Script, Cosmos, and Society: Philology in 1011th Century China


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date7 Sep 2022


This dissertation examines philological practices in tenth and eleventh century China. Particularly, it examines how philologists in this period used the study of language to address some of the major political and philosophical problems of their time. The dissertation is divided into two parts. Part one, which comprises Chapter 1–3, focuses on the Southern Tang (937–976) court official Xu Kai 徐鍇 (920–974), who wrote the Shuowen jiezi xizhuan 說文解字繫傳, the first known commentary on the Han Dynasty (206–220) dictionary Shuowen jiezi 説文解字. The purpose of part one is to illustrate how Xu Kai’s work on the Chinese script relates to three central political and philosophical issues of the tenth century: (1.) the civil versus the military; (2.) the question of the cosmos as a foundation for socio-political order; and (3.) how to bridge the gap between antiquity and the present. The main argument is that Xu Kai finds in the Chinese script a graphic system that reveals the connection between heaven, earth, and man. As a consequence, Xu Kai sees the Chinese script as central to restoring the cultural tradition of antiquity and to rebuilding its socio-political order.

Part two, which comprises Chapter 4–6, examines philology in the Northern Song period (960–1127) with a focus on Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021–1086) and his student Lu Dian 陸佃 (1042–1102). The main argument here is that ideological and political problems around the 1040s created a political and scholarly crisis that pushed Northern Song scholars to redefine the literati culture and go beyond the traditional models of the Han and the Tang. This pivotal shift ushered in a new era in Song intellectual culture which also changed the way scholars studied language, prompting them to go beyond authoritative works such as the Shuowen jiezi. In his Zishuo 字說, Wang Anshi laid the foundation for this new philology. He used the study of the Chinese script as a tool for realizing moral unity and creating an integrated socio-political order. This philological method was later continued and expanded by Lu Dian in his Erya xinyi 爾雅新義. I argue that the political and intellectual environment of the late eleventh century prompted Lu Dian to transform philology from an enterprise centered on the reading of classical texts, to a philosophical enterprise that sought to uncover the moral and cosmological meaning of words.

Through a careful study of how language interacts with other intellectual concerns like cosmology, ethics, and politics, this doctoral dissertation presents a new perspective on the intellectual development of the tenth and eleventh century. In particular, this thesis challenges a long-held belief that the preoccupation with moral and metaphysical problems led Song scholars away from any systematic study of language. On the contrary, this study argues that the growing interest in morality and metaphysics in the tenth to eleventh century necessitated a rethinking of language and texts in order to accommodate the new philosophical demands of its time.