Yingtian He

TIAS Postdoctoral Fellow, Tsinghua University
Faculty Adviser: He Bian

Well-Ordered Textures: The Book of Odes and the Study of Wu in Mid-Qing China


This dissertation examines the epistemic breakthroughs and complexities in the study of “things” (wu) in mid-Qing evidential learning, a prevailing intellectual movement in China circa 1750-1850 which sought for truth from solid facts. By focusing on the multifaceted natural and ritual objects in the Book of Odes (Shi), this work offers a new understanding of mid-Qing intellectual history from the perspective of historical epistemology. Overall, I argue for a parallel development and contending authority between the textual and material aspects of evidential learning, which, in giving rise to an emerging inwardness of wu, collectively shifted the focus of epistemic inquiry from the referential surface of cosmological “coherence” (li) to the well-ordered “textures” (li) of specific wu. Tracing back to the earlier cosmological tradition, this dissertation first demonstrates how the name and the object, text-derived features and natural traits had already merged into hermeneutical loops in the Song dynasty. These complicated wu were then incorporated into broader epistemic networks in the late Ming, creating an extensive referential surface which frequently left competing theses unresolved. I then elaborate how these unresolved problems were overcome through newly developed philological techniques such as ancient phonology, general pattern, and paleography, as well as intensified observations, frontier evidence, and technocratic inclination on the material side. Given the comparability of the newly revealed philological and material textures, the mid-Qing intellectual movement can be better categorized as a collective inquiry for the refined textures of specific wu. Nevertheless, due to varied epistemological takes and methodological preferences, these breakthroughs guaranteed no convergence in knowledge making. This dissertation then examines the fickle and frequently irreconcilable working premises behind bifurcating philological theses, as well as the contending evidential authorities between textual and material aspects of a holistic wu. Such complexities suggest both an internal explanation for the trivialization of philological learning and an indigenous propensity for disciplinary division in the nineteenth century. The specified yet holistic inquiry of wu, rigorous in the epistemic construction of “facts” while loose in the epistemological attaining of “truth,” displays an important epistemic mode between the fade of Neo-Confucian cosmology and the advent of disciplinary science.