Letters and Notebooks as Sources for Literati Communication in China, 900-1300

The international workshop “Letters and Notebooks as Sources for Literati Communication in China, 900-1300”, organised by the research group “China and the Historical Sociology of Empire”, was held at Pembroke College, Oxford, on 9 and 10 January 2014. The meeting was intended to discuss primary sources for political communication among literati, with letters and notebooks as the main focus. An open panel format allowed for extensive discussions.

The first panel sought to consider the cultural and political projects that underlay the compilation and circulation of notebooks. Examining notebook entries that document verses written onto walls by travellers, Glen Dudbridge (University of Oxford) discussed how their transmission universalised communication as modern readers can share the feelings of the travellers in their unique situations. Ronald Egan (Stanford University) and Cong Ellen Zhang (University of Virginia) proposed that materials collected in notebooks be treated as alternatives or supplements to official history. On the basis of Zhou Hui’s Qing Bo Za Zhi 清波雜志 (Random Notes from Limpid Waters), Ronald Egan showed the author’s dissatisfaction with a contemporary degeneration in government practices and policies and the general mores and values among the literati class. Examining dozens of biji prefaces, Cong Ellen Zhang argued that notebook writers intended to make their work an important source for literati communication and wrote notebooks to disseminate rumour in contemporary and future literati circles. Wang Ruilai (Gakushuin University) reported on the difficult career path of Southern Song civil servants as shown in the epistolary writings of Yang Wanli. He showed how non-promoted scholar-officials often attempted to extend their influence locally by providing Neo-Confucian education in local schools and by advocating local cults. The strengthening of local identity, an important element of social change in the Song-Yuan transition, laid the foundation for the gentry society of the Ming and Qing periods.

The second panel explored the use of letters as primary sources in political and intellectual history. Illustrating the inseparability of Mi Fu’s extant manuscripts from poems, calligraphy and gifts, Lincoln Tsui (University of Oxford) discussed the role of letters in literati interactions that involved multiple ways of communicating and networking. Chu Ming-kin (Leiden University) introduced the fourteenth-century letter collection Zhong Zhou Qi Zha 中州啓劄 (Epistolary Writings of the Central Plain) and illustrated the dynamics of an elite network during the Jin-Yuan transition. David Pattinson’s (University of Leeds) investigation of Yan Shi Jia Cang Chi Du 顏氏家藏尺牘 (Letters Kept at the Yan Family Home) highlighted the complex relationship between the conscious cultivation of epistolary style and the practical motivations for writing letters in the seventeenth century. Both Hirata Shigeki (Osaka City University) and Huang K’uan-chung (Chang Gung University) discussed the impact of letters on actual politics. They showed how literati like Sun Yingshi and Wei Liaoweng realized their political ideals and influenced decision making by writing court officials. Contextualising the letters of Wei Liaoweng with respect to the civil service examinations and bureaucratic nominations during the Southern Song, Hirata Shigeki showed how letters served as a medium to strengthen social ties within networks of scholar-officials. Instead of focusing on how letters facilitated routine political processes, Huang K’uan-chung emphasized how letters conveyed political information and opinions by examining Sun Yingshi’s epistolary writings on learning and government to his teachers.

In the discussion sessions after the presentations, participants proposed various ways to facilitate the study of letters, which include making use of chronological biographies (Nianpu) to contextualise the letters at different stages of the lives of the people involved as well as exploring how letters were collected in anthologies and the meaning behind the editing and compiling process. The final paper in the panel on letters added a comparative perspective on letter-writing. Comparing the epistolary culture in medieval Europe and Song China, Bernard Gowers (University of Oxford) argued that during the Song dynasty there already existed a mature literati culture while its Latin European equivalent was still in the making.

In the third panel, speakers highlighted approaches and methodologies in analysing Chinese texts by means of digital tools. Chu Ping-tzu (National Tsing Hua University) introduced his research web site featuring Zhu Xi’s letters and explained how these documents could be dated and analysed based on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) standard. Marcus Bingenheimer (Temple University) introduced the “Digital Archive of Buddhist Temple Gazetteers” (http://buddhistinformatics.ddbc.edu.tw/fosizhi/) as a benchmark corpus for using Named Entity Recognition (NER) on classical Chinese and highlighted insights provided by marked-up corpora. Michael Fuller (University of California, Irvine) and Peter Bol (Harvard University) discussed the potential of the China Biographical Database (CBDB) as a tool for analysing large amounts of data. Illustrating prosopographical, spatial, and network methods of analysis, Peter Bol demonstrated how CBDB could be used to contextualise letter exchanges among Neo-Confucian activists during the latter half of the twelfth century. Making use of the CBDB’s jiguan data, Michael Fuller highlighted the spatial distribution of the average distance over which people corresponded.

In the final session, Brent Ho (Leiden University) demonstrated how the tagging system “MARKUS” (http://dh.chinese-empires.eu/beta/) developed by the organising research group can automatically tag personal names, place names, temporal references, bureaucratic offices, and other key terms generated by the user in any classical Chinese text file uploaded to the system. Hilde De Weerdt (Leiden University) then showed different ways of analysing the centrality of historical figures in texts marked up with MARKUS, using the twelfth-century notebook Huizhu Lu as an example.  The digital analysis revealed the centrality of the author Wang Mingqing and suggested that the content of the notebook focused on court instead of local affairs. The workshop ended up with an open floor discussion on the potential advantages and pitfalls of digital technology in historical research.

Chu Ming-kin


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