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Letters and Epistolary Culture in Early Medieval China by Antje Richter (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 74, Number 1, June 2014
pp. 137-140 | 10.1353/jas.2014.0003

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This is a fascinating, groundbreaking study of letter writing in early medieval China (here defined as the third through sixth centuries c.e. ). The jacket blurb on the paperback edition even calls it the “first book-length study in Chinese or any Western language of personal letters and letter-writing in premodern China,” although the text itself (p. 7) does mention one Chinese-language book, published in 1999, that is devoted to the history of epistolary literature. Even so, Richter’s volume is indisputably a pioneering excursion into largely unexplored territory. Richter attributes (pp. 6–7) the somewhat surprising lack of previous interest in the study of personal missives in China to the absence in the Chinese literary canon of any equivalent to the biblical Epistles—which would have dignified the genre and attracted more attention—and also to the continued vitality of active mundane letter writing in China until as recently as the 1990s. In the West, in contrast, letter writing began to be eulogized as an allegedly dying art by as early as the late nineteenth century.

During China’s early medieval period, the replacement of older and more cumbersome writing materials by true paper, as well as the incipient development of markets and commerce, encouraged an overall increase in the private circulation and availability of books and other written materials. Although there was, of course, no regular post office or specialized mail delivery system at that early date (most letters were delivered either by privately employed messengers, or by randomly convenient travelers), personal letters do seem to have been dispatched with considerable frequency. More than two thousand letters or letter fragments from this era remain extant today (p. 8), albeit usually only in edited form after having been incorporated into a book of some kind. One lone, incomplete, example of a letter-writing guide (shuyi 書儀, Hit, more literally, “writing etiquette”) also survives from this early period (pp. 139–40).

Richter examines the physical materials and terminology of early medieval Chinese letters, contemporary theoretical literary discourses on the genre of letter writing, the structure and phraseology of typical examples, and the topoi commonly employed in correspondence. Regarding terminology, it is worth pausing to note that some two-dozen different Chinese terms for different types of documents are all subsumed here under the single English word “letter” (p. 13). What we may think of today as the standard Chinese word for letter, xin 信, derived during the Han dynasty from its original meaning of “to trust” to mean a “messenger,” and by the end of early medieval times had finally come to mean a “letter” (p. 30). But, again, this was only one of multiple terms that were then used for letters.

Several works of literary criticism from this period touch upon the genre of personal letters, most notably Liu Xie’s 劉勰 (ca. 475–ca. 520) Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (The literary mind and the carving of dragons), which Richter says “contains the first detailed characterization of personal letters in Chinese literary history” (p. 49). Although providing insight into contemporary Chinese literary theories on the subject, this section of Richter’s book is fairly conventional literary scholarship, and it is more exhilarating when she turns to look at the actual letters themselves. Interestingly, a comparison between a personal letter that Cao Pi 曹丕 (187–226) wrote in 218, in which he happened to discuss the subject of literature, and his own formal essay on the topic, “Lun wen” 論文 (Disquisitions on literature), reveals some interesting differences in tone between the two formats. The letter introduces some more personal comments that, though perhaps not truly unpremeditated and spontaneous, give the letter a distinctly more relaxed and conversational feel (p. 67).

The intimate aspects of letter writing also help explain why so many letters seem to lack substantive content or message. A great many of the extant letters are brief and consist of little more than the opening and closing framework and what Richter calls the “proem,” that is, “the introductory passage ... dedicated to the recollection and reaffirmation of the correspondents' preceding relationship.” This proem typically includes such things as references to the weather, states of health, and earlier letters received (p. 79). In a letter...

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