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Reading, Information, and Quantification in Traditional China

DAY 1 of a TWO-DAY EVENT. A Luce/ACLS Collaborative Reading Workshop organized by Jack W. Chen (UCLA) and Christopher M. B. Nugent (Williams College)

Friday, May 30, 2014
8:00 AM - 3:45 PM
Young Research Library Presentation Room

Reading, Information, and Quantification in Traditional China
A Luce/ACLS Collaborative Reading Workshop, 2-Day Event

Organized by Jack W. Chen (UCLA) and Christopher M. B. Nugent (Williams College)

Sponsored by the Luce Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures at UCLA, and the UCLA Asia Institute.

Friday, May 30, 2014 / Young Research Library Presentation Room

8:30–10:00 Session One: The Management of (Excessive) Data

Christopher M. B. Nugent (Williams College), “On Reading (or Not Reading) the Wenxuan 文選”

David Schaberg (UCLA), “On Reading the Yishi 繹史”

These two texts, the great medieval anthology Wenxuan (Selections of fine literature) and the late imperial historiographic work Yishi (Continuous history), represent two responses to the problem of copious data.  The Wenxuan served to curate literary knowledge for its age, culling the best works of each genre.  It was so influential that later scholars supposedly memorized the contents.  The Yishi sought to renarrate Chinese history from the creation of civilization to the fall of the Qin, drawing upon much apocryphal material in an attempt to be complete.  Both texts raise questions of organization and access in regard to the preservation of data, as well as issues of how the data was then used by their readers. 

10:00–10:20 Coffee Break

10:20–11:50 Session Two: Experiments in Distant Reading

Jack W. Chen, Dave Shepard, Evan Nicoll-Johnson, Yunshuang Zhang, and Ruichuan Wu (UCLA), “On Reading the Quan Tang shi 全唐詩”

Ruth Mostern (UC Merced), “On Reading the Song Yuan difangzhi congshu 宋元地方誌叢書”

The Quan Tang shi (Complete Tang poems) collected over 49,000 poems from the Tang dynasty; as such, it is too massive to read using the conventional literary methods of close reading.  Similarly, the massive Song Yuan difangzhi congshu (Collectanea of gazeteers from the Song and Yuan dynasties) is a modern compendium of the gazeteers produced during the Song and Yuan dynasties, numbering over 8000 pages in all.  What reading entails for collections of this size is different from reading single units of text (such as a poem or a novel), necessitating the use of computational methodologies such as statistical analysis and GIS. 

11:50–1:30 Lunch

1:30–3:45 Session Three: Learning to Read and Write

Robert Ashmore (UC Berkeley), “On Reading Dunhuang Letter Writing Manuals”

Carla Nappi (University of British Columbia), “On Reading the Manju gisun-i oyonggo jorin-i bithe (Ch. Qingwen zhiyao 清文指要) Phrasebook”

Stephen West (Arizona State University), “On Reading between Encyclopedias and Commentaries”

The process of learning to read and write was always mediated through other texts.  In the case of Dunhuang letter writing manuals, this was a body of texts that novice writers used as models for their own writing, involving instruction in formulaic expression and proper etiquette.  As such, letter writing manuals provided a means of inculcating linguistic and cultural literacy — a purpose that could also be seen in phrasebooks for Manchu speakers hoping to master literary Chinese.  Works such as the Manju gisun-i oyonggo jorin-i bithe (Essentials of Qing writing) were, in effect, structured anthologies of excerpts and quotations that served as guides to learning to read on the scale of an entire language.  Similarly, for a general reading public desiring to understand popular literary works, a guide to the use of allusions was needed, taking the form of commentaries that drew upon middlebrow compendia, rimebooks, and distillations of earlier primers.  The commentary found in the 1499 edition of the Xixiang ji 西廂記 (Account of the western wing) is the earliest extant commentary to a vernacular language literary text and sheds light on the reading knowledge and habits of a vast non-elite audience.


Sponsor(s): Asia Institute