Letters and Epistolary Culture in China

Workshop at the University of Colorado at Boulder, August 17 & 18, 2012

The workshop was the first meeting of a group of scholars with different backgrounds in Chinese studies who share a profound interest in Chinese letter writing culture. Although epistolary communication, literature, and culture have been crucial elements of Chinese social life for more than two thousand years, they have so far not received the scholarly attention they deserve. At the workshop, twenty scholars – from PhD candidates to senior professors working in fields as diverse as literature, history, archaeology, and art history, and ranging from ca. 200 BC to the 20th century – presented and discussed their research in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the Chinese culture of written communication. The topics examined include material aspects, textual features, literary characteristics, historical implications, and the general importance of letters for Chinese society as well as methodological questions regarding the study of this field. While the project focuses on personal letters, it also touches upon other types of written communication of a semi-personal or official character.

Based on the conference papers and on contributions by several other scholars I am going to edit a History of Chinese Epistolary Culture, to be published with Brill in Leiden as part of the series Handbuch der Orientalistik. The volume will collect about two dozen research articles dedicated to various aspects of Chinese epistolary culture.

I would like to thank the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange for their generous support of the workshop. I am also grateful for additional funding received from the University of Colorado at Boulder, in particular the Center for Asian Studies, the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Graduate Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and the Dean's Fund for Excellence.

Workshop Program & Abstracts & Photos

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The following abstracts of papers given at the conference also introduce articles that are going to appear in the History of Chinese Epistolary Culture, to be published with Brill in Leiden as part of the series Handbuch der Orientalistik.

Y. Edmund Lien (Univ. of Washington):
"Reconstructing the Relay Courier System of Ancient China"

From the extant Chinese texts such as the standard histories and Confucian classics, one can sketch the outline of the courier system in use during the imperial periods of the Han and Tang for the transmission of written messages. With the discovery of the Dunhuang gazetteers more than a century ago, more specifics about the courier system have become available, especially about that of the frontier region. Tens of thousands of wooden strips dating to the Qin and Han, in particular, those unearthed from Juyan of Zhangyi and Xuanquanzhi of Dunhuang since the 1930s provide by far the richest information to fill in the details. In this paper, I shall draw from these three sources, namely, classical texts, Dunhuang manuscripts, and texts on ancient wooden strips, to reconstruct the relay courier system of ancient China. The messages transmitted through this system ranged from imperial commands to personal letters. A message could be delivered across the empire as fast as a few days. As many as 30,000 relay stations large or small might have been created to facilitate the communication in the Western Han. Each station could be staffed with a few to around fifty people with several dozens of horses and cows. The network of relay stations also served as a network of hostels for messengers, merchants, visiting officials, foreign dignitaries, and occasionally convicts to be transported. Officials and clerks running the system were integrated into the administration of the government to carry out military, civil, and diplomatic functions. A penal code was established to maintain the efficiency and reliability of the courier service and to protect against its misuse.

Enno Giele (Heidelberg Univ.):
"Private Letters from Early Imperial China"

Private letters from early China have either been transmitted to us through a process of many times of repeated copying and editing or come to light within the last century through archaeology. The latter are pieces of wood, bamboo, or silk that have been inscribed with a brush and black ink. They have been found scattered mostly among non-private letters, such as official communication, which have been excavated from Han time ruins of border fortifications in Northwest China or among the funerary literature in the widest sense that has been found in Southern Chinese tombs of the Qin period, as well as at a few other sites. The paper has three objectives: a) to give a meaningful definition and description of what "private letter" constituted in Early China, b) to give an overview of all Early Chinese private letters that are known to us, and c) to introduce a few examples in detail so as to highlight their characteristics.

