My research is primarily concerned with texts produced and circulated in the early medieval period from roughly the second to the seventh centuries CE, or the period from the late Han dynasty through the beginning of the Tang dynasty. Warfare and political turmoil typically characterize the era in between these two powerful dynasties. Considered a complicated and unstable time, this time period also witnessed a period of great innovation in terms of literature, historiography, and scholarship. In the simplest terms, the quantity and variety of texts in circulation increased rapidly. Studying the way these and other texts were organized, then, is in part a way to understand how people dealt with this textual excess; the strategies that they used to cope with the ever increasing availability of accumulated textual knowledge is another important area to study. In addition, I am interested in the reception of these texts in later periods—works written to describe or evaluate the contents of these early medieval works, and what these newer texts tell us about how attitudes towards the older works shift over time. Usually it is not possible to consult editions of books that actually date from the early medieval period. Therefore, over the course of this year of research I sought to try to understand more about the way texts from the early medieval period were “reinvented” in new editions throughout history. Familiarizing myself with the various editions of the texts I study that have been published throughout the premodern era led me to discover a new edition of a particular text that has been published only recently, which has totally changed the way in which I think about the importance and value of the continuing study of premodern Chinese literature.
Recent Anecdotes and the Talk of the Age (世說新語 Shishuo Xinyu) is a text that is particularly important in my work because it was annotated by another writer, Liu Xiaobiao (劉孝標), about a generation or so after it was first written. These annotations significantly expand the length of the text by citing hundreds of other books, which makes it possible to not only get access to contents of many other texts that would otherwise be totally unknown now, but also to understand how these other texts were brought into conversation with Recent Anecdotes itself. Almost all versions of the text produced since the Tang dynasty (from the earliest extant manuscript of the text until the present) include these expansions and additions as comments embedded within the original text. Evidence suggests that prior to the Tang dynasty the expansions compiled by Liu Xiaobiao were printed as an appendix or sequel to the original text, but no versions in this format survive today. Furthermore, in their current form, the annotations tend to relate quite closely to the anecdotes to which they append. Whether it was Liu Xiaobiao himself or a later interpolator, someone certainly arranged these additions to the text with care.
For quite some time, however, later readers have used the annotations as a source of information about the texts they cite outside of their direct relationship to Recent Anecdotes. Many attempts have been made to write down every title cited within these annotations and to arrange them into bibliographies organized according to genre. This is an important and useful task because many of the titles cited are not recorded in other sources—the annotations are a way to learn about books that existed in the time of Liu Xiaobiao but were not acknowledged by any other bibliographic sources. During the course of my research, I learned of one such attempt, a bibliography of the cited texts compiled by the scholar and bibliophile Ye Dehui (葉德輝) (1864-1927),that tends to be overlooked in other studies of Recent Anecdotes. In attempting to track down this bibliography, I realized that it was originally published not in a separate volume or collection of notes on historiography like other similar bibliographies, but that it was actually attached as an appendix to a late Qing dynasty edition of the text, printed by the Sixian jiangshe (思賢講舍) publishing house in Hunan. I found this fascinating because it meant that finding this edition would give me access to an interesting and important bibliography and allow me to study to a very unique edition of the text. As it turns out, this version of the text is quite common, and it had been included in its entirety in a modern edition published by Shanghai guji chubanshe (上海古籍出版社) in 1982. Also, this edition includes facsimiles of the Tang dynasty manuscript fragment and other texts related to Recent Anecdotes. Though somewhat embarrassing to realize that something you spend a few days looking for is actually quite widely available, I think this is something that happens quite often in this kind of research—sometimes, it can take you quite a while to locate something that has been right under your nose the whole time.
As it turns out, the somewhat roundabout process in which I located this edition of the text led me to an even more interesting discovery. I found that two versions of this edition had been printed by the Beijing Library Publishing Company (北京圖書館出版社). These texts are high-quality reproductions of specific copies of the text owned by early 20th century scholars. In addition to reproducing the shape and format of the Sixian jiangshe edition of the text, they also include hand-written comments inscribed in the margins by their former owners. One, published in 2012, contains the notes of Zhou Yiliang (周一良) (1913-2001), a scholar whose work I was already familiar with. Since Zhou has contributed a great deal of important research on the history and literature of the early medieval period, I was not surprised to see his notes used to produce such a reverent reproduction. The other, published in 2006, has the handwritten notes of Zhao Xilu (趙西陸) (1915-1987), whose name I had never seen before. Though I would not say my knowledge of Chinese scholars is at all comprehensive, I was still a little surprised to see that a scholar I had not heard of was being treated similarly to one of the most important scholars of the 20th century—not only that, but the edition of the text with his handwritten notes was actually published before the one with Zhou’s notes! It made me feel as though I must have made a major oversight in my studies.
