Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.51

Alexander Beecroft, Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China: Patterns of Literary Circulation.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. ix, 328.  ISBN 9780521194310.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Hyun Jin Kim, University of Sydney (


The comparative study of Greek and Chinese poetry, more specifically the comparison of the Shijing and the Homeric epics, was already attempted ten years ago by Jullien and Hawkes.1 Whereas the earlier book, despite its many positive aspects, unfortunately limited itself to the rather simplistic discussion of the supposed dichotomy between Chinese obscurity and Greek directness, Beecroft provides a much more sophisticated comparative study of Archaic Greek and Early Chinese poetry. He also introduces into the field of comparative studies of Greece and China the new element of authorship and the impact of authorship on poetics and the intertwining of cultural and political dimensions of poetry.

In the introduction Beecroft provides an apology for his selective choice of Greece and China over other possible avenues of comparative research, i.e. the non-inclusion of the Near East, India and other cultures in the debate (4-5). He places particular emphasis on the common cosmopolitanism and arguable universalism that pervade Greek and Chinese literature, which render this particular comparative research feasible in the same way that Milman Parry’s comparative research so successfully employed Yugoslav oral poetry to illuminate the formulaic nature of the Homeric epics (7). He also introduces alternative terminology that better explains cosmopolitan dimensions in the Archaic Greek and Early Chinese contexts. Terms such as epichoric (8), panchoric (9) and a neologism, Panhuaxia, a Chinese version of Panhellenism, are introduced.

The evident conflict between centripetal and centrifugal tendencies in both Greece and China and the impact of this on both the localization and wider diffusion of literature within the linguistic boundaries of both cultures are pointed out (10).A gradual transition from the epichoric phase to Panhellenic and Panhuaxia and finally to predominantly cosmopolitan thinking in the Hellenistic-Imperial phase in the Greek world and the Imperial Qin-Han Period in China is mapped out (11-12). The study of the emergence of Greek and Chinese languages and literature as cosmopolitan idioms, as the author suggests, can provide a useful model for examining the rise of other cosmopolitan languages and cultures such as Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and Latin (14-15). This is then followed by an explanation as to why authorship in particular has been singled out for analysis in a book on the emergence of cosmopolitan literary circulation (16). The capacity of what Beecroft calls the “scenes of authorship” (18), the biographical material on the lives of poets, which provide implied poetics and theories about literature that can be inferred from the observation of information relating to authorship, justifies this focus on authorship (19).

In the first chapter Beecroft discusses the explicit poetics of the two cultures. The argument that Chinese affective-expressive poetics has an explicitly political agenda in contrast to the evasive approach of Greek poetics is critically examined (29). It is demonstrated that in the Record of the Rites and the Mao Preface to the Canon of Songs, one encounters an opposition to the centrifugal circulation of poetry and music, a world in which the state seeks to control popular sentiment by regulating the music that is produced (31). Poetry is seen by the cosmopolitan Ru classicists of the Han court as a means of maintaining the equilibrium of the state (32). In the Greek context Aristotle in the Politics 1342a 16-30 interestingly, like his Chinese counterparts, recognises that music has a political dimension and a role of sorts in regulating public well-being (34). Thus the dichotomy of mentality that is suggested by the argumentation mentioned above is rejected with good reason. What does appear is a difference in focus. The Mao Preface shows greater interest in why poetry is created, whereas both Plato and Aristotle evade this question in favour of how it is appreciated. Thus Plato in the Republic focuses on how music can destroy a city and wants to ban inappropriate material (378-379a5), while the Mao Preface suggests that bad music is symptomatic of the destruction of the state and is in a way needed to alert the state of its failings (35).

Beecroft then moves on to representation and transmission, which are of acute interest to both poetic traditions (35). An extended discussion on mimesis follows (36). The application of the “post-Platonic meaning of mimesis” to the interpretation of Chinese poetry has often led to the assumption that Chinese poetry is non-mimetic (42). However, the author argues that there is evidence for something approximating a Chinese poetics of mimesis in the Analects (43-47). This is then followed by a discussion on composition and performance.

The second chapter addresses authorial self-reference in the Homeric epics (61). It begins with a detailed analysis of the various Lives of Homer as a starting point to the investigation of the construction of authorship in Greece (62-66). The author identifies a series of “biographical devices” that allow for the discussion of abstract ideas about literature among ancient readers and writers and argues that biographical anecdotes about Homer use these devices to discuss the ways in which the Homeric epics emerge as a Panhellenic cultural force out of a network of “epichoric”, localized interests (66). Various details of the Lives, the information on Homer’s birthplace and genealogy, Homer’s travels, transcription, and finally the recension and reception of the epics are discussed at length. Most interestingly the author insists that the multiplicity of conflicting claims on Homer’s birthplace should be understood as an attempt to panhellenize not merely the epics themselves but also access to that epic (77). The Lives are seen to have been composed according to a variety of strategies that ultimately illuminate for us ancient debates about the Homeric epics and render this implicit poetics “comparatively legible” (102).

The chapter on the Lives of Homer is then followed by the third chapter on lyric authorship. The author concentrates particularly on the biographical accounts of two poets, Alcman and Sappho (107), but before he does so, he scrutinizes the anecdotes about Terpander to provide evidence for Greek ideas about the connection between poetry and the constitution of the state, which was noted earlier as a key feature of Chinese poetry (108). The strong resemblances between Greek poetics of this variety and the Chinese poetic tradition, differing markedly from the Aristotelian model, is of interest to the author, though he does also highlight the differences between the two traditions (119-120). The rest of the chapter is then devoted to anecdotes about Alcman (123-129) and Sappho (129-142). These anecdotes, the author claims, are best seen as means of using the lyric poets to recover history for a poetic tradition and integrating that history into the political sphere (143).

