Appearances Can Be Revealing

Creating Credibility in Ancient Chinese Texts
11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room D

  • Organised by Christian Schwermann
  • Christoph Harbsmeier, Chair
  • Christian Schwermann, “Miraculous Evidence—The Fangmatan Tale of Dan’s Resurrection Revisited”
  • Paul Fahr, “Testimonial Evidence in Han Dynasty Historiography”
  • Felix Bohlen, “Commemorating, Narrating and Creating the Past—Aspects of Factual Narrative in Western Zhou Bronze Inscriptions”
  • Tobias Wilke, “The Mohist Way of Standardising Types of Evidence”
  • Thomas Crone, “To the Left and to the Right of the Ruler—The Testimonial Role of the Scribe in Early Chinese Literature”
  • Klaus Oschema, Discussant

In this panel, we propose to investigate the wide range of textual devices that serve to create credibility, or the appearance of it, in ancient Chinese texts. Are there ghosts, or aren’t there? Did an accused commit the crime he or she was charged with or not? Was the first Han emperor fathered by a dragon or not? Questions like these have been asked by Chinese authors since antiquity. Interestingly, these writers, whether they were literati in the broadest sense, legal scholars or historians, pursued similar strategies of authentication when articulating their doubts or presenting their evidence—for example, eyewitness testimony, anecdotal evidence, or authoritative sources concerning historical events and personalities. While some were concerned with asserting or questioning the truth claims of historical narratives or clarifying questions of guilt, others set out to create a circumstantial narrative plausibility—especially as long as a distinction between high-quality factual and inferior non-factual narratives was prevalent. Our survey will consider the entire spectrum of both received and excavated literature, ranging from bronze inscriptions and bamboo manuscripts to traditional historiography and philosophical treatises that developed methods of testing the reliability of statements.

Christian Schwermann, “Miraculous Evidence – The Fangmatan Tale of Dan’s Resurrection Revisited”

The Qin 秦 bamboo manuscripts excavated in 1986 from tomb number one at Fangmatan 放馬灘 include a document that claims to be an official account of the miraculous resurrection of a man called Dan 丹 in 297 BCE, allegedly submitted by a local vice magistrate to the royal scribe of the state of Qin in 269 BCE. Hitherto, this text has often been accepted at face value as an administrative document and accordingly considered a valuable new source on late Warring States religion. The present paper proposes to change perspective and to proceed from the assumption that it is an early precursor to medieval tales of the supernatural. From this point of view, it becomes obvious that the manuscript employs a wide range of elaborate textual devices to create an appearance of credibility, one of them being the contrivance to present the sensational story under the guise of an official administrative report. Following a retranslation of the manuscript, I will engage in a close reading of the text, focusing on the narratological analysis of devices that make the narrative plausible. Finally, I will try to explore some of the sources from which late Warring States authors drew when they were trying to create appearances of reliability.

Paul Fahr, “Testimonial Evidence in Han Dynasty Historiography

One import device to lend credibility to a historiographical account is testimony. This may take different forms: an author may claim to have been eye-witness to a certain event himself, or he may refer to the words of others for confirmation of his story. Finally, the narrative structure of the historiographical work itself may convey a sense of testimonial evidence. This happens when a certain event is told as seen from the perspective of one or more particular characters being part of the story. Claims of testimony constitute a well-known element in Western historiography. The present paper argues that narrative procedures like these can be occasionally observed in historiographical works of the Han Dynasty (206/202 BCE–220 CE) as well, for example in the Documents of the Han (Hanshu 漢書). Proceeding from here, it discusses the function of testimonial evidence in these texts: when would an official historian consider it necessary to adduce testimonial evidence for his account; why would he do so; and when would he deem it appropriate to explicitly admit that there is no testimony for a certain episode?

Felix Bohlen, “Commemorating, Narrating and Creating the Past – Aspects of Factual Narrative in Western Zhou Bronze Inscriptions

Because Western Zhou (1045–771 BCE) bronze inscriptions are remains of the period on which they report and since they can normally be dated with much greater accuracy than transmitted ancient Chinese texts, they are often believed to be also more reliable than the received sources. This belief appears to be confirmed by the contents of the inscriptions, which purport to conform with extra-textual reality. When claiming, to tell the truth, they establish what Stephan Jaeger calls a ‘pact of truthfulness’ (Wahrhaftigkeitspakt) between two entities involved in narrative inscriptional communication: the donor of the inscribed vessel on the one side, and her or his posterity on the other. However, just like in traditional Chinese historiography, the dominant mode of presenting past events in ancient Chinese epigraphy is narration, and, just like transmitted historical narratives, inscriptions can be highly subjective and biased when narrating the past. There are epigraphs such as the one on the “Basin of Scribe Qiang” (Shi Qiang pan 史牆盤, ca. 900 BCE), the narratives of which conflict blatantly with extra-textual reality. The present paper thus aims to uncover strategies of creating historical credibility in inscriptional narratives. How does the narrator adduce testimonial evidence for his account? Which devices does he or she employ to support their truth claims and make their narratives feel real? And why do they try to disguise the constructedness of the latter?

Tobias Wilke, “The Mohist Way of Standardising Types of Evidence

In order to be able to judge a proposition, it is necessary to set up a gauge. This suggestion of imperishable plausibility was explicitly expressed in the Mozi’s 墨子 “Fei ming” 非命 chapters. Every claim, the Mohists argued, has to be examined according to the so-called Three Gnomons/Three Methods (san biao 三表 or san fa 三法): It must be tested against the precedent of the sage kings, against what the people heard and saw, and finally against its benefits for the state and the people. If the proposition meets all three criteria, it is considered valid. What appears to be a simple formula for verifying a proposition is actually an effective guideline for the creation of anecdotal and source evidence. It is this argumentative strategy that the Mohists themselves have continuously refined when composing the Mozi triads. If we take a closer look at the “Jian’ai” 兼愛 triad, we can even see how the formation of evidence according to the proposed Three Gnomons has shaped the evolution of these three chapters. While the first chapter of the triad merely shows arguments of the third type—i.e. abstract, hypothetical proofs— the second and third chapters increasingly also use anecdotal and source evidence. In this talk, I will first take a closer look at the Three Gnomons and then try to reveal how the Mohists used this method in the “Jian’ai” triad to create what they considered to be strong evidence.

Thomas Crone, “To the Left and to the Right of the Ruler—The Testimonial Role of the Scribe in Early Chinese Literature”

An important form of creating literary evidence is the invocation of eyewitnesses. With regard to the numerous historical anecdotes about the actions and words of ancient kings, emperors, and other rulers, which make up a large part of extant early Chinese narrative prose, court scribes (shi 史) seem to have been the ideal candidates to fulfil the role of eyewitnesses. For not only were they known for their constant presence (to the left and to the right of the ruler), but their records also enjoyed the reputation of capturing everything of significance with unyielding impartiality. It is therefore not surprising that in ancient Chinese literature, the reference to the presence of a court scribe appears to have already developed into a topos that served to certify the plausibility of narratives. In my talk, I will present and discuss some examples of such cases, most of which come from the pre-Qin corpus. I will focus on the questions of how these eyewitnesses are characterised in the respective narratives, in which ways they serve as literary devices to create credibility and which conclusions can be drawn from our insights for the understanding of these stories.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room D
Creating Credibility in Ancient Chinese Texts