15th June 2021

Book in Focus

The Homeric Epics and the Chinese Book of Songs

Foundational Texts Compared

Edited by Fritz-Heiner Mutschler

The comparison between Greco-Roman antiquity and early China has recently become an attractive field of research. The reasons for this development are obvious. Both Western and Chinese civilizations can lay claim to outstanding longevity, and, with the economic and political rise of China in a world that is still very much under Western influence, both can point to their present state as further proof of their vitality. Thus, for those involved in Classical studies, to engage in the comparative investigation of the formative phases of these two civilizations is only natural. Indeed, in today’s globalized world, in which the mutual understanding of its different parts is more important than ever, such observations may be of interest not only to fellow scholars, but to the general public as well.

At the moment, two main strands of such research can be distinguished. Concerning the more recent of the two, the impact of the present economic and political situation is particularly plain. After the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the rise of China to the position of an economic and political giant and rival of the still-leading global superpower, the USA, intercultural “Empire Studies” have gained new actuality. In this context, the comparative analysis of the Roman and the Chinese empires has found increasing interest: from their political organization, including the role of the military, and their economic and administrative structures to their self-awareness and ideology.

The older and richer strand of research does not concern ancient Rome, but, rather, ancient Greece and China. It deals with intellectual and artistic history, and has developed in four—partly overlapping—sectors. Given a forerunner like Karl Jaspers, it is not surprising that there are by now a large number of studies that discuss philosophical problems. Not unrelated to the discussion of philosophical matters is the investigation of the development of science and scientific inquiry in ancient Greece and China, a branch that is, above, all connected with the name of Geoffrey Lloyd. Third, one may also find studies on similarities and differences of mental structures, behavioral patterns, value orientations, and the like. Finally, there is the comparison of literary texts, once again a wide and multicolored field concerning both prose genres like historiography and rhetoric and different kinds of poetry, together with poetics.

The Homeric Epics and the Chinese Book of Songs: Foundational Texts Compared integrates itself into this fourth sector of research. Its objects of comparison are the Homeric epics and the Book of Songs. Both text corpora qualify as what, in recent years, has come under the heading of “cultural texts” or “foundational texts”, that is, a class of privileged texts “in which a culture finds the valid expression of its worldview and in the communicative representation of which it confirms this worldview and at the same time itself” (Assmann). Given this situation, it is timely to compare the two text corpora systematically, in order to test out how far such comparison can enhance our understanding of their particular characteristics and perhaps even contribute to a deeper understanding of the cultures to which they belong.

Though there surely are other aspects which deserve to be studied, the purpose of this book’s envisaged enterprise seemed to be best served by looking at the texts from a general point of view. As such, the book deals with two main subjects: on the one hand, the historic embedding of the texts, and, on the other, their essential poetic features.

In consequence, this volume is divided into two parts: (I) “The History of the Texts and of their Reception”, and (II) “The Texts as Poetry”. Each part is subdivided into three sections. Part I starts out with a section on the “Coming into Being” of the Homeric epics and the Book of Songs. This process is equally complicated and disputed for both texts. However, even though absolute certainty will probably never be achieved, it seemed necessary to gain an idea of the possible and most probable scenarios. The final phase of the texts’ coming into being is, in both cases, closely connected with what can be called their “Philological Reception”, i.e. the efforts of intellectual specialists to secure the constitution and transmission of the texts and to explain them to a broader readership. Accordingly, the development of these activities is the subject of the second section. The third section deals with the overall “Cultural Role” of the texts within their respective traditions, and reviews the thesis that this role was indeed that of “cultural texts” or “foundational texts”.

As said above, the second part, “The Texts as Poetry”, concentrates on the basics. Thus, in spite of the fact that such division may seem simplistic, the first two sections of Part II are dedicated to “Form and Structure” and “Contents”. This admittedly crude differentiation nevertheless allows for descriptions of the works that, though well grounded, are accessible not only to the specialist, but also to the interested reader from the “other side”. The papers of the last section discuss the “Values” the Homeric epics and the Shijing convey—a topic of particular importance with respect to their role as “foundational” or “cultural” texts.

The decision about the concrete topics to be discussed, however, clarified only one part of the organizational design. In addition, there was the question of how in practice to organize the comparison proper. Here, the factual situation of scholarship had to be taken into account. Though things have started to change, and certainly will do so further in the years to come, the number of people who can be considered specialists of both the Homeric epics and the Book of Songs is extremely small. For this reason, the natural approach was to bring specialists from both sides together and initiate exchange and discussion between them. Thus, for each of the six topics, experts on Homer and experts on the Book of Songs were asked to present the state of scholarship—from their personal point of view, but without the obligation to be original. The intention here was to create in each case a direct juxtaposition and thus an implicit comparison of what can be considered shared knowledge on each side. However, in order not to leave it at this level of implicit comparison, in addition, colleagues were invited to make the implicit comparison explicit, to put the observations made in the two main papers into direct relation to each other. A most welcome and consciously promoted side effect of this organizational scheme was that it led to the cooperation not only of classicists and sinologists, but, at the same time, of scholars from Western countries and from China.

On the whole, it is hoped that the volume will provide an interdisciplinary and intercultural dialogue, and that, through the exploratory comparison of Chinese and Western foundational texts, it will widen the horizon of readers from either side by opening up their minds to the achievements of a highly important “other culture” and, at the same time, to the particular character of their own.

Read Extract


"It should be clear that I think this book makes a significant contribution to comparative ancient Greek/Chinese studies. While relatively little has been done in this field outside the areas of philosophy and science, recent years have seen a growth in interest. One hopes that this collection will stimulate further comparative work in the literary sphere. Comparative Greek and ancient Chinese historiography is another rich vein waiting to be mined. The challenge is, of course, that scholars trained in one civilization must dare to immerse themselves in the other. Mutschler has provided a model through the organization of both the conference and the volume that issued from it, by bringing together experts in each tradition to provide a base for the comparative scholars who can then illuminate both civilizations simultaneously."
Steven W. Hirsch, Tufts University
Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Fritz-Heiner Mutschler completed his PhD and habilitation at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. In 1988, he accepted the position of Foreign Expert for Western Classics at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China, before being appointed to the Chair of Latin Literature at the University of Dresden, Germany, 1993. He retired in 2011, but returned to China for five years as Professor for Western Classics at Peking University. He has published extensively on Roman authors from the late Republican and early Imperial periods. Since the late 1990s, his particular interest in the comparative study of Chinese and Western antiquity has been reflected in numerous articles on Greco-Roman and ancient Chinese historiography, and in an edited volume on imperial ideology, Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared (2008).

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