Thursday, September 29, 2011

The world of documents

After reading Country Driving I could not resist picking up another book of Peter Hessler: Oracle Bones.
Very early in the book, he introduces the China scholar Imre Galambos in whose opinion 'China's most important literary unification took place during the Han. They produced their history book, as well as the first dictioary, and their emphasis on written word established the foundation for two millinea of empire'. Hessler quotes Galambos:
"People talk about this idea of literary worlds. There are certain cultures, like the Byzantine and the Chinese, in which the written documents create a world that is more significant than the real world. The officials who ran the country in ancient China — they were selected through exams, through this process of memorizing the classics. They lived in this quasi world of letters. Whoever came in from the outside became a part of it. Even the Mongolian tribes that eventually became the Yuan dynasty — for God’s sake, they were complete nomads, with very little written language. But they became like the Chinese for a time; they assimilated themselves. I think this literary world is the link in time that permits this thing we call 'Chinese history.' It’s not the number of people or anything like that; it’s the enormous written world that they produced. They produced this world that’s so big that it eats them up and it eats up everybody around them."
Somewhat reminiscent of the world of Sanskrit documents explored in Sheldon Pollock's The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (mentioned in this post earlier).

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