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  • A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden): Selected Writings by Li Zhi
  • Nanxiu Qian (bio)
Li Zhi. A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden): Selected Writings. Edited and translated by Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline C. Lee, and Haun Saussy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. xxxvii, 408 pp. Paperback $30.00, ISBN 978-0-231-16613-3. Hardcover $90.00, ISBN 978-0-231-16612-6. E-book $29.99, ISBN 978-0-231-54153-4.

The book in hand presents us the first extensive English translation of the works of Li Zhi 李贄 (1527–1602; style name Zhuowu 卓吾), hence filling out [End Page 163] an important academic gap for studying late imperial Chinese literature and intellectual history. Known as the most important late Ming thinker whose iconoclastic thought heralded the creation of great literary works such as the sixteenth-century play the Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting 牡丹亭) and the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng 紅樓夢), Li Zhi has however been understudied in China and in the West. In China the study on his thought has been more or less confined by ideological paradigms or political agendas. His most famous essay, "Explanation of the Childlike Heart-Mind" ("Tongxin shuo" 童心說), for instance, has been understood as a challenge to Neo-Confucianism rather than a challenge to established doctrines in general. His acclaim of Qin Shi Huang the greatest emperor of all time was readily appropriated by Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893–1976) to boost up his tyrannical dictatorship during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), regardless of Li's original intention, which was to "question the evidence and justifications of inherited histories" (p. xxiv). In the West, the availability of only a few fragmental translations of Li's writings limited access to his study. Both situations have hindered broad-scaled, in-depth discussions pivotal for understanding Li's extremely stimulating and sophisticated ideas. This book in hand will change the status quo substantially.

This volume selected seventy-one essays and letters and thirty poems from Li's three collected works—A Book to Burn (Fenshu 燓書), Another Book to Burn (Xu Fenshu 續燓書), and A Book to Keep (Hidden) (Cangshu 藏書). Together they give the readers an overarching view of Li's "heretical writings that caught fire among Li Zhi's contemporaries" (book blurb on the back cover). The translators/editors also attached at the end "The Life of Li Wenling [Li Zhi]" ("Li Wenling zhuan" 李溫陵傳) written by his good friend Yuan Zhongdao 袁中道 (1570–1623), and the "Memorial Impeaching Li Zhi Submitted by Supervising Censor Zhang Wenda" (給事中張問達疏劾李贄) that caused his arrest and suicide in prison at an advanced age of 75. These historical records, along with Li Zhi's own writings, will paint us a comprehensive picture of his life and intellectual contributions.

The translators/editors had considered editing the volume following some modern scholarship that reconstructed a chronology of Li Zhi's life and his writings based on the contents of his essays and letters but eventually resolved to adhere to the presentation style of early Chinese editions. By retaining this old editorial order, the translators/editors hope that they "will preserve something of the disorienting experience that Ming-dynasty readers would likely have had if they attempted to read such books as these from cover to cover." They were also wondering if "the first readers of A book to Burn and Another book to Burn would not have read them straight through; they would have dipped into them and set them down by turns, reading an essay here and a poem there" (p. xxxiv). Thus, the current structure of the volume is by no [End Page 164] means a result of casual editing, but rather an aesthetic and historical effort to transport the readers into a late Ming context, to let them experience, to whatever an extent, the impact on the Ming readers' minds upon reading these texts.

The translators/editors however did more to further assist this interesting editing/reading approach. They provided the readers with a multidimensional "index," consisting of (1) a list of each and every title in the "Table of Contents," (2) a carefully written "Introduction" that would offer page numbers...


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