The Threshold: The Rhetoric of Historiography in Early Medieval China


Zeb Raft

Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 136

Publication date: April 2023

Publisher’s website

About the book: What happens when historiography—the way historical events are committed to writing—shapes historical events as they occur? How do we read biography when it is truly “life-writing,” its subjects fully engaged with the historiographical rhetoric that would record their words and deeds?

The Threshold, a study of the culture of historiography in early medieval China, explores these questions through the lens of the History of Liu-Song, a dynastic history compiled in 488 and covering the first three-quarters of the fifth century. Rhetoric courses through early medieval historiography: from the way a historian framed history for readers to the political machinations contained within historical narratives, from the active use of rhetorical techniques to the passive effect that embedded discourses exercised on historian, historical actor, and reader alike.

Tracing these varied strands of historical argumentation, Zeb Raft shows how history was constructed through rhetorical elements including the narration of officialdom, the anecdote, and, above all, the historical document. The portrait that emerges is of an epideictic historiography where praise was mixed with irony and achievement diluted with ambivalence—and where the most secure positions lay on the threshold of political power and historical interpretation.

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