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Great Books of China

A Book Review


Great Books of China: From Ancient Times to the Present by Frances Wood (Blue Bridge Books, New York, 2017)

A suitable subtitle for Great Books of China would be “China’s Literature as a Window on Culture and History.” In this anthology of sixty-six works, Frances Wood provides a succinct but rich overview of the “doings” of the oldest continuous civilization on earth.

Wood, who is first and foremost a researcher, packs her book with dates and details. However, she is also intensely interested in culture and the sociological impact of historical events on those who experience them. The author studied Chinese at Beijing University (1975-76) and traveled to China frequently in the 80s and 90s, gaining enough familiarity with China to write a travel book, Blue Guide to China. Beginning in 1977 and working for more than 30 years as curator of the British Library’s Chinese collection, Wood was also instrumental in research that led to the establishment of the International Dunhuang Project, which oversaw the cataloging and preservation of items found in the Buddhist cave-temple complex near Dunhuang in Gansu Province.[1]

The first 50 pages of Great Books of China take the reader from the Shang dynasty up to the Eastern Han. Included are:

  • two of the Confucian Five Classics and the Analects,
  • two primary texts of Daoism (Daode jing and Zhuangzi),
  • Sun Wu’s Art of War, as well as
  • the writing of Mencius and
  • that of historian Sima Qian.

Wood does not seem to find these particularly interesting; in contrast, the details that she includes about the Chinese almanac—still an important resource in many Chinese households—are fascinating.

The other gem in this section is her detailed observations about Proper Ritual, which describe a social construct critical in understanding China’s renewed emphasis on “stability”:

Throughout China’s imperial history, at every social level, from the imperial court to the peasant family, ritual remained crucial. According to traditional Chinese cosmology, the correct ordering of human affairs—expressed by the performance of the correct rituals, whether in the home or at court—would please heaven and thus ensure the safety and prosperity of the state. (p. 43)

The next 50 pages of Great Books begin with the fifth century and the growing influence of Buddhism in China. Because of her work on the Dunhuang Project, Wood is able to give excellent insight into Records of the Buddhist Kingdom, the Lotus Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra. Her analysis of these works and the impact of Buddhism on Chinese culture is much more satisfying than her pages on Confucianism and Daoism.

She again offers two fascinating take-aways. The first highlights the importance of the preservation of Buddhist texts in Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan translations. (p. 59) The second associates Buddhism with the early development of printing in China:

Buddhist “merit,” which could transform a person’s position in the cycle of rebirths . . . achieved by the recitation of the Buddha’s words or by repetitive painting of Buddha images . . . probably had a significant role in the invention of printing in China. . . [T]he world’s earliest surviving, securely dated, printed “book” is a copy of the Diamond Sutra printed in China in 868 CE. The colophon* explains that it was commissioned by Wang Jie, “on behalf of his parents” as he hoped that printing multiple copies of the sutra for free distribution to temples would enable his parents to escape the cycle of rebirths. (p. 63)

*colophon: a brief statement containing information about the publication of a book often about the place of publication, the publisher, and the date of publication.

Although the golden age of Chinese poetry (Tang dynasty) and drama (Yuan dynasty) are covered in these pages, Wood is more intrigued with the cultural milieu of the period and the lives of the artists than with their art. She describes the onerous exam system in interesting detail, the difficulties of seeking patronage at court, and the nascent Chinese female voice in the poetry of Li Qingzhao, wife of a prime minister’s son—whose library filled ten rooms of their home. After Jurchen invaders burned their home and her husband died, she “still had 20,000 books, 2,000 folios of inscriptions on bronze and stone, and enough utensils and bedding for 1,000 guests.” (p. 79)

In this section, the reader is also introduced to classic stories and forms familiar throughout Chinese culture. Wood describes three different forms of the story of Yingying, “which has remained popular for hundreds of years;”(p. 74) includes lines from the Confucian Three Character Classic “memorized by schoolboys in traditional schools throughout China for centuries;” (p. 86) and highlights Cao Cao from The Story of the Three Kingdoms—the most historical of China’s four great novels.

The author also expounds on the lives of actors in two forms of drama (zaju, nanxi) and the Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety. Wood notes that the Exemplars were “found among . . . documents from the fifth to eleventh centuries CE . . . in Dunhuang . . . and studied by schoolchildren well into the twentieth century.”(p. 91) Interestingly, in the twenty-first century (2012), a New York Times article recounted how the government had updated the Exemplars and intended them to “encourage more Chinese to turn away from their increasingly self-centered ways and perhaps phone home once in a while”![2]

The literature of the fifteenth to early twentieth century, covered in the next hundred pages, can serve as a bridge for the reader from the culture of imperial China to the popular culture of China today. Wood again chooses interesting works to support that bridge. The Classic of Lu Ban is a carpenter’s manual. Lu Ban, patron saint of builders, is said to have come to the aid of workers facing insurmountable problems in constructing the Forbidden City. Wood adds a discussion of fengshui and other superstitions associated with building that are still carefully observed today.

In the same vein, are The Craft of Gardens on creating sanctums in public and private spaces—an on-going passion in Chinese society—and Exploitation of the Works of Nature, which includes Wood’s short history of paper–making and bookbinding. Among these non-fiction selections are two travel diaries—records of court officials’ visits to the border regions—not unlike Wood’s own Blue Book of China.

