"Between the Eyes and the Ears": SPP turns 300

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There is a phenomenon in Japanese publishing called "san-gō zasshi  三号雑誌", which refers to a short-lived magazine that puts out three issues and then folds.  Sino-Platonic Papers, a scholarly journal I started in 1986, just put out its 300th issue, and we're still going strong, with about ten more issues in the pipeline, and others lined up to come after that.

The latest issue is "Between the Eyes and the Ears: Ethnic Perspective on the Development of Philological Traditions, First Millennium AD", by Shuheng Zhang and Victor H. Mair, which appeared yesterday (July 19, 2020).


The present inquiry stands as a foray into what may be thought of as a “Summa Philologica Sinica.” To be more precise, this paper is about the study and developmental trajectory of philology rather than philology per se. The approach here, drawing on the prefaces and comments of primary historical resources, conceives of philology as subject to the transitions of philosophy, an amalgam within which variegated traditions and schools contend and consent with each other, rather than as a static, ahistorical antithesis between the study of script and that of sound. The bifocal panoply behind philological texts and the s 勢 (“immanent configuration”) that oscillates between indigenous systems of thought and foreign philosophy, defense of nationality and openness to foreign voices, reflected in the realm of language studies, presents itself as focused on characters (eyes) versus sounds (ears).

This investigation endeavors to explain the diachronic function that the characters were imagined to carry in Chinese civilization. This imagining, and the developmental trajectory it implied for the pragmatics of characters as the adhesive pivot of a distinctive national character, is key to this paper’s agenda and its choice of primary textual evidence.

This essay, thus, has two major goals. First, it recounts China’s philological transitions under a framework of a vacillating, ethno-philosophical-oriented intellectual history; second, it sums up the Chinese literati’s own recounting of such transitions. Following Christopher Connery’s model — he calls his monograph “a history of reading”[1] (Connery 1998: 9) — this essay is intended to construct a picture of Chinese philology that unveils a history of analysis. It aims to investigate the transformation of the methods of Chinese philological studies during the “middle millennium” (i.e., the millennium from Han through Song), providing a new approach to the discipline of Chinese philology by closely reading the prefaces of lexicographic texts. It takes into account the role of Buddhism, but views it in a more nuanced fashion than the mere importance of “sound” as a religious doctrine (cf. Sanskrit vac) or phonological science. It conceives of the Chinese literary learning tradition as subject to the transition of ethnic philosophy in response to incoming foreign voices. Whether a scholar focuses on shape or sound is demarcated not by his Buddhist or Confucian belief, but by his readiness — as a member of and cultivated in Chinese civilization — to have sufficient reasons to collectively and systematically adopt another voice, had it existed for a long time or was it newly introduced. This pendulum movement underlies the first millennium AD of China, which is distinguished by an ethnic hybridization that brings about a pursuit of balancing inner constancy with outer turbulence. Whether China focused on enjoying and preserving the transient and palpable present depends on whether the culture was experiencing a cognitively unified period or a cognitively disturbed one. Such shared sentiments born of an agenda of ethno-philosophical self-reestablishment are reflected in the shared social and intellectual practices throughout the “middle millennium,” be these counterparts of the Chinese people the Indo-Iranian Hu胡 in the fourth century or the Tungusic Jurchens and Para-Mongolic Khitans around the twelfth.


Key words: Zheng Qiao; Chinese-Foreign Encounters; Kehong; the struggle of canonism; the Self-vis-à-vis-Other modes in different divisional episodes

[1] Christopher Connery, The Empire of the Text: Writing and Authority in Early Imperial China (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 9



Victor H. Mair

It is with great pride and pleasure that I celebrate the publication of the 300th issue of Sino-Platonic Papers.  The title of this paper is "Between the Eyes and the Ears:  Ethnic Perspective on the Development of Philological Traditions, First Millennium AD."  The co-authors are Shuheng Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate in South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and yours truly, the editor of the journal.  Shuheng is already familiar to readers of SPP, having previously published "The Reins of Language: The Mantra of the Heart Sutra in The Journey to the West," 286 (June, 2019) and "Three Ancient Words for Bear," 294 (November, 2019), and is a regular contributor to Language Log, with numerous comments and posts such as "Tocharian love poem" (4/1/20) and "Ancient Chinese mottos" (4/5/20).

"Between the Eyes and the Ears" is the perfect paper for this auspicious occasion.  It is focused on Chinese language and script (especially vernacular vs. classical), emphasizes philological research, takes comparison / interaction with other cultures and languages seriously, and is centered on a premodern period (in this case the medieval era).  Although not all SPP fit all of the rubrics in this template, they usually include at least two or three of them.  

