An Anthology of Chinese Literature Summary

Stephen Owen


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

To the general reader, this mammoth undertaking may seem a bit daunting at first sight, but only until the first few pages introduce the voice of the editor and translator, Stephen Owen, a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Harvard University. A gifted teacher, he makes it a positive pleasure to follow him through the hundreds of years of Chinese literature, over the seemingly unending succession of wars, changes of dynasties, and social turmoil from which the literature was born and against which it survived.

To cover so much in just one book inevitably entails simplification. On a topic for which, as the author points out, there may be some bad habits for a seasoned reader of Chinese literature to break, the outcome may be more instructive than not. Owens’ point about translation, for example, only begins to suggest the choices to be made in such a project, and at the most basic level of words. The tradition of translation itself, as it were, includes the decision by some Western scholars to create a special dialect of English to meet the difficulties of translating from the Chinese, with the unfortunate result that the literary output of an entire culture may sound stilted and exotic in an excluding manner. To counteract this surface strangeness, Owen explains his choice to translate classical Chinese into English and the vernacular into American, thus allowing the more substantive rather than surface difference of Chinese literature to be accessible.

An even more difficult point to grapple with than translation difficulties is the concept of the “tradition” of Chinese literature. Owen gently deplores the conventional Western image of a changeless China, noting that the reader of a specific period would be aware of being historically situated as part of the reading process. At the same time, unlike the case of two poems written hundreds of years apart in English, two poems written in Chinese a thousand years apart might not, Owen explains, be essentially different. Elsewhere in the volume, he observes that cultural change in premodern China tended to be accretive, new styles getting added on to older ones in a manner quite different from the modern Western idea of change, in which the old is simply swept away by the new.

This collection, then, reflects the way in which the tradition of Chinese literature worked, and includes texts which have been considered to be part of the canon as well as those which were counter-canonical; the unifying concept for the editor and translator is that these are a selection of texts which respond to one another. Hence, though some pieces here may be familiar to the specialist, others will be fresh.

Literature lovers who are newcomers to Chinese literature will also be fascinated with tidbits of information about the production, transmission and preservation of words, as well as the occasional reference to a more familiar Western literary tradition for the comparative context, all helpful material to set off the treasury of poems, songs, stories, letters, excerpts from plays and novels, and literary theory. It is an additional marvel of this anthology that almost all of it was translated by Owens himself.

As with the literature of Greece and India, the earliest Chinese literature was produced and passed along orally. The physical medium for the written word evolved over time. From the second millennium b.c.e., writing carved into tortoise shells and bones survived, although the literature of this Shang or Yin dynasty, perhaps written on more perishable material, did not. Around the fourth and third century b.c.e., thin bamboo strips, bound with string into bundles, served as...

(The entire section is 1498 words.)