Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

Divination and the State: Classifying Technical Texts in Han China

Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

Divination and the State: Classifying Technical Texts in Han China

Article excerpt

Aiming at diversification and expansion of classification research, this in-depth study examines one of the six main classes in a two-thousand-year-old Chinese library catalog, the Seven Epitomes (Qilue[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). The target class, the Epitome of Divination and Numbers, represents a group of divination manuals that are further divided into six subcategories. Through a contextualized analysis of the Epitome itself and other related texts, the study identifies a number of classificatory principles at work. The scope of the Epitome was evidently determined by government functions rather than objective observations of similarities and differences between topics represented in the library collection. In other words, the Epitome included technical manuals, as opposed to philosophical writings, collected by the offices in charge of divination in the imperial government. The study also examines the order between divisions and between individual texts within the Epitome. Further, the nature of the Epitome and its association with two modern-day concepts, science and religion, are clarified in the appropriate cultural and historical context. The final section discusses the significance of the current study and offers suggestions for future classification research.


Ancient writings in China were used for communication not only among human beings but also between human beings and spirits. In fact, communication with spirits was probably even more important to the early development of written records

--Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, Written on Bamboo and Silk (1)

Research has shown that people in different cultures often categorize similar objects and concepts in drastically different ways. (2) These differences in categorization reflect people's diverse world views and understandably affect their information seeking and use in significant and substantive ways. What does it mean to librarians who serve increasingly diverse user groups? Presumably, an information system, such as the library catalog, with a classification structure that is based on a singular cultural perspective, is no longer adequate, attesting a genuine need to expand and enrich classification theory in terms of its cultural multiplicity. Beginning with such a broad goal, this paper investigates a classification system embodying a standpoint distant from what is currently familiar to most librarians, both culturally and chronologically. More specifically, the study focuses on classification of a particular group of technical writings that belonged to one of the six main classes in an ancient Chinese classification--the scheme applied in the Seven Epitomes (Qilue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), the first documented library catalog in China more than two thousand years ago. (3) I choose this topic for a thorough analysis after considering three factors. First, little research on classification of technical writings in the Chinese tradition has appeared, and the target class (the fifth Epitome) was one of the three classes in the Seven Epitomes devoted to technical writings. Second, texts belonging to this group are said to have originated from some of the oldest writings that served a central communication function between human beings and spirits in an early society. Third, this class covered topics that mixed methodical observation with mantic practices, drawing much criticism and contempt from the twentieth century onward. (4) An investigation of the chosen class thus provides an opportunity for in-depth research into an area in early Chinese classification that is the least systematically analyzed and the most misunderstood. The goal of this study is to contribute to diversification and expansion of classification research by examining an early classification system within the context in which it was created.

The rest of the paper begins with a three-part discussion of the literature: background and makeup of the Seven Epitomes and the class on divination that was chosen for this study, research on the chosen class, and challenges presented by the texts. …

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