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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature ed. by Kang-I Sun Chang and Stephen Owen
  • Giovanni Vitiello (bio)
Kang-I Sun Chang and Stephen Owen, editors. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. Two volumes. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Volume I: To 1375. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Volume II: From 1375. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xxxii, 711 pp. (vol. I); xxxi, 793 pp. (vol. II). Hardcover $384.99, isbn 978-0-521-85558-7 (vol. I); isbn 978-0-521-11677-0 (2 vols.).1

Chinese literary history is actually only about a hundred years old. The first histories of Chinese literature were written in Japanese by Kojō Tandō (1896) and Sasagawa Rinpū (1898) and were followed by one in English, Herbert Giles’s A History of Chinese Literature (1901). The first Chinese-language book in the genre would appear to be Lin Chuanjia’s Zhongguo wenxue shi, published in 1904. In spite of its title, Lin’s book was not exactly a “history” of Chinese literature as we would understand it today (i.e., as it has been understood in Europe since the second half of the nineteenth century, and in China since the 1920s). The term wenxue, in this case, reflected the notion of humanities of the Imperial Edict of 1903 that established the curriculum in this field for the Peking Pedagogical Institute, the institution where Lin Chuanjia worked as a lecturer.2 Lin’s study was essentially a history of classical prose that followed a solidly conservative approach. As a result, it paid almost no attention to poetry, let alone fiction or drama (in fact, Lin criticized Sasagawa for including such morally dubious material). Lin’s interests were usually bibliographic rather than pertaining to literary history or criticism. They focused, moreover, on the first three categories of traditional classification (jing, shi, zi), to the detriment precisely of the last one, ji, that is, what is usually translated as belles lettres and is closest to our current notion of literature. No wonder Zheng Zhenduo stated that Lin had no idea whatsoever of what a history of literature was; the title of his book did not fit its content at all. Zheng stated this in 1922, barely a couple of decades after the publication of Lin’s work. By then Lu Xun was already working on his study on Chinese fiction (first published in one volume in 1925); in the following decade, Zheng Zhenduo himself would publish the results of his research on folk literature (su wenxue), and Wen Yiduo would begin to apply an anthropological approach to early literature. By the 1940s, a variety of critical approaches to literature had emerged in China (and had been applied to the study of the Chinese literary tradition) that we can more or less still recognize as our own.

For most of the twentieth century, histories of Chinese literature have tended to arrange their material on the basis of dynastic chronology, then to divide writings within each dynastic era according to the literary genre to which each belonged. Beginning with the 1980s, a tendency can be observed to privilege genres over dynastic subdivisions. Examples are Wilt Idema and Lloyd Haft’s A Guide to Chinese Literature (originally published in Dutch in 1985 and translated [End Page 54] into English in 1997) and the first volume of William Nienhauser’s The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (1986; the second one appeared in 1998). The newest feature of both of these (otherwise structurally quite different) works was the space given to issues of general cultural interest, arguably extraliterary in nature yet of great relevance to literary history, as well as to traditions lying outside of the main literary lineage—topics such as the civil service examination system, Buddhist and Daoist writings, popular literature, and literature by women. From this approach, a new notion of literary studies transpired that paid greater attention to the historical background and cultural conditions of literary production. At the same time, a growing interest could be detected in going beyond the traditional, elitist idea of literature as belles lettres, and a desire to explore instead non-elitist literary traditions tied to...


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