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  • The Empire of the Text: Writing and Authority in Early Imperial China
  • Martin Kern (bio)
Christopher Leigh Connery . The Empire of the Text: Writing and Authority in Early Imperial China. Lanham, Boulder, New York, and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 0-8476-8738-4. Paperback $22.95, ISBN 0-8476-8739-2.

This is a short polemical essay that repeatedly calls itself not a study but "an analytical experiment." The book has not only a thesis—namely that the social practice of writing is at the core of political and social authority in Han China—but also an agenda: it is written "as an interpretative and theoretical work" (p. ix) and aims to offer an alternative to "the philological work that guild sinology had done for generations" (p. 2). Although it is not exactly clear (since it remains undefined) what and whom the author understands as a collective "guild sinology," the book is indeed not concerned with philological issues, nor is it devoted to introducing hitherto unknown early Chinese texts to its audience. Instead, it draws selectively on well-known writings in order to put them into the perspective of the "Empire of the Text"—an idea that is introduced through passages like the following:

My experiment—and naming it an experiment is one way in which my work differs from the sinological tradition of transmission and annotation—is to treat the sources and their contents not simply as transparent or semitransparent [End Page 420] records of the social existant but also as constitutive elements in the consolidation of an early imperial textual regime. My hypothesis is that textual authority existed, with a logic and ordering principles not wholly commensurate with political authority. Official texts certainly served certain political ends, but my hypothesis is that textual production must also be read as autonomous—as serving to constitute and strengthen its own authority.

(pp. 6-7)

The medium of Han textual authority was a highly codified system of signification, and the consolidation of the medium itself was a Han achievement. Texts were composed in a purely written language that did not base its communicative authority on its capacity to represent or reproduce a prior orality. I refer to this language, following Victor Mair, as Literary Sinitic. Use of Literary Sinitic in the Han was dependent on lexical, syntactic, generic, and subgeneric conventions. These conventions included, for certain textual practices, an intertextual deployment of elements from a body of source texts that became progressively more codified over the course of the Han.

(p. 8)

While one might find these passages self-satisfied in attitude ("differs from the sinological tradition"), vague in content ("served certain political ends"; "for certain textual practices"), defensive in tone ("my experiment"), jargon-laden in style ("a highly codified system of signification"), and questionable in their claims ("purely written language"), they rightfully stand in the "Introduction" since they prepare us exactly for what is to follow. The "Introduction" also has much to say about "a global dimension" of the "figuration of China's imperial past" (p. 2) and the "Cold War ideology of custodianship" where "those who conserved the imperial past were implicitly combating the communist present" (p. 3). Scholars of "the guild tradition of sinology" (p. 3) may feel uncomfortable by being sold wholesale as crypto-cold warriors, but this is how Connery sees them.

The following one hundred and fifty-odd pages consist of four chapters with twenty-seven subsections that have titles like "Texts, Textual Authority, Literacy, Ideology," "Literacy, Canonicity, Transmission, and Text-systems," "Work, Family, State, and Homosociality," or simply "What is Chinese Literature?" where the author tries (a) to summarize his and others' ideas in matters related to Han society and its textual practice, (b) to be a theoretical thinker reflecting on other theoretical thinkers in matters unrelated to China, and (c) to mirror (a) against (b). In addition to its thesis and its agenda, the book also has a consistent strategy: setting up simplistic (or entirely bogus) intellectual positions that are then bravely demolished. We witness a grandiose parade of straw men marching through his pages, some of them quoted extensively, others simply referred to as...


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pp. 420-425
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