Literary riches: the Notes over the brush under the Song

Conference by Christian Lamouroux, Director of Studies Emeritus at EHESS.

The origin of the literary genre of “Notes” goes back to the apologues present in the texts of the masters or to historical stories composed even before the beginning of the empire. Much later, a text from the 5rd century, New collection of worldly remarks, marks a decisive step: its composition includes edifying dialogues, short stories on cosmology or philosophical texts. However, it was under the great Tang dynasty (618-907) that the genre of "Notes along the thread of the brush"(biji, important, wenjianlu). The central theme is the observation of the realities of the visible world, and what we say about them. This genre flourished during the Song dynasty (960-1279), whose scholars took up this heritage by not only proposing new content, but above all by presenting them as the fruit of personal experience.

To give an idea of ​​the variety of content, we can take the example of one of the best-known collections: the Brush Conversations from the Stream of Dreams (Mengqi Bitan) by Shen Gua (1032-1096), composed from the mid-1080s. The work today includes 609 notes grouped into 26 chapters and two additional appendices. Like most Song scholars who intended to transmit all the knowledge they accumulated about the world, Shen gives a succession of technical descriptions on astronomy, numerology and mathematics, reflections on ordinary practices and on material culture with descriptions of unusual or everyday objects. We also discover precise information on the routines of the court or the administration offices, alongside notes relating to erudition, which has become essential for passing exams and always stories about strange phenomena or rumors which were running in this or that region or in the capital.

All these texts are written in prose freed from the stylistic and prosodic constraints specific to poetry, or from the requirements of administrative documents. This formal freedom allows the author to transmit in direct language the flow of information that he considers important. Many of these anecdotes are copied from one collection to another, especially since part of this information is reputed to be of oral origin. It is therefore a matter for scholars to preserve them by giving them an objective dimension through writing. The author can choose to give the possibility of verifying the veracity of the facts reported, and he may also present himself as a witness to an event. He thus seeks to transmit and share his choices by making his readers witnesses. However, even if most of these collections present themselves as testimonies, edifying fictions are not absent. The collections of notes constituted a sort of communication system which supplemented the official communication formalized by the civil servants. The number of these collections under the Song is difficult to assess; this difficulty refers to the confusion which governed the classification of this type of writing in classical bibliographies.

New collection of worldly remarks (first half of the 5th century.

Ruan Ji 210-263. Attributed to Sun Wei. First half of the 10th century. Ink and colors on silk ©Shanghai Museum

Brush Conversations from the Stream of Dreams (Mengqi Bitan) (18/307. (Printing and movable type)

Reading around ten notes allows us to get a more precise idea of ​​these texts offered to the readers of an urban society whose editorial dynamism served the intentions of the authors.

On the first page of Things heard by a wandering official (Youhuan jiwen), which accompanied the announcement of this conference, the author, Zhang Shinan (13rd century), comments on the difficulties and controversies concerning the division of the year into 365 days. Reading the page. The calendar was essential since it allowed the organization of society both in its daily activities and in its ritual or political practices. The author thus poses as a scholar to challenge the words of specialists who gloss here one of the great Confucian classics. This concern for erudition is constantly present in these notes, and each of the authors intends to correct what they consider to be an error, not without sometimes committing others. This is one of the effects of writing with the spread of printing from the 11thrd century: books establish truths but also errors.

Some of these collections aim to contribute to the history of their time. Their authors compile their stories from unofficial sources, so that once published, these texts become part of a background, a heritage that historiographers can take into account. We can give the example of Wang Yucheng (954-1001), recognized as one of the most brilliant scholars of his generation. In his collection, Missing texts from the history of the Five Dynasties, he says he is gathering useful information about the period of chaos that preceded the Song Dynasty. The empire was then fragmented into rival states, dominated in the North by soldiers who had founded five dynasties in fifty years, three of which were Turkish. It is about one of these Turkish emperors, Mingzong (926-933), that the author writes this. Reading the note. Wang Yucheng says he admires this sovereign for his lucidity and humility, since he recognizes himself as a “foreigner” who awaits, like the entire empire, a holy king who will put an end to the chaos. We can and must understand that, under the author's brush, the expected saint is none other than the founder of the Song dynasty.

