Making History through Literature

4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room C

  • Organised by Xiaojing Miao and Clara Luhn
  • Antje Richter, Chair
  • Clara Luhn, “Towards a Typology of the Use of Letters in Sanguo zhi biographies”
  • Xiaojing Miao, “The Voice of the Defeated: Presenting History in Literature”
  • Kerstin Storm, “Making Family History: Images of Age and Ageing in Medieval Chinese Poetry”
  • Kangni Huang, “The Playwright among His Plays: The Case of Ruan Dacheng”

In the study of literature, historical texts are often consulted for background information that may contribute to a better understanding of literary texts. Yet we often forget that literature has long played a significant role in fashioning what we call history today, including providing materials for historical texts, delineating the contour of history, and challenging the authority of the so-called “official history.” In this panel, we will discuss the ways in which premodern literati shaped history through literature. The four papers in our panel approach this topic from different perspectives. Xiaojing Miao, by discussing two poems written the prominent scholar-official Xie Hui and the great poet Li Bai, explores how some premodern Chinese literati, when being on the side of the defeated, constructed historical narratives from viewpoints that contradicted those of the official history. Kangni Huang applies the notion of “media ecology” to the texts surrounding the historical figure Ruan Dacheng in order to illustrate the process of mediation contemporaneous with the making of history. Kerstin Storm’s paper focusses on themes and motives of age and ageing that are used in constructing personal as well as family history in the poetry from the Tang and Song dynasties. Clara Luhn examines the different purposes to which letters are quoted in the Sanguo zhi in order to sharpen our understanding of the historical text and the intentions behind it and to better understand the letters themselves.

Clara Luhn, “Towards a Typology of the Use of Letters in Sanguo zhi biographies”

One of the main sources of poetry and short prose before the Tang dynasty are historical texts, mainly the dynastic histories. The Sanguo zhi 三國志 (History of the Three States), finished by Chen Shou 陳壽 (233–297 CE) between 280 and 290 CE and extensively commented on by Pei Songzhi 裴松之 (372–451 CE), covers the period of the states Wei 魏, Shu 蜀, and Wu 吳, which arose after the fall of the Later Han dynasty. In their depiction of the period, Chen Shou and Pei Songzhi make ample use of primary sources and include a plethora of texts in the form of direct quotations. In the biographical chapters, many of these texts are letters either composed by, addressed to, or written with reference to the persons concerned. It is well known that historical texts are composed from a subjective stance, often with a certain agenda in mind. This extends to the usage of the letters quoted in those texts. They are included by compilers for specific purposes. Using biographies in the Sanguo zhi as examples, this paper will point out those purposes and make an attempt at classifying them. Through this, it hopes to sharpen our understanding of the historical text and the intentions behind it while also gathering information on how to understand the letters themselves.

Xiaojing Miao, “The Voice of the Defeated: Presenting History in Literature”

The so-called “official histories” (zhengshi 正史) that claim to offer faithful accounts of historical events were often composed by the victors. However, premodern Chinese literati who were on side of the defeated also had the power to construct historical narratives from their viewpoints, especially through literature. This is exactly what the prominent scholar-official Xie Hui 謝晦 (390–426) and the great poet Li Bai 李白 (701–762) did. Right before his execution, Xie Hui composed the poem Bei rendao 悲人道, where he presents important political events of the Liu-Song dynasty, including his dethronement of Emperor Shao (r. 422–424) and a rebellion against Emperor Wen 文 (r. 424–453), from his point of view. As for Li Bai, he was exiled to the far southwest due to his involvement with the Prince of Yong 永, Li Lin 李璘 (720–757), whose army was defeated by Emperor Suzong 肅宗 of the Tang 唐 (r. 756–762) during the An Shi Rebellion. In his long autobiographical poem presented to the governor of Jiangxia 江夏, Li Bai offers his account of the role the prince played during the rebellion. In this paper, I will examine these two poems in detail, thus considering ways in which medieval literati constructed historical narratives in favour of the defeated as well as the interplay between history and literature.

Kerstin Storm, “Making Family History: Images of Age and Ageing in Medieval Chinese Poetry

Images of age and ageing are not only an important part of family history but also contribute to literary history when conveyed in belles-lettres. Current notions of age and ageing in premodern China are dominated—at least as perceived by the Western hemisphere—by two stereotypes: On the one hand, the Confucian postulate to revere the aged (jing lao 敬老, zun lao 尊老) which draws from the cardinal virtue of filial piety (xiao 孝). This even led to the assumption that in China the elderly were more respected than elsewhere. On the other hand, the Daoist strive for immortality or at least longevity (shou 壽) which also nourishes the perception of old age as positive and desirable. However, depictions of age in premodern China are by no means limited to the mentioned stereotypes or purely positive perception. In fact, when it comes to poetry, they are rich in topical variety and language. There are laments, mockeries, and wise counsels of the elderly, general thoughts on ageing, impermanence, or retirement by the (relatively) young. The presentation aims at showing the diversity of images of old age and ageing in poems from the Tang and Song dynasties (7th–13th CE). It will trace back relevant themes and motifs in order to explain origins, explore poetic forms and help to understand changes of imagery.

Kangni Huang, “The Playwright among His Plays: The Case of Ruan Dacheng

A twentieth-century discipline, media studies is premised upon the idea that the seemingly neutral carrier of the message, namely, a “medium,” is shaped by and in turn, shapes ideology. As Marshall McLuhan famously declared, “the medium is the message.” In the 1990s, Neil Postman, among others, brought in a term originated from biology to promote the study of “media ecology.” A further attempt to denaturalise what appears to be neutral, media ecology aims to juxtapose human agents and various media technologies in order to reevaluate the interrelations among them. This paper is an attempt to understand the making of history through the concept of media ecology. Examining the materials surrounding the historical figure Ruan Dacheng 阮大鋮 (1587?–1646?), I hope to show that his contradictory image as both a talented playwright and a traitor to his country emerged from an ecosystem in which historical testimonies and literary texts mediated each other. I will start with Ruan Dacheng’s image as a playwright, contextualised within the development of drama criticism during the late Ming (1368–1644). Next, focusing on the essays written by or associated with Ruan’s contemporary, Mao Xiang 冒襄 (1611–1693), I will show that these materials not only conditioned the historical image of Ruan, but also that of his political rivals, such as Mao himself. Finally, I will conclude with Peach Blossom Fan by the early Qing dramatist Kong Shangren 孔尚任 (1648–1718), arguing that the play is better understood as the afterlife of that ecosystem.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room C