Letters and Epistolary Culture in Early Medieval China

Antje Richter

  • Published: 2013
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / China; Literary Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 244 pp., 10 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

Honorable Mention for the 2016 Kayden Book Award

This first book-length study in Chinese or any Western language of personal letters and letter-writing in premodern China focuses on the earliest period (ca. 3rd-6th cent. CE) with a sizeable body of surviving correspondence. Along with the translation and analysis of many representative letters, Antje Richter explores the material culture of letter writing (writing supports and utensils, envelopes and seals, the transportation of finished letters) and letter-writing conventions (vocabulary, textual patterns, topicality, creativity). She considers the status of letters as a literary genre, ideal qualities of letters, and guides to letter-writing, providing a wealth of examples to illustrate each component of the standard personal letter. References to letter-writing in other cultures enliven the narrative throughout.

Letters and Epistolary Culture in Early Medieval China makes the social practice and the existing textual specimens of personal Chinese letter-writing fully visible for the first time, both for the various branches of Chinese studies and for epistolary research in other ancient and modern cultures, and encourages a more confident and consistent use of letters as historical and literary sources.
Antje Richter is assistant professor of Chinese language and civilization at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She previously taught at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel and Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg.

"Richter's intellectual breadth and dialogue with contemporary scholars of letter-writing traditions in Europe should ensure her work has a broad reception. This is original scholarship that handles an important literary genre with sensitivity and sophistication."
-Cynthia Chennault, University of Florida

Epistolary Research in Chinese Studies and Beyond
Textual Sources of Early Medieval Chinese Letter Writing
The Organization of This Book
Remarks on Translation

Part One. Materials and Concepts of Letter Writing
1. Materiality and Terminology:
The Spread of Paper
Calligraphy and Letter Writing
Writers and Transporters of Letters
The Genre of Personal Letters

2. Letters and Literary Thought:
Cao Pi's "Disquisitions on Literature" on Letters as a Genre
The Absence of Letters in Lu Ji's "Rhapsody on Literature"
Liu Xie's The Literary Mind and the Carving
of Dragons on Letters
Letters in Xiao Tong's Selections of Refined Literature
Letters about Literary Thought

Part Two. Epistolary Conventions and Literary Individuality
3. Structures and Phrases
Letter Opening
Letter Body
Letter Closing
Terms of Address and Self-Designation

4. Topoi
Lamenting Separation
Letters as Substitutes for Face-to-Face Conversation
The Limits of Writing and Language
5. Normativity and Authenticity
Letter-Writing Guides
Expressing Individuality within the Bounds of Convention



"Richter's frequent comparisons of the culture of letter-writing in early medieval China and the Western world place Chinese letter-writing in a global context. . . . [A] solid study on letters and epistolary culture in early medieval China. She makes important contributions to the field of early medieval Chinese cultural studies in general, and to the understanding of letters as a genre as well as to the analysis of the textual characteristics of personal letters in particular."
-Sujane Wu, Journal of Asian Studies

"Antje Richter's book provides invaluable information about this under-studied genre of writing. . . . This book is not just a much-needed addition to the field of early medieval literature, but its discussion of letter writing and epistolary culture also sheds light on social and cultural aspects of this period that are otherwise difficult to know. . . . It should be of interest to anyone who studies pre-modern epistolary culture, as well as the literature, culture, and society of early medieval China."
-Qiulei Hu, Journal of the American Oriental Society

"This is a fine piece of work. . . . Clear, unpretentious, and worth hearing. . . . It is recommended without reservation."
-David Prager Branner, The Historian

"Future scholars dealing with any of these topics and questions will certainly not only be encouraged by Richter's book to intensify research on Chinese letters, but they will also benefit greatly from the solid and comprehensive groundwork provided by this important introduction."
-Kathrin Leese-Messing, Asiatische Studien/ Etudes Asiatiques