Happy New Year!

The Chinese Year of the Pig started two weeks ago and I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the state of Sino Literature this past year, especially since the blog has been rather dormant recently. This has to do with the fact that I moved to Taipei last autumn to start working as a postdoc at NCCU 政大, develop my new research project on women in late imperial China and continue my work on Nezha-related topics. Especially the task of exploring possible ways to approach my new research topic and reading up on primary sources as well as secondary literature has somewhat taken over my brain and pushed everything I ever new about shenmo xiaoshuo神魔小說 to the side. This makes it very hard to contribute to this blog on a regular basis.

Taipei 101 being photogenic on a sunny day. Lately it usually hides behind clouds.

The good thing is that my content, like my research, is by no means time sensitive and any post I am going to write about a 400-year-old novel will still be as relevant next year as it would be today. The stats for my blog seem to support this: while the largest part of my readership is directed to Sino Literature from my social media pages, where I share new posts, a reassuring number of views come from people typing book titles into search engines. One of the reasons for starting this blog was the feeling that there was not a lot of resources about late imperial literature other than the most famous novels out there. The fact that people decided to click the link to my blog seems to confirm this impression.

Another thing I am quite happy about is the fact that views come from all over the world, as this side-by-side of 2017 and 2018 shows. People interested in the novels I discuss – though still few in numbers – live all over the world:


This greatly motivates me to keep on writing for Sino Literature, as soon as I can free up some brain cells.

Thanks everyone and a Happy New Year!


Teaching Honglou meng 紅樓夢

I recently happened to discuss teaching the monumental Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber  (Honglou meng 紅樓夢) – commonly viewed as the best Chinese novel ever written – with professors from both Italy and Taiwan. As you can imagine with a book that is associated with such high praise, there is quite a chance that students will walk away disappointed if they aren’t introduced to it properly. I formerly wrote about the advantages of obscure novels in this regard: If you have never heard of the book before you are more apprehensive of its quality and there are greater chances of it exceeding your barely-there expectations. Honglou meng does not have this advantage. And while its important to note that it is a great book, the standards for “the best novel” are very subjective and largely as dependent on personal preference for genre as on the quality of the writing.

A good introduction should therefore probably start with an overview of the genre of  “novel of manners” (renqing xiaoshuo 人情小說, a term coined by Lu Xun 魯迅 in his Brief History of Chinese Fiction 中國小說史略) and probably also point out some essential facts about family life and the wealthy elites of late imperial China. Once you have prepared this introduction, the next question is: Do you give it to your students before you assign them individual chapters to read or do you throw them right into the novel before putting what they read into context? Importantly, which approach is more likely to make your students actually read the assigned reading?

The Taiwanese professor I talked to thought the answer to the latter question was fairly easy: Just give your students a quiz at the start of every lesson to make sure they actually read it! This approach seems work in Taiwan, where Honglou meng classes are taught at Departments of Chinese Literature, maybe even as part of a compulory Introduction to Chinese Literature class. But in the context of European Sinology or Chinese Studies, Honglou meng (and sometimes even Introduction to Chinese Literature) classes are usually electives and as such in competition other electives. Fear of next weeks quiz is far more likely to make students drop Chinese literature in favor of more “practical” classes, like Chinese economics, or classes with fewer requirements.

It is therefore essential to show students that a novel like Honglou meng can be very interesting and maybe even fun to read. Reading assignments should never only be chores. For the same reason it is also impossible to assign students the whole novel to read. Like any good late imperial novel it is loooong – 80 chapters written by author Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 and 120 in the “complete” version. Selected chapters it is then.

