Education About Asia: Online Archives

Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching

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“ Dad,” one of my sons said to me when he was a college sophomore, “I wish I knew Chinese.” I eagerly explained just how he could arrange to learn it, and was ready to go on to talk about Mandarin, Cantonese, and the rest, when he interrupted: “You weren’t listening to me. I didn’t say I want to learn Chinese; I said I wish I knew Chinese.”  That’s the problem.

Separated from most of us by our ignorance of Chinese, Hindi, Bengali, Japanese, Korean, Sanskrit, Urdu, and the like lie wonderful literatures that could deeply enrich us as individuals and as a culture, and deepen our understanding of our own complex culture—if we knew how to read them. But most of us don’t have the linguistic and interpretative skills with which to read them in the original. Of course, the problem is not all that different from that of Greek and Roman culture, which has been addressed variously by training small elites in those languages, by developing the arts of translation and teaching, and by planning curricula around the study of “classics in translation,” ancient culture, and the like. But we are much more used to thinking of indirect means of approaching those and contemporary European literatures than we are the literatures of Asia. And given the richness and diversity of Asian cultures and languages (only three general traditions of which, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese, are represented here), it looks like a far greater challenge than the one we have only partially overcome with respect to European classics.

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