David R. Knechtges (Univ. of Washington):
"Letters in the Wen xuan"

The Wen xuan compiled at the court of Xiao Tong (501–531) contains a large selection of epistolary writings. The largest number of these pieces are found in the category of shu (letters), which occupies three juan of the anthology. However, there are other categories that also contain epistolary writings, notably the shang shu (letter of submission) and qi (communication or "thank you letter"). In this entry I shall examine the letters in the Wen xuan. Questions to be considered are: (1) The content of the selection to determine what the Wen xuan compilers considered to be model examples of the form. The emphasis of the selection seems to be on earlier (i.e. Wei-Jin period pieces) rather than recent (i.e. Qi-Liang era) works. (2) The possible sources of the selection. Based on recent research done by Wang Liqun, one can be fairly certain that the selection was based on earlier now lost anthologies including perhaps anthologies devoted exclusively to letters. (3) Two of the pieces contained in the shu section, the "Yi shu rang taichang boshi" by Liu Xin (d. 23) and "Beishan yiwen" by Kong Zhigui (447–501), do not belong there. Evidence from early editions of the Wen xuan show that these two pieces belong in a separate category called yiwen, a prose genre that is closely related to the letter. (4) What the selection tells us about the status of letter writing in the Wei, Jin, Nanbeichao period.

Tian Xiaofei (Harvard Univ.):
"Material and Symbolic Economies: Early Medieval Chinese Letters about the Transfer of Objects"

This paper considers the issue of material and symbolic economies underlying letters regarding the transfer of objects (and sometimes people as well) between letter writers and letter recipients in early medieval China. The main part of the paper examines a group of letters exchanged between the Cao family and their friends and foes in the early third century. In these letters, the transaction between letter writer and letter recipient happens on both the material level and the discursive level. I argue that the letters constitute a verbal and material economy that is closely tied to the production of value of the circulated objects (including people who are objectified), and enable a new balance to be established between the giver and receiver of an object. The paper will end with a discussion of the culmination of early medieval letters regarding the transfer of objects in the epistolary form of qi, an exquisitely crafted thank-you note that came to flourish in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Robert Joe Cutter (Arizona State Univ.):
"Letters and Memorials in the Early Third Century"

This paper uses an exchange of letters between Cao Zhi and Wu Zhi to discuss the nature and functions of letters. It also examines the connection between letters and memorials, with a discussion of both form and content.

Antje Richter (Univ. of Colorado):
"Letters of Familial Admonition in the Han and Six Dynasties Periods"

The Han Dynasty saw the rise of the letter as a literary genre. Among the subgenres that came into being at that time was the familial admonitory letter. Addressed to younger members of one's family, it became one of the most popular subgenres of epistolary literature. In my paper I would like to sketch the emergence of these epistolary texts in the Han dynasty and the further development of the genre in the Six Dynasties, focusing on typological and formal features as they present themselves in the about 60 transmitted admonitory letters from these periods. In the case of the admonitory letter, the generally ambiguous genre of the letter specifically borders on and even overlaps with the genres of family instruction (jiajie/-xun) and testament (yiling/-yan). I propose that this affinity is reflected by the existence of two kinds of admonitory letters, which I propose to label interventive and testamentary. They do not only differ in motivation and intention, but also in their choice of rhetorical features.

Zeb Raft (Univ. of Alberta):
"The Space of Separation: Medieval Chinese Poetry of 'Presentation and Response'"

My contribution to the workshop will begin with an introduction to the genre of four-syllable "presentation and response" (zeng da) poetry in third to fifth century China in which I will explore what we know, and do not know, about this kind of poetry and what particular perspectives it might offer us on early medieval elite culture. I will then examine what concept of "letter writing" we can derive from this generic practice and how the concept of "letter" interacts here with that of "poetry". Finally, I will present some selected texts in order to examine the rhetoric of this genre, its linguistic and literary possibilities, and its potential use in the reconstruction of various moments in early medieval history.

