Preface to the Series3 min read

How to Read Chinese Literature Series


Welcome to the How to Read Chinese Literature series, a comprehensive collection of literary anthologies and language texts covering the entire field of Chinese literature. The series will consist of ten volumes: five guided literary anthologies, one book on literary culture, and four language texts. Together, they will try to promote the teaching and learning of premodern Chinese poetry, fiction, drama, prose, and literary criticism.

In particular, the five guided anthologies offer innovative ways of overcoming some barriers that have long hindered the teaching and learning of Chinese literature. While fine scholarly monographs on Chinese literature abound, they are usually too specialized for classroom use. To make that scholarship more accessible, each guided anthology presents the highlights of scholarship on major genres and writers through commentary on individual texts as well as broad surveys.

Every reader of Chinese literature is aware of the gap between English translations and Chinese originals. Since most existing anthologies offer only an English translation, however, students will find it hard to see how diverse linguistic elements work together in the original. To remedy this, each guided anthology presents the Chinese text alongside an English translation, with detailed remarks on the intricate interplay of word, image, and sound in Chinese.

So far, scant attention has been given to the relation between sound and sense in English-language studies of Chinese literature. As a corrective, the poetry anthology explains in detail the prosodic conventions of all major poetic genres and marks the tonal patterning in regulated verse and ci poetry. Samples of reconstructed ancient and medieval pronunciation are also given to show how the poems were probably pronounced when first composed. For the fiction, drama, and prose anthologies, we offer a sound recording of selected texts, read in normal Mandarin or chanted in the traditional style. Video clips of traditional storytelling and dramatic performance are also provided free of charge online.

For decades the study of Chinese literature in the West was a purely intellectual and aesthetic exercise, completely divorced from language learning. To accommodate demand from an ever increasing number of Chinese language learners, we provide tone-marked romanizations for all poetry texts, usually accompanied by sound recording. For any text also featured in the accompanying language text, cross-references allow the reader to quickly proceed to in-depth language study of the original.
Designed to work with the guided anthologies, the four language texts introduce classical Chinese to advanced beginners and above, teaching them how to appreciate Chinese literature in its original form. As stand-alone resources, these texts illustrate China’s major literary genres and themes through a variety of examples.

Each language text presents a select number of works in three different forms—Chinese, English, and tone-marked romanization—while providing comprehensive vocabulary notes and prose translations in modern Chinese. Subsequent comprehension questions and comments focus on the artistic aspect of the works, while exercises test readers’ grasp of both classical and modern Chinese words, phrases, and syntax. An extensive glossary cross-references classical and modern Chinese usage, characters and compounds, and multiple character meanings. Online sound recording is provided for each selected text and its prose translation. Along with other learning aids, a list of literary issues addressed throughout completes each volume.

To achieve a seamless integration of literary anthologies and language texts, we draw from the same corpus of canonical texts and employ an extensive network of cross-references. Moreover, by presenting the ten books as a coherent set, we aim to help readers cross the divide between literary genres and between literary and language learning, thereby achieving a kind of experience impossible with traditional approaches. Thanks to the innovative features described above, we hope the series will help to energize the learning and teaching of Chinese literature, language, and culture throughout the English-speaking world for decades to come.

Zong-qi Cai