Language as Bodily Practice in Early China

A Chinese Grammatology

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Jane Geaney
SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Cutlure
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , March
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jane Geaney’s Language and Bodily Practice in Early China invites us to entirely rethink our notion of language. While Geaney focuses on early Chinese texts, the implications of her findings go much further. As she explains, the subtitle, “A Chinese Grammatology,” turns her work into a response to Jacques Derrida’s search for an alternative theory of language not framed in dualisms such as speech/writing, presence/absence, and reality/appearance in his 1977 Of Grammatology. Geaney argues that early Chinese texts provide such an alternative by framing the issue of language through aural/visual polarities. Her primary aim is “to understand early Chinese conceptions of speech and name” (xxxv), a task accomplished through an exhaustive cross-textual and interdisciplinary study of relevant sources. The overall argument is that early Chinese texts present the senses (or the body) interacting with speech and names.

Language implies for modern readers a “single phenomenon that includes speech, names, and writing” as subcategories of an abstract system (ix). While this Western notion of language is often imposed on modern readings of early Chinese texts, Geaney demonstrates that the latter depict what we think of as “language” as simply sounds (speech yan 言, names ming 名, naming/decreeing ming 命) and their interactions with visible things (i.e., actions xing 行, bodies shen 身, shapes xing 形, service/events shi 事). As utterances composed of air (qi 氣) coming from the mouth and entering the ears, early Chinese language is “bodily.” In turn, language is a “practice” insofar as it involves rehearsing, cultivation, and habit (xi).

In her 2002 book, The Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought (University of Hawaii Press), Geaney already used aural/visual polarities to challenge Western reality/appearance dualisms regarding the epistemology of perceptionThis new publication draws from her previous research to target a new issue: the long-established Sinological theory of the “language crisis” in early China. Part 1 debunks two adaptations of the “language crisis” thesis: Arthur Wiley’s “crisis of blockage” (chap. 1 and 2) and Chad Hansen’s “prescriptive crisis” (chap. 3, 4, and 5). Through close textual examination of a multiplicity of passages, Geaney convincingly rejects their common focus on language as an abstract system that aims (and fails) to either represent reality or guide behavior. 

The critique to Hansen’s influential philosophical system extends into part 2, which further develops Geaney’s account of speech and names. Chapters 5 through 10 deal with a variety of issues ranging from the role of yi 意 (intentions, what comes from the heartmind xin 心) in communication; li 禮 (ritual) as visible physical actions; and, most pervasively, the contested notion of zhengming 正名 (correcting names), which Geaney places on the aural side of the perceptual polarity, and which therefore should not be interpreted through the perspective of ritual. Geaney’s main thesis here involves an embodied view of zhengming as the authoritative voice of the ruler that “seems a bit like fate” (181), in light of two political models for transforming the people: one visual and prompting emulation, the other aural and prompting obedience (chap. 9).

Along the way, this book offers a host of original and insightful interpretations of well-known classical passages, demonstrating the aural/visual polarities as useful lenses through which to read early Chinese texts. These provocative readings are facilitated by Geaney’s methodology, which is the most appealing aspect of this book. Geaney transgresses the traditional hermeneutical categories of book, author, and school of thought to take concept-oriented (i.e. ming 名andyan言), and problem-oriented (i.e., what is successful communication?) approaches across the early Chinese textual corpus. Geaney’s awareness of the composite and construed nature of received texts allows her to connect passages, concepts, images, and arguments from different sources regardless of presumed authorship and intellectual affiliation. Whenever a passage seems composed of independent units, she avoids imposing a consistent and unified reading (see pp. 8-11 for a rich reading of a passage from Zhuangzi’s莊子 “Tian dao” 天道). Geaney also advises that we should avoid assuming consistent usages of key terms, even within a single text or chapter (24). 

The book’s unorthodox methodological approach is very much welcome in the field of early Chinese philosophy. The downside is that it might cloud tensions and competing views within early Chinese discourses. One of the book’s main goals is to refute the antilanguage view that names carve unnatural and rigid distinctions out of the world (chap. 4). Through a case-study of Xunzi 荀子 “Zhengming” 正名, Geaney reaches the conclusion that discriminating begins with the body’s senses and is therefore not the primary function of language. But why should all early thinkers agree on primary function of names/speaking? As someone influenced by Hansen’s reading of Laozi老子 and Zhuangzi as texts critical of linguistic discriminations, I would have liked to see how Geaney interprets them differently--especially “Qiwulun” 齊物論, an important textual exemplar of the problems of speaking and discriminating (bian 辯).

A more important limitation is the book’s structure. Framed as a refutation of Hansen’s arguments, the logic between chapters seems to compile and analyze evidence against Hansen’s ideas rather than to develop the author’s theses from her own perspective. Had Geaney set the basis for the discussion on her own terms, her ideas would stand out more clearly. Following the argument demands a lot of attention to specific distinctions Geaney draws regarding previous scholarship, which makes some parts of the book a struggle for non-specialists. Geaney is however at her best when carefully reading particular passages, and the study is filled with little jewels of interpretation.

This book critically brings together an impressive breadth of knowledge in Sinology, Chinese and Western philosophy, Chinese and European theories of writing, translation, and ritual studies. Geaney’s nuanced, informed readings, her direct treatment of counterarguments and alternative interpretations, and her intellectual honesty with regard to our hermeneutical limitations stand out throughout the entire work. Language as Bodily Practice in Early China makes for a challenging and stimulating, often dense and complex, and overall necessary reading that will change some of the most prevalent paradigms that Sinologists use to read early Chinese texts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mercedes Valmisa is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jane Geaney is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond and the author of On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought.


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