Tao Yuanming and Manuscript Culture

The Record of a Dusty Table

Xiaofei Tian

  • Published: 2005. Paperback 2013
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / China; Literary Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 328 pp., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: China Program Books
  • Contents

Winner of a 2006 Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title Award

As medieval Chinese manuscripts were copied and recopied through the centuries, both mistakes and deliberate editorial changes were introduced, thereby affecting readers' impressions of the author's intent. In Tao Yuanming and Manuscript Culture, Xiaofei Tian shows how readers not only experience authors but produce them by shaping texts to their interpretation. Tian examines the mechanics and history of textual transmission in China by focusing on the evolution over the centuries of the reclusive poet Tao Yuanming into a figure of epic stature.

Considered emblematic of the national character, Tao Yuanming (also known as Tao Qian, 365?-427 c.e.) is admired for having turned his back on active government service and city life to live a simple rural life of voluntary poverty. The artlessness of his poetic style is held as the highest literary and moral ideal, and literary critics have taken great pains to demonstrate perfect consistency between Tao Yuanming's life and poetry. Earlier work on Tao Yuanming has tended to accept this image, interpreting the poems to confirm the image.

Tao Yuanming and Manuscript Culture is a study of how this cultural icon was produced and of the elusive traces of another, historical Tao Yuanming behind the icon. By comparing four early biographies of the poet, Tian shows how these are in large measure constructed out of Tao Yuanming's self-image as projected in his poetry and prose. Drawing on work in European medieval literature, she demonstrates the fluidity of the Chinese medieval textual world and how its materials were historically reconfigured for later purposes.

Tian finds in Tao's poetic corpus not one essentialized Tao Yuanming, but multiple texts continuously produced long after the author's physical demise. Her provocative look at the influence of manuscript culture on literary perceptions transcends its immediate subject and has special resonance today, when the transition from print to electronic media is shaking the literary world in a way not unlike the transition from handwritten to print media in medieval China.
Xiaofei Tian is professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University.

"A powerful revisionist reading of Tao Yuanming, an insightful account of the interactions between the poet's works and the succession of interpretive communities that have laid claim to them over the centuries, and an exploration of the cultural and material conditions within which those interactions have taken place. It will become required reading for students of medieval Chinese literature, and has much to offer readers with more general interests in cultural history and literary studies."
-Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 2009

"A tremendously important book. Tian's approach combines literary analysis with cultural studies, and close readings of texts as well as those of material culture."
-Kang-I Sun Chang, Yale University

"Tao Yuanming and Manuscript Culture is entirely original, strongly compelling, and thoroughly researched. Its contribution to Chinese literary studies is far-reaching and immediate, and it is sure to remain a work of crucial importance for many years to come."
-Alan Berkowitz, Swarthmore College

1. Possession and Loss
2. "Who the Master Is, No One Knows"
3. Lost Homesteads: Returning to Tao
4. Food, Death, and Narration
5. Becoming a Vessel
6. Hard Evidence: Reading a Stone
Chinese Glossary
Editions of Tao Yuanming's Collection
Selected Bibliography

"At once a study of manuscript culture's fluid nature and an excavation of forgotten dimensions of the poet through a study of the variant words and phrases that were not adopted in the standard readings..Tian's sensitive weighing of the alternatives is persuasive- and who would not be drawn to the irony, humor, and struggle of the more complex Tao that emerges from her discussions? An original and evocative study, this book cogently demonstrates the difference that words can make."
-The Journal of Asian Studies

"Tian demonstrates that instead of being dry and reductionary, philology can be enriching and illuminating and bring about a revolution in how scholars approach traditional literature. The book sets a high standard not only for scholars of Tao Yuanming but also for all traditional Chinese research by arguing for the importance of Chinese manuscript study."
-China Review International

"Tian tackles a problem that all scholars of traditional Chinese literature must eventually confront: how does one deal with medieval Chinese texts that were copied and recopied over centuries, in which both errors and deliberate editorial changes were introduced? Tian's findings have broad implications that extend far beyond Tao Yuanming. This seminal work will remain of critical importance in the China field for many years to come."