gain. In both cases, just as with the emergence of the first written symbols, technology continues to shape and restructure the way in which humans correspond both within and between communities.
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