Hundreds of early Chinese bamboo, silk and wood manuscripts excavated in the last 40 years are challenging the idea of the author as the sole creator of literary work.
Not one of the manuscripts, which include philosophical and literary essays as well as administrative and technical writings from pre-Imperial or ancient China (before 221 B.C.), mentions its author, according to Martin Kern, a Chinese literature expert in the Department of East Asian Studies. The texts are also difficult to attribute to any one author, as individual manuscripts can sometimes have little to do with each other and are thus difficult to categorize. The absence of explicit author credits and the composite nature of the early Chinese texts, Kern said, calls into question the idea that for ancient China, scholars can equate a written artifact with the original thought of a sole individual.
“We have to rethink the idea that for a text to be credible it has to be tied to a certain person from the beginning,” Kern said. He explained that in the Chinese tradition beginning in early Imperial times, the dominant approach to “saying what a text is” involves attributing entire books to one prominent figure even though they contain a range of disparate chapters most likely not composed by a particular individual. The “author” then becomes a principal actor for imbuing a text with meaning, anchoring a text in a particular time, place and literary or philosophical niche according to the traditional perception of his — and in this time period the author could be assumed to be male — ideas and biography.
“We start out with the assumption of a unifying person with a unifying set of ideas,” Kern said, referring to interpretations of ancient Chinese literature. “Now we look at these texts, and we see it’s not at all like that.”
Kern, who publishes in both English and Chinese, pointed to fifth-century B.C. Greece to further highlight the contrast between pre- Imperial Chinese texts and those of early Greece. The writings of several Greek philosophers explicitly identify Homer as the creator of poetry, and other Greek figures such as Herodotus and Thucydides established their creator roles at the outset of their texts. In making their authorship explicit, Kern argued, the writers marked their works with a well-defined historical, geographical and cultural context that would later be instrumental in guiding the texts’ reception.
By contrast, the classics of ancient China went for centuries without authorial attribution — long after they had spread across the vast Chinese realm. This is not to say that authorship had no place in Chinese literature at all — the Imperial Chinese tradition is rife with examples of texts that were intimately linked to individual personalities. However, Kern suggests that these are only later developments, beginning in the second century B.C. with the newly established empire, and must not be projected backwards in time to the formative pre-Imperial period of China.
“The textual attributions for the pre-Imperial authors come into being retrospectively,” he said. Kern, the Greg (’84) and Joanna (P13) Zeluck Professor in Asian Studies and chair of the East Asian studies department, hopes to encourage others in his field to rethink prevailing assumptions about authorship in antiquity. He also wants to spread his ideas to colleagues beyond Chinese studies.
“I want to say, ‘look, you have your situation in Western classical antiquity, and … you think everything about that is normal — in the same way that the Chinese tradition considers itself the normal case,’” he said. Yet the Chinese evidence for composite texts complicates the notion of an “author” and shows it as “a totally cultural decision,” he said.
–By Tara Thean