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  • The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography
  • Steven C. Davidson (bio)
Wai-yee Li . The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography. Harvard East Asian Monographs 253. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2007. xii, 449 pp. Hardcover $49.50, ISBN 978-0-674-01777-1.

Wai-yee Li has written an intricate, dense study of the rhetorical strategies embedded in the Zuozhuan, which she describes as a "layered foundational text of Chinese history and literature" that reflects the rhetorical modes and intellectual currents of the fourth century BC (pp. 2-3, 29). Recent studies of texts of this period, including the Zuozhuan, have offered significant insights on their composition, dating, and historical contexts. Although it would have been appreciated if Li had reviewed these insights as they applied to the Zuozhuan and offered justifications for her own conclusions, this is not the task she assumes. Instead, by deciphering the culturally constructed meanings of this many-layered text, Li offers the reader thick descriptions not only of the Zuozhuan's Spring and [End Page 137] Autumn period's narratives, speeches, and the internal comments attributed to Confucius and others but also of the later additions of the compilers. Most important, Li finds the emergence here of a historical consciousness in early China. The lack of a comprehensive picture of the Zuozhuan leads to a somewhat disjointed product, but for the specialist familiar with the literature, Li provides a great service.

The Zuozhuan, Li says, is a history of the Spring and Autumn era that likely emerged distinct from (although overlapping in subject matter with) the chronicle of that period, the Chunqiu. Differing with the traditional attribution of it as a "Confucian" text, Li argues that the coexistence of significantly ruthless pragmatism precludes any such simple association. Li finds a persistent tension in this text that "presumes and fosters [historical] continuity [with the early Zhou political and moral order] . . . [even as its] rhetoric is imposed on a reality of violence and disorder [requriing non-traditional proto-Legalist and pragmatic responses]" (p. 4). The selection and presentation of material, she finds, move beyond chronicling and recording to the complex task of reflecting on and writing history. Li's book explores how this ruthless pragmatism, in tension with ritual and moral propriety, gives rise to a particular discourse with historiographical consequences in a time of great social and political strains.

Li views the Zuozhuan as a composite text in which narratives, speeches, and comments from a variety of sources were brought together. Nevertheless, she finds common threads throughout, even linking sections of the text that reflect the activities and concerns of the Chunqiu ruling classes, with layers of the text that point to later ideological and rhetorical concerns. Distinguishing a self-conscious authorial voice from voices of compilers and from the consequences of intentional and unintentional juxtaposition of diverse material is frustrating. Although Li voices her frustration, she declines to offer a solution. To be sure, the multiple origins of this text do not necessarily diminish the value of the received version of the Zuozhuan as an early historical text, but they do lead to questions about the consistency of its symbol systems and the intentionality of its rhetorical strategies.

This book's title refers to the Zuozhuan's "readability" and its role as a work of history, its "historiography." Li explains that the past is readable when one can tell stories and make arguments. Such readability becomes a historiographical issue when multiple stories and multiple arguments have to be sorted out (p. 1). The sorting out of stories and arguments gives rise in the Zuozhuan to the expression of a growing self-consciousness expressed of the uses to which the past can be put. Li adds that there was self-conscious motivation for these authors to become historians. This motivation comes, in part, from their desire to be remembered by posterity (an attitude associated with Confucius), skepticism about the authority of precedents when competing pasts are contested (especially in diplomatic confrontations), and an awareness of rhetorical devices when taking sides in those contests. Li furthermore agrees with Schaberg that the "historiographers through...


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