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  • Philosophy on Bamboo: Text and the Production of Meaning in Early China by Dirk Meyer
  • Uffe Bergeton
Philosophy on Bamboo: Text and the Production of Meaning in Early China. By Dirk Meyer. Studies in the History of Chinese Texts, vol. 2. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012. Pp. x + 395. Hardcover $182.00, isbn 978-9-004-20762-2.

Focusing on the Guodian corpus, Dirk Meyer’s Philosophy on Bamboo: Text and the Production of Meaning in Early China analyzes how the structural organization of texts, and the manuscript culture in which they arose, contributed to shaping the ideas expressed in them. It discusses the respective roles of writing and orality in the creation, circulation, and transmission of ‘philosophical’ texts in the pre-Qin period. Meyer introduces a distinction between what he calls argument-based texts and context-based texts. Argument-based texts are self-contained entities in which clues to the meaning of key terms can be found in the texts themselves. In contrast, context-based texts require reference to an external source of authority (e.g., a master, an authoritative text, or a cultural tradition) for their successful interpretation. This theoretical framework allows Meyer to formulate novel hypotheses about the formation, structure, function, and transmission of early Chinese texts.

The thirteen chapters of Philosophy on Bamboo are divided into three parts. Part 1 (chapters 1–4) provides studies of the macro-level structure of four different argument-based texts. This chapter introduces the concept of ‘argument-based text’ through an analysis of how meaning is constructed in the “Zhong xin zhi dao.” The main idea is that the formal macro-level organization of different ‘units of thought’ [End Page 352] contributes to the content of the text as a whole in ways that have hitherto been overlooked. Chapter 2 argues that although the structure of the “Qiong da yi shi” is very different from that of the “Zhong xin zhi dao,” it is still an argument-based text whose content is informed by “the logical structure of the argument” (p. 26). In chapter three, Meyer compares another argument-based text, the “Wu xing,” with its Mawangdui counterpart. Meyer argues that the differences between these two manifestations are due to vicissitudes inherent in the process of copying texts in writing by reading them aloud, rather than to “conscious changes … by later editors,” as proposed in previous studies, and that the two manuscripts contain “one coherent ‘system of thought’” (p. 27). In chapter 4, Meyer wraps up the analysis of argument-based texts through a comparative analysis of the Guodian and the Shanghai “Xing zi ming chu” manuscripts. His main argument is that the first part of these two manuscripts is structured similarly and expresses the same core ideas. In contrast, the second halves of the manuscripts are structured differently and contain different elaborations on the common themes of the first halves.

In part 2 (chapters 5–8) Meyer compares the different roles of argument-based and context-dependent texts in the larger context of the manuscript culture of the Warring States period. Chapter 5 introduces and defines the concept of context-dependent texts. In contrast to argument-based texts, the individual ‘units of thought’ are not stitched together by macro-level structures that inform the reader how to interpret the text. Hence, the interpretation of each of the isolated ‘units of thought’ in context-dependent texts relies on extra-textual authorities, for example explicit or implicit references to the sayings of masters or to passages from authoritative texts such as the “Odes” or the “Documents” (p. 206).

Chapter 6 argues that the “Tai yi sheng shui” cannot be part of a ‘Proto-Laozi.’ Structured as an argument-based text, the “Tai yi sheng shui” stands out as a separate entity that does not fit into the context-dependent “Laozi C” manuscript. This demonstrates how Meyer’s proposed framework bears on the broader questions of the origin, function, and nature of texts in the pre-Qin period. In chapters 7 and 8 Meyer discusses what role the materiality of writing played in the development of new genres. His central hypothesis is that “the extensive use of light writing materials...