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Reviewed by:
  • Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader
  • Sarah M. Allen (bio)
William H. Nienhauser Jr. Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2010. xxv, 340 pp. Hardcover $58.00, ISBN 978-981-4287-28-9.

Over the course of the past century, scholars have paid increasing attention to Tang dynasty tales and anecdotes — both to their artistry as individual works of literature and to their place in the larger narrative of the history of Chinese [End Page 227] literature. The past few decades have witnessed a proliferation of scholarly books and articles in Chinese and other languages, as well as new annotated Chinese editions and translations. Nonetheless, volumes devoted exclusively to Tang tales in English translation remain rare. This new set of translations of tales from the eighth and ninth centuries presents six tales, each translated by a different scholar. The translations are extensively annotated and are accompanied by a translator’s note, a glossary of selected terms found in the tale, and a bibliography of works relevant to the individual tale (there is also a general bibliography at the end of the book).

The tales included are “The Tale of Hongxian” 紅線, translated by Weiguo Cao; “Du Zichun” 杜子春, translated by Rania Huntington; “Record within a Pillow” 枕中記, translated by Bruce J. Knickerbocker; “An Account of the Governor of the Southern Branch” 南柯太守傳, translated by William H. Nienhauser Jr.; “The Tale of the Curly-Bearded Guest” 虬髯客傳, translated by Jing Wang; and “The Tale of Huo Xiaoyu” 霍小玉傳, translated by Zhenjun Zhang. While Tang tales are often associated with encounters with ghosts, gods, were-animals, and other strange creatures, this volume focuses on tales that reflect the day-to-day concerns of the educated elite who were the tales’ writers and audience — government, career, and courtesan romance. (“Du Zichun,” with its alchemical attempt at Daoist transcendence, is something of an exception.)

All six tales have been translated into English in the past, which raises the question of what this new collection adds to the translations already available. One advantage is that it brings the tales together in a volume that is exclusively devoted to Tang tales and so might lend itself to use in the undergraduate classroom. Unlike many earlier translations these also romanize Chinese names and terms in pinyin, which is more familiar to students today. The book’s real contribution, however, lies in its meticulous annotations and scholarly discussions of textual history and debates on authorship, and the very thoroughness of the scholarly apparatus will work against its success in the undergraduate classroom. The “Note on the Translations” that precedes the tales states that the translations are aimed simultaneously at the general reader and students of the original texts (p. xxv), but my sense is that it is the latter who will find the text most useful. The technical nature of the annotations and the translators’ notes may seem daunting to students receiving their first introduction to these tales in the context of an unspecialized class. Scholars already familiar with the material and the issues surrounding the tales’ texts or students working on the texts in a graduate seminar, on the other hand, will find the analysis of the evidence for contested authorships and textual variants valuable. While much of this information is found elsewhere in Chinese, this is the first source to make it available in English.

The translations range from the very smooth (especially Huntington’s “Du Zichun” and Nienhauser’s “Governor of the Southern Branch”) to the very literal, the latter emphasizing fidelity to the original Chinese rather than smoothness in [End Page 228] English. Each translation is given copious line-by-line annotations, which draw attention to the tales’ use of language and explain linguistic antecedents that could go unnoticed (especially when reading in translation). In some cases, these notes significantly enhance our understanding of the tale, such as Knickerbocker’s explanation of the significance of Handan as the place where Scholar Lu has his dream in “Record within a Pillow.” But elsewhere it is unclear whether a particular phrase is used as a reference — in which case the identification of its source helps us better understand the tale — or is simply used...