There will now be a lot of talk about Conversations with the brush of the Ruisseau des dreams. The first texts concern exams. Reading the note. Shen Gua reports that on the day the second stage of the competitions is held in the capital, some candidates only have to drink water from the inkwells, while others are served tea and are entitled to every consideration. In fact, he specifies, the candidates registered in the course which consists of restoring the texts of the Confucian classics find themselves with black lips because the total bareness of their room and the absence of the slightest service aims to prevent any fraud during of these tests based on memorization of texts. A scholar from the previous generation was able to write: “We burn incense in honor of the doctors of Belles Lettres, but we remove the hangings for the classics”, this suggests that the label thus established two standards when in reality the explanation is self-evident”, concludes Shen. However picturesque it may be, the anecdote highlights the tension which never ceased to pit noble trials against others which had gradually been devalued since the Tang.

Another note describes the arrival in the capital of thousands of winners from all the prefectures of the empire to take the second test. He highlights the indescribable disorder that reigned during the collective audience at the palace. Reading the note. This audience initially bringing together these thousands of first degree laureates allowed Shen Gua to scratch those who came from far away and were unaware of the customs. Despite the decision to reduce the size of the audience to a few hundred, the only winners ranked first in the prefectures, Shen, himself received first, noted the lack of restraint from his fellow students, so much so that a good word is now circulating: unable to line up, these winners are like barbarians and their camels.

In his collection, Shen Gua repeatedly criticizes those who practice the divinatory arts as well as those who use them, while recognizing the capacity for premonition of certain people. Reading the note. Shen here emphasizes the malice of the soothsayers while mocking the credulity of their clients, the feverish candidates who are preparing to take the competitive exams. We could thus affirm that Sheng Gua was animated by a thought resolutely oriented towards doubt, but we must in fact remember that a current above all refused to allow divination to become banal and an object of commerce.

Shen Gua naturally deals with Confucian virtues. In a first note, he highlights the villainy of lowly people, as well as the qualities of good men. Reading the note. The anecdote depicts the opposition between the good man, a totally disinterested civil servant, and a soldier above all concerned with profits. Now it is the first who, coming out of a storm at sea, through his carelessness kept all his possessions, while the other lost everything. In fact, this good man is none other than one of the public finance specialists, Li Shiheng, who is thus presented as both honest and disinterested. The second anecdote is more ambiguous. Shen speaks above all of an excess of virtue. Reading the note. In fact, blinded by his admirable integrity, the main character remains faithful to his principles, whatever the situation, so much so that he ends up losing all sense of proportion and adopts aberrant behavior, which leads him to construct a bridge to prevent the thieves of whom he is a victim from crossing an icy stream. For Shen Gua, a man of action, it is imperative to concretely evaluate situations and it is essential to know how to prioritize them, which is what those who have no other concern than to comply with the rules choose to ignore. ethical principles.

Shen Gua comes from a family of scholars who had collected several collections of paintings, calligraphies and even ancient documents. He thus speaks of the works of Dong Yuan (934-962) and Ju Ran (fl. 10e century), two masters of landscape painting. Reading the note. Taking the example of Sunset over the countryside, Shen explains its subtlety, emphasizing the relative neglect of the line and the evocative power of the contrasts. He returns to this theme in another note by emphasizing that, faced with the subtlety of painting and calligraphy, only an affinity of mind reserved for the most sensitive of scholars allows one to enter into consonance with the deep meaning of the work represented. He ends this note by quoting a poem: “Few are the wise who know how to forget the appearance to grasp the meaning, It is better to look at the painting than the poem” !

