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Reviewed by:
  • How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology
  • David McCraw (bio)
Cai Zong-qi . How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 456 pp. Paperback $35.00, ISBN 978-0-231-13941-0.

The world could definitely use a good undergraduate textbook that covers traditional Chinese poetry. Those of us who teach survey courses have either made do with inadequate anthologies, or made up our own materials, in frustration. Surely, an off-the-shelf one-volume textbook would find wide welcome among literature teachers? Cai Zongqi's volume looks like it could fill this void. It includes 400 pages of scholarly contributions with one expert writing a chapter on each of eighteen chronologically selected topics, a neatly thematic index, and extensive appendices, including a welcome list of words with final stops that modern Mandarin has lost. It even claims to focus attention on formal and prosodic issues. Sounds promising; we read with high expectations!

On reading Cai's preface, we immediately get pulled up short by his assertion that this anthology will "help students overcome language barriers and engage with Chinese poetical texts in ways that yield as much aesthetic pleasure and intellectual insight as one gets from the originals" (p. xxi). Well, since we are dealing with an undergraduate textbook here, that seems too high an ideal. However, adding the Chinese might enrich the experiences of those students with enough Chinese to divine some of the sense under the translations. In his next paragraph, Cai asserts "classical Chinese poetry may be regarded as a living tradition"; from my experience with young Chinese students, this also rings too idealistic.

Bold claims continue. Cai recommends that "like Chinese readers, students should be able to see the physical shape of a poem in Chinese, read it out loud, and hear it read fluently in the original." Now we are sure his vision of an undergrad literature class belongs to fantasy; this textbook will certainly not achieve that aim—not without adding years of hard work at the language! Furthermore, what does he mean by "original"? Given this volume's nearly exclusive reliance on Mandarin romanizations, you could wonder whether he thinks ancient and medieval poets spoke like people in Beijing today.

Then Cai reveals we have worse problems than just his overly ambitious goals. He continues: "[T]he inclusion of Chinese texts reveals the nonalphabetical nature of Chinese writing. The romanizations make apparent the monosyllabic and tonal nature of Chinese characters. They carry tone marks that will aid students in reading poems aloud. . . ." Nonsense! Including Chinese texts reveals nothing unless you can already read Chinese. Languages can be monosyllabic and tonal (though we could argue at considerable length whether this generalization always applied to Old Chinese), but characters do not carry tone marks. In fact, characters by themselves do not tell us how to read them—as experience with Japanese would [End Page 22] convince anyone. Cai has made some sort of blunder; has he here (as later on) confused talk of language with talk of its writing system? Or, perhaps more probably, has he committed a simple English error by an inadvertently ambiguous pronoun reference? In either case, this muddled statement will surely mislead undergrads. The curmudgeon in me starts to raise his churlish head.

Cai continues by claiming that his translations "afford a direct look at the noninflectional nature of Chinese and demonstrate how the absence of inflectional tags changes the entire dynamic of reading. Instead of being told the poet's feelings and thoughts, we are often expected to experience them ourselves while creatively engaging words and images in a dynamic interplay." First, we doubt any translation could "afford" all that. Second, does Cai really want to argue that, when the Chinese poet says "Today I'm unhappy," readers will experience this vicariously in a way that they could not if a Latin poet or a French poet said so? We take leave of this preface with unease, still hoping the rest of this volume may redeem a bad preface.

Unfortunately, Cai's introduction does little to dispel that unease. It contains additional English problems: consider "probably a major theme" (p...


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