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: open-lit.com
Open-lit.com 開放文學 is a Chinese language page in traditional characters that offers free full text versions of a number of novels from late imperial China. The build of the site is very simple: 657 novels are listed in 17 categories alongside 417 plays in 14 categories. Clicking on the title will lead you to a chapter page which in turn will lead you to the full texts for the individual chapters.
The home page URL is open-lit.com, but you can skip the introduction and go straight to the list of novels or the list of plays. So far I have only used the novels bit, so I will concentrate on that. I assume the list of plays works in a similar fashion. One example of a novel category is 神鬼仙俠: Gods, Ghosts, Immortals and Heroes:
The arrangement of novels within each category is according to the radical 部首 of the first character, which can make it difficult to find stuff, unless you really know your radicals. But there is a way around this. If you know the title of your novel you can easily skip to it using the search function on you browser: You press Ctrl+F and then enter the search term in the bar at the bottom of your browser.
You can also use the search function for novels built into the site to find novel titles or keywords. Just press the first link in the right hand corner of the novel list. By default the search is “full-text” 全文檢索, but you can change that to title 書明, author 作者, time of publication 年代, introduction 簡介 or chapter title 回目檢索. You can also combine two search terms with either “and” 和 or “or” 或.
What you can’t do, unfortunately, is combining a book title and a full text search term. You can get around that though, using Google. I might, for example, be looking for the mention of Nezha 哪吒 in Fengshen yanyi 封神演義, so I would type this into the google search bar: site:open-lit.com 封神演義 哪吒.
When you have found you novel you can first read the basic information provided at the link 本書資料, which tells you (most important for academic work) the edition this text is based on. Then you can select the chapter you need from the table of content and start reading from there, comfortably skipping to the previous and next chapters with the arrows at the end of the page. There is actually a really handy tool built into the site that can help you read you Chinese text. On the right hand side of the page you fill see a very simple tool bar which can’t be reduced in size, making it a bit annoying for reading on a small screen. But if you come across an unknown character or word in the text (which I still do quite a lot) then you can simply select it with you cursor and open-lit will display a Chinese explanation on the right.
But you wouldn’t always want to read online. And you don’t have to. This is a function I only recently found out about and I was so happy. At the top of the novel’s page you will find the link “download this book” 本書下載 which will lead you to 3-4 options for download. The html version works quite well for me on my phone, after downloading a zip file and unpacking it. I haven’t encountered the file extensions “ebk”, “epb” or “chm” before, so I didn’t try them. If anybody knows what they are and how they work, please let me know in the comments below!
And that concludes my introduction of open-lit.com. The page is perfect, if you know you book and want a quick overview, find the exact wording of a passage or even read the whole thing on an electronic device. You definitely need to know Chinese and be able to read traditional characters. The navigation is rudimentary, but I actually found that the very simple nature of the site allows me to really concentrate on the text without getting distracted. Plus, a lot of texts are included in the site, some of which I couldn’t find anywhere else, making it my go-to online resource for late imperial literature these days.
What are your experiences using open-lit.com? Do you know any other digital resources you would recommend?