Another note deals with clothing habits. Reading the note. Shen Gua describes the clothing of the northern barbarians consisting of a short jacket, pants and high boots, perfectly adapted to their way of life, as he was able to observe during his embassy to the Liao-Khitan empire in 1075. This mode of dress so influenced that of the Chinese in previous centuries that Chinese clothing, he asserts, is essentially that of barbarians.

Finally, two notes, one still taken from the Stream of dreams, and the other, Chronicles of Yijian (Yijian zhi), a work dated 12e century, allow us to address an important theme, that of economic organization. Reading the first note. It describes the great famine of 1050 in the Yangtze delta, the roads of which were strewn with corpses. The prefect in charge of Hangzhou, Fan Zhongyan, distributed grain and collected available supplies. Affirming that in times of famine the price of labor is very low, the prefect launches a program of major public works and encourages the abbots of Buddhist temples to do the same. He even encourages festivities: boat races and banquets that he organizes himself. Every day, says Shen Gua, thousands of workers were mobilized. Shocked by this lack of frugality and economy, the regional administration then accused the prefect of neglecting the administration of the famine, of having fun and of exhausting the population with these major works. Fan clearly defends his policy by invoking the fact that it aims to mobilize surplus wealth. The result is clear: Hangzhou is the only prefecture not devastated by the disaster. In any case, if this consumerist trend is already present in several works, some of which date from before the founding of the empire, it was nevertheless necessary to wait until the Song for these notions to be reactivated. Much commented on since the 1950s, this note attests to the renewal of reflection on practices encouraging spending, this being thought of as an investment in relation to economic growth.

Countless stories from the Era of Great Peace (981) 500 juan, 40 fascicles, ed. 1927. ©C.Lamouroux.

Zhang Shinan. 13th century. Things heard by a wandering official (Youhuan jiwen). ©C.Lamouroux

The building of the Paradise of the Immortals in the mountain, attributed to Dong Yuan, mid-10th century, ink and light colors on silk, vertical scroll. © Palace Museum, Taipei

The second note is a fiction by Hong Mai (1123–1202), the author of Chronicles of Yijian, who is a great historian of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Throughout his life, Hong systematically collected all kinds of curious and unusual stories, wherever they came from. This collection thus provides valuable and precise information on the beliefs and social life of its time. Reading the anecdote. Chen Tai is an urban entrepreneur from Jiangxi, who produces his canvases and fabrics in villages in several prefectures in his region. Every year he makes a tour to collect his merchandise. Essential cogs, the brokers organize this work remotely and manage the funds that Chen invests in the campaigns, but one of them ends up assassinating Chen. The anecdote tells of the investigation which led to his confession.

We understand why and how historians were interested in this fiction since the details are certainly invented, but naturally remain credible in the eyes of a reader of the 12e century. The story highlights the activities, fears and risks shared in the circles of urban entrepreneurs, even elites. The economic historian can read the complexity of the work relationships between town and countryside, by discovering these networks which link merchants to producers. If these chains allowed merchants to ward off risks while maintaining relationships of domination, they depended on brokers, who knew the language, customs and commercial instruments of the different localities. This agent and manager was a man of confidence, serving as a direct contact not only with the producers but also with the local administration - the assassin is also the district chief and therefore a personality within the villages. Moreover, it is easy to imagine that the administration was on the fringes of these activities, which Hong Mai does not need to emphasize in its story. It taxes products and their transport, and it can even possibly target contracts between the merchant entrepreneur and the brokers.

We can therefore, in conclusion, affirm that all these texts present themselves as testimonies or notations with a documentary or historical vocation, but we must also recognize that they are composed as sometimes fictionalized stories. Thus the investigation reported by Hong Mai resonates as a model for much more recent works and much better known here, if we are willing to think of this judge Ti, made famous by the great sinologist and diplomat, Robert Van Gulik.



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