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  • Thinking with Cases: Specialist Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History
  • Yi-Li Wu (bio)
Charlotte Furth, Judith T. Zeitlin, and Ping-chen Hsiung, editors. Thinking with Cases: Specialist Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. xi, 331 pp. Hardcover $59.00, ISBN 978-0-8248-3049-6.

How do people create and validate knowledge about the world in which they live? This question is central in the history of science. While early scholarship constructed a positivist narrative around the rise of experimental science in Western Europe, contemporary historiography insists that the rubric of science must include other multiple systems of knowledge production. This approach is particularly relevant to the historian of China, for while China followed a different intellectual trajectory from Europe, it nevertheless created a robust and vibrant scientific tradition of its own. Thinking with Cases makes an innovative and essential contribution to the field by examining the history of the Chinese case (an) and case-based knowledge production in five areas: law, forensics, medicine, religion, and philosophy. Besides its obvious value to scholars studying these specific disciplines, this volume greatly enriches our appreciation of Chinese epistemologies by analyzing a style of reasoning that was central to many fields of endeavor. It should also nurture cross-cultural inquiry by elucidating the Chinese iterations of a genre that appears in many other societies.

What distinguished the case from an anecdote or a general narrative of events was its purpose: to be a public, systematically organized repository of knowledge that served as a guide to efficacious action in a given field of endeavor. Via the case, in other words, raw data was classified, assessed, and transformed into applied knowledge. The question of how people thought with cases is thus inseparable [End Page 176] from the question of what kind of thinking went into cases. Both aspects are illuminated in this ingeniously conceived volume. We see that collections of cases concurrently served as a locus for evaluating and contesting knowledge, as a description of best practices, and as a model of superior reasoning that expert practitioners evoked to establish their own authority and discredit the less skilled.

The word an originated in the tray or table used to hold bureaucratic government documents (p. 5), and this volume similarly begins by examining case-based thinking in law. Scholars have previously overlooked the importance of Chinese legal cases in knowledge production, on the grounds that they did not act as binding precedents in the manner of Western case law. As Jiang Yonglin and Wu Yanhong show, however, seventeenth-century collections of legal cases served as crucial guidelines for crafting effective judgments that would uphold the letter of the law while also satisfying cultural norms of fairness. These legal cases originated in the official accounts that magistrates appended to their verdicts in order to justify their decisions. These accounts themselves were also the end result of a systematized process in which different kinds of information were transformed into legal evidence. Pierre-Etienne Will analyzes one key step in the process, the forensic examination of corpses. His discussion of nineteenth-century forensic case collections finds that they were sites of innovation where writers drew on their personal experiences to challenge what they considered to be out dated and incorrect guidelines issued by the imperial government. Yasuhiro Karasawa examines another facet of evidence production, namely how legal secretaries of the eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries turned oral depositions of witnesses and defendants into concise, standardized documents that then constituted the basis of judicial decisions. These official accounts of events and actors were shaped by the bureaucratic need for internal consistency, but they were also expected to embody the literary excellence of model civil service examination essays and the narrative skills of vernacular fiction.

As was true with the investigating magistrate, the doctor drew on cases to sort out and classify potentially conflicting information in order to arrive at an insightful judgment. As in forensics, the case in medicine also helped to articulate improved solutions to shared problems. Charlotte Furth examines the classificatory and rhetorical styles of medical case collections from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, finding that they were heavily influenced...


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