Scholarly Culture in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century China
AbstractThis dissertation traces the development of scholarly disciplines in late imperial China. This project focuses on linguistic study during a period when philology was woven into a comprehensive system of analyzing language, music, and cosmology. Historians typically assert that China underwent an important intellectual transition in the 18th century, arising from a new emphasis on the philological analysis of texts. I argue instead that the intellectual shift over the course of the 15th through 19th centuries can be more accurately understood as a change in methods of studying language, rather than a newly found attention toward it. Philology flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was not an isolated field, as it would come to be in the 18th. Instead, it drew methods and materials from various intellectual traditions such as cosmology and music. Current notions of intellectual development in late imperial China have tended to anachronistically map later disciplinary demarcations onto the past. I demonstrate, on the basis of a large body of influential yet understudied philological texts from the 16th and 17th centuries, that intellectual change in this period should be defined primarily by shifts in reasoning and methodology, rather than by transitions in fields of scholastic interest.
16th century scholars believed that everything in the world belonged to a greater coherent system, the underlying unity of which provided a universal basis for producing knowledge. This mode of thinking, which drew on methods from disparate fields, was written out of the intellectual history of China, beginning with 18th century court scholars who saw in it the reasons for the decline of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Nevertheless, its implications for the history of scholarship in China are significant. For instance, phonetic methods for describing linguistic sound emerging at the end of the 19th century drew directly from 16th century discussions of Sanskrit and cosmology. The totalizing mode of thought that characterized 16th and 17th century scholarship in China was not, as is commonly held, an impediment to linguistic and scientific thought. Instead, it fostered innovative approaches to describing the nature of language.
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