AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 417

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Session 417: “Making Senses” of the Chinese Textual Tradition: Problems of Experience, Language and Knowledge

Organizer: Jun Hu, Northwestern University, USA

Chair: Willard J. Peterson, Princeton University, USA

Discussant: Willard J. Peterson, Princeton University, USA

The capacity of a text to describe sensory experiences, visual, tactile, and others, insofar as it makes the transmission of certain branches of knowledge possible, has long evaded the purview of previous studies of the Chinese textual tradition. The papers on this panel attempt to address this marginalized topic with four case studies in which issues of experience, language and knowledge come to the fore. Jun Hu explores how notions of artistic style emerged out of Northern Song descriptions of paintings, and demonstrates the extent to which cultural and linguistic conventions were stretched to meet the demand of art critical description. Zuo Ya takes up another Northern Song novelty: the antiquarian movement gave rise to a new concern with the visualization of physical artifacts, which in turn invaded the turf of mainstream writing practice and provoked new textual forms. Chen Hao’s paper highlights the changes that took place when a body of oral instructions for pulse diagnosis became a textualized form and shows how editorial interventions were elicited to lend the text elegance at the price of descriptive accuracy. Margaret Ng’s subject, an eleventh century obstetrical treatise, Shichan lun, is a rare exception in that it privileged techniques and bodily practices. However, it was to remain an exception, as later medical practice became increasingly removed from the tactile touch of the practitioner. Through this interdisciplinary effort, we hope to not only open up new possibilities in each individual field, but also use it as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of our sources.

Wu Daozi and His Literati Observers: The Language of Art Criticism in the Song
Jun Hu, Northwestern University, USA

This paper explores the rhetorical strategies Northern Song writers employed to describe paintings and individual styles. The art literature of China presents an embarrassment of riches. Much of it concerns what today may be termed art theory, which had its fountainhead in the Six Laws first put forth in the 5th century. Its subsequent history is dotted by exegetical efforts to interpret, and more often, misinterpret these abstruse terms. Description of painting, on the other hand, invites difficulties of a different order. Ideally, it would entail formalized verbal behaviors which transcribe visual experiences. In practice, however, such verbal exercises are always at once deriving from, and limited by cultural and linguistic conventions available to the writer. It is my goal to demonstrate to what extent these conventions could be stretched in 11th-century China when they met the demand of art critical description. Moreover, the notion of style is equally contingent upon verbal descriptions. It is a product of visual comparisons and the art critic’s effort to characterize the differences thus observed. The burgeoning art market in Northern-Song Kaifeng set the stage for such comparisons to be made, and for our purpose more importantly, literati scholars more readily speculated about individual styles. By studying the writings of Guo Ruoxu (fl. 11th century), Su Shi (1037 – 1101) and Mi Fu (1051 – 1107), I argue that the eleventh century is fraught with novel avenues of conceptualizing about artistic style. Most of them, however, were to be closed by the “Great Synthesizer” Dong Qichang (1555 – 1636).

What Is An Elephant Vessel? Artifact and Verbal Description in the Eleventh-Century Antiquarian Movement
Ya Zuo, Bowdoin College, USA

This paper aims to investigate the development of verbal description of ancient objects, a major component of the antiquarian writing in Northern Song China. A vibrant antiquarian culture emerged, which permeated scholarly circles and provoked a proliferation of texts. Motivated by the aim of resurrecting and recomposing the past, scholars intended to restore the ancient artifacts precisely as they were and set down the restorations in both visual illustrations and verbal descriptions. Examining the Kao gu tu (Illustrated Investigations of the Antiquity) by Lü Dalin (1046-1092), an example of these works in their heyday, this paper argues that antiquaries during this time developed a new form of descriptive account to visualize the physical appearance of artifacts. The emergence of this form was not only attested in the invention of a new nomenclature (which is still used in modern Chinese archaeology), but also a major shift in perspective. Meticulous descriptions of the physical appearance of ancient objects are not seen in classical exegesis from previous ages. Before this time, “wen” (text) was not regarded as a conventional source, as compared to “tu” (image), of information on the appearance and shape of objects. Viewed against the large background of intellectual culture, such a development trespassed the functional distinction between text and image established in the tradition of classical studies. The flourishing of descriptive accounts shows how a concern with visualization invaded the turf of mainstream writing practice and provoked new textual forms.

Tactility Besieged by Literary Form? The Debate on Mai Jue in Tang and Song
Hao Chen, Renmin University of China, China

This paper explores how and why a certain literary form was considered to be suitable for describing bodily expression in medieval China by a case study of an anonymous medical book, Mai Jue, which described tactility in pulse diagnosis in metrical form. Tactility came to the fore of Chinese medical knowledge when pulse diagnosis stood out from the crowd of various diagnostic methods. The verbal descriptions of pulse diagnose in Wang Shuhe (201-280)’s Mai Jing was canonlized in early medieval China, but its dominant position was challenged by a new metrical form of instructions, “jue”. Various versions of these instructions, whose sources may have been the Mai Jing, were widely disseminated in official and private spheres of medical teaching in the Tang. They took the form of mnemonic aids and were intended for beginners of pulse diagnosis, whereas Mai Jing was considered to be suitable for senior physicians. As these instructions were compiled into a book and re-attributed to Wang Shuhe in the late Tang, this form got its authority as holy writing of ancient teachers. However, this book faced harsh criticism in Song, for this metrical form was seen as coarse writing, both in language and style. Some even blamed it for the decline of the medical arts. Some literati sought remedies in adding commentaries, which equated the elegance of writing with accurate description. A study of this critical change will provide another perspective on the evolution of medical knowledge, both its core and expressive forms, in a time of cultural and socials transformations.

Healing Hands : A Study of Tactile Touch in Medical Practice in Imperial China
Wee-Siang Margaret Ng, College of Wooster, USA

My paper explores tactile acts applied to the human body described in medical texts from the Song to the Ming. How did one touch, massage, hold or soothe the human body with touch? The majority of extant Chinese medical works approach the body through theories and provide treatment via oral ingestion of herbs and decoction. There is of course needling, moxibustion and the use of bianshi (needling stone), but these were gradually subsumed under the rubrics of theoretical expositions. But what about the simple use of one's hands and fingers? One text stands out in its emphasis of the tactile touch. The eleventh century obstetrical treatise Shichan lun attributed to Yang Zijian, provides a detailed account of how birth attendants employed hand techniques during complicated births. The hand techniques described included a tacit knowledge of when to push, pull, tug, shift, and periods of rest in order to get the baby out of the pregnant woman's body. The textual record of those techniques were simple instructions but yet difficult to comprehend or follow today. While it was never included in waike (external medicine), its contents parallel that of bone setting and tuina (massage). I argue that the existence of this type of writing privileging techniques and practical bodily practices became increasingly marginalized. And by the Ming period, medical practice became even more text and recipe oriented, moving away from the tactile touch of the medical practitioner.