Rethinking the Ontology of Chinese Encyclopedias: The Life and Times of Treatise on Military Preparedness (1621)

Sarah Basham is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. She is a 2016–2017 Dissertation Writing Fellow.


My dissertation offers a case study of a seventeenth-century Chinese military encyclopedia titled Treatise on Military Preparedness (Wu bei zhi, 1621). I explore the compositional, commentarial, punctuation and social practices of its compiler and the habits of its readers, and compare them to other military and technical texts of the same period.  Seventeenth-century China receives much scholarly attention as a turning point in Chinese history largely because the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, and the rise of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) in its place. However, this political transition is a notable milestone in the midst of a host of other societal and cultural changes in this period that have also received considerable attention. Mao Yuanyi’s (1594–1640) Treatise on Military Preparedness is an ideal lens through which to examine practices in the transmission and production of technical knowledge in a period of rapid political, social, cultural and epistemic change. In particular, the increasingly commercialized late-Ming saw a proliferation of printed books, including technical treatises, and increasing preoccupation with the importance of technical knowledge to “concrete studies” (shixue) and “statecraft” (jingshi). Inspired by studies of encyclopedism, note-taking and reading practices in early modern Europe (see work by Richard Yeo, Ann Blair), my project asks what practices were specific to the production of technical knowledge in this unsettled period.

While changes in epistemic frameworks in the 16th and 17th centuries in China have been extensively explored by scholars of late imperial Chinese science and medicine, the minute practices of note-taking, reading, and compilation have been neglected in favor of content (see work by Benjamin A. Elman, Carla Nappi, and Dagmar Schäfer). My project asks what the study of these practices and close attention to copies of the Treatise as circulated material objects can further disclose about the social practices and epistemic assumptions of the early seventeenth century. By focusing on praxis I seek to foster conversations with historians of the book and historians of science in early modern Europe.

Treatise on Military Preparedness lends itself to the study of these questions for a number of reasons, most importantly, its format, and secondly, the great number of copies from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries surviving in China, Taiwan, Japan and North America. The format of the Treatise resembles the genre of a “category book” (leishu), sometimes translated as “encyclopedia.” In “category books,” quotations from other sources are compiled and listed chronologically under thematic category headings. The Treatise follows these conventions to a degree, using military, historical, astronomical, and cartographical sources. In the Treatise, there are five major sections, each relying on a different genre of sources: “Critiques of Tricks of the Military [Trade]” (Bingjue ping), “Investigations of Strategy” (Zhanlüe kao), “Systems of Troop Formations and Training” (Zhen lian zhi), “Military Supplies and Horses” (Junzi sheng), and “Record of Divination and Geography” (Zhan du zai).  These five sections are divided into thematic, more specific subsections, and sub-subsections, under which quotations and illustrations are selectively arranged in chronological order by date of composition.  In each section, the compiler has added his own printed marginal commentary. The format of the text lends itself to the study of the compiler’s performed, expert reading practices. Luckily, the compiler’s commentary can be compared with marginalia left by readers in the many copies of both the Treatise and the other military treatises on which it draws that survive in North American libraries.

Rare editions of both the Treatise and the texts that Mao quotes in the Treatise are indispensable to understanding Mao’s reading practices and those of other contemporary readers. During the 2016-2017 academic year the generous support of the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine enabled the research and writing of this project in Philadelphia and in the Chinese rare book collections of its member institutions.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Chinese Studies Collection served as a home base for much needed access to the physical and digital biographical and bibliographical resources necessary for tracing both Mao Yuanyi’s social network and practices of exchange, and the physical location of rare copies of the Treatise and other technical works.

While based at the Consortium, I was also able to visit the rare book collections at three member institutions. Princeton University’s Gest Collection holds two copies of the Treatise itself, one from the late Qing dynasty (TC33/4046), and one copy of the first 1621 edition (TC33/1368), in addition to a number of related military treatises composed in the 16th and 17th centuries. A generous grant from the Friends of the Princeton Library (Summer 2015) allowed me to examine these. With the resources of the Consortium, I was able to expand my study of citation, formatting, compilation, and illustration practices in technical materials of the 17th century. I compared strategies for illustrating moving human bodies in the Treatise with those in other rare works in the Gest Collection, including medical texts and instructive manuals on ritual music and dance.

At University of Toronto’s Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library, I was able to examine another partial copy of a 1621 print of the Treatise (U101 .M36 1621a), a 1610 print of one of Mao Yuanyi’s earliest works as editor (PL2698 .T812 H66 1610), as well as Qing-dynasty reprints of the collected writings of Lu Shanji (1575–1636, DS 753 .6 L8A2 16–– and DS 753 .6 L8A2 1879 v. 1–4), which contain letters to Mao Yuanyi’s most important contacts and a preface from Mao himself. These further allowed the examination of the survival of artifacts of Mao’s social network into the 18th century and beyond. University of Toronto’s collection also contained two other rare military treatises, one of which predated the Treatise, the other of which postdated it. Both allowed for diachronic comparison of readers’ reactions to material found in the Treatise. At Columbia University’s C. V. Starr East Asian Library, I continued to collect observations for this diachronic comparison of readers’ practices. I examined a Qing-dynasty copy of the Treatise (8917 4212) and a 1622 copy of a book quoted extensively by Mao, Qi Jiguang’s Lei ji lian bing zhu shu (8917 5029).  

The sheer variety of rare military treatises and other relevant books available to me through the Consortium’s member institutions enabled a cumulative analysis of the conventional practices used in the production, compilation, editing, and reading of technical treatises. Besides making visible epistemic assumptions undergirding the Treatise itself, studying citation, compilation, and reading practices in similar surviving technical works rendered clear to what extent those assumptions were shared across time by producers of such knowledge. In addition, surviving copies of books that Mao Yuanyi helped produce allow us to trace how networks of patronage and friendship were intimately tied to the production of these treatises and the organization of technical knowledge itself. The widespread collection of extant copies of the Treatise from the 17th through 19th centuries in North American and East Asian libraries points to mechanisms by which the memory of particular kinds of technical knowledge and its producers are shaped. Ultimately, the Consortium’s support of my research during the last year has profoundly enriched my dissertation’s narrative concerning the interdependence of social, reading, and editorial practices in seventeenth-century China.

I am grateful to the staff of the Consortium and the East Asian and rare book collections at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Toronto, Columbia University, and Princeton University, for their support and advice over the past year.