Friday July 9, 2010

Thought for the Day: And gladly would he teach, and gladly learn.”
This line is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—it occurs in his introduction to the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. The pilgrim being described is a young student at Oxenford (better known today as Oxford). Chaucer clearly approves of him (he doesn’t approve of all the pilgrims). I thought this line could describe us, who come to China to teach and to learn. Pilgrims we may not be in any religious sense, but given the number of us who have come to China again and again, we may be pilgrims in a broader sense.

Chaucer’s band of pilgrims is decidedly a mixed bag of characters, which is a large part of the charm of the work. So I thought I would present a mixed bag of odds and ends of reading suggestions for this last journal entry.

In the Chinese tradition there are four classic works of fiction: Journey to the West, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and The Story of the Stone (perhaps better known as Dream of the Red Chamber). Read all of them. They all generously repay reading, but you should know they are all very long. (An interesting question is why works of classic Asian fiction tend to be very, very long.) For those of you who know and love Xi’an, you might be interested to know a little of the literary history of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. In the Tang dynasty a Buddhist monk, the Eminent Monk Xuan Zang, journeyed from Chang’an (present day Xi’an) to India and back, traversing both the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts on the way. The journey took 20+ years. Upon his return the emperor commissioned the building of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda for Xuan Zang’s use as a scriptorium, and there he and a crew of translators worked on translating the scriptures he brought back with him from Sanskrit into Chinese. Journey to the West is a work of fiction loosely based on these historical facts. Interestingly, the main character is not Xuan Zang but a mischievous, clever, street-smart monkey named Sun Wukong. In the novel Xuan Zang is reduced to a slightly dim, slightly spaced-out, incredibly naïve character.

The other three works have equally interesting backgrounds, but I digress. In my last journal I mentioned the early Chinese historian Sima Qian, the founder of Chinese historiography. (Remember? He chose to be castrated in order to continue working on his magnum opus.) His history has been translated and is well worth reading. Probably the best modern translation is a selection (this work too is very long) titled Records of the Grand Historian, translated by Burton Watson.

There’s a wonderful tradition of poetry in China. Her earliest named poet (the Chinese Caedmon) is Qu Yuan, connected to the Dragon Boat festival and the eating of zungzi by a not very reliable traditional history. One of the best ways to sample this tradition is Stephen Owen’s anthology – An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. Owen is one of the very best scholar/translators of Chinese poetry working today, and his anthology is sensitively constructed with very helpful brief comments and historical contexts. There is an especially rich selection from the Tang dynasty, usually thought to the golden age of poetry in China.

Switching periods, if you wish to read about modern China’s history, Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China, while often used as a text in college history classes, was not written as a textbook but as a popular history. Hence it is quite lively and very readable. The book begins with the Ming dynasty and moves forward through Mao’s time.
For a very different book about a small piece of modern China, I cannot praise George Kate’s The Years that Were Fat highly enough. Kates lived in Beijing from 1933 to 1940 and loved every minute. His book is at once an evocation of a Beijing we can only dream of and his intoxication with it. Once you read this book you will never walk through Beijing again without thinking of Kates and, if you’re lucky, catching a glimpse of the Beijing he knew.

And if you want to be completely au courant with Chinese literature and culture, there is a listserv based at Ohio State University’s Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Resource Center which distributes materials on those topics and occasionally veers into politics too. See (Disclaimer: MCLC is publishing a translation by my colleague Wang Dun and me.)

Finally (I bet you thought that word would never arrive) here are two modern novels. John Hersey, born in Baoding to Chinese missionary parents, wrote a novel titled The Call about an idealistic young American who came to China early in the 20th century. Despite the title, he didn’t come as a missionary but as a worker with the YMCA. The novel is an interesting personal view of Chinese history in a very turbulent period. And Yu Hua’s To Live is another novel about an equally turbulent period, from Liberation into the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Zhang Yimou made this into a movie (and was banned from movie-making for two years) in which one can catch glimpses of both shadow puppets and Gong Li.

I’m almost out of time, and I haven’t even made the transition from the Oxford of Chaucer’s time to the University City of 2010 Kunming. I’ll save that for another journal.

– Michael

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