But which episodes do we choose? The mythological framework at the beginning, a.k.a. “The Story of the Stone” (that gave the novel its first title)? Jia Baoyu’s 賈寶玉 dream in chapter 5, a.k.a. “The Dream of the Red Chamber” (that gave the novel its current title)? selected scenes of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu’s 林黛玉 romance, the most celebrated romanic couple in Chinese literature? Granny Liu’s 劉姥姥 visit to the garden, which shows the excessive splendour of the Jia family mansion through the eyes of a country woman? Wang Xifeng 王熙鳳, a capable and quite badass manager, eaten by jealousy and “too masculine to bear a son”? Spoiled rich brat Xue Pan 薛蟠? The poetry club? The visit of the imperial concubine? Jia Baoyu and his father? Grandmother Jia’s 賈母 lecture on romantic literature? Or just a random domestic scene with Jia Baoyu and his maid Xiren 襲人?

This question is complicated by a narrative feature of Honglou meng that is quite characteristic for late imperial Chinese novels: Stories are generally told in an episodic framework with sometimes minimal contact between individual episodes. This feature is the most obvious in Suihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin), where characters are geographically extremely mobile. We follow one character for a couple of chapters until his story arch nears its conclusion. Then he usually meets an aquaintance, they have a drink together and we laeve that first character  behind as the aquaintance becomes the protagonist of the next episode. Only occasionally former main characters make guest appearances in new episodes.

This is an unusual narrative framework if you are used to Western narratives with clear overall protagonists and parallel storylines that are alternatively brought to the forefront. It is even more perplexing in Honglou meng, where all characters live in the same place. But the novel has no problem exclusively focusing on a certein charachter and its story arch while completely ignoring all others for the time being. It even fundamentally changes its narrative tone after the first few chapters from a tale steeped in mystery to a largley realistic destription of family live. For large parts we may even be forgiven for forgetting that there ever was a mythological framework.

Another problem of the episode structure is the huge cast of characters it creates, since every episode essentialy introduces its own host of supporting characters, meaning the novel features over 400 named characters. This is something that makes students’ reading experience very frustrating and confusing. Providing at least a schematic of the Jia family tree is essential to make any reading comprehension possible.

I do not have a definite answer to the question of how to teach Honglou meng. But generally speaking I would probably start with an introduction of family live in late imperial elite families and give a bit of background on author Cao Xueqin. Then I would assing and discuss chapters from the middle parts, because these descriptions of family life make up the majority of the novel. I would save the mythological framework for last, since that could lead into a discussion of the textual history of the novel when talking about the missing conclusion of the frame and the later completion.

What are your experiences with teaching Honglou meng? Have you had a chance to teach students from different backgrounds? How did they react to the novel differently?

The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel in Five Volumes, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, on Worldcat.org

A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, on Worldcat.org

Der Traum der roten Kammer oder die Geschichte vom Stein, translated into German by Rainer Schwarz and Martin Woesler, on Worldcat.org

A Quiet Hero: Yang Jian 楊戩

Today I want to talk about my favorite hero from Fengshen yanyi 封神演義: Yang Jian 楊戩, a young Daoist adept with magical abilities, a third eye in the middle of his forehead, the Howling Celestial Dog 哮天犬 by his side. He is the righ hand man of commander Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 and continually raises his profile throughout the novel. I like Yang Jian, because he is intelligent, a good fighter, has manners, is capable of strategizing, and gets stuff done. He is neither a distant, calculating strategist like Jiang Ziya, nor a hot-blooded fighter like Nezha 哪吒 et al.

Relief of Erlang/Yang Jian via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Especially the latter is a beloved character type in Chinese popular literature, with Sangguo yanyi‘s 三國演義 Zhang Fei 張飛 and Shuihu zhuan’s 水滸傳 Li Tieniu 李鐵牛 as prime examples. They are popular, because they don’t stand being bullied, condescension or unfair treatment, but unlike regular commoners, they are endowed with superhuman strength that allows them to actually vanquish their opponents. It is these same beloved qualities that sometimes annoy me: they are quick to anger and always act upon their feelings immediately. They are incapable of looking at the bigger picture and channelling their anger into more effective methods of defeating their enemies. Usually they aren’t even interested in the bigger picture at all. Their only course of action is violence and especially Li Tieniu regularly wipes out entire villages in a frenzy of rage.

