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date: 03 June 2020

(p. 27) Technology and Media

Abstract and Keywords

The Chinese script is one of the major writing systems of the world and has over three thousand years of recorded history. Native accounts of its origin have been extremely influential and remain part of the general discourse, even though newly discovered archaeological materials in many cases challenge the traditional view. The earliest known examples of Chinese characters survive on oracle bones, and these are essentially ancestral to all modern forms of written Chinese, even though the script went through great changes during the following millennia. One of the most important such changes was the Qin-Han transition from the scripts of the Warring States period to that of the dynastic era. In the medieval period, the Chinese script was adopted for other languages in East and Central Asia, and in some cases was modified to create new Sinoform scripts (e.g., Khitan, Jurchen, and Tangut).

Editor’s Introduction (Xiaofei Tian)

In classical Chinese literary studies, it has finally, and fortunately, become an increasingly quaint notion that literature can exist, or ever existed, as a transcendent entity or disembodied content separated from its physical media. Such a materialist turn in recent years is also a historicist turn, as the issues of technology and media in literary production are closely tied to the changing conditions of a society in its specific historical context. The opening section of the Handbook aims to introduce the reader to the mechanisms of Chinese literature that have played a crucial role in the development of that literature.

The consideration of Chinese literature necessarily begins with that of the Chinese writing system, which is distinguished by two things: it is one of a small handful of writing systems with an independent origin in the ancient world; yet, unlike the other independently invented writing systems like the Sumerian or the Mayan, the Chinese script enjoys an unbroken duration for over three millennia and is known as the oldest continuously used writing system. Some of its specific features have produced a deep impact not only on Chinese but also on other East Asian traditions that have adopted Chinese characters. Its monosyllabic nature—that is, each character represents a single syllable and usually a word—contributes to a number of distinctive formal features of Chinese poetry and prose, such as parallelism. Despite popular misperception, Chinese characters are not pictographs or ideographs, but logographs (p. 28) that represent the sounds and words of a living language. This nevertheless should not obscure the fact that the written language of the premodern period—wenyan wen (Literary Chinese or Classical Chinese)—constitutes a language largely separate from the spoken language of any given period and of any particular region. Perhaps the most salient point about the Chinese writing system is that its stability over the centuries has ensured the remarkable continuity of Chinese literary and cultural tradition, but also masks its enormous changes over the course of history, including its elastic absorption of a large amount of foreign vocabulary during the early medieval period (that is, between the first and seventh century ce), when Buddhist texts were being imported from India to China and translated from Sanskrit into Chinese on a large scale.

The next chapter in this section explores the various media through which literature—both in the broad sense of the word and in the narrower sense of belletristic writings—was created and transmitted prior to the spread of printing. Bones and shells, bamboo and wood, as well as bronze and stone, all constituted early writing media. These writing materials are durable, but also cumbersome. Silk was much lighter, yet costly. The technology of paper therefore marked a major turning point in the wide dissemination of texts, especially when paper became increasingly easy and cheap to produce. In the early third century, Emperor Wen of the Wei 魏文帝, Cao Pi 曹丕 (187–226), had sent one silk copy of his book Normative Discourses and his belletristic writings to the Wu ruler Sun Quan 孫權 (182–252) and one paper copy to Sun Quan’s chief minister, Zhang Zhao 張昭 (156–236). After his death, Cao Pi’s son and successor, Emperor Ming 明帝 (r. 226–239), ordered Normative Discourses inscribed on stone and displayed outside the Imperial University. These different types of writing media—stone, silk, and paper—each indicated a different level of functionality and import for Cao Pi’s works.

Cao Pi was also the man who made the famous statement: “In literature, qi is the principal factor.” A historical understanding of the concept of qi 氣—breath—situates it in an age when literature maintained close ties to oral composition and performance. Besides oral recital, musical performance of shi poetry was also a common phenomenon, as in the well-known story of several Tang dynasty (618–907) poets secretly betting on whose quatrain would be sung by the most beautiful of the singing girls at a banquet. The golden age of Chinese poetry was thus never a static world of written texts, but a dynamically mobile world of multimedia performances.

