Research Project


Fate and Authorship in Early China

Prof. Dr. Martin Kern
Princeton University, Department of East Asian Studies
Research stay: September 2010 – August 2011

Lectures at the IKGF:

  • Song as Fate and Prophecy in Early China, Tuesday lecture, January 11, 2011.
  • Ways of Organizing Knowledge in Early China, Annual Conference 2011.


In May 2011 he invited 14 internationally renowned experts on Early China to lecture on "Fate, Freedom, and Creation in Early China". All papers will be published online via the IKGF-website in 2012.

Fate and Authorship in Early China

Kern's research project at the IKGF is entitled "Fate and Authorship in Early China". Here, Kern extends 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. With this project, Kern continues his current work on authorship. Specifically, he is adding to his research for a monograph titled Authorship, Tradition, 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.

back to "Notions of Fate and Prognostication and their Taxonomies" Overview