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Primary Sources for Song History in the Collected Works of Wu Ne

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 295-341 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0027

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Primary sources form the bedrock of historical research. Four existing major collections of Song historical texts descend from the operations of official Song historiography, and most scholars perceive and use these collections as primary sources. However, individual documents in these works survive by virtue of a tortuous and mostly intentional series of editorial choices. First, official court historiography, then private historians, and finally the commercial printing industry selected, cut, spliced, edited, copied, revised, and arranged once primary documents to create preferred narratives of Song history. An individual document in these collections survives in its present form because an editor, or series of editors, selected and shaped it to play a specific role in these larger narratives.1

The primary sources for Song dynasty history thus span a wide range of grades and qualities. At one end of the spectrum, texts in the major collections originate in, but are many stages removed from, the original primary sources, which no longer survive. At the other end of the spectrum, genuine primary sources from Song—documents that survive intact in their original form—are exceedingly rare. Many of these are either stone inscriptions or original documents on paper that have been preserved for their artistic value as calligraphy.2

This article hopes to develop a seldom explored middle ground between these two extremes. The Song state, among the most bureaucratic and grapho-manic in Chinese history, generated prodigious amounts of documentation at all levels of administration. Sizable numbers of these documents, and the works based on them, survived into the early Ming. Under court sponsorship, the Yongle dadian 永樂大典 of 1407 transcribed the Song huiyao as well as the works of Li Tao and Li Xinchuan; and the Yongle dadian is the major conduit through which these works have survived to present times. In 1416, the court also ordered compilation of the Lidai mingchen zouyi 歷代名臣奏議, a major repository of Song memorials. The early Yongle period, therefore, saw the distillation and transmission of a body of textual material that would subsequently make up the orthodox canon of sources for constructing narratives of Song history.

As the court compiled these larger works, however, individual Song documents still circulated among the population at large. We focus in this article on the activities of the official Wu Ne 吳訥 (1372–1457) whose collected works contain transcriptions of Song documents that he encountered during his career and that have not been transmitted elsewhere. Because only one printed exemplar of Wu Ne’s works survives in the National Library of China, these Song texts have remained unknown until the present. Their discovery thus reveals “new” primary sources for the study of Song history. We hope this article will spur the search for other undiscovered documents that may yet repose in rare editions of the collected works of Wu Ne’s early Ming contemporaries.

The Life and Works of Wu Ne

To be sure, these transcriptions do not meet the gold standard of the historian: they are not original Song documents. But in all cases Wu Ne saw the original document he transcribed, and our research confirms that he transcribed accurately what he saw. Before proceeding to Wu Ne’s transcriptions, we pause momentarily to review his career and provide a summary of the transmission of his collected works. This transmission presents a number of difficult bibliographic issues, and the clarification of these issues will partially explain the obscurity of his works. Wu Ne was the son of Wu Zun 吳遵 (d. 1392), a minor official from Changshu 常熟 in the Yangtze delta. Embroiled in a bureaucratic legal case, Wu Zun died in prison when his son was twenty. The son established a local reputation as a physician and scholar. His medical knowledge earned him a recommendation to the court at Nanjing, where he worked as a physician and tutor to the families of senior officials. He gained appointment to the Imperial Academy of Medicine in the mid 1420s. His appointment as Regional Investigating Censor for Zhejiang Province in 1426 marked his first advance into higher office. After a subsequent tour as regional censor in Kuizhou province, his career peaked in the mid 1430s when he served in senior Censorate positions. He retired to...



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