Matthew Wells (Univ. of Kentucky):
"Captured in Words: The Functions and Limits of Autobiographical Expression in Early Chinese Epistolary Literature"

Despite the judgment of the Yijing, attributed to Confucius, that "writing does not fully capture words, words do not fully capture meaning," literati in early China struggled to make themselves known through text. Replete with references to the author's health, personal history, and present circumstances, personal letters appear at first glance to be fertile ground for autobiography in early China. However, formulaic tropes of written communication, injunctions against speaking of oneself, and requirements for self-deprecating language all conspire to limit autobiographical readings of epistolary literature, raising suspicions about the veracity of such material and its function within the text. Does biographical detail represent an urge for self-disclosure, or do epistolary formulae ultimately proscribe and limit autobiographical expression? This paper will examine the autobiographical dimensions of epistolary literature in early China by examining eight Han and early medieval letters included in Guo Dengfeng's pioneering anthology Lidai zixu zhuan wenchao (An Anthology of Autobiographical Postfaces and Autobiography through the Ages) and asking why and how these few texts came to be considered exemplary "autobiography" from the epistolary genre, the way in which the authors employ generic formula to convey a sense of the themselves to the reader, and the conflict between the impossibility of linguistic self-disclosure and the desire for autobiographical expression.

Anna M. Shields (Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County):
"The Inscription of Emotion in Mid-Tang Collegial Letters"

The writers of the mid-Tang period (780s–830s) brought great changes to the genre of the medieval letter (shu), including a greater emotional range and more personal detail than we find in many earlier medieval examples of the genre. Although we cannot ultimately know whether this expressive quality of mid-Tang letters was an accident of transmission (the choice to transmit more personal letters) or a true literary innovation, the influence of mid-Tang letters on later writers was significant. This paper examines the inscription of emotions – specifically, the emotions of anger and affection – in mid-Tang "collegial letters," letters sent to friends and colleagues already known to the writer. Mid-Tang writers' rhetorical, syntactic, and lexical choices allowed them to convey complex feelings in nuanced ways. By contrasting the expression of anger, an emotion less commonly observed in extant medieval letters, with the expression of affection, a more conventional emotion, I hope to identify some of the fundamental linguistic features of affect (the display of emotion) in mid-Tang texts. I begin with a brief consideration of affect in medieval letters, referring to shuyi (etiquette manual) examples extant in Dunhuang mss, and to anthologized letters from the Wen xuan, to sketch some of the terminology and boundaries of affect in medieval letters. I then examine a corpus of collegial letters composed of forty-two texts from the 780s to the 830s composed by nine writers. By juxtaposing the syntactic and lexical strategies used to express anger and affection in the letters with the rhetorical functions of the letters, I explore the ways that specific affects supported the letters' other themes and concerns. Both anger and affection, I argue, were used strategically to underscore the intellectual and lyrical force of arguments embedded in letters; writers' choice of strategies for conveying these negative and positive emotions help us understand the larger goals of the letters as literary utterances.

Paul W. Kroll (Univ. of Colorado):
"S.O.S. from the Mountains: Lu Zhaolin's Letters to Luoyang"

The poet Lu Zhaolin (ca. 634–ca. 684), now best known as one of the so-called "Four Elites of Early Tang" (chu-Tang sijie), spent the last dozen or more years of his life suffering from progressively worsening rheumatoid arthritis and perhaps other illnesses, which crippled him. His physical condition prevented him from participating in the official, cultured society in which he had previously spent his life, and he removed himself to locations that were successively farther away from the capital cities. During the years 678 through 680 he was residing at East Dragon-Gate Mountain, about fifteen miles east of Luoyang. Two of his more interesting writings extant from this time are letters addressed to officials and nobility in the nearby capital, asking for the gift of high-quality cinnabar and other ingredients for use in his medical preparations. These letters are quite plaintive – yet still highly sophisticated – compositions and tell us much about how a request for very personal assistance (far from the usual scholar's request for official patronage) might be phrased and presented.

