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In Session: Instruments of Cultural Adaptation: Paratexts across Asia
1: Why is a Gentleman a Textual Vessel? Early Imperial Repackaging of Pre-Imperial Chinese Writings
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
University of Arizona, United States
The founding of the early Chinese empires, the Qin and Han dynasties, brought about seismic political, social, and cultural transformations. This paper retraces how the paratextual elements introduced by early imperial period compilers (221 BCE–220 CE) reframed the writings inherited from the pre-imperial period (before 221 BCE). Specifically, I focus on the insertion of authorial figures into once anonymous writings, such as the addition of author anecdotes. Rather than dismissing such anecdotes as apocryphal, I illustrate their role in adapting earlier materials to a new cultural environment, reshaping them into the familiar Masters Texts such as Confucius’ Analects and the Hanfeizi.
I furthermore interrogate why individual authors, such as these master figures, became the preferred textual vessels for bundling and repackaging earlier texts. Existing scholarship offers a range of explanations for the rise of authorship in early China, from the awakening of individual consciousness to an alternative source of authority in competition with the state’s instrumentalization of writing. By adapting Arendt’s distinctions between labor, work, and action, I flesh out a dialectical yet mutually-dependent relationship between authorship as a new form of paratext and the empire as a new form of polity. The insertion of author figures transforms texts from products of labor to “works” of zoon politikon (political animal), whose political action was predicated on the creation of a new type of community.