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  • The Writing of Weddings in Middle-Period China: Text and Ritual Practice in the Eighth through Fourteenth Centuries
  • Michael Nylan
The Writing of Weddings in Middle-Period China: Text and Ritual Practice in the Eighth through Fourteenth Centuries. By Christian de Pee. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Hardcover $75.00. Paper $27.95.

Christian de Pee's The Writing of Weddings in Middle-Period China: Text and Ritual Practice in the Eighth through Fourteenth Centuries beautifully marries pathbreaking insights drawn from different disciplines, including gender studies, archaeology, and cultural anthropology. This book is likely to enrage some historians, however, and to understand why, we had better review the two competing visions of history, modern and postmodern, that underlie de Pee's effort. Paul Veyne has summarized those two opposing views with great clarity:

History has long been defined as an explanatory account, a narrative featuring causes. To explain used to pass for being the sublime part of the historian's craft. Indeed, it was considered that explanation consisted in finding a reason, garbed as a cause—that is, a scheme (the rise of the bourgeoisie, the forces of production, the revolt of the masses) that brought great and exciting ideas into play. But let us suppose that explanation is reduced to envisaging a polygon of minor causes that do not remain constant from one set of circumstances to the next and that do not fill the specific places that a pattern would assign to them in advance. In this case, explanation, which has become circumstantial and anecdotal, would be no more than an accumulation of chance occurrences and would soon lose all interest. In return, another task that is no less interesting emerges: to reveal the [End Page 298] unpredictable contours of this polygon…, [as t]he true forms [of historical events] are so irregular that they literally go unseen…. If history proposes to lift the cloth and make what-goes-without-saying explicit, it ceases to be explanatory and becomes a hermeneutic.1

Veyne continues: "When history becomes a hermeneutic," history "does not permit prediction of future events," and this approach "eliminates some false problems and frees the imagination … weary of the prison of social and ideological functionalism" and "retrospective illusions" (p. 35). Writers who take the trouble to craft history-as-hermeneutic must nonetheless accept "the negation of a single prime mover of history and the affirmation of the plurality of movers" (p. 38).

So far as China is concerned, history-as-explanation has preoccupied itself up to now largely with the standard histories, whose contents were obviously crafted for distinct rhetorical ends: to map dynastic rise and fall. Unfortunately, the standard histories omit mention of a great many interesting aspects of life, both official and unofficial. Religion and ritual, private lives and semi-public pronouncements, women and merchants, priests and nuns, and local elites governing working stiffs—all these need hardly ever intrude on the early rationales devised to explain changes in the dynastic fortunes. To counteract this dependence on sources of such severely limited range, the best recent work on Middle Period China looks to a spectacular array of once untapped sources, juxtaposing the eccentric with the ordinary, the jocular with the erotic, while casting text and ritual as hermeneutics. Resisting "the violent imposition of a universalist linear temporality and spatiality" (p. 1), de Pee devotes his book to "those true forms of history" that are so irregular and ambiguous "that they literally go unseen," even as he elegantly conveys the perfectly choreographed ceremonies embodying impossibly neat symmetries that we were meant to see (p. 228). The potential gain? A readier acknowledgment of the inherent messiness of cultural production and reproduction, prompting a far more vivid sense of the distant past as "disrupted and disturbed, evacuated and pillaged," bearing the marks (or scars) of everyday practices.

The five chapters of the book skillfully follow the traces of wedding ritual from the elaborate betrothal preliminaries down to the dissolution of the marriage, by judicial verdict or by death, though de Pee rightly abstains from fabricating a generic wedding ceremony. Chapter 1 follows the evolving fate of ritual manuals from the Tang, when...