Yang Jian on the other hand is a quiet hero: He reliably contributes to the cause of the Zhou. He also stops to think in the face of danger and does not rush into unnecessary confrontations. But he is by no means a boring character. He is regularly sent to all corners of the world to borrow potent weapons from Immortals 仙 living on serene mountains. He is the readers’ guide into the marvelous world of Daoist perfection.

He also gets to fight seven animal demons (who took on human form) on Mei Mountain (梅山七怪) with Nezha as his sidekick. (Chapter 92) The monsters he fights are at their core a white ape, a water buffulo, a dog, a wild boar, a centipede, a white snake and goat. Naturally they don’t stand a chance against our heroes. This fact is important, when we look at Yang Jian in another context: Xiyou ji 西遊記. Yang Jian is another book-hopping character and has a rather memorable fight with the handsome monkey king 美猴王 Sun Wukong 孫悟空 at the beginning of the novel.

This fight sees both characters go through a number of transformations, trying to outdo each other. The scene is hilariously depicted in the classic 1964 animated movie 大鬧天宮(1:35, Youtube link that worked December 2018). Interestingly, Yang Jian – who is mainly known as Erlang shen 二郎神 in this novel – enters into the fight with the monkey king right after Nezha has to retreat defeated, making it very clear that he is a stronger and more cunning fighter than Nezha in both novels. In Xiyou ji, Yang Jian is not able to defeat Sun Wukong and it takes the intervention of Laozi 老子 and ultimately the Buddha, to restrain the monkey king. Fengshen yanyi tries in many ways to rectify the depictions the Xiyou ji (which was presumably published 2-3 decades earlier) and redeems Yang Jian from this defeat.

Yang Jian also features heavily in the story of progress the Fengshen yanyi tells: The Zhou dynasty, which is established at the end of the novel, is the Golden Age of Confucianism, in so far that this is the time people talk about when they mention “the good old days” when everybody still behaved as they should. The founding kings Wen 文 and Wu 武 are revered as paragons of sage rule. Naturally, their opponent king Zhou 紂 of Shang is vilified as a cruel and unprincipled tyrant who let himself be influenced by – gasp – a woman!

Fengshen yanyi doesn’t confine this theme of progress to the political sphere. The kind of hero that carries the Zhou to victory is one such example: Early on in the novel the hot-blooded “vanguards” such as Nezha, Leizhen zi 雷震子 (the god of thunder) and Huang Tianhua 黃天化 assist in small personal battles and help kick-start the war that had been brewing since the beginning. But later on in the story they lose prominence while Yang Jian, who joined the party rather late, becomes Jiang Ziya’s right hand man – signifying the increased maturity of the Zhou dynasty. Seems like the author of Fengshen yanyi also preferred heroes with foresight to those with no self-control.

Unfortunately, heroes like Yang Jian remain exceptions in Chinese literature to this day. The public opinion seems to still favour quick-to-anger characters that pack a heavy punch. Or intelligent but frivolous characters that usually get annoying after a while. So if you know about any character like Yang Jian, who is a good fighter with self-control; intelligent and professional; and gets to do cool stuff: Please let me know.

Creation of the Gods, translated by Gu Zhizhong on Worldcat.org

Journey to the West, translated by Anthony C. Yu, on Worldcat.org.

Journey to the West, translated by WJF Jenner, on Worldcat.org

Die Reise in den Westen, translated by Eva Lüdi Kong, on Worldcat.org

The Ouevre of Jin Yong 金庸

If you have been paying attention to new Chinese literature in translation in the past couple of months, you have surly seen announcements and reviews for the first English translation of The Legend of the Condor Heroes 射鵰英雄傳 by the famous Hong Kong author Louis Cha 查良鏞 (*1924), who better known by his pen name Jin Yong 金庸. The first installment of Condor Heroes now published is called “A Hero Born” and the translator is Anna Holmwood. I have yet to read this novel, so I can’t say anything about the book in Chinese or English. Rather, this post is to talk about Jin Yong’s oeuvre and how it was framed in the reviews to appeal to a Western audience. A caveat: My understanding of Jin Yong novels is based on the 2003 adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 天龍八部 and the first few chapters of A Deadly Secret 連城訣, which I am reading at the moment. (This is a very poor basis for a book review. Kids, don’t do that at school!)

