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Methodological Reflections on the Analysis of Textual Variants and the Modes of Manuscript Production in Early China

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image of Journal of East Asian Archaeology

Even more than other recent archaeological finds from East Asia, ancient Chinese manuscripts have ignited strong academic excitement. While much attention is focused on the philosophical interpretation of these texts, we are only beginning to explore their social circumstances and modes of production, to relate them to other tomb artifacts alongside which they were buried, and to explain their very physical appearance. According to a not uncommon view, texts with a reception history—e.g., the classics, but also a broad range of recently discovered technical writings that were handed down across generations—represent lineages of writings, with each manuscript being a copy of an earlier one. Yet on closer examination, graphic idiosyncrasies suggest the mutual independence of various written versions of the same text and thus a local, individual mode of textual production where scribes enjoyed considerable freedom in choosing particular characters to write the intended words. In their written form, texts with a transmission history—among them works of canonical status—do thus not seem fundamentally different from occasional writings without such a history. Compared to administrative writings, for which certain written blueprints existed, they were indeed less, not more, defined in their graphic form. This is not surprising if we consider that texts to be transmitted were also texts to be committed to memory; their modes of storage and communication of knowledge did not entirely depend on the writing system. One necessary step towards the discussion of such manuscripts, and ultimately to their function and nature, is the systematic linguistic analysis of their textual variants. The present paper outlines the methodological preliminaries towards such an analysis and suggests which scenarios of early Chinese manuscript production are plausible according to our present evidence, and which others are not.


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