Three questions to Howard Goodman

This is  the first interview in a new series, entitled Three questions, in which scholars, invited to participate in the SAW project seminars, answer three questions about their research.

It is an honour to introduce Howard L. Goodman, who will give several talks at three one-day workshops on Li Chunfeng, and on the treatises in the official histories written in Tang China, which will take place at the end of November – beginning of December 2012.

Howard Goodman became interested in Chinese, as well as Russian and music, at a young age.  He received a PhD. in early Chinese intellectual history at Princeton and taught at several universities. His research interests are varied, as reflected in his papers on such subjects as Wei-Jin music, careers of local families, harmonics vis-a-vis musical scales, factionalism, poetry, the nature of mortuary rites and commemoration, institutions of scientific thought.  He is the author of two books: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in Third-Century AD China, covering such issues as musicology, poetics, metrology, and archeology in the career of Xun Xu (d. 289) and his peers, and the role of factions and scholarly groups; and Ts’ao P’i Transcendent: The Political Culture of Dynasty-Founding in China at the End of the Han, dealing with exacting arts, mantic ideas, notions of revelation, etc., that lay behind Cao Pi’s decision to install a new dynasty in 220. In 2013, Howard Goodman will be a Visiting Associate Professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago.

Natalie Cernecka: Why did you become interested in Li Chunfeng?

Howard Goodman: I became interested in the 7th century Li Chunfeng during research into scholars of the 2d-3d centuries, especially Xun Xu (d. 289). In the process, the third century’s approach to precision in ritual knowledge and ritual arts seemed like a fascinating set of intellectual-scientific tools — tools that came from China’s long traditions, including mathematics, harmonics, astronomy, mechanical engineering, etc. I sensed that certain 2d-3d century scholars thought of themselves as workers in technical fields (not just social groups of writers and political operatives); they applied recent contributions in the exacting arts and in classical commentaries, as well as findings in archeology. I understood that we need to learn about Li Chunfeng, who was in fact making his own, much more mathematically-oriented, judgments on earlier judgments. Li may be seen as a back-looking mirror on post-Han scientific thinking.

Karine Chemla
: How does learning about Li Chunfeng help us use the evidence he gives us — and is sometimes the only one to give us– about earlier scientific activities in China?
HG: From Cai Yong’s day (not to mention Ban Gu) down to Li Chunfeng’s I see a profound evolution in the way the technical treatises on, and creative achievements in, harmonic  systems were framed. A major change from Cai to Xun Xu (who did not write treatises but did leave documents) was the refined use of antiquarian documents (esp. provenancing of objects-as-witnesses). This activity had existed in the Dongguan archives of Eastern Han dynasty, but for Xun, collecting and provenancing entirely defined his reforms in metrology and musicology. However, Xun treated his predecessors in a highly iconoclastic way: he denounced his predecessors.

Li Chunfeng was not this kind of iconoclast, instead he carefully carried forward the findings of important predecessors, without denunciation. He looked back at the history of harmonics and astronomy in two ways. First, he continued that tradition of collecting and provenancing — Li’s treatises are a veritable anthology of quoted documents (saved nowhere else) about metrology, harmonics, and physical cosmography, ranging from Xun  Xu’s own archival notes to the most advanced of the mathematical findings of especially Northern Dynasty experts. This “Li Chunfeng anthology”, so to speak, also may have included many actual devices at his disposal.

Secondly, Li wrote his treatises in a historiographical manner that installed leading figures in specific fields. He explicitly defended Xun Xu’s radical metrology and harmonics by offering hundreds more collected objects as witness-proofs and introduced mathematical explanations where Xun had not explicitly done so. Moreover, Li updated 500 years of cosmography by carefully reconstructing the theories and devices of Wang Fan (3d c.). In this way, Li Chunfeng’s work both retrieved and built up a history of achievements. Li’s own armillary sphere may be seen as a final key to his mathematico-cosmographic work, but I believe we know too little about it for anything more than suggestions to be made.

NC: What is the most exciting problem concerning Li Chunfeng’s writing that still needs to be solved?

HG: Li’s written treatise on the history and specifics of court astronomy during the Jin dynasty (266-419) was translated by Ho Peng Yoke and is a major step in studies of Li Chunfeng. To round out our view of Li’s scientific mind, we should translate his treatise on harmonic systems, Lüli zhi (a.k.a. “Treatise on Calendars and Pitch-pipes”, esp. the treatise that became part of Suishu), bringing out his view of mathematical developments. We also need an investigation of Li’s Daoist writings to see if they relate to arts, precision, and techne of the type found in Tang court ritual. For example, does the Daoist term “flowing pearls” (used in a Li Chunfeng Daoist essay) relate to mercury used in armillary drives? What would studies of Li show us about the Tang nexus of Daoism, the state-cult, and certain arts and techniques?

NC: Many thanks!

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