The reviews on “A Hero Born” face the daunting task of introducing a new audience to a whole universe that is very much based in Chinese history and tradition. The wuxia 武俠 elements may be traced back to classics such as Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin), with strong fighters that adhere to a very specific “chivalrous” conduct. The backdrop is firmly rooted in Chinese history, that would be familiar to a Chinese reader, but completely foreign to a Western one. (A failure of our school systems exclusive focus on European and Post-Columbian North American history perhaps?) As a Sinologist I was very fascinated by the use of the complex political landscape of the Northern Song 北宋 (960–1127) in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, where the leaders of Dali 大理, Yan 燕, Jurchen 女真, Western Xia 西夏 and Liao 遼 (Khitan 契丹), as well as various spies and ambassadors contributed to a layered and varied storytelling, with groups of bandits, monks and assassins making the chaos complete.

This was the universe I pictured in my mind, when I read the first of many reviews to claim that Jin Yong’s novels are “the Lord of the Rings of Chinese Literature” and the author as “China’s Tolkien“. And I asked myself: How? How does a storytelling universe based on historical tradition compare to a fictional world that was created for its story? How do the complex relationships between characters, the power play of various groups and the conflicting loyalties the characters face compare to a novel featuring a character that is the ultimate enemy? Was this comparison made, simply because there are fantastic elements in both of them? Unfortunately, there is a tendency among literary critics to not take novels in the “fantasy” genre seriously, to disregard nuances and subgenres (often lumping it together with science fiction on top of that) and picture the readership as predominantly young adults. Is this what happened here?

I had sort of forgotten about this awkward comparison until I saw a summary of Alexandre Dumas’ (1802-1870)  The Three Musketeers (1844) on youtube in the excellent playmobil reenactment by “Sommers Weltliteratur to go” (in German only).* Only knowing The Three Musketeers from the excellent movies featuring Michael York and Richard Chamberlain (and other movies which, while fun, weren’t nearly as good), I learned now that this story was originally published as a serial, with new chapters published separately. (Again, don’t do this at home kids. I do not assume that I have “read” The Three Musketeers after having seen some movies and a youtube summary.)

As Martin Sommer was retelling the back and forth of the story that was full of sword fights of the four protagonists against whole armies, d’Artagnan repeatedly falling in love, betrayals, power plays, hidden connections between characters etc., I was very much reminded of the style of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils: larger than life heroes destroy whole enemy armies, one protgonist falls repeatedly at love at first sight, characters get betrayed by those closest to them, tragic deaths lead to dramatic vengence plots and secret relationships between characters are constantly uncovered. At every turn the stakes are high and they only get higher. This breathless tension is unfortunatley coupled with a clumsy writing style, lack of in-depth world-building and an overall YA novel or soap opera feeling in the main characters approach to relationships.

Just like Dumas, Jin Yong published his works in installments. Both of them were professional writers dependant on publications for their income and even both hired other writers as ghostwriters: Auguste Maquet and Ni Kuang 倪匡 respectively. They needed to keep the readers interested in every installment; slowly building up towards a climax or crafting a complex story was not possible. They were the exact opposite to J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) who took almost 20 years to slowly write his masterpiece and argue with publishers about proposed cuts and volume titles while continuing his day job. The stories they wrote reflect their fast writing and publication process. And before you complain about the lack of the supernatural in The Three Musketeers as compared to Jin Yong’s works: I personally never gave up on a book because there was too much or too little magic in it. I did give up on books, because I did not like the style of writing.

I don’t think that the works of Jin Yong should need to be framed in terms of a “corresponding Western novel” to be considered worthy of our time. To me, the very fact that they are unlike the books I read as a kid or teenager makes them more interesting. But I understand that for some readers it might be helpful to have some idea of what they will get themselves into and I think telling them Jin Yong’s oeuvre was “the Chinese Lord of the Rings” is misleading. Instead: Think Three Musketeers, think constant excitement, adventure, love triangles and sword fights set against a romanticized historical universe. Not one giant epic story that is given time to grow, but fun and excitement in every single installment.

