A History of Chinese Letters and Epistolary Culture.

Author:Bossler, Beverly
Position:Book review

A History of Chinese Letters and Epistolary Culture. Edited by ANTJE RICHTER. Handbuch der Orientalistik, vol. IV.31. Leiden: BRILL, 2015. Pp. xx + 978. [euro]231, $299.

In the fields of European history and literature, the study of letters and epistolary culture has absorbed scholars for decades, producing hundreds (thousands?) of books and articles. In Chinese studies, despite a wide range of available source material, until very recently letters have received scant attention. A 2012 conference organized by Antje Richer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, attempted to address this dearth by encouraging a diverse group of scholars in fields ranging from archeology and art to history and literature to turn their expertise to the topic of letters. The happy result is this huge volume, containing twenty-five chapters of frequently groundbreaking studies on a breathtaking array of topics.

Finding organizational rubrics under which to categorize such a diverse set of essays was clearly challenging; Richter's brief but thoughtful introduction provides reasonable justifications for the structure she has chosen. The volume is loosely organized into three broad sections devoted respectively to "Material Aspects of Chinese Letter Writing," "Contemplating the Genre," and "Diversity of Content and Style." This last section--which encompasses more than half of the chapters--is further subdivided into sections on "Informal," "Literary," and "Open" or public letters. This review attempts to introduce the rich contents of the volume by providing a brief description of each chapter, followed by more general comments.

The four essays in the "Material Aspects" section explore the ways that letters were transmitted, and how they functioned as art objects, calligraphy models, and gifts. Though not directly focused on letters per se, Y. Edmund Lien's discussion of the Han Postal Relay system provides a fascinating glimpse of the structures (literal and figurative) established by the Han government to ensure timely and efficient communication across the vast empire. Lien reconstructs the distribution of watch-towers (which ultimately became postal stations) across the Han landscape, and uncovers Han regulations that established penalties for couriers who were late with or lost their letters. His investigation inspires renewed appreciation for the technical and institutional sophistication of Han governance, while also demonstrating the centrality of epistolary communication to the dynasty's ability to control the frontier. Switching focus on both topic and time period, Amy McNair's essay in chapter 2 traces the long afterlife of an eighth-century letter by the Tang calligrapher and statesman Yan Zhenqing [phrase omitted]. McNair demonstrates how the transformation of this particular letter into an object of connoisseurship was related to later eras' moral evaluation of the author as well as to aesthetic appreciation for his calligraphy. In elucidating the ways that the letter generated further texts in the form of colophons and even additional letters, eventually becoming a canonical calligraphy model, McNair's chapter highlights the importance of letters as cultural artifacts in the Chinese tradition. The same point emerges from Suzanne E. Wright's investigation of the history of letter-writing stationery in chapter 3. Wright finds that specially decorated letter paper was already in use by the fourth century, and provides illustrations of such paper that survive from as early as the Song. She shows that by the Ming dynasty, elegant letter paper had itself become an object of connoisseurship, commentary, and even fashion. Letter stationery came to serve as a kind of commentary on or accessory to the letters it contained, as writers tailored the paper used to the content of their letters. The final chapter in this section approaches the issue of materiality from a quite different direction, as Xiaofei Tian considers how letters functioned in gift exchange. Tian's sensitive analysis of a series of letters Cao Cao [phrase omitted] wrote to accompany or thank people for gifts shows the subtle but important political messages...

To continue reading