When I finally looked at this text in person in the National Taiwan University library, I realized why Zhao Xilu’s name was not as familiar as Zhou Yiliang’s. The text includes a short biography of Zhao as a preface, written by Ren Jiyu (任繼愈) (1916-2009), who served as the director of the National Library of China in Beijing from 1987 to 2005. I learned that Zhao had graduated from the Chinese department of Beijing Normal University (北京師範大學) in 1937 and went on to teach courses in Chinese literature at several prominent universities, eventually ending up at Dongbei Renmin Daxue (東北人民大學), which would eventually be known as Jilin University (吉林大學). Here, I will quote directly from Ren Jiyu’s biography:
At that time, at every university most of the time was spent on official functions. Zhao would take advantage of the early hours of the morning, and spend the first two hours of every day attempting to conduct a bit of research on classical literary texts. He edited and annotated The Intrigues of the Warring States, Gradations of the Poets, The Art of War, The Romance of the Western Chamber, The Plainly-Told Record of the Three Kingdoms, and Recent Anecdotes and the Talk of the Age. During the “Cultural revolution,” all professors were ordered to return to the countryside to work in rural production teams for three years. At this point, all of his drafts and papers were either burned or scattered. This copy of the Recent Anecdotes with Zhao’s annotations escaped the fire and ashes, and was fortunately preserved until now.
Since I study ancient texts and history, I very rarely encounter the direct consequences of the many complicated events of the 20th century and had never really given serious thought to the effects of the Cultural Revolution on the study of premodern literature. Reading this account of Zhao Xilu’s troubled career shocked me. I was immediately very moved, yet I found it difficult to comprehend exactly what was so profound to me about learning these details. After thinking about it for some time, I realized that my emotional reaction came from realizing how much Zhao had sacrificed in order to continue his research and scholarly work and how much it must have meant to him to continue his work in a time when few of his peers must have appreciated its value.
I am sure that at some point in their careers, all students in the humanities compare themselves to people in other fields and professions and feel as though the work we do is not as important or doesn’t contribute as much to society as some other careers might. I have definitely had these doubts as a graduate student. Reading about Zhao’s dedication to his research has completely changed my opinion on this subject. First of all, I have realized that since people have sacrificed so much to continue these traditions of scholarship and to continue to investigate the depths of China’s literary history against such great odds, it is silly for me to ever question the importance of this kind of work. Out of respect for Zhao and others like him, I have started to take my own work much more seriously. Furthermore, it has made me feel incredibly lucky to be living in a time when literary study and scholarly exchange is much freer. I realized that what was so profound to me about Zhao’s story was not just learning the details, but seeing them discussed so openly and frankly in a recent publication in Chinese. As it is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, I have noticed many editorials about how this topic is not acknowledged more frequently in China. Though I am sure there is more progress to be made, I think the fact that stories like these are told by people in such prominent positions like Ren Jiyu are a sign that the lessons and consequences of the Cultural Revolution are not being completely ignored. In the weeks since I first read about Zhao, I have found more recent articles that have incorporated information from Zhao’s notes into their own studies: a sign that his contributions have been embraced and finally influence and inform other students of Chinese literature.
After thinking through my own reaction to reading about Zhao Xilu, I ultimately realized that this situation is in some ways quite related to the actual topics of my research. After all, I am not only studying commentary and notes appended to texts by later scholars, but also the corpus of texts that I am studying has been at the mercy of countless man-made and natural disasters—situations in which dozens, if not hundreds, of other books have been totally wiped from existence, and it is thanks to a long history of dedicated scholars who have continued to circulate and study these works that enough of them have survived until the present. This is not just a situation that affects modern or medieval China, but is something that is constantly at stake throughout the world. Even in relatively peaceful periods, often the passage of time is enough to destroy books if only due to materials that are subject to deterioration and decay. Moreover, what good is preserving the existence of a book if no one reads it or understands it? It is not enough to simply store a text in an archive or library and consider that our work on that text is done—without people to continue to actively engage with these texts and teach others how to appreciate them, perhaps they will disappear. I am very fortunate to be able to play even a small role in that process. I feel a great responsibility to strive to maintain the quality of my own work as doing this kind of research is not only a way to participate in the same field as the brave and dedicated people who continued to do so even when it was dangerous. In a manner of speaking, it is a way to participate in the same tradition of study as the ancient scholars who are the subject of my research.