Letters and Epistolary Culture in Early Medieval China. By Antje Richter. Seattle: University OF Washington Press, 2013. Pp. x + 268. $75 (cloth); $30 (paper).
As "the first book-length study in Chinese or any Western language of personal letters and letterwriting in premodern China" (back cover), Antje Richter's book provides invaluable information about this under-studied genre of writing, with a focus on the early medieval period, a time when drastic changes in material culture resulted in an increase in the composition and transmission of various forms of personal 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.
In the introduction to her book, Richter situates the study of early medieval Chinese epistolary culture in the context of world literature. This comparative perspective is visible throughout the study and yields many insightful discoveries. Almost all chapters begin with an epigraph drawn from Western literary contexts that lends itself perfectly to the ensuing discussion about early medieval China. Comparisons with letter writing practice and epistolary theory in other (mostly European) cultures reveal many parallels in the social and emotional function of epistolary writing, while also accentuating elements peculiar to early medieval China. For example, one of the topoi frequently evoked in letters from early medieval China is lamenting its inferiority to face-to-face communication and its inability to fully articulate the author's mind. This idea is closely tied to the recognition of the failure of language and writing to "fully capture meaning" (jin yi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) that is most famously expressed in the "Commentary on the Appended Words" (Xici zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the Book of Changes (Yi jing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Yet this lack of confidence in language and letter writing is, Richter shows, largely absent in Western epistolary theory under the influence of the ancient Greek idea that a letter is the "virtual image of [the writer's] own soul" (pp. 54-55). Here the perceptions of letter writing unveil more fundamental distinctions between cultures regarding the nature of language and writing.
Richter explains the lack of scholarly interest in the epistolary genre in...