Reading and Writing Practices in Early Medieval China


Public lecture “Reading and Writing Practices in Early Medieval China” presented by Professor Wendy Swartz, Associate Professor of Chinese Literature, Rutgers University.

Oct. 17, 4:00pm-- 5:15pm
Location: White Hall 205

This lecture addressed issues of intertextuality, reading, and writing practices in early Medieval China by exploring the ways in which philosophical classics, such as Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Yijing, were read, quoted, and appropriated by major poets of the period.


Any study of reading and writing practices in early medieval China must consider the issue of intertextuality. During the third and fourth centuries, the Chinese literati drew extensively from a set of philosophical classics, in particular Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Yijing (later referred to collectively as the Three Mysterious Texts), and their respective commentaries, to express their positions in conversation or in writing on major issues ranging from politics to nature to human behavior. Understanding the early history of reading in China involves not only tracking what was read and the manner in which it was read (aloud or silent, leisurely or intensely), but also probing into how texts were interpreted and appropriated. A text’s readability is perhaps best demonstrated by its iterability (capacity for repetition): re-using a text makes an unequivocal statement about having understood its supposed meaning. Writing well, like reading well, meant demonstrating a command of the textual tradition and cultural codes, and the ability to appropriate them. In this way, intertextuality constituted equally a condition of writing as well as a mode of reading in early medieval China. Intertextuality has special significance and ramifications for early medieval Chinese literary history in light of the fluid boundaries of textual traditions and the dynamic interactions among diverse, expanding repertoires of literary and cultural meanings. It is within this context of a growing body of literary sources and an interconnectedness of not only different intellectual repertoires (e.g. Confucian, Lao-Zhuang, and Buddhist) but also different fields (e.g. philosophy, poetry) that we should consider how writers best made use of diverse, heterogeneous sources suited to their needs. The lecture explores the ways in which philosophical classics were read, quoted, and appropriated by major poets of the period.

Dr. Swartz taught at Columbia University for many years and has taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research is primarily on early medieval Chinese poetry and poetics. She has published articles in leading American journals, such as the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (HJAS)Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), and the Journal of American Oriental Society (JAOS). She is the author of Reading Tao Yuanming: Shifting Paradigms of Historical Reception (427-1900) (Harvard University Asia Center, 2008; a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2008) and the principal editor of a major volume, Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook (Forthcoming spring 2013, Columbia University Press).