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Chinese History & Culture

Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction

Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction, by Sabina Knight. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

he author is Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Smith College, where she also teaches a course on Health and Illness. Part of the growing Oxford series of Very Short Introductions, this slender volume accomplishes the impossible by presenting the reader with a comprehensive and accessible entry into the vast literature that has come from China over several millennia, all within 120 pages, plus References, a section on Further Reading, and an Index.

In this short compass, she quickly surveys Chinese literature by genre in a roughly chronological sequence within each major category, noting both the continuity and change we see in a long river, an image with which the volume opens. “The book approaches Chinese literature as a vast river of dynamic human passions, especially moral and sensual passions, and of aesthetic practices for cultivating and regulating those passions” (xvi). Chinese literary culture has played a “central role” in “supporting social and political concerns,” and “elite patronage” has also figured largely in its production and transmission, so Knight attends to the “dynamics of power, including class, gender, ethnicity, and nationalism” as she tells this complex story (xvi – xvii).

The opening chapter on “Foundations” reminds us of the antiquity of Chinese written characters and the crucial part they have been held to play in promoting “faith in an ordered an moral universe”(5). From the beginning writing and the study of literature of all sorts (wenxue) have stood at the heart of Chinese civilization. Those who could read and write – the literati – occupied a place beside the rulers, as both depended upon each other (the scholars for patronage from kings; the kings for legitimacy conferred by the writings of scholars).

All of the Chinese “classics,” including Buddhist writings, sought to convey the Way. Knight identifies six “overlapping paths for approaching the Way” (8). These are: The way of change (beginning with the I Ching and continued by Daoist and Buddhist writings); of benevolence (“traditionalism” – a term she prefers to “Confucianism”); of learning (scholarship); of nature (Daoism); and of feeling.

Poetry, of course, expresses, evokes, and emphasizes feelings. Knight traces the development of Chinese poetry from the Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing), through the Elegies of Chu, the rhapsodies (fu), folk ballads (shi) and lyric poetry (ci), to the eighteenth century. She uses powerful examples to show how poetry has spoken of the solid world; transcendence; decorum and elegance; melancholy and regret; separation and rusticity; drifting above it all; being moved by the times; and heroic abandon.

Chapter 3 surveys the long history of classical narrative, from the earliest historical jottings to the twentieth century. Even before Confucius, historical accounts were used for moralistic purposes, as well as to legitimize the current regime. They portrayed a world in which good and evil are rewarded and punished, and in which history serves as an ethical guide. Narrative eventually broadened to include belles letters, such as “records of the strange,” records of interesting people, “tales of the marvelous,” stories of virtuous women, erudite scholars, and star-crossed lovers, that both uphold Confucian moral values and question the conventional obsession with worldly success.

From the sixteenth century onwards, vernacular literature continued this trend, with stories that “often question the power of moral cultivation to contain the dangers of excessive passions” (75). Along with storytelling, opera, dramatic romances, “promptbook tales,” and novels-in-chapters (culminating in the Dream of the Red Chamber), they explore the conflicting roles of convention and passion and demonstrate the fragility of social and individual control through moral principles.

The final chapter on modern Chinese literature surveys the wide sweep of Chinese fiction since the launching of the New Culture Movement, which began the flowering of Chinese vernacular writing by elite authors. Using Gao Xingjian’s play Bus Stop as a framework, Knight traces, in turn, the themes of “national pride, humanism, progress, memory, and pleasure.” The traumas of war, tumultuous political movements (especially the Great Cultural Revolution), opening and reform after 1978, and the cultural chaos of recent decades have evoked novels, plays, short stories, and other types of fiction to explore powerful emotions of fear, hate, ambition, and love. I counted 68 different titles in this amazing tour of complex literary terrain, in which broad contours are highlighted by short stops to view particular scenes.

It would be hard to find a more pithy or profound description of the soul of Chinese culture than this little jewel, which deserves repeated and thoughtful reading; it is as brilliant and beautiful as it is brief.

G. Wright Doyle