BMCR 1999.03.07

Response: Mair on Buell on Knauer

Response to 1999.01.16

Dear Editor,

Although I am not a member of your list, a review that recently appeared on it has been called to my attention and I would like to respond. I am referring to Paul D. Buell’s 99.1.16 review of Elfriede Regina Knauer’s The Camel’s Load in Life and Death.

The first three paragraphs of Buell’s review are fairly straightforward and descriptive with even a generous portion of praise for such things as Knauer’s “masterful way [of] making her book useful….” Halfway through the review, however, Buell suddenly turns critical in the fourth paragraph. As a Sinologist, I consider it my duty to point out that virtually all of Buell’s criticisms are unjustified.

First of all, Buell criticizes Knauer for not knowing Chinese and Japanese. Well, there are a lot of languages in the world, and it is impossible for any scholar to know all of them. So what does a conscientious scholar do in this case? He/She does exactly what Knauer did in writing The Camel’s Load, namely he/she extensively consults with reputable colleagues who specialize in the languages that he/she is not familiar with and he/she reads the best and most up-to-date publications in languages that he/she does control and that provide reliable information concerning the most recent findings presented in sources that he/she cannot read directly. According to Buell’s fractured logic, Chinese and Japanese scholars who do not read European languages should never write about West Asian subjects and European scholars who do not read Chinese and Japanese should never comment on East Asian subjects. This is an absurd position to take and scholarship would be much the worse for it if we all decided to follow Buell’s advice. In fact, having read some of Buell’s own writings, I am inclined to believe that he himself seldom follows his own advice, and justifiably so! Buell claims to know the following languages: Mongolian, Qazaq, zbek, Tatar, Russian, German, French, Chinese, and Persian. Yet he freely makes reference to sources written in Japanese, Medieval Latin, Italian, Uyghur, and other languages. Therefore, his derogatory comments about Knauer’s lack of expertise in Chinese and Japanese should be stricken from the record. Furthermore, it behooves Buell to substantiate with specific instances how Knauer’s interpretations would have been bolstered and precisely what reports of new finds she has missed because she does not read Chinese and Japanese. Otherwise, his critique amounts to empty verbiage. Buell ends his unfortunate fourth paragraph with this egregious sentence: “This latter deficiency has made Knauer’s book obsolete even as it was published.” I vigorously dispute Buell’s assertion. Quite the contrary, there is a vast amount of valuable information in Knauer’s book, including information that she herself discovered in Chinese museums and at other locations in and around China, which cannot be found in any Chinese or Japanese publication. Dr. Knauer need not fear that her book had already become obsolete before it was published simply because Paul Buell said it was so. Her book is a classic and consequently it will have lasting value, regardless of what is written in the future in any language. Anyone who wants to do a good job of writing about camels on the Silk Road between the Han and the T’ang dynasties, no matter what language they do it in, will be compelled to read her book.

The next (fifth) paragraph by Buell is nearly as unfortunate as the fourth. Here we are told that Knauer missed the Shan-hai ching [ Classic of Mountains and Seas ] “with its wealth of useful mythological material of direct import to her study….” Once again, more empty verbiage. It is incumbent upon Buell to demonstrate precisely how Knauer’s book about the loads of camels during the medieval period would have been improved by bringing in the Shan-hai ching. He also parenthetically states that “there is a wealth of material beside the Shan-hai ching” by which I assume that he is referring to the likes of Mu t’ien-tzu chuan. Buell accuses Knauer of being unaware of the existence of such sources, but I can assure him that she knows of the densely annotated French translations of both of these texts by Rmi Mathieu and that she did consult them in the course of her preparation for The Camel’s Load, but that she did not find anything in them of particular relevance for the project at hand. The same goes for the works of Eberhard mentioned in the fifth paragraph. Perhaps Buell can demonstrate how “Knauer’s discussion of the ‘demon masks,’ for example[,] would have been far richer if she had used the Eberhard works….” Lokalkulturen and Randvoelker are excellent works in their own way, but they have nothing to add to Dr. Knauer’s presentation. I, however, should add that it is ludicrous for Buell to suggest that Knauer needed Schafer to find out about Eberhard’s works, since she knows them intimately, obviously better than Buell who thinks that there is something in them of great import for Dr. Knauer’s book on the loads of camels during medieval times.

In his concluding paragraph, Buell opines that Knauer’s “presentation is extremely one-sided since it considers only the Western-language literature, and not all of the relevant studies at that.” Knauer’s presentation is far from one-sided inasmuch as it deals extensively with materials derived from East Asian literature and, above all, is firmly based on a nearly exhaustive coverage of the material evidence concerning her subject that was recovered from Chinese sites. As for the relevant Western studies that Knauer has presumably ignored, Buell has failed to make a convincing case that she has been negligent in that regard. Here I need to register a few strongly worded sentences about Hans Wilhelm Haussig, whom Buell puts forward as a paragon that Knauer should have followed. I consider that a gross insult to Dr. Knauer, who is a far better scholar than Haussing ever was. Haussig’s books are so full of errors and infelicities that they are almost impossible to read. What is more, he was an amateur who dabbled in many fields, including Silk Road Studies. Even in his own specialty, Byzantine Studies, he was grossly incompetent. One of the most eminent Byzantinists, Herbert Hunger (Vienna), in his own book on Byzantium, politely and implicitly refuted the preposterous claims of Haussig, who had produced a Kulturgeschichte von Byzanz (Kroener), translated into English as History of Byzantine Civilization (1971), by saying that it was too early to write a cultural history of Byzantium. After Haussig, the remainder of Buell’s final paragraph is merely a lot of fatuous fluff about the need to know as many languages as possible. On that subject, I would simply observe that it does not matter how many languages one knows. What matters is how intelligently one uses them.

In closing, I should mention that I chose to respond to Buell’s unjust and unsubstantiated criticisms of Dr. Knauer’s magisterial book because I was myself in the midst of writing a review of the same work and my conclusions were totally opposite of Paul Buell’s. My review will be published in Sino-Platonic Papers, 90 (January, 1999), Reviews VII, which will be available in late March or early April. Copies may be purchased for $10 from the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (address above and below).

P.S.: Just as I was about to post this, I received word that Dr. Knauer’s book, most deservingly, has been awarded a prize for “Grande originalit√©” from the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris. This prize is, in fact, named after the great French sinologist Stanislas Julien and is one of the most coveted and prestigious in the entire world of Chinese Studies. Hats off to Dr. Knauer!

Sincerely yours,

Victor H. Mair Professor