Jin Yong’s works in the original Chinese can be bought in many reprints across the Chinese-speaking world.

Jin Yong, A Hero Born, Vol.1 of Legend of the Condor Heroes, translated by Anna Holmwood, MacLehose Press 2018.

Alexandre Dumas on gutenberg.org (page currently blocked in Germany)

Les trois mousquetaires

The Three Musketeers

*Many thanks to my colleague Andrea Kreuzpointner for alerting me to the fact that playmobil reenactments are a thing.

How To Escape Mould And Dust Through Digitization

In my study of traditional Chinese literature I often deal with old books. Not only were my novels published quite a while ago, a lot of research that is still relevant today was done in the last century. Take the case of Fengshen yanyi 封神演義: before the increase in secondary literature since the 1990s, there was a partial German translation in 1912, an article in 1958, a book in 1962 and another in 1987. While containing brilliant research, it is sometimes difficult dealing with the shape in which they were published.

The 1987 work is a thesis by Pin Pin Wan that is available digitally at ProQuest, a depository for many doctoral theses from the USA. By the looks of it, it was written on a typewriter, which was standard for theses at the time, but unfortunately never makes for a pleasant reading. The improvement of word processors for personal use is especially good news for scholars of Sinology (or any other subject invovling non-Latin scripts), since scholars formerly had to leave blanks in his text and then fill in the Chinese characters by hand. That can’t have been fun.

The other publications were by the famous scholar Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁 (yes, that’s how he transcribed his name) and had nice type-face, but came with other challenges: the pages of the 1958 article started falling apart (as in: little pieces broke off) when I went to photocopy them. The translation and the 1962 book are hardcover and in this weird format that books from this time often have which makes it hard to hold them comfortably, meaning that you are always bound to sit at a desk reading it and that you naturally limit your time carrying it around. This is especially annoying for the novel, since I do a lot of my reading when I’m commuting on public transport or sitting comfortably on a couch. This made me spend less time with this particular translation than I did with the English translation published in 1992 that was printed in a much nicer format. I feel like this should not be something that influcences my research, but sadly it seems to have quite the impact on how I engage with texts.

On the whole though, I guess I still got of relatively lightly, since none of the books I had to consult regularly were significantly damaged, overly dusty or even mouldy. Only rarely I had the impulse to immediately go to wash my hands after dealing with some of the books in our library’s collection, because I felt like my hands were covered in icky particles that I didn’t want to transfer to my pens, notebook or computer.

There are various reasons why libraries hold onto books that are in less than perfect condition. Because of tight library budgets, institutes hang on the their first purchase of a book, even if newer editions are available and only the disappearance (either through theft or forgetful borrowers) of a book merits another purchase. Plus, a lot of academic books get discontinued very soon and a lot of the old publications are simply out of print. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions make it impossible for libraries to simply stock photocopies of important books. Libraries’ printing services are moreover forbidden from copying or scanning more than 10% of a book for scholarly research.

Thankfully, there are initiatives to digitize books where copyright has ended. Some of these are even free to use, if sometimes a little complicated to navigate. One such example is the archive.org, where I found my 1912 Fengshen yanyi translation again and was able to read it outside of its impractical oversized format and without the whiff of dust that always surrounded the book in our library. It even gave me a much higher appreciation for the translation itself. This is a very powerful demonstration of the power of the paratext as defined by Gérard Genette: the elements added to the main text that – though not part of the text itself – can change the reception thereof. Though this concept is often used to discuss matters such as title page, preface, illustrations etc., the overall appearance of the book definitely also falls into this category.

