Classical Chinese is an intrinsically interesting language. It refers to the written language of the premodern Chinese tradition and covers a period of some 2500 years (500 BCE~1920 CE) … It served as the shared language of the elites in premodern China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Knowledge of classical Chinese opens you up to new worlds. It represents the human experience of something like 1/5 of the people who ever walked the earth.More practically speaking, knowledge of classical Chinese will also greatly improve your modern Chinese. The two are distinct languages (at least, by any meaningful definition of “language”), but the modern Chinese languages grew out of their classical ancestor and still bear its imprint. Most of the set phrases (chengyu 成語) that mark one’s speech as refined in modern Chinese are summaries of or quotations from classical sources and therefore obey classical structures. Many of the puzzling usages in formal, written Mandarin (the kind used in newspapers) make perfect sense with a basic knowledge of classical Chinese.
Edited by Jesse Glass and Philip Williams, this collection of essays, articles, and poems about Chinese and Japanese literature and culture celebrates the illustrious scholarly career of Burton Watson, whose range of excellent literary translations into English from Japanese and classical Chinese is second to none. Over half of the book’s seventeen chapters are articles about Chinese or Japanese literature and culture with full scholarly apparatus; the remainder are tributes to Watson in the form of poetry or informal essays.
Topics include analysis of Watson’s skills as a translator and practical critic; a cultural history of Chinese literati; masterpieces of the Ming essayist Zhang Dai; revisiting David Hawkes’ interpretations of Du Fu’s poetry; China’s earliest science fiction from the late Qing; reflections on cultural change by the early Yuan Confucianist Hao Jing; the multi-dimensional symbolism in Hagiwara Sakutarô’s poetry; the fictional portrayal of a self-sacrificing female Chinese Buddhist saint; key patterns of arboreal imagery in the 300 Tang Poems anthology; and Japanese linked verse across the centuries.
Featuring contributions by Victor Mair, Robert Hegel, Hiroaki Sato, William Nienhauser, Jonathan Chaves, Lucas Klein, Hoyt Tillman, Yenna Wu, Yoko Danno, Hua Li, Duncan Campbell, Stephen Addiss, Robert Epp, Timothy Clifford, Philip Rowland, Sam Hamill, and Gary Snyder.
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I recently asked some school kids, “If you had the opportunity to go to China today, what do you think you would see?” One of the students said there would be a lot of lanterns everywhere, a lot of red, and a lot of dragons. I thought, “Wow. If this kid stepped into Shanghai in 2012, he would really be bowled over.”
The books he mentions are Robert Ramsey’s The Languages of China, Joanna Waley-Cohen’s The Sextants of Beijing, Zhuangzi 莊子 as translated by Victor Mair (called Wandering on the Way), the stories of Lu Xun 魯迅 (the article links to William Lyell’s translations), and The Story of the Stone 石頭記 by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 and translated by David Hawkes and John Minford. Not surprisingly, his list contains no poetry. Perhaps one day somebody will compile a list like this and Xi Chuan will be on it.