An Anthology of Chinese Literature

by Stephen Owen
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1498

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.

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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 books, causing much difficulty if the string broke or rotted away and left piles of sentences incoherently separate on each strip of bamboo. During the Han dynasty, dating from approximately 206 b.c.e., silk was used and by the end of the second century c.e., the cumbersome bamboo strips were replaced with the more durable and usable scroll. Combined with the increasing standardization of the Chinese script, the scrolls helped to make literature more stable and accessible.

The functions of literature in China, as in other parts of the world, varied over time, too. Among the three hundred poems from The Classic of Poetry (Shi-jing), a collection from the Zhou dynasty (1020-249 b.c.e.) which constitutes the beginnings of the literature, are hymns which exhibit an important role of poetry: the naming of something so that it could play its role in rituals. The naming and describing served to guarantee that the rituals and social processes would continue. Another section of the collection consists of narrative poems which tell the stories of crucial periods in the formation of the dynasty. Interestingly, these stories avoid conclusion and point to continuation, an open-endedness that seems in the West to be such a late twentieth century postmodern characteristic. A distinctive feature appears in the poem “Spreading,” which celebrates the group effort of building the walls of the Zhou capital; the closest Western equivalent would have been major public poems celebrating the building of the Egyptian pyramids or the European castles of the Middle Ages except, as Owen observes, that we know of no such poems in these other cultures.

A function of literature in China very familiar to the audiences of popular Chinese B-movies was as a means of social mobility. When the scroll gave way to a bound book of light paper in the Song dynasty, literature became even easier to store and use. Theoretically, any poor countryman who could manage to study and pass the national examinations could win a government post; so, very slowly, a meritocracy was introduced into the previously exclusive aristocratic circles.

Of particular comparative interest is a section on traditional literary theory, a subject area about which Owen has written before in Readings in Chinese Literary Thought (1992). It shows, for one thing, that certain literary concerns endure over time and distance. The early comments referred to the ethical power of literature, and the feeling that it could influence social and political behavior also led to some anxiety that there could be something dangerous in it. Also similar to Western concerns are the connections between the author’s personality and style, the immortality granted by producing great works of art, and the impossibility of teaching literary talent.

Owen identifies the turn of the sixth century as at least one of the most glorious periods of Chinese literary theory and criticism. Lu Ji (261-303) wrote “The Poetic Exposition on Literature” (Wen fu), a poetic approach to writing that remains a distinctively original work of literary theory. Starting in prose and continuing in verse, Lu Ji pushes himself to express the process of writing, first steeping himself in the “classics of old,” imagining and experiencing the sorrows and joys and beauty of the world, then knocking “upon silence, seeking its sound,” as he attempts to put into words what goes “fleeting past.”

The writings of a Buddhist scholar also provide a remarkable systematic account of the attitudes toward literature at the time. In the Wen-xin Diao-long (“The Literary Mind Carves Dragons”), Liu Xie (c.465-522) discusses the concept of wen (pattern). Starting with the observation that pattern began with the birth of Heaven and Earth, and that human beings are the mind reflecting their combination, he sees language becoming established when the human mind came into being and human language made the pattern manifest. It serves as an interesting insight into the difficult but important concept which can only be translated as “the Way,” an attempt to describe the natural course of things.

Some literary situations may sound similar to late twentieth century audiences. For example, in the Qing dynasty, when the Manchus conquered China to become rulers of a multiethnic empire, they tried so hard to be good rulers that they became “more puritanically Confucian than the Chinese.” In attempting to beep their ethnic identity, they vigorously censored anything that remotely cast aspersions on them, resulting in a cautious, anxious literature. Other conventions of the literary world appear less familiar: Owen notes that, until the twentieth century, it was the popular works that were printed with commentaries on literary techniques and structure, while the more scholarly forms were not.

The anthology ends at the beginning of the twentieth century, taking the May Fourth movement of 1919 as the start of modern Chinese literature. Although classical Chinese literature continued to be written, the protest of students on that day favored cultural reform, and the new literature was more influenced by Japanese and Western models. With this ambitious labor of selection and translations, Stephen Owen provides an ample and interesting introduction to the very long history of lively writing that preceded that change.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXXIV, November, 1996, p. 451.

Library Journal. CXXI, May 1, 1996, p. 93.

The New Republic. CCXV, September 9, 1996, p. 38.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, April 22, 1996, p. 64.

The Times Higher Education Supplement. December 6, 1996, p. SVIII.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, June 9, 1996, p. 13.

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