But even though the move towards digitization worked wonders for the Fengshen yanyi translation, sometimes I still long for a physical book to work with. That is why I recently was on the lookout for a copy of the out-of-print Qing dynasty novel Lin Lan Xiang 林蘭香 (first published in 1838). I could find a full text version on open-lit.com and download an html version onto my phone for offline use. This would have been absolutely adequate for me in this stage of my research, where the main thing is reading the 64 chapter novel in its entirety. But I still felt that I would prefer an actual physical copy of the novel to work with, leaf through and put sticky notes in.

A friend was kind enough to look for the book on second-hand online book market kongfz.com 孔夫子旧书网 when he was in China and bring back a copy that was published in 1985. Unfortunately, the book is only in ok condition. Mostly, it smells. And it keeps me from wanting to work with the hard copy. However, I don’t only read for personal pleasure, but as part of my academic work. As such I appreciate the fact, that I now own a published book version that I can quote from, while I continue reading the online version.

Going forward, I certainly look forward to an increased digitization of old books relevant to my studies. But I would also very much hope for new ways to obtain hard copies of out-of-print books. Maybe modern printing technology will allow publishing houses to increase their backlist and allow them to print individual copies upon request? Maybe they can offer e-book versions of their out-of-print books?

If anyone has tips on how to remove smell from an old book, please share them in the comments.

Grube, Wilhelm: Metamorphosen der Götter: Historisch-mythologischer Roman aus dem Chinesischen, 1912. Facsimile on archives.org part 1, part 2

Gu Zhizhong: Creation of the Gods, 1992. On worldcat.org

柳存仁: 毘沙門天王父子與中國小說之關係, 新亞學報, 3:2 (1958), find the journal on worldcat.org

Liu Ts’un-yan: Buddhist and Taoist Influences on Chinese Novels: The Authorship of the Feng shen Yen I, 1962. On worldcat.org

Wan, Pin Pin: Investiture of the Gods (“Fengshen yanyi”): Sources, Narrative Structure, and Mythical Significance, 1987. On worldcat.org (check your library for access to ProQuest dissertations & theses)

[Resource] ctext.org

Researching traditional Chinese literature, I often encounter books that are not readily available (except in sinological libraries) and mostly quite substantial in length, making them difficult to carry around. Enter digital resources. While not acceptable basis for citation in an academic context, they provide a good starting point for initial contact with a book. Here, I want to share how one such resource works: ctext.org

The Chinese Text Project (ctext.org) is maintained by Dr. Donald Sturgeon, who already published his own https://dsturgeon.net/ctext/. It is a platform for Chinese language primary sources that could potentially be awesome, but unfortunately is a real pain to use. I’m sure I’m not aware of all features the site has to offer, which may mainly be due to the overstuffed design of the front page, the complicated navigation and unreadable captcha at every turn. (Those really increased a lot, didn’t they?!) I mostly come here through search engines while looking for particular texts, or I search for texts directly in the https://ctext.org/searchbooks.pl?if=en, which is buried at the bottom of the left-hand menu. So if you have anything to add to my description, please do so in the comments below.

The site is probably most famous for providing full text renderings of Chinese classics, as well as crowdsourced English translations. Among university teachers this is probably the least favorite feature, because students tend to view it as a quotable source. Unfortunately, like Wikipedia, these unstable texts permanently subject to change without clearly identifiable editor and as such no academic source. The texts might have improved in the past couple of years, but when I was still a student have a decade ago, they were also full of mistakes. Therefore, use for a first overview, but sorry, you still have to look up the text in reliable book. Ctext even states in their FAQ: “Please check the Chinese text against the base text before quoting it”.

The translations should likewise be used with caution. If you are lucky, some Sinologist has already done the translation work for you and you can directly quote them, especially for the classics. Some of the early work, by scholars such as James Legge (1815-1897) and J.J.L. Duyvendak (1898-1954) is no longer copyright protected. These translations are available on several platforms online, ctext among them. While is is probably best to find a source that provides you with a scan of the original book, such as Archive.org does with this facsimile of Legge’s Book of Poetry 詩經, ctext shows the translation alongside the Chinese original in a very clear and readable way, which makes comparison easy. But please keep in mind that Legge’s translation was published in 1871 and his language reflects that.

