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  • Dubious Facts: The Evidence of Early Chinese Historiography by Garret P. S. Olberding
  • Kirill Ole Thompson
Dubious Facts: The Evidence of Early Chinese Historiography. By Garret P. S. Olberding. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012. Pp. x + 278. Hardcover $85.00, isbn 9781438443898.

Dubious Facts: The Evidence of Early Chinese Historiography is Garret Olberding’s bold and challenging inquiry into “the evidentiary reliability of memorialized utterances at court.” While the surface issue concerns the tension between the historical narrator’s moralistic comments and his descriptive account of events, the book probes various further tensions involving narrative contradictions, ironic voices, dramatic devices, et cetera, some of which spring from the original speaker, others from the historical chronicler. Besides the moralizing predilections of the historians, the historical characters themselves are submissive to the sovereign and court protocol, and have to present their accounts of the facts and arguments in largely coded language. Indeed, a wrong word or indication could lead to a speaker’s expulsion from the court, or worse. Against this cultural background, Olberding deigns to investigate the implicit conventions of evidentiary reliability for memorialized utterances at court by teasing out the logic of ministerial address.

Olberding focuses his study on memorials on the prosecution of military campaigns, for in such cases the presentation of reliable evidence and sound judgment would be crucial to the success of the campaign or at least to avoiding military disaster. In memorials on military campaigns, moralizing precept and hearsay carry less weight than factual detail, such as geography, population, foreign involvements, past military actions, and so forth. Olberding’s project, then, was to elicit the ways in which court ministers deployed the evidence at hand to warrant their knowledge claims and the judgments they recommended to influence executive decision making.

Olberding points out that since the court audience of the addresses tended to be nonspecialist, the evidentiary claims had to be of the sort that would stir the greatest appeal as reputable opinions. At the same time, Olberding qualifies that not [End Page 816] all reputable opinions were accorded the same degree of belief or acceptance. Some such opinions were regarded as beyond doubt, and some were questioned as open to doubt, while others were considered as outright dubious. The court rhetoric has to be studied carefully—in context and in detail—to discern what was taken to be at stake, what was considered a basic truth or core consideration, and what was just a suggestion or a comment for consideration in a particular discussion. Under the conditions of the imperial court, while certain tacit standards of truth or reliability were in play, the concern was not merely one of factual accuracy. In this restricted context, what mattered was “a standard of relevance to the overarching concerns of the executive,” which the author calls “the truth of the matter” (p. 5). In making his case, Olberding focuses on several examples of ministerial addresses of the former Han, viewed in comparison with two examples of Warring States military addresses from the Intrigues of the Warring States Period. (Interestingly, the author notes that while neither the Intrigues nor the Warring States court politics were nearly as under the sway of Confucian moralizing as were Han histories and politics, the evidentiary standards of the former Han court military addresses were consistent with those of the earlier period. Additionally, he finds the norms for the use of evidence to have been consistent across the strata of Han bureaucracy as well as over time.)

Given that the court lacked independent means of weighing evidentiary claims, particularly in the speech act contexts of the addresses and discussions, questions and doubts rarely could be raised in terms of certifiable accuracy or justifiability. Hence, the author introduces H. P. Grice’s notions of “epistemic quality” and “epistemic weight,” which apply in conversations in which the accuracy and justification of the speaker’s claims and judgments cannot be conveniently ascertained. For Grice, truth quality pertains to the truthfulness and believability of a speaker’s claim; hence its epistemic quality. The author adds the notion of “truth qualities” (p. 6) to incorporate a claim’s further practical implications, its place in...


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