Dirk Meyer
Dirk Meyer

Dirk Meyer is Associate Professor in Chinese Philosophy and Fellow of The Queen’s College, University of Oxford. He primarily works on the history of thought, the interplay of material conditions and ideas, orality and literacy in early Chinese philosophical discourse, as well as argumentative strategies in early Chinese philosophy. He is the author of Philosophy on Bamboo: Text and the Production of Meaning in Early China (Brill 2012). His current projects include Literary Forms of Argument in Early China, ed. with J. Gentz (forthcoming 2015); The Classic of Documents and the Origins of Chinese Political Philosophy, ed. with M. Kern (forthcoming 2015–2016); The Journal of Manuscript and Text Cultures (JMTC). He is currently Bernhard Karlgren Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, working on the monograph The Materiality of “Shu” Traditions and the Origins of the Documents in Warring States’ China (Brill, contracted).

About the lecture:

Informed by the theoretical considerations of Reinhard Koselleck’s work on conceptual history plus my take on the systematisation of ideas around the fourth century BC in the context of a stabilising manuscript culture, in this paper I study China’s foremost Classic, the Shàngshū—or Documents—as a corpus based conceptual history.

The Shangshu is highly layered anthology, with its earliest layers of text production dating to the 10th century BC. It contains a series of royal speeches that are central to the formation of core philosophical concepts such as the “Mandate of Heaven”; the idea of the common people as the source of a ruler’s legitimation; just war; legitimate regicide. Tradition has it that Confucius himself compiled that anthology into the corpus of texts that we see today. The Shàngshū is therefore sometimes called “The Documents of Confucius”. Because of the alleged relation between Confucius and the Shàngshū, it is generally taken as a text with a consistent—I should say Confucian—outlook, and it is studied accordingly.

My research takes a radically different approach. Rather than looking at it from the perspective of canonicity, I study the various renditions of the Shàngshū as manifest in a variety of recently discovered manuscripts from the fourth century BC. Intertextual correspondences make it plain that the Shàngshū was in fact never a set of steady texts but a cultural repertoire that framed the experience of certain communities and sub-communities. Those communities and sub-communities utilised the cultural repertoire for their socio-politico philosophical ends by entextualising—and rewriting—elements of that repertoire as they saw fit.

I suggest that such forms of cultural appropriation for the socio-political ends of certain groups are central to the formation of the Shàngshū. It equally applies to its earliest associations with Confucius, as it does to the recent attempts by leading Chinese intellectuals to conceptualise their own political agenda in reference to the Shàngshū, as they position China as a rising global power.