Tobias Benedikt Zürn
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Mark Meulenbeld; Mark Csikszentmihalyi
In her seminal essay “Against Interpretation” from 1964, Susan Sontag (1933-2004) tackled the dominant position of interpretation as the default mode of engagements with cultural objects. Since she sounded the call to defy the common hermeneutic strategy of emphasizing content over form more than fifty years ago, the phenomenon of privileging the production and deduction of meaning over the immediate presence of cultural objects persists in the Humanities. In my specific case, scholars in the field of Early China still read scriptures predominantly within an assumed philosophical context displaying a reductionist approach to writings that precludes from the outset the possibility of any non-discursive function(s) for texts. In other words, their interpretations rarely consider textual artifacts to be agents within contexts such as ritual or gift exchanges. My dissertation, titled “Writing as Weaving: Intertextuality and the Huainanzi’s Self-Fashioning as an Embodiment of the Way,” addresses this issue from the vantage point of the Huainanzi 淮南子, a highly constructed and intertextual scripture from the second century BCE that scholars have traditionally read in philosophical terms. Contrary to its current interpretation as an encyclopedic collection of philosophical treatises, the dissertation shows that the Huainanzi, which Liu An 劉安 (ca. 179-122 BCE, r. 164-122 BCE), the king of Huainan 淮南, presumably presented in 139 BCE at his inaugural visit to his nephew Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (born Liu Che 劉徹; 156-87 BCE, r. 141-87 BCE), had been fashioned as a powerful manifestation of the Way (dao 道).
In the first part of the dissertation, I demonstrate that the Huainanzi employs at least the three images of a tree’s root (ben 本), a chariot wheel’s hub (gu 轂) or axle (zhu 軸), and a weaving (jingwei 經緯) or knotting (jigang 紀綱) texture that are commonly associated with the cosmos and the power (de 德) of the Dao to create a homology between the Liu clan’s scripture (Liushi zhi zhu 劉氏之書), the sage, and the Way. Hence, I propose that the Huainanzi had been fashioned in image (xiang 象) of the force that underlies the organization of the universe. In the second part of the dissertation, I showcase through the example of weaving that the Huainanzi is not merely depicted in homological terms with the Way. Based on a perceived correlation of the practices of writing and weaving during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), I suggest that the Huainanzi in fact mimics and implements the cosmic process of weaving in its design and intertextual writing practice. By inserting and connecting various traces (ji 跡) of the words (yan 言) and deeds (shi 事) of pre-Han writers and kings in its texture, Liu An and his workshop apparently fashioned the Liu clan’s scripture both as being in image and as an embodiment of the Way (tidao 體道)—of the very force that connects and weaves together the celestial patterns (tianwen 天文) and terrestrial forms (dixing 地形) into a cosmic texture. Consequently, I speculate in my conclusion that Liu An and his workshop might have created the Liu clan’s scripture in image and as an embodiment of the Way in order to produce an wuwei-performing textual artifact that fulfills a similar role as the sage. By belonging to the Dao’s universal image or appearance category (xiang zhi lei 像之類 or xinglei 形類), the Huainanzi like the sage would create resonating correspondences (ganying 感應) with all the Myriad Beings (wan wu 萬物) and therefore would be able to impact and organize the entire world. Accordingly, my dissertation claims that we should further explore the possibility of non-discursive functions for Liu An’s miscellaneous and highly intertextual texture and potentially many other early Chinese texts. In fact, we should renegotiate the Huainanzi’s current and almost naturally assumed categorization as a “mere” encyclopedia and/or miscellaneous collection of philosophical treatises that educates about rather than actualizes or effects sagely rulership and cosmic order.