Imre Galambos (Univ. of Cambridge):
"Society Circulars from Dunhuang"

Among the tens of thousands of manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, there are several dozen texts called shesi zhuantie, or society circulars. These circulars are letters addressed to members of lay societies, informing them about the place and time of the meeting, the contributions they are supposed to bring along, and the penalties for delay or non-attendance. Their format is relatively stable and most examples consist of the same formulaic text; variations are minor and in many cases only the names, times and locations differ. The circulars date from the 9–10th centuries and mostly appear on coarse paper, often on the back of scrolls with other texts. Their other interesting feature is that they are habitually written in an untrained hand, with clumsy calligraphy and copious mistakes. In several cases the vertical lines are read in reversed direction, going from left to right. In this paper I gather the available examples in an attempt look at them together as a corpus and document their characteristics as a distinct genre. Parallel with this, I try to interpret the manuscripts' physical attributes and tie those to their social function.

Ronald C. Egan (Stanford Univ.):
"Su Shi's Informal Letters in Literature and Life"

A large number of short informal letters or "notes" written by Su Shi survive. Some fifteen hundred of them are found in his collected works, where they constitute a sizable proportion of his entire prose writings, being roughly one-sixth of that corpus. Completely annotated for the first time just in 2010, the notes shed light on many aspects of Su's life and thought, complementing his poetry and more formal genres of prose (essays, inscriptions, memorials, funerary writings, etc.) that Su produced. This study analyzes Su's notes as a alternative form of expression to his better known writings, especially his poetry. They are an alternative, first and most obviously, in the range of subjects that they treat, which include many that are never mentioned or barely mentioned in his verse. The notes may also be viewed as embodying their own aesthetic, as Su increasingly turned to them as a form of personal and literary expression, when it became increasingly dangerous for him to express himself in poetry, especially in the exiles of his later years. It was Ming period critics, influenced by the contemporary vogue of xiaopin wen, who first called attention to the literary qualities and interest of Su's notes. Another value the notes have, not to be overlooked, is the ways they expand upon and confirm the personality of the great writer. As the most informal and unguarded of his writings (though not, to be sure, completely unguarded), the notes show us Su thinking about life's mundane circumstances and coping with them. Yet we find in his notes many of the same qualities of personality for which Su is justly famous and admired. The notes, as humble and unpretentious a form as they may be, thus play an important role in filling out our picture of Su Shi's personality and in affirming qualities we know best from his more celebrated works in canonical literary forms.

Natasha Heller (Univ. of California, Los Angeles):
"Halves and Holes: Collections, Networks, and the Epistolary Practices of Chan Monks"

This paper will examine the tradition of including letters in the literary collections of Chan monks. As is well known, Chan Buddhists innovated new genres of religious literature, chief among them the "discourse record" (yulu). "Discourse records" purported to preserve the words of Chan masters, elevating their verbal teachings to the same status as scripture. While early examples such as Linji lu contain primarily sermons and dialogues between the master and his students, this genre gradually came to resemble the literary collections (wenji) of non-clerical elites. By the Song dynasty, such collections incorporated a wider range of materials, including letters. Although these letters have been used as sources for understanding the content of Chan teachings, the process behind their inclusion in the yulu and guanglu of Song and Yuan dynasty monks has not been studied. As I have written on the letters between Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) and Zhongfeng Mingben (1263–1323), manuscript letters suggest that epistolary communication was a key part of a monk's relationship with his lay followers, but those letters with primarily ritual or social functions (as opposed to those with expository content) were often seen as not meriting inclusion in literary collections. Working with the letters that were collected, we can ask how they relate to the social networks and activities reflected in other aspects of the monk's record. I will do so using network analysis and topic modeling of the yulu of Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163). Network analysis will allow me to compare the social connections implied by the letters with social connections attested in other writings, such as sermons and ritual texts. Through topic modeling, I will analyze the subject matter and themes of Dahui's epistles in comparison with other genres of writing. This study of Dahui's letters will show how they functioned within his broader religious repertoire, and set the stage for further studies on the function of Chan epistles.

