Christopher M.B. Nugent (Williams), “Compressing the Culture: Encoding Knowledge for Retrieval in Medieval China”

nugent higher quality image
P.3973, courtesy of Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France

[A portion of the Dunhuang manuscript labeled P.3973 (“P” indicating that it is part of the Pelliot collection at the BnF). The manuscript, of which only portions survive, includes lines from the Qianzi wen (Thousand Character Text) in large characters and annotations to those lines in smaller interlinear characters. The annotations connect the words of the text proper to important works from earlier periods. This is a visual representation of how the Qianzi wen was likely used in the medieval period as a way to compress larger units of knowledge into a few words that would serve as cues to retrieve those larger knowledge units.]

The literate elite in medieval China (roughly sixth through tenth centuries CE) were expected to have a wide array of knowledge about the historical and literary past at their immediate mental disposal to deploy in circumstances ranging from writing essays on the civil service exam to composing poems while deep in their cups at a party — neither of which permitted consultation of written texts. My presentation discusses some aspects of how they learned this knowledge and stored it for rapid mental retrieval. I focus here on how a basic literacy primer consisting of one thousand non-repeating words — the Thousand Character Text — served as a mnemonic framework that learners could use to recall not just the words of the primer itself, but the much larger body of earlier texts and knowledge to which it referred. While we lack narrative descriptions of such methods use, later medieval manuscripts of the work include paratextual elements that demonstrate how this might have worked.