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David Schaberg’s “Speech Genres and Chinese ‘Classics’ (jing 經)”

About the Workshop

This workshop explores from a multidisciplinary standpoint how oral literature stands alongside and engages with texts in literate societies. While the study of oral literature has transformed many disciplines in the last century, the label of “true” orality was originally granted only to pre-literate traditions. We bring together a variety of perspectives as to how different disciplines have bridged the perceived gap between verbal art and artistic text. To that end, the workshop builds an ongoing conversation on
topics such as the transmission and textualization of folk literature, the interplay between spoken word and written text, and the sociology of reading and performance. 

Our aim is to broaden participants’ perspectives of oral literature in a literate society by encouraging a methodological dialogue across disciplines. Each session features an invited speaker who gives a short introduction to a pre-circulated paper followed by a respondent who will open the discussion. We warmly invite anyone who is interested in questions surrounding orality and literacy to join us for food and fellowship.

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With his talk “Speech Genres and Chinese ‘Classics’,” David Schaberg introduced the participants of the Oral Literacy & Literate Orality Workshop to the fascinating Chinese “Five Classics” (wu jing, 五經). Consisting of the Classic of Poetry (詩經), the Book of Documents (尚書), the Book of Rites (禮記), the Classic of Changes (易經), and the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋), these works represent some of the earliest writings of the ancient Chinese literary canon. Traditionally held to have been collected and edited by Confucius, Schaberg brought to light traces of their oral composition, evidence within the texts for the continued influence of orality, and their own influence on Chinese oral performance genres.

For evidence of their influence on speech genres Schaberg pointed to an interesting passage within the Book of Documents wherein several officials are asked to recite poems at the conclusion of a peace negotiation. As Schaberg noted during his introduction, the success of the officials’ mission is said to depend on their ability to recite an appropriate poem. The passage records the title of the poems recited and the recipient’s response to them, but not the contents of the poems. The reader, like the officials and their interlocutor, was expected to know the Classic of Poetry by heart.

Schaberg presented the concept of “transcription scars” — places in the text where less archaic Chinese terms replace older homophones. These “scars” in the texture of the texts might be compared to the dragons in Joseph Nagy’s old Irish “transitional texts:” a written invocation of oral aesthetics. Where Nagy’s dragons point toward an archaizing tendency, the shift of homophones that form the scar tissue of the Chinese classics points in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, both phenomena call into question inherent distinctions between written and oral literatures.

After his presentation, Schaberg oversaw a lively discussion about the possibility for oral/literate cross-fertilization. The discussion dovetailed with many attendees’ interests in current oral traditions, and pointed to the importance of interdisciplinary approaches that bridge any presumed oral/literate divide.