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Chinese and Japanese Literature

 

Shih Ching (The Book of Songs)  [ca. 500 BC]
      The Shih Ching is a collection of ancient Chinese folksongs from ca. 1000-500 BC. Many of them are evidently remnants of peasant courtship rituals and seasonal festivals, similar to the lyrics that accompany folk dances or evolve into nursery rhymes once their original meaning has been forgotten. They have a charm and freshness like almost nothing else in literature — “as though the beginning of the world had come again.”
      Arthur Waley’s The Book of Songs is the version to get — preferably the updated 1996 edition, which includes valuable additional material and notes by Joseph R. Allen and Stephen Owen. Ezra Pound’s translation (The Confucian Odes, reprinted as Shih-Ching: The Classical Anthology Defined by Confucius) is extremely eccentric and often ludicrous: not recommended except as a curiosity. (In contrast, Pound’s other translations of Chinese poetry are superb.)
      I have reproduced a few different versions of one of the songs here.


Chinese Poetry
     
This is a huge and rich field. The Chinese have a longer and probably greater tradition of lyric poetry than any other country. Fortunately, despite the differences of language and culture many of the qualities come through from Chinese to English, insofar as they depend on sense, word order and images rather than on sounds, wordplay and obscure cultural allusions, and the quality of modern poetic translations has generally been pretty high. If you are interested, you can explore some of the world’s greatest poets in considerable depth and detail.
      There are numerous collections. Rexroth did four volumes, all excellent: One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese (a.k.a. Love and the Turning Year), Women Poets of China (a.k.a. The Orchid Boat), and the Complete Poems of Li Ch’ing-chao (China’s greatest woman poet). The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (ed. Eliot Weinberger) presents a real all-star selection, confining itself to translations by Pound, Rexroth, Gary Snyder, William Carlos Williams and David Hinton. Other good anthologies include Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain, Robert Payne’s The White Pony, Burton Watson’s The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry and Wu-chi Liu and Irving Lo’s Sunflower Splendor. Arthur Waley’s various collections are still well worth reading, as are more recent translations by Burton Watson, David Hinton, C.H. Kwock, Sam Hamill and Red Pine, to mention only a few that I’m familiar with.
      Two helpful general introductions: James J.Y. Liu’s The Art of Chinese Poetry and François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing.
      [Rexroth translations of Chinese poetry]


Tu Fu, Poems
 [712-770]
      In order not to lose your way amid such abundance, it is a good idea to explore at least one poet in depth. Tu Fu, Li Po, Po Chü-i, Wang Wei, Han Shan, Su Tung-p’o, and perhaps one or two others have been translated extensively enough by enough different translators to make this possible. I suggest Tu Fu. The Chinese themselves consider him their greatest poet. Rexroth considers him the greatest lyric poet in any language (though he thinks Sappho might have edged him out if a sufficient number of her poems had survived).
      Rexroth’s translations of 35 Tu Fu poems are included in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Burton Watson, Sam Hamill, David Hinton and David Young have each done a fine volume of selections. David Hawkes’s A Little Primer of Tu Fu provides a detailed analysis of the 35 Tu Fu poems included in the classic Jade Mountain anthology.
      If you really get into him, you might try to find Florence Ayscough’s two volumes, Tu Fu: The Autobiography of a Chinese Poet and Travels of a Chinese Poet. They’re both long out of print and tend to be rather expensive, but they include a far more generous selection of Tu Fu’s poems than any of the other collections, presented in the context of his life. Ayscough’s literal character-by-character translations are sometimes helpful, but sometimes misleading when (following the dubious notion propounded in the Pound-Fenollosa essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry”) she expands the meaning of a character based on its supposed etymology. William Hung’s Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet covers the same biographical territory as Ayscough, rendering the poems more prosaically but also more accurately.
      Extensive Tu Fu selections are also included in most of the anthologies mentioned above. No single translation can hope to convey the full richness of the original, but if you compare different versions of a particular poem you may begin to get some sense of it. I have reproduced numerous versions of one of his shorter poems here.
      [Rexroth essay on Tu Fu]
      [Rexroth translations of Tu Fu]


Chinese Classic Novels
     
The following are generally considered the five greatest Chinese novels. They are all very great indeed, worthy of being set on the shelf beside the masterpieces of Western fiction. A good general introduction is C.T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel.
      [Rexroth essay on the classic Chinese novels]


The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
 [14th century]
      An epic historical novel of political intrigue and military strategy during the period following the fall of the Han Dynasty (220 AD), when three smaller states emerged and began struggling for dominance.
      I recommend the one-volume abridged version translated by Moss Roberts, entitled Three Kingdoms.


All Men Are Brothers
 [14th century]
      A lusty picaresque narrative following the individual stories of dozens of different characters whose adventures and misadventures ultimately lead them to flee the authorities and form a group of bandit-rebels.
      I’m very fond of Pearl Buck’s translation, entitled All Men Are Brothers. There are other versions under the titles The Water Margin and Outlaws of the Marsh.


The Journey to the West
 [16th century]
      This delightful fantasy, loosely based on the historical journey of a Chinese Buddhist priest to India to bring Buddhist writings to China, is sometimes called “a Buddhist Pilgrim’s Progress,” but it is far more comical than Bunyan’s book. The priest is accompanied by Monkey, a mischievous character who recalls the Buddhist characterization of the human mind as continually restless and curious like a monkey, and Pigsy, who naturally represents gluttony, etc. Whatever allegory there may be does not stop them from being very lively and amusing characters.
      There is a good complete edition in four volumes (trans. Anthony C. Yu), but most readers will probably want to start with Arthur Waley’s one-volume abridgment, entitled Monkey.


