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Reviewed by:
  • Shizi: China’s First Syncretist by Paul Fischer
  • Andrew Meyer
Shizi: China’s First Syncretist. By Paul Fischer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Pp. 248. Hardcover $45.00, isbn 978-0-231-15906-7.

As Paul Fischer’s Shizi: China’s First Syncretist has helped demonstrate, it is to be much regretted that the Shizi, a mid–Warring States text attributed to the statesman Shi Jiao (ca. 390–330 b.c.e.), survives only in fragments. Even in its current piecemeal form, the Shizi covers a fascinating array of topics, from the habits of wild ducks to cosmic geography to the exploits of archaic cultural heroes such as Fu Xi and Shen Nong. It is no wonder that the work survived so long, or that it was so frequently cited by medieval commentators seeking an authoritative ancient reference on points of fact and nomenclature. But the extant Shizi is of interest for more than its colorful content. The text displays a substantial and distinctive worldview, one that forces us to rethink interpretive assumptions about the Masters literature of the ancient period.

Fischer argues robustly for the historical and literary value of the Shizi. I agree wholeheartedly with his evaluation, though less so with the route by which he arrives at it. As Fischer notes, the text was classified as za (“mixed” or “miscellaneous”) by the compilers of the Han shu yi wen zhi. He places a great deal of emphasis on the categories around which that bibliographical scheme was built, arguing on their basis that in the Shizi we have China’s first deliberately “syncretic” text.

In his analysis, a text that mixes different ideological perspectives is either “eclectic” or “syncretic,” the difference between these rubrics being that in an “eclectic” text the mixing is not done self-consciously while in a “syncretic” text it is deliberate. This leaves Fischer on shaky interpretive ground. Even if we discount the difficulty of definitively determining authorial intent, the surviving text of the Shizi is not sufficiently intact to substantiate Fischer’s claims. One surviving quote does find a consensus among mutually opposed ancient thinkers on the value of (in Fischer’s terms) “open-mindedness” (pp. 101–102), but this is a thin thread on which to hang the assertion that the Shizi is deliberately “syncretic” as opposed to “eclectic.” Moreover, Fischer spends much of his introduction correlating parts of the Shizi to each of the “schools” of ancient thought, an approach that predictably produces stilted readings of the text.

Though his interpretive framework is not entirely effective, the text itself justifies Fischer’s claims for its value. Standing the Shizi next to the better known works of the Masters corpus, we can see that it connects and conflates concepts, themes, and symbols in ways that break prevalent patterns and conventions. Whether or not the author or authors of the Shizi were self-consciously “mixing” elements from different “schools,” the text clearly renegotiated the boundaries of written expression in ways that we cannot ignore if we wish to understand the discourse of which the Shizi was a part. Moreover, the Shizi has much to say about the social conditions confronting Warring States authors. Its surviving fragments contain some of the most robust and intriguing defenses of the shi or “knights” (“officials” in Fischer’s translation), the [End Page 803] social group with which most Warring States texts self-identify. In all these respects, Fischer is right to assert that “the Shizi is a uniquely representative work of early Chinese thought” (p. 15).

Fischer’s translation of the text is uneven. It has become cliché to take translators to task for the particular word choices they make in translating key terms, but when such decisions obscure the meaning of the text they become more than merely academic matters. The above-mentioned translation of shi ± as “officials” is an example in Fischer’s case. The Shizi treats the category of shi as a status held by an individual independently of state sanction, and this is key to many of its most exemplary passages. In consistently translating shi as “officials” Fischer blunts the text’s polemical edge.

More problematic than particular word choices...


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