Over two years ago I started to study the Chinese language. It’s been a tough but intensely rewarding process. I’m pleased with how I’ve progressed so far, especially since I’m borderline tone-deaf. Recently I’ve been searching for Chinese novels, in an attempt to combine my two passions. I’ve learned a great deal about Chinese culture from non-fiction (my favourites include Xinran’s The Good Women of China and Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai; next on my wishlist is Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls). Fiction, too, provides a terrific insight into a culture, as I discovered upon reading Journey to the West. It only took a few pages for me to fall in love with Cheng’en Wu’s tale of adventure and spirituality.
Journey to the West is one the four great classical Chinese novels, dating from the 16th century. The story has had an astounding impact upon Chinese culture, as demonstrated by the proliferation of plays, movies, tv series and anime based upon the story. I would like to write about the novel one day, but I’d have to re-read it first, as it deserves an in-depth analysis!
There are plenty of more modern novels available, too. Two prominent examples are The Book of Crows and Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings. Although they don’t strictly count as Chinese literature, both novels are set in China and taught me a great deal about the country’s culture and history. The first, for example, features several interlocking stories spanning thousands of years, whilst the latter focuses on the experiences of one couple during the Cultural Revolution*.
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In an effort to expand my reading, I ordered the first volume of An Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century. I tend to order used copies of texts, a decision rendered necessary by my dependence on student loans but which I’ve come to really enjoy. I opened my anthology to find a unique, handwritten dedication inside. It reads, ‘I hope this book will help you on your voyage to discovery and spirituality, giving voice to your quiet and calm to your frenzy’. I always have to wonder, though, why people decide to sell books given to them as gifts?
The introduction to the anthology raises several interesting points about the process of translating Chinese texts into English. Previously, I hadn’t given much thought to the implications of writing with characters. The linguistic differences exposed by the translation process are fascinating. The written character, Birch writes,
held over the centuries its own semantic history within its own form, aesthetically satisfying and endlessly durable in its independence of phonological change. An alphabetic script might speed the accomplishment of the child in school, but it could offer him no such induction into the thought and values of his civilisation (1965, p. xxiii).
Furthermore, calligraphy, the composition of the characters themselves, can be used to reinforce or subvert the meaning of a text. Yuan Chen’s poem Temporary Palace is cited as an illuminating example of how characters can aid interpretation. The poem tells the story of a woman who is recruited to serve the emperor while he briefly visits the province and then abandoned, along with the aforementioned temporary palace, when the emperor departs. The characters grant a sense of presence to the palace that it wouldn’t otherwise possess. Birch explains how the use of characters featuring the ‘roof’ constituent ‘brings the physical architecture of the palace before the eye’ (p. xxix).
The first section of the anthology consists of texts from the Chou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C.E.). I was particularly awestruck by one poem from the Book of Songs, a collection of works compiled around 600 B.C.E. Nothing exemplifies the idea of universal humanity quite like literature:
He’s to the warfor the duration;Hens to wall-hole,beasts to stall,shall I not remember him at nightfall?He’s to the warfor the duration,fowl to their perches,cattle to byre;is there food enoughdrink enoughby their camp fire? (p.10-11).
The grief of the speaker still echoes across the centuries.
The anthology also features extracts from the Chuang Tzu (also known as the Zhuangzi) on the subject of death. I would say that the second of the Three Dialogues is oddly reminiscent of Hamlet,if it wasn’t for the somewhat startling fact that these writings pre-date Shakespeare by well over a thousand years.
‘Among the dead’ said the skull, ‘none is king, none is subject. There is no division of the seasons: for us the whole world is spring, the whole world is autumn. No monarch on his throne has greater joy than ours.’Chuang Tzu did not believe this. ‘Suppose,’ he said, ‘I could get the Clerk of Destinies to make your frame anew, to clothe your bones once more with flesh and skin, send you back to father and mother, wife and child, friends and home, I do not think you would refuse.’A deep frown furrowed the skeleton’s brow. ‘How can you imagine,’ it asked, ‘that I would cast away joy greater than that of a king upon his throne, only to go back to the toils of the living world?’ (p. 83).
I’d really like to read more modern Chinese literature, so if anyone’s feeling generous, feel free to send a copy of this my way!
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*Also, it’s narrated by the Kitchen God. Read it, please; it’s brilliant.