China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Everyday, we encounter texts of formulaic nature - a dessert recipe, a home remedy for headache, a beauty tip, a maintenance manual for appliances - without much thinking. To what extent is such technical know-how independent of context (applicable to everybody, everywhere)? Yet despite their succinct form and robust claims to efficacy, formulaic texts do require heavy interpretations on the part of their readers. In this panel, we invite four historians to discuss the ways in which their encounters with formulaic texts shed unexpected light on the matter of history, encompassing a long time period straddling China’s late imperial and modern era (17th-20th centuries). Specifically, we anticipate a lively discussion on two methodological issues central to the field of Chinese history and of broad interest beyond: first, what actors do we risk leaving out when we write a cultural history that overlooks the staggering amount of formulaic literature that survived in manuscript and in print? Second, is there an evident break in technical culture expressed in formulaic literature during the 19th-20th centuries?
To this end, our panel adopts an innovative format by shortening each presentation to 10 minutes. Each author will start with a specific formula / recipe and discuss the specific obstacles presented by formulaic primary sources of his / her period. A concentrated round of commentary then follows from the discussant as well as the audience, focusing on conceptual and methodological issues. After the authors each respond, a second round of open-ended Q&A concludes the panel.