AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 201

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Session 201: Practices of Reading in Early and Medieval China

Organizer: Jack W. Chen, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Chair: Pauline Yu, American Council of Learned Societies, USA

Discussant: Michael Puett, Harvard University, USA

The act of reading is central to humanistic endeavors, enfolding within it such concepts as literacy, self-cultivation, and hermeneutics. As such, reading has become a metaphor for what scholars do in the course of elucidating the textual traces of the past and present. However, when one steps back from the metaphor of reading, the question of exactly how reading was performed and experienced is often unclear, particularly prior to the rise of print culture. When it comes to early and medieval China, there has been some work done on the subject, though much remains unknown. This panel will explore the question of how one might reconstruct the practices of reading in early and medieval China through case-studies from the Han through Tang dynasties. K.E. Brashier will discuss the idea of modularity in the construction of Han mirror inscriptions, showing how reading and writing in early imperial China reflected an oral performance culture. Wendy Swartz will then take up the question of citation within the early medieval period, revealing how the language of the Yijing, Daodejing, and Zhuangzi shaped the reading and composition of texts. Jack W. Chen will examine the relationship between visual meditation and tropes of imaginative journeys within medieval Daoist and Buddhist texts as a way of showing how the practice of silent (visual) reading developed. Finally, Christopher Nugent will discuss three Tang dynasty primers, exploring the role of memorization and rote learning in the pedagogical history of reading.

Modular Rhetoric Versus Meaningful Reading
K. E. Brashier, Reed College, USA

Texts survive, but how they were read does not. Is it possible to discern within the texts any clues as to what level of meaning the reader was expected to extract? I will argue that one unique and vast corpus of texts, namely Han mirror inscriptions, can provide valuable insights into the modular nature of early texts, insights we can extend to the received literary tradition in general. Second, this corpus reveals traces of how a predominantly oral performative culture influences the reading process of written texts. Finally, the mirror inscriptions’ oddly truncated verses and slipshod characters even raise the question whether a text’s primary purpose was necessarily to convey meaning. Our modern perspective assumes that written texts imply reading that in turn conveys meaning; in an earlier era that prioritized oral performance, written texts played other roles than just saying something.

The Practice of Quotation in Six Dynasties Poetry
Wendy Swartz, Rutgers University, USA

Any examination of the practice of reading in early medieval China must consider the issues of quotation and intertextuality. Understanding the early history of reading in China involves not only tracking what was read and the manner in which it was read, but also probing into how the texts were interpreted and appropriated. A text’s readability is perhaps best demonstrated by its iterability: re-using a text makes an unequivocal statement about having understood its meaning. More broadly, reading well as well as writing well, meant demonstrating a command of the literary tradition and cultural codes. In this way, intertextuality, a condition of writing, constituted a mode of reading in early medieval China. During the third and fourth centuries, the literati drew freely on ideas, vocabulary, and tropes from a set of philosophical classics, in particular the Yijing, or Classic of Changes, the Daodejing, and the Zhuangzi, and their respective commentaries. An especially memorable quote comes from the fourth-century man of letters Yin Zhongkan: “If for three days I don’t read the Daodejing, I start to feel the base of my tongue growing stiff.” My paper will examine anecdotes from the Shishuo xinyu (A New Account of Tales of the World), the writings of Sun Chuo and of Tao Yuanming, to explore the ways in which these men quoted, appropriated, and read the aforementioned Three Mysterious classics (san xuan), which formed the core of early medieval Chinese thought.

Religious Reading in Medieval China
Jack W. Chen, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

There is no question that reading was an essential part of religious practice in early medieval China, given the proliferation of scriptures and commentaries. What is unclear, however, is the nature of the relationship between religious practitioner and text, and what the consequences of that relationship may have been for lay reading. In this paper, I will begin with the example of Sun Chuo, during the Western Jin, who imagined a journey to a sacred mountain through the reading of texts. My main focus, though, will be on the nature of Sun Chuo’s internal act of textual imagination, which I will argue draws upon the contemporaneous visual meditational practices that were developing in the writings of Ge Hong and would become explicitly central to the Shangqing Daoist revelations of Yang Xi. While the act of reading is not foregrounded, the ecstatic mental journeys of the Daoist adept are ones that were mediated through images (xiang), which themselves mediate between thought and language. It is through this articulated constellation of concepts (thought, image, language) that I hope to show how religious reading practices helped inform and shape early examples of silent reading in China.

Training the Reader in Late Medieval China
Christopher Nugent, Williams College, USA

The dazzling literary accomplishments of medieval China can blind us to the fact that reading and writing remained rare and expensive skills in this period. Speaking and understanding the speech of others are abilities learned unconsciously; reading and writing are skills that require the purposeful application of time and effort to master. As with any skill, there are numerous paths to competency in reading; the particular method by which one learns can have a strong influence on later practice. Reading in medieval China, in part due to the use of a non-alphabetic written script, involved years of training, including far more memorization than we are accustomed to in the modern age. In this paper I look at the early stages in the development of reading skills during the Tang dynasty by examining a number of primers popular in that period, such as the Mengqiu, the Qianzi wen, and the Kaimeng yaoxun, a text that was widely used in the Tang but later fell out of circulation (until it was rediscovered among the Dunhuang manuscripts). Through both their content and what we know about how they were used, these primers reveal learning to read in this period to be not a simple question of deciphering symbols on a page, but a complex process of interactions between memory, text, and sound, whose influence can clearly be seen in later adult literary practice.