Prof. Dr. Martin Kern

Bild von Martin Kern

Internationales Kolleg für Geisteswissenschaftliche Forschung "Schicksal, Freiheit und Prognose. Bewältigungsstrategien in Ostasien und Europa"
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Home Institution: Department of East Asian Studies, Princeton University

IKGF Visiting Fellow September 2010 - August 2011

(Last change of profile by end of stay.)

IKGF Research Project:

Fate and Authorship in Early China

Curriculum Vitae

Martin Kern, a fellow at IKGF from September 2010 through August 2011, is the Greg (’84) and Joanna (P13) Zeluck Professor in Asian Studies and Chair of the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. He studies Chinese antiquity with a focus on the literary analysis of early Chinese texts. Educated at the University of Cologne and Peking University, he completed his Ph.D. in Sinology in 1996. Before joining Princeton in 2000, he taught at the University of Washington and Columbia University. Kern has held fellowships from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German National Merit Foundation (Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes), the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Council of Learned Societies. In May 2010, he presented the “First Annual M. I. Rostovtzeff Lectures” at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University. In April 2015, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society. Among other duties, Kern is co-editor of T’oung Pao, Handbook of Oriental Studies (Brill), and Studies in the History of Chinese Texts (Brill), and he serves as Distinguished Professor in the Research Center for Comparative and World Literature at Shanghai Normal University.

Kern’s research cuts across the fields of literature, philology, history, religion, and art in ancient and medieval China. While his primary focus is on poetry, he has further extended his work to the literary analysis of early philosophical and historical writings. Studying the composition, reception, and canonization of early texts, he has been particularly interested in three questions: the performance of texts in political and religious ritual; their role in the formation of ancient and medieval Chinese cultural memory and identity; and the presence and absence of the authorial voice in early texts. These issues lead further into the complex problems of writing and orality and to the phenomenon of texts as material artifacts, especially with newly excavated manuscripts and inscriptions. In addition, Kern has developed a strong interest in early Chinese political philosophy, with particular attention to the Classic of Documents (Shangshu).

His research project at IKGF was titled “Fate and Authorship in Early China.” Here, Kern extended his work in early Chinese literature and intellectual history to the notions of freedom and fate as they are reflected in accounts of textual creation. Contrary to the Greek notion of poetry with the poet as an autonomous subject, early Chinese sources frequently portray textual creation not as the choice of freedom but as the involuntary response to fate. According to Han accounts, this is true for Confucius, Qu Yuan, and Sima Qian (to name just the most prominent cases) as much as for the authors and performers of Western Han song. When Sima Qian created his genealogy of authors, he was building on an already existing connection between writing and affliction, where authors turned into tragic figures: the notions of the heroic poet and the poetic hero were collapsed into one. Thus, in the early Chinese aesthetics of shi yan zhi (“poetry expresses intent”) and fa fen (“releasing one’s wrath”), textual composition and performance was not an act of free creation but a near-uncontrollable, if still individually conditioned, response to fate. Heroes turned into authors and singers at the moment of their imminent death, involuntarily releasing words of truth that expressed, hence, not their free subjectivity but a predictable response to fate. As a result, the utterances of authors, but then also of the anonymous folk, were recognized as moral and political judgments on the situations from which they emerged and predictive of the consequences that would ensue. Texts took on the nature of omens from which fate could be deduced. Materializing in response to fate, textual creation turned into prophecy.

This project is part of Kern’s larger set of interests that has manifested itself in numerous publications and further in his forthcoming volume Texts, Authors, and Performance in Early China. The book, scheduled for publication with Princeton University Press, contains the expanded versions of his May 2010 Rostovtzeff Lectures at New York University.


Selected publications:

  • Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology in Early China, ed. Yuri Pines, Paul Rakita Goldin, and Martin Kern. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
  • Statecraft and Classical Learning: The Rituals of Zhou in East Asian History. Edited volume, with Benjamin A. Elman. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
  • Text and Ritual in Early China. Edited volume. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.
  • The Stele Inscriptions of Ch’in Shih-huang: Text and Ritual in Early Chinese Imperial Representation. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 2000.
  • “Early Chinese Divination and Its Rhetoric.” In Coping with the Future: Theories and Practices of Divination in East Asia, ed. Michael Lackner. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.
  • “Language and the Ideology of Kingship in the ‘Canon of Yao’.” In Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology in Early China, ed. Yuri Pines, Paul Rakita Goldin, and Martin Kern. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
  • “Speaking of Poetry: Pattern and Argument in the Kongzi shilun.” In Literary Forms of Argument in Early China, ed. Joachim Gentz and Dirk Meyer. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015.
  • “Creating a Book and Performing It: The ‘Yaolüe’ Chapter of Huainanzi as a Western Han Fu.” In The Huainanzi and Textual Production in Early China, ed. Sarah A. Queen and Michael Puett, pp. 124-150. Leiden: Brill, 2014.
  • “Lost in Tradition: The Classic of Poetry We Did Not Know.” Hsiang Lectures on Chinese Poetry 5 (2010): 29-56. Centre for East Asian Research, McGill University.
  • “Tropes of Music and Poetry: From Wudi (141-87 BCE) to 100 CE.” In China’s Early Empires: A Re-Appraisal, ed. Michael Loewe and Michael Nylan, pp. 480-491. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • “Early Chinese Literature, Beginnings through Western Han.” In Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, ed. Stephen Owen and Kang-i Sun Chang, pp. 1-115. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • “Offices of Writing and Reading in the Zhouli.” In Statecraft and Classical Learning: The Rituals of Zhou in East Asian History, ed. Benjamin A. Elman and Martin Kern, pp. 64-93. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
  • “Bronze inscriptions, the Shangshu, and the Shijing: The Evolution of the Ancestral Sacrifice during the Western Zhou.” In Early Chinese Religion, Part One: Shang Through Han (1250 BC to 220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, pp. 143-200. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
  • “Announcements from the Montains: The Stele Inscriptions of the Qin First Emperor.” In Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared, ed. Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittag, pp. 217-240. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • “Beyond the Mao Odes: Shijing Reception in Early Medieval China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 127 (2007): 131-142.
  • “The Performance of Writing in Western Zhou China.” In The Poetics of Grammar and the Metaphysics of Sound and Sign, ed. Sergio La Porta and David Shulman, pp. 109-175. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
  • “Excavated Manuscripts and Their Socratic Pleasures: Newly Discovered Challenges in Reading the ‘Airs of the States’.” Études Asiatiques/Asiatische Studien 61.3 (2007), 775-793.


Among his earlier publications that bear directly on the topic of IKGF are:

  • “Poetry and Religion: The Representation of ‘Truth’ in Early Chinese Historiography.” In Historical Truth, Historical Criticism, and Ideology: Chinese Historiography and Historical Culture from a New Comparative Perspective, ed. Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, Achim Mittag, and Jörn Rüsen, pp. 53-78. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
  • “The Poetry of Han Historiography.” Early Medieval China 10-11.1 (2004): 23-65.
  • “Western Han Aesthetics and the Genesis of the Fu.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 63.2 (2003): 383-437.
  • “Ritual, Text, and the Formation of the Canon: Historical Transitions of Wen in Early China.” T’oung Pao 87.1-3 (2001): 43-91.
  • Shi jing Songs as Performance Texts: A Case Study of ‘Chu ci’ (‘Thorny Caltrop’).” Early China 25 (2000): 49-111.
  • “Religious Anxiety and Political Interest in Western Han Omen Interpretation: The Case of the Han Wudi Period (141-87 B.C.).” Chūgoku shigaku [Chinese History] 10 (2000): 1-31.