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

Reviewed by:
  • The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography
  • John Makeham
The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography by Wai-yee Li. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007. Pp. xii + 449. $49.50.

In recent years, Zuozhuan has been the focus of scholarly attention in some important English-language monographs. In A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography,1 David Schaberg examines speeches from the Zuozhuan (and Guoyu) in terms of their form and content, as well as their expression in the medium of narrative. Drawing attention to the oral sources of the speeches and narratives, he maintains that the speeches and narratives generally reflect the intellectual concerns and habits of thinkers from the Warring States period. In Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722–453 b.c.e.,2 Yuri Pines argues that the speeches in Zuozhuan derive from written sources from the Spring and Autumn period and were not the product of later editors. In turn, Barry R. Blakeley has presented a challenge to claims about the dating of the materials in Zuozhuan that Pines developed on the basis of the use of particles in Zuozhuan.3

In the book under review Wai-yee Li is interested in how the narratives and speeches of Zuozhuan, which relate to events spanning the period from 722 b.c.e. to 468 b.c.e., were used to represent “the conscious formulation of patterns and principles of the past” and as such to constitute “modes of historical interpretation” (p. 3). More particularly, she sets out to show how ideas and values—by being embedded in rhetoric, narrative, and chronology—can be manipulated for polemical [End Page 471] ends; how tensions manifest when message and content lose their presumed congruence; and how virtue can become subsumed to strategy.

Chapter 1, “Competing Lessons,” takes up the issue of the text’s divergent sources. Against the traditional view that Zuozhuan evidences unity and system—supported either by attributing authorship to a single author-compiler, Zuo Qiuming, or by appealing to a deceptive unity that has been achieved through forgery—and adherence to Confucian teachings, Li draws attention to the coexistence of divergent and conflicting perspectives in the text that reflect a long process of accretion. In the introduction to the book, for example, she speculates about the possible influence of disparate narrative conventions adopted in the various “histories of the states” (guoshi 國史) and how “anecdotes based on recurrent topoi, such as remonstrance, prediction, or divination, may have specific generic features, such that their incorporation can lead to inconsistencies” (p. 24). In the example of the remonstrance anecdote featuring the Qi minister Yan Ying, all of his featured remonstrances portray the ruler heeding his advice, which in turn leads to better government in Qi. As Li points out, this is despite the Zuozhuan’s portrayal of a broader narrative of decline in the state of Qi.

Disparate voices produced multiple levels of meaning in Zuozhuan. Li finds evidence of both “pragmatic, proto-Legalist, militarist views” and the views that “idealized early Zhou political order and conceptions of moral government” (p. 58). She formalizes these two dominant modes of judgment employed in Zuozhuan, referring to them as “reformer” and “traditionalist,” and employs this distinction throughout her study. In this chapter, Li also develops an extended inquiry into the question of how Zuozhuan’s commitment to a year-by-year chronology—which became a feature of the text no later than the second century b.c.e.—conditioned the way the text was read. On the basis of evidence provided in Shiji, she argues that by Han times a strong implicit belief had developed about narrative as a vehicle for historical meaning, particularly in association with annalistic records.

In regard to the explanations and judgments appended to speeches and narratives, Li maintains that they provide a record of the divergent and competing solutions that scribes, teachers, and counselors proposed in the fourth century b.c.e. to the crisis of political instability. She proposes that the expression of judgment (shufa 書法)—a feature [End Page 472] of certain passages—should be regarded as one of the text...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 471-478
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.