Identifying and Mapping Issues, Theories, & Research in Asian/American Rhetoric(s): An Annotated Bibliography

Introduction to Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions

Posted in Asian Rhetoric(s) by Jennifer Sano-Franchini on May 7, 2009

Tsien, Tsuen-Hsuin. “Introduction.” Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions. U of Chicago P, 2004.

Tsien explains how prevailing religions and the dynasties in power influenced the production of and access to texts, and in effect, literacy and culture in Ancient China, thereby highlighting the politics of writing distribution and how sociopolitical influences affect the accumulative formation of culture, and knowledge. Tsien begins by describing the variety of materials and writing technologies used and invented by Chinese for writing, including paper, block printing, bamboo, silk, brush pen, and lamp-black ink along with their early attempts “toward the mechanical multiplication of writings” (2), which then led to an elaborate classification system of literature in China (3). In ancient China, writing was used for communication with the spirits, government documents and archives (developed extensively under the Zhou dynasty), and led to a literati class of recorders, users, and custodians (5, 7). Tsien suggests that with the Warring States period came private writings and collections, and the previously unseen notion of authorship in Chinese writing, as well as a growth in literacy among Chinese people (10-11). After the end of the feudal period in China, came the “burning of books,” a preventive measure of censorship and though control, which was meant to enforce unification. “A great many ancient books were destroyed, but certain kinds of writings were preserved for government monopoly” (12).

After the Qin empire was overthrown as result of a peasant revolution, the Han dynasty, which formed the foundation for a national culture, brought the rise of Confucianism and the restoration of ancient works (13). At this time book collecting “was engaged in by not only the government but by individuals as well,” including prices, high officials, and scholars, and the first comprehensive Chinese dictionary, Shuowen jiezi was printed (15-16). While “Books were produced and accumulated on a large scale…, great losses were suffered during the several political disturbances” (16). During the “Dark Ages” after the collapse of the Han, “Confucianism continued among the intellectual classes; Daoism emerged and developed as a religion; and Buddhism, which was first introduced to China at the beginning of the Christian era, flourished…” These developments led to the popularization of religious literature: “The introduction of Buddhism was an important milestone not only in the history of Chinese thought and religion but also in the development of Chinese scholarship and the popularization of literature” (17).