Losing the Way in the City: Cities and Intellectual Crisis in Eleventh-Century China
- Wednesday 18 September 2019
2311 BD Leiden
During the eleventh century, literati endeavored for the first time to write the commercial streetscape. Literati of previous centuries had written the city in the past tense, in tales of dissolute youth and in memoirs about capitals destroyed, but had otherwise hidden urban streets behind a generic blur of dust and traffic. Literati in the eleventh century, in contrast, deemed the living streetscape a topic suitable for literary composition, and they changed the topography of literary genres in order to make a place for the city in writing. As a new literary subject, the urban streetscape afforded scope for original effects, but literati also wrote the city for ideological reasons. On the written page, they could set themselves apart—as individuals in the anonymous crowd, as connoisseurs among spendthrift nobles—as they could not in the streets and markets of the dense metropolis. On the written page, moreover, they could conform the confusing movement of people, goods, and money to a moral economy of perfect circulation and equitable distribution. By the end of the eleventh century, however, both these ideological projects had failed. Literati found themselves encompassed by the relative values that they had tried to contain, and debates about economic reform exposed the lack of objective criteria for the application of classical learning to practical policy.
Christian de Pee is Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Writing of Weddings in Middle-Period China: Text and Ritual Practice in the Eighth through Fourteenth Centuries (2007) and co-editor of Senses of the City: Perceptions of Hangzhou and the Southern Song, 1127-1279 (2017). He is currently a fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies, where he is completing an intellectual history of the city from 800 to 1100 CE and preparing to write a general history of eleventh-century China.