Origins, premises and scientific context of the programme

The programme extends and develops the « Diglossia, intralingual translation, interpretation » programme of the 2019-2023 contract. (However, it focuses solely on the Sinologic field.)

It is a continuation of the work initiated in Rainier Lanselle’s 2018-2023 EPHE lectures on the play The Peach Blossom Fan (Taohua shan) by Kong Shangren (1648-1718) and on the dissemination of knowledge about the history of the decline and fall of the Ming in the vernacular literature of the 17th century.

It also continues Marie Bizais-Lillig’s work on exegetical practices and commentary, in particular the rhetoric of commentary and paratexts (cf. the double workshop ‘Commentary: from text to gesture’ organised at the University of Strasbourg, December 2022 and March 2023 with the support of the CRCAO). (

Project and schedule

The programme aims to re-examine the question of the relationship between text and commentary in classical, premodern and modern China in the light of recent advances in the fields of philology, literary history, translation studies and digital humanities.

The study of commentary in the classical, premodern and modern periods is part of a more general examination of the ways in which knowledge is circulated and disseminated. The knowledge considered is that of the learned, literary and heritage texts, but also practical knowledge, including everyday knowledge, to the exclusion of purely scientific knowledge.

The practices of commentary are based on forms of re-appropriation of texts involving strategies of elucidation or further elaboration; they include procedures of transformation, alteration, rewriting, or digression. An apparently innocuous act such as adding a simple lexical gloss to a term can reveal complex processes of selection, interpretation and even translation, within reasoned and coordinated strategies. Such procedures are motivated by the need to ensure that an utterance can continue to function as a semiotically relevant whole in a new context. By new context, we mean various types of situation in which such paratextual additions have been deemed necessary. Their aetiologies can be multiple and are not mutually exclusive. From a temporal point of view, it may be a case of bringing back to life a text that has lost its legibility as a result of the evolution of the language itself. It means giving voice to a text that is becoming lost. This can involve various ways of rearranging a heritage, such as opening up a meaning deemed esoteric, « returning » to a meaning considered more « authentic », or establishing and disseminating canons. Situations where competing dogmatic backgrounds have disrupted a discourse may be causative factors in such a need for relocation (e.g. the effect of the influence of Buddhism). It may be a question of restructuring knowledge to meet new epistemological, practical or even political goals. This was the case, for example, with the updating of the Classics to meet the requirements of the official examination system for civil servants. It may also be a question of responding to changes of a social nature, when it is a question of providing access to texts for new audiences. The rewriting of narratives, such as historical ones, from the classical register into the vernacular via what is known as intralingual translation can be seen as forms of commentary and reworking of sources. In all cases – and there are many more examples of situations where such processes occur – the aim is to open up or re-open a given text or group of texts to a new contextuality, to revive their intelligibility in the light of changing expectations, to make them speak differently. Through these transformations, the aim is also to keep the transmission of knowledge alive.

In addition to the different ways of interacting with the text being commented on, commentaries employ a variety of rhetorical strategies, which are reflected in the way in which the text of the commentary itself is organised. For example, the procedure for selecting what is commented on often leads to a verbatim repeat combined with a gloss. The source text is then segmented into lexical units, affecting the syntactic continuum it constituted before the commentator intervened. The gloss is explanatory even when it appears paraphrastic, consisting of juxtapositions of lexemes presented as equivalents of elements taken from the main text. Such glosses suggest that the language of a given text requires mediation. The commentary is the bearer of this mediation, translating elements of the source text deemed obscure for the intended reader. External references are sometimes called upon, whether the commentary is seeking to establish its authority through non-native texts, or is aiming to guide the reading within a given intellectual or philosophical framework, for example. The use of quotations in commentary is a particularly rich field of exploration, contributing to the shift in focus that commentary requires. Conversely, an explanation of the text can also replace the original text. In this case, it may be a way of rewriting the source text by borrowing linguistic elements from the source text and from external texts. Whether the commentary uses scholarly devices or more open-ended strategies, it has a pedagogical aim: to provide access to the knowledge of the texts or to facilitate their reading. From this perspective, intersemiotic translation (of a poem, or even a narrative text, through a painting, for example) is in itself a commentarial practice.

Another important area concerns practices of linguistic transformation and manipulation. From paraphrasing to commentary, from the writing of glossaries to more or less systematic rewriting operations, language and its different registers are always involved as a central factor in any undertaking to rearrange a text. By different registers we mean stylistic as well as aesthetic realities. They may concern genre-hopping practices, or even take account of language levels or situations of di- or pluriglossia. Access to dialects, the dissemination of language norms and standardisation objectives may all be present or underlying issues when commenting on a text. A rich corpus of secondary literature, represented in a wide range of genres and textual formats, has been produced in this respect, responding to ‘scholarly’ or ‘popular’ approaches to sharing and disseminating knowledge. The quest for intelligibility of texts does not exclude the culture of a certain opacity of language, which remains relevant in many situations (for example, in the presence of classical forms in the standard language). The notions of popularising discourse, seeking greater transparency in language, and textual intelligibility remain underlying objectives, even if they give rise to contrasting treatments.

