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Reviewed by:
  • The Flood Myths of Early China
  • Kyung-Ho Suh (bio)
Mark Edward Lewis. The Flood Myths of Early China. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. x, 248 pp. Hardcover $70.00, ISBN 0-7914-6663-9.

Mark Edward Lewis’s The Flood Myths of Early China (hereafter Flood Myths) is one of the rare monographic studies on Chinese myths in Western languages. The works of some pioneering scholars such as Bernald Karlgren, Marcel Granet, Wolfram Eberhard, and Dirk Bodde had been published before the 1970s.1. A few monographic works have been introduced in recent decades by Sarah Allan, Norman Giradot, and Deborah Lynn Porter.2 There certainly are some aspects in Chinese mythology that frustrate the scholars who wish to enter this less explored area, and these had been amply summarized by Derk Bodde in his article of 1961. The frustration appears to have eased in recent years to a considerable degree, however, since some scholars have tried to approach the mythical tales from perspectives different from those of the earlier generation. Rather than relying on the perspective of regarding the mythical tales as what had been in circulation in remote antiquity, these scholars attempted to read the tales into interpretive context of early Chinese history. They saw myths as not being alienated from historical accounts but actually maintaining an inherent connection: myths—some if not all—were actually rehabilitated in historical accounts for some reason. This insight, in turn, provides important clues in understanding particular modes of thinking held by the intellectuals who lived during the formative period of the cultural system that we now call Chinese. The present book under review, Flood Myths, represents the approaches to the mythical tales of flood as a deposit of archetypes of the mentality that played a role in achieving the unified polity of China, bringing to an end the situation in which the world was divided into a number of competing states. As a historian seriously interested in social and political transformations during the Warring States period, Lewis reads the flood myths as a model of the political ideology that enabled early thinkers to pursue an ideal society of imagery projection. In this formulation, as noted in his preceding work, The Construction of Space in Early China (SUNY Press, 2005), a notion emerged that the past becomes a model of the present, and that the latter should be fashioned after the former. In this context, the tales no longer remain merely the stories of once upon a time, but are transformed into a body of admonitions for contemporary thinkers on how to reconstruct the whole society of their own time.

We must note that Flood Myths is not an isolated research work. The author himself suggested that readers may regard this book as a companion to Construction of Space. I find, however, it is only a humble suggestion. The perspectives represented in this book are also in close connection with those in his yet earlier [End Page 125] works, The Sanctioned Violence in Early China (SUNY Press, 1990) and Writing and Authority in Early China (SUNY Press, 1999). These works together make up a vast research territory of the author: they share the author’s enduring interest in exploring various changes during the Warring States period. They form, furthermore, a series of discussions on the fundamental question as to how the Chinese intellectuals formulated their aspirations for constructing the China par excellence, or in other words, how they have attempted to transform the land physically lying at one corner of the Eurasian continent to the culturalized, politically organized realm of China. The book under review plays a crucial role in such a quest for the origin of China, for the author strives to incorporate the meanings symbolically embodied in the flood myths of antiquity into the ideological manifestations of philosophical discourse in this transitional period. To use a phrase of the author himself in Construction of Space, therefore, it is “a fragment [yet very significant] of a larger whole.”

The author had been known, through his earlier works, by his distinctive mode of narration in a strictly organized format...


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