We now turn to what I think is the most important feature of ctext, but also the one where it gets most annoying: On ctext you can find a great many scans of original works from late imperial China. I might, for example, enter 封神演義 in the search bar and find this:

ctext suche

I would ignore the full text (文) and crowdsourced edits (共) and skip ahead to the photographic reproductions (像). (Don’t be confused by the length of the full title of Fengshen yanyi.) Both of these are scans in workable resolution. The first of these entries is a Ming dynasty edition based on the facsimile from the 古本小說集成 collection (uncredited) which is in turn based on the edition from the National Archives of Japan, recently made public in their Digital Archive in higher resolution than the ctext version. The second is a Qing dynasty edition from rare books collection of the Harvard Yenching Library and can be read in the Harvard Library Viewer. Unlike ctext, both these platform allow you to download the digital images as PDFs.

The convenience of these platforms makes it all the more annoying, that ctext decided to be extra paranoid about robots (i.e. automated programs) stealing their open source content. It is impossible to navigate the site without entering (rarely readable) captcha every couple of pages and real or perceived attempts to download stuff gets you banned temporarily from using the site. And that’s with a university (eduroam) IP. When using my home IP, I cannot even view more than 4 pages of any given scan without logging on. This seems to have increased in recent years and it might well be warranted for security reasons. But it makes using the site really frustrating.

Anyway, ctext is not a platform I would recommend wholeheartedly: Its layout is confusing and its full text unreliable. And while the number of usable scans of late imperial texts in one place is amazing, the restrictions are frustrating. I know that Dr. Sturgeon is more interested in digital humanities and early China than literature and paratexts from late imperial China. From his introduction it seems that a lot can be done with the full texts in terms of “accessible digital text analysis for classical Chinese” and “cyberinfrastructure for historical China studies” (the titles of his most recent blog posts), which I believe may well be true. But maybe the digital humanities approach is why close reading of facsimile reproductions is not a priority in designing ctext.

What have been your experiences using ctext?

A Slice of Rulin waishi 儒林外史 in Modern China

While in Shanghai 上海 recently, I visited the “education” section of a large book store, particularly the “essay composition for middle school” 初中、作文 . I was looking for a handy guide to improve my abysmal writing skills. In the past I had made some progress using a book aimed at older elementary school children that focused on correct use of characters and phrases. Moving on to the middle school section seemed therefore a good fit and I found a two-part guide that will hopefully turn out to be useful. But contrary to what the 4-m shelf full of books on the topic suggested, it was pretty hard to find books giving actual advice. Most were nothing more than essay collections that should serve as an example to students struggling with the standardized exams.

Their titles went along the lines of 得奖作文 (prize-winning essays) or 满分作文 (essays awarded full points). Supposedly these essays were written by actual middle schoolers who then went on to ace their exams and enter a good high school that would hopefully send them on their way to go to a good university. It’s exactly what parents were hoping for their own child. (Because, let’s face it, extracurricular study books are rarely purchased by middle schoolers themselves.) The only piece of “advice” in these collections are the “discussions by famous teachers” 名师评论 at the end of each essay. Though “discussion” is maybe a strong word for 4-5 lines of text after a two page essay. The teachers (one per essay, though sometimes several per collection) simply point out the obvious things each student did well in their essays.

Besides information panels and artefacts, the museum also showcased a lot of reconstructions of life during imperial times. This “bookshop” was part of an “urban street” that doubled as a museum shop.

The present is not the first time in Chinese history that a grueling series of texts including the art of essay writing were considered a make-or-break moment in a person’s career. From about Tang 唐  (618-907) times up until 1905 the Imperial Examinations 科舉 were held with the goal of selecting capable men for official posts. There is a nice museum in Nanjing 南京 dedicated to these, which I was also able to visit. They start with the history of examinations and how it replaced the previous practice of recommendations, where sage rulers found capable ministers more by chance than design. As examples they cite King Wen 文 finding Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 “fishing for a sage ruler” at Pan River (as described in Fengshen yanyi 封神演義), Liu Bei visiting Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 at his grass hut (of Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 fame) and the Han 漢 emperor Guangwu 光武 seeking Zhuo Mao 卓茂 and Yan Guang 嚴光 (does anybody know a work of literature describing this one?).

