The “Yiwen zhi” 藝文志 (Treatise on Arts and Letters) Bibliography in Its Own Context

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Michael Hunter



On the shortlist of truly indispensable texts within early China studies, a special place is reserved for Ban Gu’s 班固 (32–92 CE) “Yiwen zhi” 藝文志 (Treatise on Arts and Letters), the oldest extant bibliography in the East Asian tradition, if not the oldest extant and complete bibliography from the ancient world. After outlining the bibliography in the first section, I argue that the “Yiwen zhi” was never meant to serve as a “library catalogue” in the everyday sense of the term. Instead, it was a highly selective and ideological subject bibliography of texts deemed by Han (202 BCE–220 CE) imperial bibliographers as being useful for governance. The second half of the paper counters the tendency to read the “Yiwen zhi” as a stand-alone text or even, in the words of Mark Edward Lewis, as “the final encyclopedic work of the Western Han.” Set against the other nine “treatises” (zhi 志) of Ban Gu’s Hanshu 漢書 (History of the Han), the “Yiwen zhi” emerges as one among many products of a centuries-long effort undertaken by numerous parties to “survey” (lüe 略) and “synthesize” (zong 總) all domains of knowledge of relevance to the imperium, a project modeled on the “Hong fan” 洪範 (Great Plan) chapter of the Shangshu 尚書 (Exalted Documents). The rhetoric, organization, and value of the “Yiwen zhi” were all contingent on that larger vision.

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