#AsiaNow Speaks with Christian de Pee

Christian de Pee is a Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of Urban Life and Intellectual Crisis in Middle-Period China, 800-1100, which was published by Amsterdam University Press in 2022 and which has received an Honorable Mention for the 2024 AAS Joseph Levenson Prize (Pre-1900).

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

The book argues that during the eleventh century the urban streetscape emerged into writing. Literati of the Song Empire changed the geographic orientation of the literary genres they inherited from the Tang in order to make a place for the city in writing. They did this in order to understand and control the urban economy of their time. As writers and as scholars, they tried to set themselves apart from the crowd by applying their learning to urban subjects and to the connoisseurship of antiques, food, and other commodities. As officials, they tried to understand the movement of people, goods, and money through their jurisdictions by making analogies with the flow of water and the circulation of bodily essences. By the end of the eleventh century, however, they realized that the relative values of the market were incompatible with the absolute values they professed in their other writings. At the same time, violent controversies about economic reforms revealed that the urban economy resisted natural analogies and that literati were unable to turn their classical learning into effective economic policy. As a result, literati lost interest in the city as a place for new ways of seeing and thinking.

What inspired you to research this topic?

Originally, I was going to write a book on representations of imperial power during the Song dynasty. I wanted to understand better how literati and the court thought power worked. But I always knew that this was an enormous subject, because almost all the texts we have from the period relate to imperial power in one way or another. I decided to begin with material representations of imperial power in architecture and wrote two articles about the eleventh-century capitals, one about Luoyang and one about Kaifeng. As I wrote those articles, I became interested in the relationship between text and urban space, which seemed a more manageable subject. I saw that it takes thought and effort to represent urban space in writing, and it seemed to me that literati in the eleventh century were taking up urban space as a new literary subject—just as writers and painters in nineteenth-century Europe took time to find appropriate forms to represent the industrial city. For Tang poets, the urban streetscape was not a poetic subject; for Song poets, it was, or it could be.

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

The greatest difficulty probably was the endurance it required to read through the primary sources, which consisted mainly of 155 collected works. I decided to concentrate on collected works by individual authors because collected works contain multiple genres, and because the collected works of the late Tang and the early Song contain fairly much the same genres. By reading these collected works in roughly chronological order, I would be able to trace the developing relationship between text and urban space in a variety of genres. The conventions of several of these genres moreover require that the author present an authentic testimony of a particular place at a particular time, thus making the relationship between the author and urban space individual and concrete. Reading through prose genres was fairly straightforward, because prose compositions tend to be expository and somewhat predictable. But reading poetry demanded very close attention, because a single character or a single image could make a poem relevant for my research. And collected works generally contain hundreds of poems, sometimes thousands. Reading through hundreds of poems at a stretch required concentration and patience.

What turned out better than expected was the narrative that emerged as I read. Initially I had expected a linear narrative, from attempts to write the urban streetscape in the late tenth or early eleventh century to the completion of A Dream of Splendor in the Eastern Capital (Dongjing meng Hua lu), a memoir of life in Kaifeng that was finished in 1148. But gradually I discovered that literati lost interest in the city by the late eleventh century. The urban texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries use a few literary devices from the eleventh century, but they are mostly separate. They tend to be anonymous, for example, and they tend to delight in conspicuous consumption. The writing of the city in the eleventh century turned out to be connected specifically to the intellectual history of that period, to literati identity and to economic reforms.

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

Because I read tens of thousands of compositions, it is difficult to choose one. I like the poems by Shao Yong in which he describes lying on his back in a little carriage, being pulled through the streets of Luoyang, watching the branches flit overhead and imagining that he is a flying immortal. But I also like the poems by Mei Yaochen in which he connects the dust and coal smoke of Kaifeng to philosophical uncertainty about knowledge and identity, and a commemoration of a pavilion by Ouyang Xiu in which he explains that cities have their own beauty, and that there are people who prefer that beauty to the beauty of mountains and the countryside. And it was a surprise to find how narrow a selection of collected works survives from the late Tang and early Song. Almost all the authors of surviving works affiliated themselves with what was called Ancient Prose—a revival of the style and diction of the ancient canon and the philosophers of the Warring States period. This is not a new discovery, but reading through the collected works in chronological order made it particularly clear that almost all the authors knew one another and formed an intellectual community that was by no means representative of the period.

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

I wrote this book in part because it would allow me to read scholarship on urban literature in Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the urban literature itself. I felt particularly inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk, Anke Gleber’s Art of Taking a Walk, Karen Newman’s Cultural Capitals, James Rubin’s Impressionism and the Modern Landscape, and Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City. As I mention in the book, I remember with fondness living and walking in Paris and Berlin, reading Walter Benjamin’s Berliner Kindheit um 1900 and Siegfried Kracauer’s Straßen in Berlin und anderswo on the subway, and Honoré de Balzac’s Gobseck, Gustave Flaubert’s Éducation sentimentale, and Émile Zola’s Ventre de Paris along the Seine. In addition, I was inspired by the architect Rem Koolhaas, who has taken an interest in Chinese cities and Chinese architecture. (His firm, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, in fact has sponsored a translation of the Song-dynasty building manual Building Standards [Yingzao fashi].) I watched many of Koolhaas’s interviews and lectures online, read his Delirious New York and other books, and visited several of his buildings—all of it very inspiring, by their intelligence and critical inquiry as well as by their playfulness.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

I am trying to write a book about eleventh-century China for a general audience. The working title is The Chinese Renaissance: How the Song Empire Changed China and the World in the Eleventh Century. The idea is that the eleventh century in China resembles the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century in a number of important ways—including a belief in a new, superior understanding antiquity—but that very few Americans and Europeans know anything about the period, and that at present there are very few books they can read to learn about it. Trying to make the period intelligible and interesting to a broad audience is interesting both as a work of historical interpretation and as a work of language. The main difficulty so far is that those who have read the completed chapters of the manuscript all have different ideas about what a general audience knows and what it likes. In other words, I need to find an agent or an editor with whom to develop this manuscript.