Lincoln Lik Hang Tsui (Univ. of Oxford):
"Bureaucratic Influences on Letters in Middle Period China"

In this study, I discuss the influence of bureaucratic documents on letters exchanged by literati officials from Tang to Song China. Building on existing scholarship on shuyi texts, I explain the bureaucratic nature of epistolary models from the Tang and the Five Dynasties, especially those from Dunhuang. I will also underline the transition from such models to the more literary formulations such as Shuyi by Sima Guang (1019–86). Then by examining manuscripts and transmitted texts of several Southern Song writers, I question the rigidity of epistolary genre categorizations. To place the fluctuating epistolary norms in the context of genre developments in the Song period, I provide a reading of texts from the zhazi sub-genre and discussions about the uses of epistolary sub-genres in miscellaneous notes by figures such as Lu You (1125–1209). The formal features of court documents were seeping into writing practices of letters and they constantly reshaped how epistolary communications were composed, as contemporary writers have observed. By charting the bureaucratic influences on these writings and taking examples from actual epistles and epistolary models, I argue for a reconceptualization of "personal" letter writing in middle period China.

Suzanne E. Wright (Univ. of Tennessee):
"The History of Chinese Decorated Letter Papers"

Historical records indicate that through the Tang dynasty, decoration of letter or poetry papers was accomplished primarily by dying or the creation of texture and patterns in the paper. By the late 10th century, Sichuanese papermakers were using blocks to impress botanical and animal designs into paper; an early patterned letter paper, which bears the popular design of rolling waves, exists in the form of a letter by Shen Liao (1032–1085) to an ill friend. Surviving examples of decorated letter papers are rare until the second half of the Ming, when the collection of letters began in earnest. Many examples from the Song through early Ming bear designs created through the use of wax resist. In the late Ming, however, woodblock printed designs , whether borders or figural images placed in the center of the page, became increasingly popular, and at least two publishers of such paper also produced catalogs of their work. These designs tended to be rather small in proportion to the sheet of paper, and were usually overwritten with the letter text. In the Qing dynasty, in contrast, images became larger and the images and papers were often brightly colored, so that the decorated ground begins to demand as much attention as the letter text.

David Pattinson (Univ. of Leeds):
"Letters and the Social Network of Yan Guangmin"

Yan-shi jiacang chidu, or Letters Kept in the Home of the Yan Family, is a collection of the letters written by dozens of correspondents to Yan Guangmin (1640–1686), sixty-seventh generation descendent of Confucius's disciple Yan Hui, and a noted poet, calligrapher and official. The letters in it seem to have been kept in the Yan family residence in Qufu, Shandong, for almost a century after Yan's death, until in the 1770s his grandson and some friends took it upon themselves to arrange them and write biographies for their authors, though the letters were sold on and not published until the 1840s. This collection is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is a collection of letters to an individual, rather than letters by one, which is relatively unusual. Secondly, although it almost certainly does not contain all the letters Yan received over the period covered by it, it nevertheless presents us with as good a representation of the range of letters an early Qing scholar-official might receive as we are likely to get, since the collection does not seem to have been edited along the path to its eventual publication. In this paper I will seek to map the range of Yan's social network as revealed in this collection, and through a broad analysis of the functions of the letters contained within describe the role letters played in the social field in early Qing China.

Son Suyoung (Univ. of Colorado):
"Epistolary Space for Intellectual Property in Late Imperial China"

This paper focuses on the relationship between letter publishing and the claim of intellectual property in late imperial China. Literati-publishers in the late Ming and early Qing periods often published letters regarding the piracy of books in their printed letter collections. Aside from sharing their complaints and frustrations with their friends, the publication of the dispute over literary credit and financial profit in letters raises the following questions: Why did the literati-publishers deliberately chose the medium of letters to claim their intellectual property? And what kind of gain did they expect to obtain by doing so? This paper examines specific letters pertaining to the issue of intellectual property in the printed letter collections of late imperial literati-publishers, such as Li Yu (1610–1680), Wang Zhuo (b. 1636), and Zhang Chao (ca. 1650–1707), and argues that the epistolary space constructed by circulating and publicizing letters performed a significant social function in vindicating intellectual property at a time when few enforceable legal codes and regulatory institutions existed to protect books from piracy.

