Information Management and Library Science

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Just out today, this is one of the longest book reviews I have ever written:

Jack W. Chen, Anatoly Detwyler, Xiao Liu, Christopher M. B. Nugent, and Bruce Rusk, eds., Literary Information in China:  A History (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2021).

Reviewed by Victor H. Mair

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2022)

I am calling it to your attention because the book under review, which I will refer to here as LIIC, signals a sea change in:

1. Sinology
2. Information technology
3. Academic attitudes toward the study of language and literature

1. Most people don't even have a clue as to what "Sinology" is. Since it is an old, dying discipline, I don't really blame them. Perhaps the simplest explanation for Sinology is "philology as applied to Sinitic languages and texts", "Sinitic" being a technical way to refer to the language group and ethnicity Chinese call "Hàn 漢".  Then again, most folks don't really understand what "philology" is either, so I'll go back one step and give my own personal definition:  the study of ancient texts for the purpose of understanding the cultures that produced them. In some respects, it may be thought of as historical linguistics.

2. Within the last two decades or so, the profession of library science has become increasingly moribund, and is gradually being replaced by information science / management / technology, digital humanities, and the like.  LIIC thinks of its mission as being the investigation of information management throughout Chinese history, from the classical period more than two millennia ago up to the present day.

3. The study of Chinese literature qua literature (i.e., belles lettres) is only about a century old.  Before the 19th century, scholars were interested in texts as documents for research on history, biography, economy, and so forth, not on the esthetics, genres, prosody, structure, etc. of literary works in a systematic fashion.  Now, in the 3rd millennium AD, as demonstrated in LIIC, advanced techniques and technologies, approaches, and methods — most of them driven by digital software and hardware — are raising entirely unanticipated questions that apply to classical, recent, and contemporary writing, questions that we could not even dream of asking before the advent of these new tools and the concepts they engender.

Since I went into all of this in considerable detail in the review itself, I will not repeat myself here.  One thing I do want to emphasize is that the role of corpus stylistics (the analysis of literary texts by using corpus linguistics techniques) in modern literary studies has barely been touched upon and remains to be more deeply explored and utilized.  I believe that it offers great potential for comprehending the nature and power of literature as one of the key components of human culture.

Selected readings



  1. Christopher said,

    September 8, 2022 @ 12:56 pm

    Thank you for this generous review, Victor! (Especially appreciate your acknowledgment of the massive amount of editing work a project like this required.)

  2. Doctor Science said,

    September 8, 2022 @ 2:58 pm

    Dr Mair:

    In your review of Chaps. 5 & 6 you use the word "tomic". I cannot find this word in any readily available dictionary, or on Google Scholar (once I cut out all the people with that surname). Is it your neologism, to translate "切"? I assume it's from the Greek like -tomy, meaning "a cutting".

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2022 @ 3:06 pm

    @Doctor Science:

    Thanks for noticing that. You're right on all counts.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2022 @ 3:35 pm

    From Zhang He:

    The book sounds very ambitious and interesting. I am more interested in the studies of all sorts of dictionaries.

    With such broad contents and materials, I wished it would also include translations in either Sino to foreign or foreign to Sino. There is much information lost, misunderstood, or completely wrong, through translations since very ancient times, and still today, with Google translation for instance.

    I also wished that it would include fangyan 方言 and local documents like 地方志 (县志、郡志 etc.), as sources of information.

    I would also be interested in methods of circulation of information before modern libraries.

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