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  • Writing and Authority in Early China
  • Martin Kern (bio)
Mark Edward Lewis . Writing and Authority in Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. vii, 544 pp. Hardcover $92.50, ISBN 0 - 7914-4113-x. Paperback $31.95, ISBN 0-7914-4114-8.

In more than one sense, Mark Edward Lewis' Writing and Authority in Early China is a monument of scholarship. First of all, its 544 pages constitute the most comprehensive, illuminating, and intellectually challenging tour de force through the early Chinese textual tradition that has been published so far in any of the major sinological languages. It is by all standards the best available introduction to this tradition and mandatory reading for anybody interested in early China. Whatever transmitted text of early Chinese intellectual history one may think of, chances are high that Mark Lewis has dealt with it somewhere on these pages.

The textual layout betrays an effort to force a massive text into a still handy format, a commendable effort that nevertheless does not come without a price for the reader: Lewis' often brilliant and imaginative prose inspires numerous notes that one wishes to put into the margins—if only there were any margins of reasonable space to accommodate them. The tightness of print correlates with a strictness of organization. The seven chapters of almost identical length are headed by carefully composed titles that suggest an overall coherence of the topic under discussion: following the introduction, we are taken through "Writing the State," "Writing the Masters," "Writing the Past," and "Writing the Self"; these chapters are followed by "The Political History of Writing," "The Natural Philosophy of Writing," "The Encyclopedic Epoch," and "The Empire of Writing." Each chapter closes with a conclusion that in its last sentences leads directly to the next part of the book. The titles of the chapter subheadings corroborate this vision of neat coherence. For example, chapter 3, "Writing the Past," is composed of "The Past in Speeches," "The Past in Political Philosophy," "The Past in Cosmogony," and "The Past in Chronicle"; chapter 5, "The Political History of Writing," is structured into "The Mythology of Fu Xi," "The Mythology of the Duke of Zhou," and "The Mythology of Confucius"; chapter 7, "The Encyclopedic Epoch," deals with "Totality and Truth" and "Canon and Commentary," followed by "State-Sponsored Compendia" and another coherent set of topics: "Sima Qian and Universal History," "Sima Xiangru and Universal Poetry," and "The Liu Family and the Universal Library." The last chapter of the book before its overall "Conclusion" is, as noted above, "The Empire of Writing," and it consists of "Establishment of the Canon" and "Triumph of the Canon."

I list these titles at length not just to provide a convenient survey of this work's phenomenal breadth but to point to its very nature: in this magnum opus as well as in his other writings Mark Lewis emerges as a system builder, and if [End Page 336] there are, in Karlgren's words, any "systematizing" texts in early China, they are all easily outdone by their modern interpreter. In short, we witness a magnificent attempt to reconstruct a unified vision of early Chinese textual—and not only textual—culture. The ambitious enterprise is successful to the extent that one cannot help asking whether this universe of early China is actually a reconstruction or instead more of a brilliant and highly imaginative construct1—a point to which I will return below.

Writing and Authority in Early China is also a monument in a different sense: its 130 pages of notes, followed by thirty pages of "Works Cited," summarize an impressive body of modern scholarship written in Chinese, Japanese, English, French, and German. One of the book's noteworthy strengths is the fact that its author commands "Western" scholarship not as a monolingual domain—a matter of course but regrettably not, or no longer, common standard in Chinese studies, and therefore ever more important as one of the touchstones of comprehensive scholarship. Through the broad scope of its references, the book effectively, though perhaps inadvertently, seems to assume the gesture of closing an epoch—in this respect not that of early Chinese textuality but...


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