2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 94: The Uses of Manuscript Culture

Organizer: Xiaofei Tian, Harvard University

Chair: Pauline Yu, American Council of Learned Societies

Discussant: Stephen H. West, Arizona State University

Keywords: manuscript culture, China, textual studies

For the past twenty years issues of manuscript culture have been actively explored by literary scholars of the European tradition. These same issues have attracted far less attention in Chinese literary and cultural studies for a variety of reasons, including the general loss of early manuscripts (apart from the peculiar case of Dunhuang) and a prejudice in favor of printed editions. While archaeologically recovered texts and Dunhuang materials have received extensive attention, they tend to be read against received printed texts, without enough reflection on the pervasive processes of manuscript variation through which we have received our printed texts. Attention to the fluidity of texts in manuscript culture, with scribes and reader-copyists constantly reshaping texts in manuscript production, can change the very foundation of literary study. This panel represents a series of efforts to focus on the issues of manuscript culture throughout history, to challenge our conventional notion of authorship and a single, fixed, definitive text, and to bridge the gap between textual criticism and interpretive studies.

Although literature before the spread of printing bears most directly on the study of manuscript culture, the practice of hand-copying and circulating texts never ceased to be throughout imperial China, and in fact was again picked up during the 1960s and 1970s. This panel seeks to cross historical periods and bring together a group of scholars working in different fields, from early medieval to modern China, who explore the issues of textuality, writing, and their relation to material culture.

Why Did Sages Write Texts? Commentarial Strategies during the Wei Dynasty

Michael J. Puett, Harvard University

The increasing use of paper in the second and third centuries CE resulted in a fundamental shift in attitudes toward writing. Writing itself became a more common activity, and the written corpus of earlier texts (particularly the classics and the writings of the sages) came to be viewed in new ways. Sages who had not written texts came to be held in particularly high esteem, and new strategies were developed to explicate those texts that the sages purportedly did write.

This paper will be an attempt to analyze the claims made in the commentarial tradition over this period concerning writing: when and why did the early sages write, how should their writings be read, and in what ways are their writings applicable to later ages? I will argue that the changing manuscript culture of this period had a fundamental impact on the types of commentarial strategies that emerged.

How to Choose the Author for a Poem: A Case in Writing Literary History

Xiaofei Tian, Harvard University

We are accustomed to thinking of authorship as a clear, fixed thing, firmly tied to issues of copyright in modern times; but it has not always been so, particularly in the age of manuscript culture. Yutai xinyong (New Songs of the Jade Terrace), the poetic anthology from the sixth century, is generally regarded as a representative anthology of "Palace Style Poetry." It is, in fact, no more than an accidental survival from the period, and the story about its compilation has become a point of debate in recent years. Even more problematic, however, is its content and order of arrangement: the messiness of its transmission history has made it impossible to know what poems were originally included or ascribed to which authors.

Of particular interest to us is a group of poems that have been variously ascribed to the brothers Xiao Tong (501–531) and Xiao Gang (503–551), the former being the Liang prince who compiled the Wen xuan, the most important pre-Tang genre anthology; the latter, on the other hand, the "black sheep" of his family known as a writer of sensuous poetry. The different attributions of the poems are based on a set of values inscribed in the traditional account of literary history, and in turn have become the very basis of such a narrative, which is still widely accepted as truth. This paper argues that in the age of manuscript culture, the ascription of authorship was a much more complicated matter, an ideology-driven decision to be reconsidered today.

Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiyi in Manuscript and Print

Wilt L. Idema, Harvard University

Despite China’s flourishing print culture from the Song dynasty onwards, many works of literature continued to circulate in manuscript for decades before being committed to print. One example is Pu Songling’s (1640–1715) collection of classical tales, Liaozhai zhiyi. In this case we have at our disposal not only part of the author’s own autograph, but also a number of manuscript copies of the eighteenth century. These later manuscript copies have eagerly been used by modern scholars to reconstruct the original shape of the collection. Inversely, these materials may also be studied to see how the organization of the collection as a whole and how the text of each individual story change in this process of copying and recopying, and how such changes might affect the reading and interpretation of the collection by contemporary readers.

In the case of Liaozhai zhiyi the changes made in the manuscripts would appear to be minor when compared to the far more drastic changes that were made by the editors of the three printed editions of the collection of the second half of the eighteenth century. These changes not only affected the text of the individual stories, but also the organization of the collection. Moreover, even the most complete printed edition omitted materials from the manuscripts. Liaozhai zhiyi is not alone in this respect, as we may observe the same pattern in the case of works of vernacular fiction such as Hongloumeng and Lüye xianzong.

Tales Told at Night: A Study of the Cultural Revolution Manuscripts

Dong Liu, Beijing University

During the Cultural Revolution period (1966–1976), a group of underground manuscripts was circulating in many cities of China. These manuscripts are mostly sensational stories set against a pre-1949 backdrop, ranging from mysteries, spy novellas, detective fiction, and science fiction to erotica. The literary quality of these stories is rather coarse, but their significance lies in their providing an active means of entertainment in a "cultural desert" as well as a way of resisting the existing structures of power: when the dominant printed materials during the period were filled with serious revolutionary discourses, these manuscript tales, frequently told and copied at night, often employed such discourses (as a protective cover for themselves) to achieve a distinctively opposite end, which was to distract, to amuse, to bring relief to repressed sexuality, and to seek alternatives for what was advocated and propagated during the day. They were, in a sense, the ending point of the Cultural Revolution, and heralded the dawn of the Reform Era. In the final analysis, these manuscripts bear a great similarity to the Internet culture in contemporary China, which turns out to be the origin of rumors, the focus of investigations, and the battlefield of control and counter-control.