What is the nature of language? This is the question that Nathan Vedal’s book, The Culture of Language in Ming China: Sound, Script, and the Redefinition of Boundaries of Knowledge (Columbia University Press; 2022), explores. And ‘explore’ is indeed the best word to describe what this beautifully rich book does, for it looks at how language was conceived, discussed, and debated in a wide range of little-known texts from the Ming and Qing, including works of philosophy, philology, literature, and music.
Through this exploration, The Culture of Language in Ming China looks at how a community interested in philology formed in the sixteenth century. More importantly, this book examines Ming philology on its own terms, making the point that constrained disciplinary boundaries around philology and around what constitutes the study of language simply didn’t apply in this period; such restrictions would come later. As such, this book should be of interest to anyone curious in learning more about Chinese intellectual history, the history of the Ming and Qing, and the study of language in East Asia — but also anyone interested in thinking critically about the formation and history of disciplinary boundaries.
Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. She works on Manchu language books and is interested in anything with a kesike. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org