Chin P’ing Mei
 [ca. 1618]
      This brilliant portrayal of social cynicism and moral decadence centers around the domestic life of Hsi-men Ch’ing, a corrupt, greedy, insatiably lustful, upwardly mobile merchant, and in particular his erotic adventures with his numerous wives and concubines.
      Different editions of the one-volume abridged version are entitled Chin P’ing Mei or The Golden Lotus. A definitive complete five-volume translation has just been completed under the alternative title The Plum in the Golden Vase (trans. David Tod Roy).


Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone
 [1792]
      This is the greatest of them all. In the case of the other four novels mentioned above the abridged versions will probably suffice for most readers, but this is such a rich and wonderful work that I encourage you to read the complete five-volume version, entitled The Story of the Stone (trans. David Hawkes and John Minford).
      If that seems too daunting, there are two different abridged versions under the more well known title The Dream of the Red Chamber.
      [Rexroth essay on The Dream of the Red Chamber]


Shen Fu, Six Records of a Floating Life
 [1809]
      A moving nonfictional reminiscence of the love of a man and wife — a theme otherwise rarely treated in Chinese literature.
      There are two translations, one in Penguin, the other in Lin Yutang’s The Wisdom of India and China.

 

* * *

 

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji  [ca. 1015]
      Rexroth usually ranked this as the world’s greatest novel. At other times, depending on his mood, he would say that it was edged out by The Dream of the Red Chamber. I can’t imagine any competent critic not putting both among the top ten.
      In contrast to the classic Chinese novels, which are generally very down-to-earth, Lady Murasaki’s novel takes place in the extremely rarefied world of the medieval Japanese court. The main characters have virtually no concerns beyond creating for themselves the most exquisite, aesthetically refined life possible. Love affairs are frequent, but they take place within the framework of strange and extremely formal customs. For example, ladies are never viewed by strangers, remaining hidden behind screens even when carrying on a conversation. A man may fall in love with a woman from seeing her silhouette in the window or hearing her play the koto. Friends and lovers are constantly sending each other poems, and any ineptness in either the composition or the calligraphy sticks out like a sore thumb. Yet within all the formality and aestheticism the characters are real and often memorable. In psychological subtlety Lady Murasaki is fully a match for Proust, but she is far wiser.
      Arthur Waley’s translation was long the standard version. It is a lovely work, but rather free. Two more recent translations, by Edward Seidensticker and Royall Tyler, stick closer to the original. Tyler’s has the most detailed and illuminating notes, and is apparently the most literal, following the original text’s long and sometimes rather confusing sentence structure and its use of formal titles rather than personal names. This is perhaps truer to the exalted tone of the book, but it makes the narration harder to follow. Seidensticker’s translation is more succinct and more readable. So I’d say read his version or Waley’s first, then try Tyler’s if (as is very possible) you want to reread the book sometime. You can compare the three different versions here.
      For background, see Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince. You may also want to try the other great work of the same period, also by a court lady, Sei Shônagon’s Pillow Book.
      [Rexroth essay on The Tale of Genji]
      [Rexroth essay on The World of the Shining Prince]   


Kenneth Rexroth, Poems from the Japanese
     
There are many good translations of classic Japanese poetry, but I suggest that you start with Rexroth’s three volumes. One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese concentrate on the early (pre-haiku) periods. Women Poets of Japan (a.k.a. The Burning Heart) includes both classic and modern poets.
      [Rexroth translations of Japanese poetry]


R.H. Blyth, Haiku and Senryu collections
     
Blyth’s four-volume Haiku set, with his illuminating commentaries, is in my opinion still by far the best haiku collection, even though there have been a number of other good translations since then.
      Less well known, but to my taste equally interesting, are his three volumes on senryu (Senryu, Japanese Life and Character in Senryu, and Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies). Senryus have the same 17-syllable form as haikus, but are concerned with everyday human affairs rather than with nature and tend to be more humorous and satirical.


Matsuo Bashô, Poems and Travel Journals
 [1644-1694]
      Bashô is almost universally considered the greatest haiku poet. Lots of his poems are included in the Blyth volumes and in other haiku collections. You can find 30 different translations of his famous frog haiku here, along with an essay from Robert Aitken’s A Zen Wave: Bashô’s Haiku and Zen, an excellent series of in-depth commentaries (get the revised 2003 edition if possible).
      Bashô’s other main works are a series of short travel journals with haikus interspersed within the prose narrative. The greatest of these is Narrow Road to the Interior. Of the ten translations I am aware of, I recommend Sam Hamill’s, Donald Keene’s, and Hiroaki Sato’s. Sato’s version has the most extensive notes, conveniently located on facing pages. I’d say get all three of those editions if possible and read them together. The brevity of Bashô’s works makes this easy to do, and their subtle resonances make it almost essential.
      I have reproduced the nine different versions of the opening paragraph here.
      [Rexroth review of two Bashô translations]


Donald Keene (ed.), Anthology of Japanese Literature; Modern Japanese Literature
 [1955, 1956]
     
Two excellent anthologies that will introduce you to particular authors or genres you may want to pursue in greater depth.
      [Rexroth review of Keene’s two anthologies]


Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters
 [1944]
      Probably the greatest modern Japanese novel.
      [Rexroth review of The Makioka Sisters and other Japanese novels]

 



Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms: Recommended Readings from Literature to Revolution, by Ken Knabb (2004).

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