SPP is well known for promoting new, cutting edge approaches to challenging problems that have never before been addressed adequately, if at all.  Such is certainly true of "Between the Eyes and the Ears," which is a first attempt to examine the political-philosophical-philological nexus of script orthodoxy vs. phonological representation as they evolved in the encounter between indigenous intellectual traditions and Buddhism across the first millennium AD.  It will be noticed that the authors do not discuss Buddhism and Confucianism as religious and ideological entities, nor do they treat script and language as objects of linguistic inquiry per se.  Rather, they intently examine the ethnic and intellectual motivation of the leading lexicographers of the age in clinging to or critiquing the notion of "correct characters," i.e., "orthography," in the face of phonological analysis of words.

So that is "Between the Eyes and the Ears."  In a moment you can turn the page to read the essay itself, but first a word about the history of this journal from its inception in early 1986 up to today.

Since it was begun as a strictly one-man operation in February 1986, I had no grand aspirations for SPP.  I simply wanted some place to tell people about my plan for a single-sort, alphabetically ordered dictionary of Mandarin.  Eventually, the dream for such a user-friendly dictionary was realized in the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (1996) and its successors at the University of Hawaii Press.

It must be remembered that, at the birth of SPP, there was no convenient means to distribute scholarly materials electronically, so I took the papers to a local copy shop, had nice blue covers printed for them, and stapled them together.

As the months and years wore on, I gradually came to realize that I could issue outstanding, innovative papers by young and established scholars alike in this format, and in the course of time I also published thirteen special issues consisting only of reviews, in which more than three hundred books were featured.

Even in the first few years, many noteworthy papers by reputable scholars appeared in the pages of SPP.  As word spread of what was being made available through SPP, individuals and libraries around the world wrote to me asking if they could subscribe to the journal, so I began to print more copies.  I was especially honored to know that places like Antonino Forte's Italian School of Oriental Studies in Kyoto and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London had complete runs of the journal on the shelves of their libraries.

But all of that success meant more volume and more work.  Driving around to pick up the papers from the copy shop, bringing them home, wrapping and packaging, preparing invoices, addressing the envelopes and boxes, carrying the heavy parcels to the post office, standing in line… all became a trial, especially in the heat of summer when I was getting ready to go to Central Asia for an expedition.  Moreover, there was always a significant loss of parcels in the mail, and then the problem of payment from countries with different currencies, and so forth and so on.

Though I loved the work I was doing, SPP's success was killing me.  Mercifully, an angel in Taiwan spoke to me around the beginning of the year 2006, twenty years after SPP was born:  "Would you like for me to turn SPP into an online journal, with all back issues available as pdfs?"  I thought I was hallucinating.  Naturally I accepted the angel's offer, and the rest is history.  So you see, I'm still alive.

The Taiwan angel's name is Mark Swofford, who is also host of the venerable Pinyin.info and co-founder of Camphor Press.  He is the technical editor of SPP.  Around the same time, Mark was joined by Paula Roberts, who had had decades of experience in academic publishing.  She is the manuscript editor of the journal.  Together, we make a congenial, cooperative team who work together efficiently to bring out up to a dozen or so issues of SPP every year.

A very famous Sinologist once captiously queried, "Why didn't you call it Helleno-Mencian Papers"?  In a mellow tone of voice, I replied, "I could have, but that's not what this journal is about.”

I will leave you with a Zen koan to mull over or munch on, as you wish:  what is the meaning of "Sino-Platonic"?  Hundreds of people have asked me what the title of this journal signifies.  Only one person has ever answered that question completely and correctly, and that is the person (aside from myself), who has authored the most SPPs.  That is also a bit of a conundrum, isn't it?



  1. Bob Michael said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 12:02 pm

    I’ve enjoyed many hours reading SPP since I discovered it a few years back. Happy anniversary!

  2. Chau said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 4:26 pm

    Congratulations! The 300th is a milestone with great historic significance, especially to Professor Mair who teaches Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic. Both the Book of Odes 詩經, commonly known as 詩三百 “Poems 300,” and the Three Hundred Tang Poems 唐詩三百首 have this classic number. My best wishes for the brightest future for the journal.

    (p.s. I was one of those hundreds of people who asked about the meaning of “Sino-Platonic”, but never got an answer.)

  3. Chris Button said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 10:13 pm

    I've always appreciated SPP for not being afraid to "go there" on occasion. It's a shame academics (at least in the fields I'm familiar with) seem to have to wait until they've established themselves before they can attempt to push the boundaries. When I finished my PhD and went to work in the corporate world, I remember appreciating the active encouragement (in my new field) of really out-there ideas. Even the most ridiculous ones often had a nugget of brilliance that could inspire something great.

    As for the article, it reminded me of the discussion on LLog a while back about whether "etymology" can be used to describe Chinese characters rather than just the words they represent. Personally, I still think "character etymology" is a valid term, but I do understand why others find it problematic.

  4. David Moser said,

    July 29, 2020 @ 9:20 pm

    HAPPY "BIRTHDAY", VICTOR! SPP is a true academic treasure: independent, creative, eclectic, feisty, out-of-the-box, wide-ranging, and timeless. I look forward to #600.

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