Ultimately, the aims of reworking and archiving knowledge are fundamental factors in any commentarial practice; this is why the programme, which aims to study the details of such practices, also has epistemological purposes. In order to explore commentaries in all their diversity and in their complex relationships with the texts commented on, the methods and tools developed within the digital humanities over the last few decades will provide valuable leverage. This is the case, for example, when it comes to analysing linguistic transformations, identifying and locating verbatim repetitions, quotations or segments of similar texts across large corpora. They can also be used to identify and quantify the sources of knowledge used in commentaries.

The programme potentially covers a wide range of areas. They will be divided into three thematic strands, each lasting around a year and a half:

  • PART 1: The commentary tool: diversity of forms and practices, diachronic perspective
    • Methods, forms and typologies of commentary.
    • Formation and practice of paratexts, and related terminologies (prefaces, commentaries included in the text such as section commentaries, chapter commentaries, interlinear commentaries, insertions, marginalia, critical poems, colophons, etc.).
    • Modes of textual transmission, including dissemination practices such as editorial, manuscript or printed undertakings, or the evolution or phylogenesis of different versions of the same text.

This first section will be based on theoretical and analytical approaches and semiotic tools relating to the study of literary texts and contexts, their agents and their practices.

  • PART 2: Discursive approach to comments
    • Discourse strategies and textual practices related to notions of « simple » or « elaborate » language (e.g. simple literary language; ornamentation; popular literary language; notions such as su 俗, wen 文, ya 雅, qian 淺 etc).
    • Quotations, references, reformulations.
    • Issues of readership and adapting texts to target audiences.
    • Intralingual translation practices involving different linguistic registers of Chinese (classical language and vernacular language in their various forms), rewriting practices, or intersemiotic translation.

This second section will explore the discursive means developed in the practice of commentary. It will take particular account of the possibilities offered by digital tools (programmes, websites, conceptual databases and textual databases) for exploring the phenomena of quotation, referencing, verbatim repetition and reformulation.

  • PART 3: Commentaries as places of knowledge
    • Various forms of pedagogy for good reading and writing (including popular encyclopaedias, training manuals for competitive examinations, lists of exemplary books, etc.).
    • Ways of disseminating knowledge about language, such as ways of making classical language more accessible to the non-literate, or, conversely, ways of responding to the need to promote non-classical genres.
    • The emergence of a shared culture and knowledge as a result of the influence of commentarial practices, including through differentiation between fields of knowledge or disciplines, and taking account of their diachronic variations.
    • Questions of model, moral exemplarity, ethical corpus, ethical status of different literary genres.

This third section will draw particularly on contributions from the historical anthropology of knowledge.

In recent years, while the study of literary texts and the history of literature has made considerable progress, with the discovery or inclusion of new texts, thematic studies and genre studies, the reading of texts in the light of commentaries from the classical, premodern and modern periods has been somewhat neglected, which has contributed to a certain decontextualisation and to certain shortcomings in the consideration of historical viewpoints relating to texts and the knowledge they conveyed. The aim of the programme is to reinstate a historical reading of texts, particularly literary texts, by providing the means of reconstructing the issue of their reception in the context of the readership and practices of classical and pre-modern China. The aim, then, is not so much to essentialise commentary as a notion, as to study the variety of ways of reading texts to which commentary bears witness and which it helped to shape and establish over time.

Information on concrete achievements

  • Three four-hour sessions each year: reading of a text combined with one or more commentaries. These sessions will bring together participants in the programme and will be open to master’s and doctoral students.
  • Three workshops (organised around each part): an online event ( with a focus on eco-responsibility), with an open call for contributions, submission of articles prior to the working sessions, afternoon sessions to ensure greater international openness, and follow-up of a publication project. Visibility ensured by the opening of dedicated websites.
  • A Hypotheses notebook to bring together the documentation and discussion threads produced as part of the programme.
  • ANF-type training (‘Action nationale de formation’, i.e., ‘National Training Action’) aimed at familiarising users with IT tools for exploring and comparing corpora and reflecting on the contributions and precautions to be taken in the field of digital humanities.
  • Publication of thematic volumes proposed for the « Rencontres » collection of the Civilisations de l’Asie orientales series, OpenEdition Institut des civilisations du Collège de France: the contributions will come from the workshops’ activities and will be subject to rigorous peer review to ensure the scientific quality of the volumes.




Rainier Lanselle (École Pratique des Hautes Études)
Marie Bizais-Lillig (University of Strasbourg)

CRCAO members

Full members
Rainier Lanselle (École Pratique des Hautes Études)
Alexis Lycas (École Pratique des Hautes Études)
Daniel Patrick Morgan (CNRS)

Associated members
Marie Bizais-Lillig (University of Strasbourg)
Vincent Durand-Dastès (Inalco)
Pablo Blitstein (School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences)
Valérie Lavoix (Inalco)

Outside Participants

Mårten Söderblom Saarela (Academia Sinica, Taipei)
Maria Franca Sibau (Emory University)
Roland Altenburger (Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg)
Michael Schimmelpfennig (Australian National University)
John Phan (Université de Columbia)
Cédric Laurent (Université Rennes 2)