Monday, September 22, 2014

Medieval Text Technologies in China and Europe

Stanford’s Text Technologies’ major new project bringing together scholars who work on the Eastern and Western textual traditions kicked off with a three-day conference at the Stanford Center at Peking University in Beijing, principally organized by Professor Ronald Egan. From September 11-14 2014, colleagues gathered to hear papers in both Chinese and English (with simultaneous interpretation) that focused almost exclusively on significant trends in manuscript technologies from the beginning of the first millennium CE to the thirteenth century. The China scholars learned about texts and methodologies in the study of European manuscripts of which they had little idea and the Western scholars, similarly, learned a very great deal about China and its early textual heritage.

Some of the participants at 'Medieval Text Technologies in China and Europe'

Western scholars were introduced to fundamentally important elements of Chinese manuscript production: the use of colophons and seals inscribed or stamped onto hand-scrolls containing calligraphic art; the variance illustrated by early Lao-Tzu manuscripts; the uses and interpretation of writing Chinese characters in the air; new models of textual production in early Chinese poetry; the amazing new find of 21,000 Tang poems (to add to the 43,000 already known); what makes Chinese manuscripts significant in and of themselves; the form and function of very early Chinese epistolary literature; how Chinese manuscripts were disseminated and adapted in Japan; and the importance of information retrieval tools in medieval Chinese encyclopedic texts. 

The Stanford Center at Peking University: a text in its own right!
Numerous themes emerged that are common to both traditions: in the West, textual mouvance in Carolingian manuscripts was discussed, and it was made apparent why minutiae matter in tracing adaptability. The ways in which medieval manuscripts are fragmented, reconstituted, and then ‘restored’ was a central concern; the absolute necessity of paying attention to calligraphic effect and how we describe graphs and assign value to particular scripts; the manipulability of text in apotropaic and ritualistic contexts; the representation of exoticised culture and objects in art, sculpture and literature; and the untapped evidence for the uses of paper in the medieval period were all significant areas of investigation. ‘Big’ themes of authority, ownership, permanence, editorial intervention, and social contexts of textual production emerged persistently throughout the conference and seem like useful organizational categories for future exploration.

Attendance was boosted by a great audience of local students and scholars; question and answer sessions generated exciting and challenging discussion; round-the-edges dynamic intellectual exchange happened in coffee-breaks and lunches. For those of us travelling to China for the first time, we all agreed this conference was a life-changing experience. The country’s textual legacy is only partially well-known: the very early use of print is acknowledged, but not as much as it should be; the invention of paper is fleetingly discussed in traditional Book History accounts. But there is much more to be learned: the astonishing degree of literacy and the cultural embeddedness of writing; the prolific survival of early poetry, and administrative texts; the evidence for multimedia textual production from monumental mountain inscription to bamboo books, silk scrolls, and traced inscriptions. This is exciting stuff and will be the subject of other conferences to come, that will deal with script to print, as well as the emergence of the digital environment.

Participants: Lothar Ledderhose, University of Heidelberg; Siân Echard, University of British Columbia; Elaine Treharne, Stanford University; Matthias Richter, University of Colorado at Boulder; Daniel Wakelin, University of Oxford; Jeanie Abbott, Stanford University; Ronald Egan, Stanford University; Aidan Conti, University of Bergen; Rebecca Shuang Fu, University of Pennsylvania; Chen Shangjun, Fudan University; Antje Richter, University of Colorado at Boulder; Fu Gang, Peking University; Liu Yucai, Peking University; Marisa Galvez, Stanford University; Orietta Da Rold, University of Cambridge; Christopher Nugent, Willliams College.

The conference organizers gratefully acknowledge funding support from the following Stanford University sponsors: Confucius Institute; Dean of Research; China Fund, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures; Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

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