As with contemporary entrance exams from kindergarten to university, the Imperial Examinations also were not a one-and-done thing; rather, there were exams at different levels, which in Ming 明 (1386-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) times meant Apprentice Exams 童識, Provincial Exams 鄉試, Metropolitan Exams 會試 and Palace Exams 殿試. Those successful in the latter were given the title jinshi 進士 and could look forward to starting a profitable and prestigious career as state officials. The museum describes in great detail the struggles of examination candidates, the grueling days of examination in small cells, the multiple attempts at cheating, as well as the elation of successful candidates, the immediate change of their status and the grand reception back in their hometowns.

The bang 榜, the ranked rooster of successul candidates, was displayed publicly.

What the museum omits, are the dejection and despair of those who failed – maybe even repeatedly – and had to look for alternative ways to secure financial income and face the disappointment of their relatives while keeping up the motivation to study for their next attempt. These people are the questionable “heroes” of Wu Jingzi’s 吳敬梓 (1701-1754) novel Rulin waishi 儒林外史 (The Scholars). They are highly educated scholars whose life plans have been put on hold, for some temporarily, for some probably forever. Stuck in at state of in-between, they mingle with rich patrons – sometimes established officials, but sometimes also “uneducated” merchants 商 – a class of people traditionally seen as antithesis to the refined Confucian scholar 儒. But merchants have since found out that money can buy education and so they hire failed examination candidates to be their children’s teachers.

Such is the case with Zhou Jin 周進, the first scholar introduced in the novel. He is rather bitter about his situation in life, but like so many teachers today, dealing with the parents seems to be more exhausting than handling the students themselves. From Zhou Jin, the story passes on to others through chance encounters, much like it does in Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳. But where those martial haohan 好漢 recognized each other by their uprightness and openness, the scholars in Rulin waishi often chase after personal profit, in the form of good marital connections, commissioned work and occasional shady business. At one point, a scholar named Xiao Jinxuan 蕭金鉉 secures a job with a book printer that guarantees him a salary and  a place to live while compiling a book of essays. Book publisher had found ways to profit of the education craze associated with the Imperial Examinations and started to publish collections of successful examination essays as a point of reference for prospective candidates. For increased benefit, they included a commentary, which in this case was commissioned to Xiao Jinxuan. Which brings us back to the bookshop in Shanghai, selling 满分作文 with commentaries to desperate parents.

However, maybe those who unfortunately missed their goals would do good to remember that examination success is not the only way to fame: sometimes a change to their plans may send them down another career path. Celebrated authors Wu Jingzi and Wu Cheng’en 吳承恩 (ca. 1500-1582, of Xiyouji 西遊記-fame) repeatedly failed in their attempts at the imperial examinations before they turned toward writing. An official career would probably not have left them enough leisure to write carefully crafted novels. Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715) on the other hand, only passed in his 70s and spend most of his life as a teacher and private tutor in a family with a substantial library. Without this library he might never have had access to the story collections upon which his masterpiece Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 is based.

I know this probably isn’t too much consolation to parents of middle school kids in Shanghai, but I hope for the sake of their children that they remember that life doesn’t end because you miss an exam. And not ending up with the career path you  envisioned doesn’t automatically mean you won’t have any success at all. So if life throws you off track, follow the example of The Scholars: gather a couple of good friends, have a couple of glasses, find a nice spot and throw a poetry contest.

This way to go forward.


Wu Jingzi, The Scholars, translated by Yang Hsien-i and Gladys Yang.

Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West, translated by WJF Jenner; translated by Anthony Yu.

Pu Songling, Strange Tales from Liaozhai, translated by Sidney L Sondergard (This seems to be the only complete translation to date; translations of some selected stories are variously available.)