Mobility characterizes manuscript culture, the topic of the third chapter in this section. Manuscript culture is an expedient umbrella term referring to the age of manuscript books in contradistinction from the age of print culture. Simply put, before printing became widespread, hand-copying was the single most important means of textual transmission. Unlike a printed book, which has many identical copies of the same print run, each and every hand-copied manuscript is a unique entity. While a hand-copied text may have an author, in most cases we no longer have the master copy (p. 29) approved by the author but are left only with multiple copies of a hypothetical source text. This is particularly true when the primary medium of textual transmission was the easily destructible paper rather than parchment. Just as Western historians of the book have become cognizant of the importance of manuscripts despite the continuous focus on print, literary scholars and historians in Chinese studies have also begun to pay attention to the complex dynamics of manuscript culture.

Here, however, two salient points must be raised. First, manuscript and print are not mutually exclusive, and the boundary between manuscript and print culture is porous and fluid. Some scholars believe that printing was used in China for religious purposes from as early as the sixth or seventh century, although printing did not become widespread until after the tenth century, the cutoff point for our volume. But even long after that, print never superseded manuscript, which persisted well into the twentieth century. The use of paper also overlapped with that of other writing materials, not to mention with oral transmission and memorization. It is easy to exaggerate either the “revolutionary” nature of printing or the power of paper manuscripts; instead, concomitance and interaction of these different forms are more enabling concepts in understanding the matrix of manuscript culture. Second, the age of manuscript culture itself has different stages: the bronze and bamboo of the early period imposed certain limits on textual production and dissemination that could be circumvented by paper, and necessarily entail different conceptualization. Texts reproduced on paper greatly facilitated the increase of a robust book trade, which in turn made it possible for private individuals to form their own libraries.

One of the first mentions of a large private library—the one that belonged to the scholar Cai Yong 蔡邕 (133–192)—appeared toward the end of the Eastern Han (25–220), which was about the same time as the spread of paper. Earlier, the Ban family, the most illustrious scholarly and literary family of the first century ce, also enjoyed a large private book collection, but that was only because Emperor Cheng of the Han 漢成帝 (r. 33–7 bce) bestowed on Ban You 班斿 (fl. 30 bce) a generous gift of duplicate copies of books in the imperial library. Ban You’s home thereupon became a gathering place for many scholars who were eager to see his books. The historian Ban Gu 班固 (32–92), the son of Ban You’s nephew, relates an illustrative anecdote retold later by the third-century writer Xi Kang 嵇康 (or Ji Kang, ca. 223–ca. 262): the writer and scholar Huan Tan 桓譚 (23 bce–56 ce) once asked to borrow a copy of Zhuangzi from Ban You’s son Si 嗣, but Si refused his request, claiming that Huan Tan was too much under the adverse influence of Confucianism to benefit from Zhuangzi’s teachings. Zhuangzi was a commonly available title in Xi Kang’s time, but clearly had not been such two centuries before. The scholar Cui Yuan 崔瑗 (78–143) once sent his friend the present of ten thousand cash and a paper book in ten scrolls, Xuzi, with an apology: “Being too poor to afford silk, I could only use paper [to copy this book out].” Xuzi was a philosophical work like Zhuangzi. Books on paper, here sent around as a material gift, certainly proved much easier to circulate than those on bamboo or wood.

(p. 30) Paper technology also plays an important role in the rise of literature’s “sister arts” calligraphy and painting. The last chapter in this section explores the relationship of calligraphy and painting to literature, especially to poetry, which remained the most privileged genre in premodern times. The “three arts of the brush”—poetry, calligraphy, and painting—share a discursive affinity, as the development of the theories and aesthetic ideals of calligraphy and painting are closely related to literary thought and poetics. Their association is also manifested on the physical level, as the subgenre of “poetry on painting” was first developed in early medieval times, and such poems were often inscribed, as a calligraphic display, on the painting surface. Although many such poems from the period covered by this volume are detached and disembodied from the paintings they depict, the words are nevertheless meant to conjure visual images as well as represent the “spirit” animating the visual images. Sometimes, in the hands of a great poet like Du Fu 杜甫 (712–770), writing a poem on a faded visual image—for instance, cranes (known in the Chinese tradition as immortal birds) painted on a crumbling wall behind an office building—became an occasion to reflect on the relationship between immortal art and its all-too-fragile physical medium.