Janet M. Theiss (Univ. of Utah):
"The Letter as Artifact of Sentiment and Legal Evidence"

This paper pursues a close analysis of letters included in the Board of Punishments memorial (xingke tiben) presenting a lawsuit involving an elite family from Huzhou, Zhejiang in the 1740s. Among them are sixteen love letters exchanged between a gentry wife and her lover who was the live-in tutor for her children, and several other letters exchanged amidst the family crisis that ensued from her affair between her husband who is an expectant official in Beijing, his older brother who is the head of the family confronting the affair in Huzhou, and her eldest son still resident in her household. Preserved as legal evidence, these letters, most of which are not complete, were never intended for public view unlike published letters. They pose many complex problems of interpretation. From the beginning, their authenticity is called into question as the putative authors assert that the love letters are forgeries designed to slander them. I will argue on the basis of their content and other evidence in the case that the letters were in fact authentic, although, like the other family correspondence in the xingke tiben, they remain highly problematic as judicial evidence within the Qing legal system. Both sets of letters offer us unique insight into the role of the written word in intimate communications within and beyond the household.

Bonnie S. McDougall (Univ. of Sydney):
"Real and Imaginary Love-letters in China and Europe"

Love-letters are a rare example of a truly universal phenomenon. They can be found among all literate civilisations, although literacy is not a prerequisite for sending or receiving them. They are among our most treasured possessions, although the materials are often commonplace and pass through others' hands. While we may wish to hide ours from others' eyes, we read others' letters with shameless pleasure. The real or imagined love-letter has exerted an enduring fascination across the ages, but our understanding has lagged behind our practice; for all their moment in our intimate lives, love-letters have seldom been analysed or theorised in any systematic way. Even their history is obscure: we have no way of telling when the first love-letters were written. European and Chinese love-letters both have long indigenous traditions, yet when we compare their writers and readers, frequency and duration, topics and themes, media and materials, and functions and values, we find infinite combinations of writing and desire occupying a common space.

Abstracts of Additional Contributions

Pablo Blitstein (INALCO):
"Liu Xie's Institutional Mind: Memorials, Letters, and Political Imagination in 5th Century Southern China"

Some specialists of Chinese literary history are surprised by the fact that the chapter of the Wenxin diaolong devoted to letters, "Shuji," discusses this "private" genre together with the "public" genre of memorials. But is it legitimate to make this implicit distinction between "private" and "public" genres if we want to understand Liu Xie's ideas about epistolary writing? What does Liu Xie's association between letters and memorials tell us instead about the social meaning of these two genres? Taking court life as the sociological starting point for our analysis of memorials and epistolary writing, and the chapters on memorials and letters of the Wenxin diaolong as our main sources, we propose to show that, in a social world where political relations are conceived as personal relations, epistolary and administrative writing are inextricably related. This paper will be organized in two parts. Firstly, we will show that, since the dichotomy "private"-"public" has no sense when applied to the social world of Jiankang's court, the difference between memorials and letters is just one of scale. Secondly, we will attempt to explore the role of beauty in epistolary and administrative writing. We will contend that beauty, in these sorts of writings, is used to create a code between equals, and that its meaning, far from being "literary" or "aesthetical," is in fact social and institutional. As a conclusion, we will suggest that the way memorials and epistolary writing are envisaged by Liu Xie belongs to an institutional imagination in which the "State" is conceived as being a big household with regular exchanges of "letters" between its members.

