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Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture

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Over several decades of teaching various courses, I’ve looked through literally hundreds of “readers.” I’ve even used a few. At the worst, some students may have looked at entries because they knew this material would be included on tests. At best, a few may actually have been exposed to some of the documents that are part of history.

Now Victor Mair and two of his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have produced a reader that truly reflects the culture of their interest. Its ninety-two entries run a wide gamut of China’s past, though the distribution is skewed toward the earlier periods. One-third covers the period up to the end of the Han Dynasty. The editors’ journey is half over by the end of the Tang Dynasty and two-thirds complete with the demise of the Song Dynasty.

The translations are generally good; the better ones flow smoothly. Those of Paul Goldin, one of the editors, stand out particularly. The editors have added a few quite useful items such as a menu of the subjects of their entries and a brief, accurate historical chronology. Their two maps are generally useful (though Xinjiang is preferable to Xinkiang). The plates and photographs are excellent.

The bibliography, categorized by topic, provides a useful starting place for those who want to explore an area in greater depth. Though pinyin transliterations are used, the older Wade-Giles (or Guo Yu) are provided where necessary. I found the notes provided at the end of each entry to be among the most valuable facets of the work. Going far beyond mere explanation and providing the proper setting, these often offer important insights into Chinese culture. This book is designed for students in introductory college classes in Chinese culture and history. One or two copies would be a wonderful addition to any good high school classroom or would fit well on any teacher’s bookshelf.

Although the editors suggest that their volume can be used as the main introductory college text, some content gaps make it more suitable as a classroom supplement or accessible student resource. Several areas need more attention. Despite Joseph Needham’s longstanding demonstration of the brilliance of China’s science and technology, only three entries are provided, six if medicine is included. There is nothing at all on Chinese astronomy and little on the culture’s remarkable mechanical arts. Less than a dozen deal with foreign affairs or the customs of China’s neighbors. Zheng He’s voyages are absent, and China’s minorities seem not to exist.

Given the size and quality of the book, I hope the University of Hawai`i Press keeps the price of the book affordable for high schools and for college educators.