#AsiaNow Speaks with Anna M. Shields

Anna M. Shields is Professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and the author of One Who Knows Me: Friendship and Literary Culture in Mid-Tang China, published by Harvard Asia Center (2015) and winner of the 2017 AAS Honorable Mention for the Levenson Book Prize (pre-1900).


To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book explores mid-Tang [Dynasty] literature in order to understand the complex value mid-Tang writers discovered in friendship―as a rewarding social practice, a rich literary topic, a way to negotiate literati identity, and a path toward self-understanding. I look at the evolution of the performance of friendship in a wide range of genres, including letters, prefaces, exchange poetry, and funerary texts, and I translate and explicate dozens of texts. The book follows the life-course of mid-Tang literati men, from youthful competition in the exams through career vicissitudes to death and commemoration.


What inspired you to research this topic?

I was first drawn to the topic of friendship through my work on the “matching” poetry of mid-Tang poets Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen—I saw how they used poetry as literary and social competition, and I began to read more of their work about each other and friendship. I quickly realized that friendship among mid-Tang writers beyond the Yuan-Bai dyad was a prominent topic, far more so than ever before in medieval China, and I wanted to figure out why that was true.


What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better/easier than you expected it would?

Tackling the voluminous scholarship and difficult texts of the intellectual history of the mid-Tang and understanding how writing about friendship intersected critical mid-Tang epistemological and aesthetic questions were some early challenges. Learning to read and translate funerary texts well was another hurdle—there is still very little scholarship on funerary genres as literary forms, so I was to some extent writing a new scholarship. One of the joys of the project, however, was seeing how well some contemporary research on friendship from the fields of social psychology and sociology seemed to speak to my topic. Friendship practices seem to have some deep underlying structures that may transcend cultures, despite their culturally different forms across time and space.


What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

There was one critical early moment in the genesis of the book, when I first began to read the “prayer texts” written for dead friends. I was reading the piece that Bai Juyi had written for Yuan Zhen, a text that is completely over the top in every way, unlike any other prayer text in Bai’s corpus, longer and more complex than most such texts in the Tang—it’s sentimental, boastful, varies from high to low register, and incredibly melodramatic—but I was moved to tears. My first response was, “what the heck is going on here?” Then I wanted to understand what he was trying to accomplish in literary, social, and even religious terms by composing such an unusual text.


What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?

An essential work for my book is called simply The Friend, by the late early modern English historian Alan Bray (Chicago, 2003). Bray was a masterful reader of an extraordinary range of texts, including funerary inscriptions. He showed how and why writing about friendship signified in the public sphere, and his exploration of the social and political dimensions of what might seem to be purely private relationships was an eye-opening model for me, and it gave me hope that I could achieve what at first seemed like a project out of left field. Though we’ve seen some great work on friendship in late imperial China come out in recent decades, there is almost no scholarship on friendship in earlier periods—as I explain in detail in the first chapter, friendship has historically been marginalized in the family-centric discourses of the Confucian state—and I had to carve out a space, as Bray did, for my work.


What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a book that traces the way the Tang dynasty literary legacy was shaped and transmitted in the Five Dynasties and Northern Song periods. I’m not as much interested in the formation of a stable “Tang canon” as I am in the scholarly, interpretive work that affected the circulation and reading of texts in the centuries after the fall of the Tang. I’m studying biographies of Tang writers from the Old and New Tang Histories, anthologies of Tang texts, and anecdote collections about Tang writers and their works. I have two articles from this research coming out this year, in the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture and T’oung Pao. Exploring the literature and scholarship of the Northern Song is daunting—so many more texts than in the Tang!—but it’s exciting to be working in a new period.