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The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature

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This fine anthology by a first-rate scholar may soon become standard fare in courses in Chinese or Asian literature. Indeed, Mair states that the book is directed to teachers and students (xxxvi). There have been several comparable anthologies, most dominated by poetry. This wide-ranging work extends to many genres, and has thus been precedented only by Cyril Birch’s aging two-volume Anthology of Chinese Literature. Teachers of Chinese literature and culture, particularly at the higher postsecondary level, may find this an excellent replacement for such works.

The 278 selections are divided into five broad categories. Part 1, “Foundations and Interpretations” (145 pages) oddly juxtaposes readings from (1) ancient inscriptions and divination texts; (2) texts of ancient thought, along with a few Buddhist texts (but no comparable texts of later Daoist or Neo-Confucian religious thought); and (3) works on literary theory and criticism. Part 2, “Verse” (357 pages) contains 165 items from many forms of Chinese poetry, including “Folk and Folklike Songs, Ballads, and Narrative Verse.” Part 3, “Prose” (250 pages) is a catch-all for forty-nine items of nondramatic nonfiction, such as biographies. Part 4, “Fiction” (340 pages) features twenty-eight short stories and extracts from novels and other texts of “fiction.” Part 5, “Oral and Performing Arts” (230 pages) presents thirteen extracts from the genre in which Mair is most expert.

The clearly attributed translations, many previously published, are generally excellent productions by leading scholars. A few are by Mair himself. The only real shock is an extract from Confucius’s Analects inexplicably drawn from the untrustworthy 1933 pseudotranslation by the dilettante Ezra Pound, who could not read Chinese.

Each entry is prefaced with an excellent introduction, which concisely yet thoroughly explains its nature and context. There are also abundant explanatory notes, which clarify obscure passages without unnecessary technicalities. Mair is correct that the “reader needs no prior knowledge of Chinese languages, script, or history to use this anthology” (xxvii). He appends a useful chronological table, and a romanization chart for converting Wade-Giles (his choice) and pinyin, but no index. There are no Chinese characters.

The chief issue is identifying the best pedagogical use for this text. Mair states: “This anthology can very well be used as the pri­mary textbook for a one-semester general course on traditional Chi­nese literature or as an ancillary text for introductory courses on Chi­nese history, civilization, society, and culture” (xxviii). He is correct, though a Chinese-literature course would seem to require another text that provides historical introduction to themes and genres; this anthology would provide the illustrations. Mair adds that “many” of the selected texts were “chosen for their potential in stimulating classroom discussion” (xxvi). He mentions three entries for their the­matic similarity to well-known Western materials, but does not explain how the other 275 entries could stimulate such discussion. He adds, “I have searched for pieces that are animated and estheti­cally pleasing, since these are often the most attractive and memole for undergraduates” (xxvii). But of course, the selections are shaped to some extent by Mair’s personal sense of what is “estheti­cally pleasing,” and different choices could have been made. One wonders, for instance, what makes the selection from the ancient text Mozi (usually considered ponderous and graceless) more “pleasing” than, say, the extensive poetic revelations of Shangqing Taoism, renowned for their transcendental grace.

Another problem is that teachers may need to scour the intro­ductions to scores of entries to identify texts that illustrate themes or issues that the teacher may wish to emphasize. Nonspecialists may well feel overwhelmed by the 165 poems, or by the scores of other entries that will be unfamiliar to most users. In an ideal world, edi­tors of such texts today might provide a teacher’s guide, perhaps on an Internet website where a teacher could find an annotated list of entries on, say, women in Chinese life, or Buddhist themes in Chi­nese verse or fiction.

Many teachers of Chinese literature will find this anthology a congenial replacement for Birch’s collection, with interesting new types of material from all periods. Nonspecialists may find its size and scope rather overwhelming, but with effort should be able to adapt it to most courses on Asian culture or literature.


The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday