Chinese Literature, Ancient and Classical

André Lévy

translated from the French by William H. Nienhauser
Indiana University Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010 http://dannyreviews.com/
Can a survey of all of classical Chinese literature in just one hundred and fifty pages avoid being completely superficial? Somehow André Lévy manages this. Chinese Literature, Ancient and Classical is a translation of his 1991 La littérature chinoise ancienne et classique, with some additions and with the Chinese texts retranslated directly into English.

Lévy can't be comprehensive, obviously, but he does cover the most prominent writers and works. He doesn't provide general historical background — having a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture will help readers — but does provide brief biographies. There's no sweeping meta-narrative or broad theoretical framework, but he does convey something of a feel for how individual writers and works fit into the broader Chinese literary tradition. And though he often has to resort to broad generalisations, he finds room for many extracts, albeit short ones, giving something of a feel for different genres and even specific works.

Part one begins in antiquity, touching briefly on Shang oracle inscriptions and early bronzes and then looking at some of the "hundred schools", at Mo Zi and the logicians, Taoists, and legalists.

"In a scintillating style peppered with apologues, Han Fei Zi argues that the art of governing requires techniques other than the simple manipulation of rewards and punishments. The prince is the cornerstone of a system that is supposed to ensure him of a protective impenetrableness. The state must devote itself to eliminating the useless, noxious five "parasites" or "vermin": the scholars, rhetoricians, knights-errant, deserters, and merchants (perhaps even artisans)."

Also surveyed here are the core Confucian classics, including the Classic of Changes, the Book of Historical Documents, Spring and Autumn, the three ritual books, and the "four books" (including the work of Confucius and Mencius) which "have been the foundation of Chinese primary education since the fourteenth century".

Part two covers classical prose. Sima Qian is best known for the "Records of the Grand Historian" but he also left letters; Lévy leaps forward from there to the letters of the 18th century painter Zheng Xie. Of the "eight great prose writers of the Tang and Song dynasties", Han Yu was the first to call for a return to "ancient-style prose"; Lévy includes extracts from a remonstrance, a satire, and an allegory. Others covered include Liu Zongyuan, Ouyang Xiu, and Su Shi.

"Holding to a much less militant brand of Confucianism [than Han Yu], Liu Zongyuan was as open to Taoist and Buddhist ideas as he was to those of Legalism. In disgrace after the abdication of Emperor Shunzong (r. 805), whom he had strongly supported, Liu Zongyuan was exiled almost continually to minor posts in the far south. Ironically, some were sinecures that allowed him time to foster his literary career."

Among "trivial literature" forms, "the free essays in xiaopin wen form enjoyed their greatest popularity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries", but had antecedents going back much further. Subjects included letters of instruction, travel writing, anecdotes, and cookbooks. And there was a long tradition of literary criticism.

Part three, on poetry, begins with the Songs of Chu and Han poetry. Twenty pages on the "Golden Age" of Chinese poetry trace the evolution of forms and include examples by Cao Pi, Wang Can, Ruan Ji, Tao Yuanming, Xie Lingyun, Hanshan, Meng Haoran, Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Li He and Li Shangyin (with several from the best known of these).

Although he was a protégé of Han Yu (726-824) and from an aristocratic family, Li He was unable to pursue an official career and died prematurely at age 26. His career and works have often been compared with those of John Keats. Li left only 240 poems. Charged with a strange imagery, with a bitter and morbid sensuality, a new voice in the concert of Chinese poetry can be heard in these poems, a voice only recently discovered by modern critics. There are some works, echoing The Songs of Chu, which are almost impenetrable to the modern reader, even with the help of commentaries. Li He preferred the relatively free form of the yuefu verse; his "The Tomb of Little Su" (Su Xiaoxiao mu), written in three-word lines, about a famous courtesan of the Tang capital, may serve as an example:

Dew on secluded orchids
Like tear-filled eyes;
Where have the love tokens gone —
Here only flowers in the mist I can't bear to cut.
The grasses seem like her carriage mat,
The pine tree like the canopy.
The breeze could be her skirts,
The river her jade girdle-pendants.
In her canvas-covered carriage
She awaits the dusk;
The cold green candles
Labor to cast their shadows.
Beneath the western mound
The wind wafts the rain.

Levy then traces the evolution of ci and yunyao forms in the Song dynasty, with examples by Li Yu, Liu Yong, Ouyang Xiu, Su Shi (Dongpo), Li Qingzhao ("unanimously considered the greatest of Chinese poetesses, although she left us only one hundred poems") and Guan Hanqing.

Part four turns to the "literature of entertainment", in the novel and theater. This touches on narratives written in classical Chinese and on opera-theater, but is mostly devoted to vernacular narrative prose. Here Lévy glances at oral literature before looking at the short story and novella, at writers such as Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu, and medium length novels such as Li Yu's erotic masterpiece The Prayer Mat of Flesh. He finishes with the four great long novels, The Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West and Jin Ping Mei, and key later novels such as Dream of the Red Chamber and The Scholars.
"The first great novel to [be] re-edited in this last phase of the Cultural Revolution was the Xiyou ji, an apparent paradox, since the theme of the extravagant Journey to the West was the quest for salvation through the Buddhist faith. Inspired Marxist critics read this story of an ape endowed with supernatural powers who led a troupe of pilgrims west out of China in search of Buddhist scriptures and concluded that the 'Promethean side' of the main character, Monkey, should be interpreted as the reincarnation of the revolutionary spirit of the Chinese people. In the past a number of scholarly commentaries have sought to systematize the allegory in this novel, especially within a Taoist framework. In fact, this work is like the other three great classical novels: it is possible to assume a coherent allegory only in a novel written by a single author ex nihilo, but these sagas were the creations of a 'composite authorship' and evolved over a long period of time. This resistance to systematization by critics is undoubtedly the secret of the long-term popularity enjoyed by these vast novelistic creations, works that readers immersed themselves in without ever being sure that they had grasped the key to the story."

Lévy is quite dismissive of more recent work.

"For the last five hundred years no classical poetry has been produced that deserves to be raised to the height of its illustrious predecessors examined above."
"The [nineteenth century] proliferation of the novel testifies to its increasing numbers, but it must be added that none of these products could aspire to the standards reached by the masterpieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."

It is unclear how representative the coverage is, and the quoted extracts have surely been selected for their appeal. Some of Lévy's judgements seem a little idiosyncratic, and specialists will undoubtedly disagree with some of his generalisations. And Chinese Literature, Ancient and Classical is not so useful as a reference, though there is a separate further reading section for each part, listing useful studies and translations of key works (all in English, so presumably Nienhauser's work rather than Lévy's).

As a general introduction for the lay reader, however, Chinese Literature, Ancient and Classical works well, with the fast-pace and engaging short extracts providing excellent motivation.

November 2010

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Related reviews:
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%T Chinese Literature, Ancient and Classical
%A Lévy, André
%M French
%F Nienhauser, William H.
%I Indiana University Press
%D 2000
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0253213657
%P 168pp