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  • Authorial Authority in Ancient China
  • Martin Svensson
Writing and Authority in Early China. By Mark Edward Lewis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Pp. vii + 544. Paper.

The appearance of Mark Edward Lewis' second book, Writing and Authority in Early China, is a long-awaited event in the sinological world. Divided into eight chapters and with the main text running 365 pages, this book is an exceptionally rich study of the intellectual world(s) of the Warring States period and the Han dynasty, approaching its objects of investigation from a variety of different positions. The implicit questions "How do texts speak 'with authority'?" and "How, and for what reasons, are certain texts canonized or deemed apocryphal?" allow Lewis to demonstrate the different strategies used by state bureaucrats, writers of history, diviners, philosophical schools, poets, and reciters of poetry to "authorize" their discourse. The interrelationship and interdependence of Text and State is an all-pervasive theme excellently dealt with in the two crowning chapters here on the establishment of the Confucian canon during the Han dynasty.

Lewis has a clear and concise style, a keen sense for spotting significant connections between seemingly disparate phenomena, and a most impressive grasp of primary and secondary sources—even if the absence, in the bibliography, of the Guodian texts, Martin Kern's 1997 Die Hymnen der Chinesischen Staatsopfer, David Schaberg's 1996 thesis "Foundations of Chinese Historiography," Shirakawa Shizuka's 1976 Kanji no sekai (in a new 1997 edition), and, perhaps, Christopher Connery's very recent The Empire of the Text (1998) suggests that we may have been forced to wait for this book for some time. (Christoph Harbsmeier's 1995 article "Notions of Time and History" also offers some important musings on the notion of writing in early China.) Considering its breadth, the book has very few factual errors, one being the use of "Mao commentary" to refer to the entire commentarial section included in the Mao Edition of the Odes, another being the claim that the Odes themselves use tropes such as bi and xing, when in fact these concepts were inventions of the scholastic commentators. Arthur Waley's important 1933 article "The Book of Changes" could have been mentioned in the discussion of Richard Kunst's and Edward Shaughnessy's works on the Changes.

In what follows I will do no more than make a few remarks in order to initiate the reader into the organizing principles of what, in the final analysis, can only be described as a first-rate scholarly work. I will then endeavor a small contribution, [End Page 614] inspired by some of Lewis' theses, to the discussion about textuality and power in early China.

Before anything else, the reader should be informed about the two peculiarities that shape the book's line of argument. Let us first consider the relation between the title and the contents of the book. "Writing" is used not only in the sense of "the act of putting brush (or any other instrument of writing) to silk (or any other medium)," or merely in the sense of "(physical) text," but also in the sense of the "contents of a text." Similarly, "authority" refers to governmental, bureaucratic, or imperial "power," as well as to the "authority" invested in a discourse by way of its rhetorical force, by its intertextual references to ancient sagely texts, or by its function as mouthpiece for institutions of power (e.g., the ruler or the philosophical master). The polysemic title thus allows the author to shift focus several times and, without contradiction, speak simultaneously of the uses of (physical) writing as a means of bureaucratic communication during the early Zhou and of the interaction of State canon (qua the dogmatic contents of the canonical texts) and the imperial exercise of power during the Han. And, indeed, since Chinese philosophy is eminently occupied with theories of governmental power, one sometimes suspects that Lewis uses the long-standing academic buzzwords "writing" and "authority" in this vague fashion as a foil for creating what is arguably the best general introduction to early Chinese thought available in Western languages today. However, despite the Foucauldian...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1898
Print ISSN
0031-8221
Pages
pp. 614-619
Launched on MUSE
2000-10-01
Open Access
No
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