Oral and Written Forms in Late Qing Literary Discourse

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.5, 2019


Oral and Written Forms in Late Qing Literary Discourse



Lu Yin


The rise and fall of oral and written forms in the course of the spread of ancient civilizations has long been debated in the Western classical research community. In fact, as long ago as the late Qing dynasty, Zhang Taiyan and Liu Shipei’s discussions of the origin of ancient literature were closely related to this debate. The context of this issue can be traced through an interlocking network of Chinese tradition and new foreign knowledge. During the Qianlong-Jiaqing reigns, Zhang Xuecheng and Ruan Yuan in turn had noted the special role of “sounds” in the passing down of knowledge in ancient times, and observed the change in the medium of transmission from “spoken and heard” to “written on bamboo and silk.” In the late Qing, Confucian learning based on the New Text classics flourished, with the Gongyang School proposing that “orality” had precedence over written texts. Under the influence of Western social sciences, Zhang Taiyan championed the primacy of the written word, holding that Chinese literature originated in writing and the Old Text classics were the most authoritative. Ranging between the two poles of “spoken” and “written down,” these discourses reflected different knowledge backgrounds and motivations, but their shared intellectual structures demonstrate late Qing scholars’ various expectations or imaginings about the transformation of cultural patterns.