- In Defense of Our Critical Commentaries:Individual Authors' Responses to david [sic] McCraw's Review
Charles H. Egan's Response
The reviewer misrepresents what I said—not once but three times—and thereby sets up paper tigers he then criticizes with irrelevant or specious evidence. He writes that I claim "alphabetic writing systems lead you to write in vernacular" (p. 33). In fact, I said pretty much the opposite: in languages that use alphabets, "the written generally follows the vernacular" (p. 201). This should be obvious. Has he tried to read Chaucer lately? The vernaculars change very quickly, and written forms follow when alphabets are used to record sound and speech. That written forms of classical, Church, and Vulgar Latin at one time coexisted proves my point, not McCraw's, especially since Latin then gave way to the written forms of the various Romance languages. In contrast, classical Chinese changed very slowly and developed not in the direction of easy communicability or even clear referentiality, but toward dense, concise, and erudite presentation. It was a literary language, and it grew and changed primarily through intertextual interplay between new and old texts, and less so through vernacular change or dialect influence. One reason for this change is that characters were not read the same way as we read spelled words. There was no particular pressure for the written language to mimic the spoken, and the two diverged widely. Earlier in his review, McCraw notes, "In fact, characters by themselves do not tell us how to read them" (p. 22). Exactly!
Next, the reviewer quotes me as having described classical Chinese as "undergrammaticalized and ambiguous," and accuses me of a "grandiose fallacy" (p. 33). What I actually wrote was "It [classical Chinese] tended toward monosyllabism and was undergrammaticalized and ambiguous relative to the spoken language" (p. 201), which is very different from what the reviewer asserted. As a literary language practiced by a homogenous group of people, classical Chinese became a sort of shorthand communication. Words and ideas that might reasonably be inferred from context were frequently omitted, and parts of speech remained fluid. My students—even native readers/writers of modern Chinese—are often stymied by that age-old classical Chinese game of "find the subject," and lines such as Confucius's "junjun chenchen fufu zizi" 君君臣臣父父 子子 can mystify them. Chinese poetic language is even more subject to interpretation because of the preference for shizi 實字 over xuzi 虛字.
Finally, McCraw falsely quotes me by saying that "it is unlikely that [Tang quatrains] were actually sung in the Tang." The key words here are "Tang quatrains," which McCraw supplies but I never wrote. The line (on p. 203) pertains specifically to pentasyllabic quatrains in a yuefu 樂府 style; the great musical tradition of the Six Dynasties, which produced hundreds of pentasyllabic quatrains that still delight us, such as those in the Wusheng 吳聲 and Xiqu 西曲 categories, had all but died out by the early Tang.1 It was replaced by a new musical tradition [End Page 44] in which the heptasyllabic quatrain became the dominant song lyric form. I state this fact clearly: "Qijue [七絕] developed along with Tang popular music, for which it was the major song form" (p. 213). Following his bald misstatement of my position, McCraw attempts to "prove me wrong" with his pièce de résistance—the well-known anecdote of a quatrain song contest featuring Wang Changling, Gao Shi, and Wang Zhihuan, as translated and discussed by Stephen Owen. Yet Owen states—and McCraw fails to mention—that the incident is almost certainly apocryphal.2 Moreover, McCraw's assertion that the incident is based on eighth-century accounts is highly suspect—where did he get this information? Owen does not say so (he specifies the early ninth century). Indeed, dates in the Tangshu Yiwenzhi 唐書藝文志 for the activities of Xue Yongruo 薛用弱, author of the Jiyiji 集異記 (Record of collected wonders), in which the anecdote first appears, range from 821 to 835. Gu Tianhong uses internal evidence from the entries considered most reliably to be by Xue to suggest a date for the collection of about 850.3 Jiyiji...