Bridging to the grittiness and despair of many twenty-first century Chinese works are two erotic novels—Plum in a Golden Vase and The Carnal Prayer Mat—and several other novels that chronicle the difficult lives of literati attempting to escape poverty through the examination system. Unofficial History of the Grove of Literati is a satire that exposes the corruption of the examination system and the bureaucracy that it feeds, as well as the hopelessness that overwhelms those who fail—much like students today whose “lives” consist of studying for exams and who too often choose suicide when the result is not good enough.

Lu Xun and Ding Ling, China’s two best-known writers of the twentieth-century, end this section of transition. Lu Xun (née Zhou Shuren) was the grandson of a Hanlin scholar executed for bribery and son of an opium addict. He personified the paradoxes of late Imperial-Early Republican China: out-spoken against the exercise of unjust authority, he chose the military discipline of the Naval Academy for his education; an intellectual and crusader for reform, he was forced to accept marriage to an illiterate woman with bound feet; though a former medical student, he believed that the strength of a people’s spirit was more important than their physical health.[3] Wood by “preference” highlights not Lu Xun’s political writings, but his interest in woodblock illustrations, his nostalgic stories (My Old Home), and his clever rewritings of Chinese folktales (Old Tales Retold).

Ding Ling (née Jiang Bingzhi) was born almost 20 years after Lu Xun. Along with her husband Hu Yepin, Ding led the life of the idealistic, left-wing intelligentsia. Moving to Shanghai in 1927, they started a literary magazine in the face of strict Guomindang censorship and violent infighting among various Communist factions of the day. Ding’s husband was executed in 1931 along with four other members of the League of Left-Wing Writers (founded by Lu Xun) and she was imprisoned in 1932, fleeing to the Long March stronghold of Yan’an in 1936. Expelled from the party during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, Ding was imprisoned for five years during the Cultural Revolution and, after 12 years of farm labor, she was finally rehabilitated in 1978. Ding Ling’s most famous work is a “stream of consciousness” novel, Miss Sophie’s Diary, which explores the dilemma of young women offered emancipation but reared with a conscience shaped by traditional morality.

The last fifty-some pages of Great Books are colorfully eclectic as the author continues to be influenced by “her preferences.” She barely mentions Lao She’s Cat Country, a clever satire known as China’s first work of science fiction, but rather focuses on three of his other works: Mr. Ma and Son, a painful description of discrimination born of ignorance toward Chinese in London of the 1920s; Camel Xiangzi, a tale of the difficult life of a rickshaw coolie in Beijing; and Beneath the Red Banner, a semi-autobiographical picture of the harsh existence of the families of Manchu bannermen.

Most likely dying from a severe beating by Red Guards, Lao She along with many of the writers in this section suffered terribly during Mao’s purges and the Cultural Revolution. Wood notes that “fear of censorship and control” caused some to restrict their style and content. Ba Jin, the prolific Chengdu writer of The Family, which pictures a Chinese version of the universal struggle of generations, and Mao Dun, crafter of Midnight, considered the best portrait of Shanghai in the 1920-30s, were both severely persecuted and then subsequently rehabilitated.

Little Black’s Marriage by Zhao Shuli is included not because it is great literature, but because it is “one of the first works of literature to seek to follow the line” (p. 207) of Mao’s speech to the Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature in 1942, which set the “correct revolutionary path” for all forms of art. Ironically, Zhao was purportedly persecuted to death by Mao’s Gang of Four in 1970.

Great Books of China draws to a climax with an interesting look at Qian Zhongshu’s Fortress Besieged and his wife Yang Jiang’s Six Chapters from a Cadre School Life. Both brilliant literary scholars, Qian and his wife miraculously survived the Sino-Japanese War, the Communist Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and Cadre School re-education as seniors to celebrate more than 60 years of marriage—the “fortress besieged” in Qian’s novel that is still under immense stress in today’s China. This couple offers perhaps the best typification of the enduring nature of both creative expression and the Chinese people in this volume.

Wood completes her collection with some modern fiction, a nod to Puyi’s autobiographical From Emperor to Citizen and Mao’s Quotations. The final selection is a novel, Stones of the Wall by Dai Houying, which was translated by Wood.[4] It is a stream of consciousness novel of university life in the 1970s narrated by ten different characters. As survivors of the ideological campaigns, the Great Famine, and the violent persecutions of the Red Guards, they now are attempting to live a normal life alongside those who attacked them or they had attacked during the chaotic decades. Wood observes that “for all the characters in Stones of the Wall, history—whether their own or that of the state—is ever-present.”(p. 243)

This is true as well for Great Books of China. It is not only a literary anthology but also a very accessible review of China’s illustrious culture and tumultuous history. The author does minimize some critical elements of China’s story, such as the importance of Chinese Christianity and her people’s passion for freedom. Although inclusion of Liang Fa’s 19th century Good Words to Admonish the Age, a Wang Mingdao sermon from the Republican period, or Wei Jingshen’s The Fifth Modernization would have enriched and completed this story, Great Books is an excellent read for the novice and a valuable summary for the old China hand.

BJ Arthur

BJ Arthur (pseudonym) has lived in China for many years and was in Beijing in June 1989. View Full Bio