- How Late Imperial Chinese Literati Read Their Books: Inscribing, Collating, Excerpting
Xie Shuanghui has a magic seven-treasured sandalwood desk inscribed with characters. The characters change in response to the thoughts of the viewer, and their style shifts accordingly into official script, seal script, regular script, or cursive script. For example, when someone who sets his mind on spiritual cultivation looks at the desk, there will appear on it subtle guidance based on his personality and natural endowments; if the viewer covets something, the characters on the desk will inform him of its location; and if he wants to cure or cast a spell on someone, it will tell him which medicine to take or which incantation to employ; and if someone is studying at the desk, a sentence or a word that occasionally slips his mind will unfailingly show up on it.—The Story of Heaven’s Library1
A literatus in late imperial China would have found his books just as versatile as Xie Shuanghui’s magic desk: thanks to the imperial examination system—arguably one of the world’s most enduring meritocratic institutions— book knowledge, especially knowledge of Confucian classics, offered him possibilities to move up the social ladder regardless of his original station in life.2 If the path from bookish learning to official career turned out to be unviable, either because luck was not on his side in the exam hall or because he ended up shipwrecked in the treacherous bureaucratic waterscape, the same books which provided him with a ticket to public life in the first place would then become a sanctuary he retired to, where, substituting cultural authority for political power, he could seek consolation from the words of the ancient sages and enjoy the peace and quiet of private life. The stories of literati and their books are therefore informed by the tension between the apparently conflicting but in effect mutually constitutive impulses to engage with the mundane world of politics and to withdraw from it. In either case, books and reading functioned as a vehicle through which they articulated their aspirations and frustrations, fears and hopes.
Anticipating and promptly fulfilling the desires of its viewer, the magic desk becomes an extension of his mentality. The books literati read, however, [End Page 320] are not as cooperative and accommodating. They conceal as much as they reveal, and confuse as much as they enlighten. While the magic desk reads the viewer’s mind and constantly adapts itself to his needs, literati are compelled to impose their own interpretive frameworks upon the text, manipulating it to suit their own agenda, be it political, intellectual, or aesthetic. They enrich, distort, or corrupt the book as they read it, leaving behind inscriptions, marginal comments, and collation marks. Nor do they shy away from physically altering the book by cutting it up, combining it with other texts, pasting paper slips onto it, or interleaving it with blank pages for the purpose of note-taking. Stamped (sometimes literally) with the concerns, preoccupations, and idiosyncrasies of literati readers, books in late imperial China are highly customized, to the extent that they become as much a product of the reader’s mind as of the author’s.
This article explores how books were read and used in late imperial China, what roles they played in the intellectual and social lives of their readers, and in what ways active and appropriative engagement with books—both as material artifacts and as texts—point to shifts in cultural practices. Some of the reading practices surveyed here are personal and idiosyncratic, linked to circumstances having little to do with the content of the book or social or political trends; others resonate politically and intellectually and point to shifts in broader cultural practices. The key is active and appropriative engagement with books, both as material artifacts and as texts. In recent decades, scholars of Western book history have engaged intensively not only with questions about how, where, when, and why readers read but also with the wide variety of uses readers have made of books. Numerous studies have focused on the creative ways books have been excerpted, commonplaced, anthologized, abstracted, abridged, expanded...