Chapter 4 explores the “intermediate category of authorship” (143), in particular Stesichorus, who bridges the epic-lyric generic division. The chapter opens with a discussion of the fragment of the Palinode in Plato’s Phaedrus 242a2-b3. The author argues that the Palinode dramatizes a serious challenge to Homeric epic, one that reasserts the power of local cults over Panhellenic muthos (146). An extended discussion of the relevant portions of the Phaedrus follows. The other major source for the Palinode, Isocrates’ speech in defence of Helen, is examined in detail (152-157). Additional information about Helen’s eidolon and wanderings in Herodotus (157-161) and Pausanias are then introduced to supplement the picture. The author concludes that Plato and Isocrates use the Palinode and the story of Stesichorus’ blindness as figures to represent the relationship between epic and lyric (169). The generic rivalry is thus seen as a mirror image of the historical struggle between epichoric and Panhellenic tendencies of the Greek world (170).

After two full chapters devoted to Greek literature the book shifts its focus to Chinese literature in chapter 5. This chapter discussed the Panhuaxia, cosmopolitan readings of the Airs of the States. Beecroft begins the chapter by introducing the idea of indexicality (171) and then moves on to explore its role in the interpretation of the Shijing. Indexicalization in the Shijing is also compared with the Greek concept of ainos (173). The intertwining of cultural and political factors in the interpretation of the Shijing during the Han dynasty, which manifests itself in the complex relationship between the epichoric (localised, region-specific contexts that hark back to the independent existence of the warring states) and Panhuaxia (imperial, cosmopolitan) reading strategies, is brought to light (176, 200). Interesting portions of the Shijing, e.g. the Wood of Zhou and the Pond Shore (179-180) and the citations of the Shijing in the Zuozhuan are analysed in detail (191-199).

The sixth chapter provides an exposition of the poetics of diplomacy in the Zuozhuan. In this chapter Beecroft clearly outlines his points of divergence from the previous work of Jullien and rightly criticizes Jullien’s excessive generalizations (213). The last chapter of the book then discusses the final section of the Shijing, the Hymns, and the politics of dancing, as evidenced by the debate on the dance of King Wu of Zhou in literary discourse (261-275). Beecroft concludes with the observation that Greek and Chinese poetic traditions are not as distinct as they seem at first, since implied poetics allows us to recover both the affective-expressive dimensions of Greek poetry (the dominant feature of Chinese poetry) and the mimetic dimensions of Chinese poetry (previously thought to be absent from the Chinese poetic tradition) (278). A diachronic survey of the development of Greek and Chinese poetry reveals that different models of poetic emerged in Greece and China, with different implications for literary development in later times, but that both literary traditions emerged from similar contexts in which a variety of similar ideas co-existed, with one approach becoming dominant for historically contingent reasons (281).

The book is an admirable demonstration of the quality of research that can be realised through comparative inquiry. The diachronic sketch of the development of Greek and Chinese poetry from a more locally based epichoric model to a cosmopolitan one is largely confirmed by available evidence. Beecroft makes a very compelling case for his comparative model. However, there are some minor points of detail that might be disputable. For instance the proposition that China had a model of political unity dating back to the Zhou hegemony before the 8th century BC, which Greece apparently lacked (13), is only partially true. As the author himself is certainly aware, the picture of Early China that we possess is heavily coloured by the attitudes of the imperial Ru classicist discourse of the Han Period that attempted to portray the early Zhou as a forerunner of the later unified empire of the Han. However, it is highly doubtful that the Zhou confederacy ever was a politically united realm. Its unity was arguably as ephemeral and shaky as that of the Spartan hegemony in Greece. In other words we can only with caution speak of a greater sense of political unity in China than in Classical Greece. The loose authority of the Zhou even at its height was only felt in the Central Plains region and was quite ineffective elsewhere.2

The realms that would play decisive roles in the unification of what later became China, Qin and Chu, were hardly Huaxia. In the case of the Chu, the language spoken by its population may not even have been Sino-Tibetan,3 and it is unclear when and if at all the Chu kingdom was integrated into the cultural sphere of Huaxia states before unification under Qin.

Nonetheless, overall this is a very impressive publication that deserves to be read widely. The author displays a very thorough understanding of Classical Chinese literature and provides a much more sophisticated comparative analysis that does justice to the complexities of both literary traditions, a feature somewhat lacking in many previous attempts at comparative analysis.


1.   Jullien, F. and Hawkes, S. (2000), Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece, New York, 111 ff.
2.   Rawson, J. (1999), ‘Western Zhou Archaeology’ in M. Loewe and E.L. Shaughnessy, eds., The Cambridge History of Ancient China, Cambridge; New York, 355-449, 404.
3.   Mei, T.L. and Norman, J. (1976), ‘The Austroasiatics in Ancient South China: Some Lexical Evidence’, Monumenta Serica, 32, 274-301, and Kim, H.J. (2009), Ethnicity and Foreigners in Ancient Greece and China, London, 153-4.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 12:31:47, Tuesday, 19 October 2010