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  • The Culture of Language in Ming China: Sound, Script and the Redefinition of Boundaries of Knowledge by Nathan Vedal
  • Ann Waltner (bio)
Nathan Vedal, The Culture of Language in Ming China: Sound, Script and the Redefinition of Boundaries of Knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. ix, 331 pp. Paperback $35.00, isbn 9780231200752. Hardcover $140.00, isbn 9780231200745. E-book $34.99, isbn 9780231553766.

Nathan Vedal's The Culture of Language in Ming China: Sound, Script and the Redefinition of Boundaries of Knowledge is a brilliant and stimulating book. It is an examination of Ming philology, which has been dismissed by Qing philologists (and other later scholars) as amateurish and disorganized. The eighteenth-century editors of the Siku quanshu were perplexed as to how best to categorize the work of these scholars; it did not fit their categories (p. 216). Vedal writes in his introduction: "Rather than evaluating Ming philosophical thinkers according to present day standards, I aim to describe the logic and motivations underlying their methods of learning" (p. 8). [End Page 226]

The logic and motivations underlying the methods of learning for these scholars is indeed fascinating. They were fundamentally interested in sound, not simply as one aspect of language, but as a mechanism that connected the human world to the world of nature. One of the themes that engages Vedal throughout the book is the interaction of the natural world (which he refers to as the world of self-so, translating the Chinese ziran 自然) and the human world, specifically the world of speech and music, sounds created by human intervention.

Ming scholars were intensely interested in exploring the capacity of the Chinese writing system to record sound, and they were aware that there were sounds that could not be captured by the writing system. Vedal explores some of the more interesting attempts to do so in his chapter 2. Scholars knew that the logographic system used to write Chinese was not the only way of writing. Although expertise in Sanskrit may have been rare, scholars were aware of what Vedal calls the "phonographic nature" of the system used to write Sanskrit. And of course, the Jesuit presence in the sixteenth century made some scholars aware of the nature of European writing systems. Most important for late Ming and Qing thinking about language notation, however, may have been the Manchus, whose script was phonographic. Although there were no attempts to force ordinary Chinese people to learn Manchu, it was nonetheless declared the state language (Guoyu 国语), which ushered in "a heightened sense of the utility of phonographic writing" (p. 71). However, Vedal points out that Chinese scholars never assumed that a phonographic writing system was superior to a logographic writing system (as some western scholars have done) (p. 71).

Ming scholars were very aware of regional variations in pronunciation, which Vedal refers to as topolects. Regional variations interested and perplexed them. The ways in which the universal human capacity to speak manifested itself in different languages was an interesting puzzle. Fang Yizhi (1611–1671) posited that all infants spoke the same universal language (the key terms in that language being "wa wa 哇哇"), but as they grew older they learned from their parents and their surroundings the particulars of the local topolect. This raised the question of how to think about and analyze the universality of sound if the parameters of speech were locally constructed. The answer they found to the question was cosmology, which gave scholars a way of "abstractly discussing sound without reference to time, space, or text" (p. 27). Sound was the product of the movement of qi 气 (primal force) and number was a fundamental property of sound (p. 24).

But while the puzzle of why there are variations of speech might be solved in some ways by a cosmological approach to language, the real-world differences in how people of the Ming spoke remained. Li Yu (1610–1680) observed, "It is often the case that an official speaks and his clerk does not understand, or that a commoner comes to dispute an injustice and the official does not comprehend, bringing about mistaken floggings and the reversal of rewards and punishments. How could one...