Amy McNair (Univ. of Kansas):
"Letters as Calligraphy Exemplars: The Long and Eventful Life of the Imperial Commissioner Liu Letter by Yan Zhenqing (709–85)"

Letters have been collected as examples of calligraphy since the Later Han dynasty, when cursive script became an art of the elite. For collectors, a letter's significance lay mainly in the style of the brushwork and its perceived power to evoke the personality of the writer. Typically, to contemporaries, the style is admired as sophisticated and cutting-edge, the product of an insider group with access to the right models and plenty of time to practice the art, while to later collectors, the style represents the epitome of the age in which it was produced. Further, thanks to the traditional belief in graphology, the lines of the characters are seen as traces of the author's being that allow the viewer to "see the man in his writing." In addition, since the verbal content of letters can be of the moment and because cursive script is traditionally held to be unpremeditated and highly expressive, a further appeal of letters is the sense of emotion and immediacy felt by the viewer as he or she re-traces the progress of the brush on the page. When collectors have a letter mounted in the hand scroll format, it becomes the core of a living document as later viewers inscribe their responses to the letter in colophons. Famous early letters were also reproduced within fatie, or "model letters compendia," in which copies were engraved into stone plates, from which ink rubbings were taken and distributed as elegant gifts. Finally, famous letters became "performance pieces," rather like musical compositions that can be played many ways. Artists creatively re-interpreted certain letters as a way of demonstrating their competence in canonical calligraphy styles and their own ingenuity, transcribing them on public art formats such as hanging scrolls and fans. My case study for these developments is the Imperial Commissioner Liu Letter by Yan Zhenqing, now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This brief letter, which comments on military actions in 775, is exemplary not only for its extraordinary appearance – highly gestural cursive-script characters on blue sutra paper – and the reputation of its author, a renowned loyalist statesman, scholar and aristocrat, but also for the rich documentation of its nearly thirteen-hundred-year life in the hands of numerous important collectors and the manifold responses by critics and artists.

Jonas Polfuß (Univ. of Münster):
"Addressing the Future: Letters to Posterity in Mid-Tang China"

In the Tang Dynasty, Chinese epistolary literature reached its first heyday. Having handed down an extensive corpus of letters, the Ancient Style masters Han Yu (768–824) and Liu Zongyuan (773–819) belong to the most important representatives of this Tang genre. In mid-Tang China, literary letters were written in order to maintain and improve relationships with friends and colleagues. Ambitious scholars also wrote to influential officials so as to advance their career within bureaucracy. Tang letters thus particularly aimed at establishing a sense of social closeness and overcoming social hierarchy. In many cases, however, it is very clear that the letters were addressed not only to a contemporary readership, whether explicitly mentioned or at least implied, but also to a future audience. In hardly any other genre is the future so often referred to; the hope to gain fame in later times, which seemed to be unattainable in the present days, is clearly expressed again and again. My article deals with this phenomenon of posterity as the addressee of Chinese epistolary literature. The article begins with a brief review of the topos of desiring posthumous fame in letters from the pre-Tang period. In the main section, I will examine to what the extent the Ancient Style scholars Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan discussed and addressed posterity in general and a future audience in particular in order to pass on their literary heritage. The relationship between Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan is especially worthy of consideration, since the two scholars debated in their letters the question of how to write historiography on present and past events for future generations. Finally I will ask whether letters in the mid-Tang period were at all primarily written for the purpose of communication with the contemporaries or whether this communication was just a pretense to be able to converse with an audience that had yet come into the world.

Alexei K. Ditter (Reed College):
"Mid-Tang Cover Letters"

