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  • How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity Through the Tang ed. by Zong-qi Cai
  • Xiaorong Li (bio)
Zong-qi Cai, editor. How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity Through the Tang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xxvi, 328 pp. Hardcover $120.00, ISBN 978-02-31-18536-3. Paperback $40.00, ISBN 978-02-31-18537-0.

This book is one of the How to Read Chinese Literature series from Columbia, a collection of ten projected volumes that aims to introduce premodern Chinese literature to English language readers in terms of the major genres of poetry, fiction, drama, prose, and literary criticism. Complementary with How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology (2008) and How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Workbook (2012), How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context is the third of the set in the poetic genre. Poetry is the most revered genre in traditional Chinese culture. Editor Cai Zong-qi, a prominent expert in classical Chinese poetry in both Chinese and English language scholarship, designed the three-book set to enable readers to grasp the language, form, and cultural context of the genre in the most efficient way. It presents the distinctiveness and richness of China's poetic tradition in a lucid and accessible fashion. Indeed, as the book-jacket endorsers acclaim, it is "a splendid achievement" (Patricia Sieber) and "a great contribution to a broader understanding of Chinese poetry" (Ronald Egan).

In no other culture has poetry achieved the level of practical interface with the rest of society as it did in pre-modern China. How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context is purposefully organized to demonstrate "the genuine interplay between poetry and the world" (p. 1). The goal is carried out with an insightfully designed structure and selected contents. As indicated in the title, the book aims to contextualize the genre, situating it in specific historical moments and against broader social, political, and cultural backgrounds as well as connecting it with the most representative poets (of both genders) and intellectual developments. The major contents of the book are organized both chronologically and thematically. It consists of four parts, divided according to time periods, pre-Han times, the Han dynasty, the Six Dynasties, and the Tang dynasty. It is then further subdivided into 17 chapter-essays that cover important poets and themes associated with these time periods. As listed in the chart of "Thematic Contents," there are the following nine major themes: "Poetry and the State," "Poetry and Learning," "Poetic Identities: Individuals [End Page 345] and Groups," "War Heroes and Knight-Errantry," "Daoist Lifestyle and Transcendence," "Meditation and Buddhist Enlightenment," "Women as Poetic Subjects and as Writers," "Family and Country," and "Poetic Art." Under each theme, the editor further breaks it down into subcategories. For example, the theme on "Poetic Identities" includes "Revered Personalities," "The Image of a Poet," and "Poetry and Literati Friendship."

Under the editorship of Cai Zong-qi, nineteen scholars contributed to the writing of the seventeen chapter-essays, with each written by one or two different scholars (two of the sections are co-authored). Each author is a specialist in the time period and topic for which he or she was responsible. To list a few, these scholars include Wai-yee Li on poetry and diplomacy in the Zuo Tradition (Zuozhuan), Stephen Owen on the poetry and authorship of the Songs of Chu (Chuci), Qian Nanxiu on the Worthies of the Bamboo Grove, Alan Berkowitz on the poetry of reclusion by Tao Qian (365-427), Meow Hui Goh on the Buddhist mind of Shen Yue (441-513), and Manling Luo on the role of poetry in Tang civil service examinations. All the chapters by these and other authors demonstrate scholarly rigor in incorporating both secondary studies and the authors' own insights. For each topic, the authors trace its history of construction and reception. Readers can learn about both historical and contemporary understandings of the texts. Each topic is well illustrated from witty angles and written in concise style. While done in a succinct fashion, each chapter still enables readers to appreciate the beauty and poignancy of the poems, poets, and...


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pp. 345-347
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