Chris Livaccari on Overcoming Misconceptions about China posted an interview with Chris Livaccari of the Asia Society (New York) with a guided reading list of how to overcome misconceptions about China. Here’s how he begins his responses:

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.

2 thoughts on “Chris Livaccari on Overcoming Misconceptions about China

  1. Very strange that to dispel the images of dragons and lanterns one would suggest books full of… dragons and lanterns, basically. Though I guess Lu Xun sort of gives a flavor of the 20th century. I do think it’s worth noting, however, that HLM, like most Chinese “novels,” is chock full of poetry–and what’s more, poetry embedded in an (admittedly fictional and idealized) social context, which might give a better sense of the function of poetry in traditional society than say, a stand-alone poem by Li Bai (of course, we could also include one of those poems with a title like “My friend came over to visit after a long absence and we sat down to play weiqi and drink, whereupon he came up with this clever phrase that we immortalized in a poem…”) It would be nice to include a poem about modern life by a contemporary poet not only to show that poetry is a living form, but also to show how China today is neither the China of HLM nor the China of Lu Xun.

    • Well put, Casey, although I don’t remember any dragons as such in The Story of the Stone or the Zhuangzi (only cosmically large fish that transform into birds). Still, I don’t fault Livaccari for including ancient and pre-modern literature, since it can provide a counterpoint for life in China today, while also potentially demonstrating some of the longer-lasting aspects of Chinese culture.

      As for poetry in the Story of the Stone, most of it was cut from the Hawkes / Minford translation, wasn’t it? In part, that may be exactly because the social context would be unclear to readers in English. But I do agree completely about how helpful it could be to include contemporary poetry. Alas, readers of English rarely turn to poetry for news. As William Carlos Williams put it: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”


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