One practice for acquiring examination patronage that became common during the mid-Tang was to "circulate scrolls" (xingjuan). This involved candidates selecting, editing, and recopying portfolios of their best compositions to submit to the chief examiner and eminent contemporaries. Some of these circulated scrolls were accompanied by what we might today call a "cover letter." In these missives, extant examples of which are typically titled "submitted letters" (shang shu) or "submitted note" (shang qi), authors described their educational background, personal character, and professional ambitions. They strove to pique the interest of prospective patrons and to convince them that it would be worth their while to invest some of their social capital and material resources into the fledgling career of their authors. Scholars working on the Tang civil service examination have often read the cover letters associated with circulated scrolls for historical insight about Tang examination culture or for biographical evidence about their authors. For the most part however, only superficial attention has been paid to them as compositions in their own right. Even basic questions about the exigencies motivating their composition, the rhetorical tactics they employ, or the specific aims they sought to realize have rarely been addressed in any depth.
In this paper I focus on a cover letter written by Dugu Yu (776–815), his "Letter Submitted to Attendant Gentleman Quan of the Ministry of Rites." Close examination of this representative cover letter allows modern scholars to identify some of the rhetorical strategies and conventional objectives of the mid-Tang cover letter as a genre. Though study of the letter received in response to this cover letter, Quan Deyu's (761–818) "Letter in Reply to Cultivated Talent Dugu," we can at the same time explore how effective the rhetorical strategies used by examination candidates may have been in achieving their objective and the ways in which their cover letters were read and responded to by potential patrons.

Ellen Widmer (Wellesley College):
"Letters as Windows on Ming-Qing Women's Literary Culture"

What I shall argue in this paper is that letters are an important means for understanding more about Chinese women of the Ming and Qing. Part one aims to build a case that there was an increase in women's letter writing during the Ming and Qing dynasties. As well, we will look into what we can learn from the earliest letters by women to be found in the general collections of letters that began to emerge no later than the early Qing. In part two, I will focus on the letters of three talented women of the upper classes (Liang Mengzhao, Gui Maoyi, and Wang Zhenyi) and show what their surviving letters can add to our store of knowledge about their own lives and more. I conclude with the thought that the letters of traditional Chinese women may not be as revealing as those fictionalized in Chinese stories or those of Western women, but they still have something new to tell us about the writing woman of the Ming and Qing.

Natascha Gentz (Univ. of Edinburgh):
"Letter Going Public: Letters to the Editors in Early Chinese Newspapers"

The introduction of new print technologies and establishment of modern newspapers in Late Qing China fundamentally changed the nature of the public sphere as well as conventional forms of public communication. From the earliest editions of newspapers letters to the editor played a crucial role in this process. While letters have been published in edited book versions earlier on, the participation in debates on a daily basis, also implied a transformation of the genre of letter writing. In this papers I will look at selected sets of letters to the editor in early newspapers of different periods and different periodicals, such as the commercial press, reform press and revolutionary press. The paper will present a typology of these early letters to the editor, analyse the self-presentation of the writer through textual analysis as well as examination of pennames used by the writers and conclude with a discussion of the function and impact of these letters to the editor.

Li Jie (Harvard Univ.):
"Red Letters Home"

In the Maoist era, millions of families were separated for years or decades at the behest of the state. Their correspondences – unmistakably stamped with the "revolutionary" marks of their time and overshadowed by the possibility of censorship – nevertheless bear intimate testimony to personal experiences never recorded in the era's published literature. This study examines three sets of "red letters home." First, the posthumously published family letters of Shen Congwen, the renowned writer who had stopped writing fiction after 1949 and only published art historical books. Written during his participation in "land reform" in the early 1950s and in the May 7th Cadre school in the early 1970s, Shen's letters to his wife emanate a sense of identification with the debris left behind by the revolutionary storm. These may count as his only "literary" works after 1949 that also explain why he had stopped writing. The second set of letters comes from the imprisoned dissident Lin Zhao to her mother a year before her execution as a "counterrevolutionary" in 1968. Originally written in blood under duress, these poignant letters ruminate over her decision to remain a vocal critic of the regime at the expense of her freedom and her family's welfare. They also show a keen awareness of the censors and suffer from not knowing whether they would ever arrive. The third source consists of collections of letters by ordinary people from all walks of life in the Cultural Revolution. Although peppered with political slogans and platitudes, they still contain personal expressions of joy and sorrow, hope and despair. Between the lines of high-flown revolutionary rhetoric are concrete records of quotidian life – scarcity, thrift, and bricolage that defined the texture of the everyday. My study of the texts of these letters will be complemented by a discussion of censorship and other breaches of privacy in the epistolary practices of the Maoist era.