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  • The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction: The Water Margin and the Making of a National Canon by William C. Hedberg
  • Erik Esselstrom (bio)
The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction: The Water Margin and the Making of a National Canon. By William C. Hedberg. Columbia University Press, New York, 2019. xii, 250 pages. $65.00, cloth; $64.99, E-book.

It is a rich irony of historical imagination that Japan-China relations today are so frequently bogged down by seemingly intractable nationalist antagonism when in fact the two societies share a deeply intertwined historical experience. Indeed, the development of Japanese civilization since the third century BCE can be effectively rendered as a story of how Chinese influence on life and thought in the Japanese world has reached peaks, endured valleys, and traversed all nature of terrain in between those extremes for more than two thousand years. The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction offers fascinating new depth to that story through its insightful exploration of how a Chinese novel set during the Song dynasty, penned in the late Ming era, and known in English as The Water Margin (Ch. Shuihu zhuan / J. Suikoden) inspired myriad Japanese intellectual and cultural responses over the course of roughly three hundred years from the early seventeenth century until the early 1900s. By understanding how and why Japanese intellectuals received, interpreted, and reimagined Shuihu zhuan in the ways they did, author William Hedberg suggests, we can better appreciate the central role played by Chinese fiction in shaping conceptions of language, literature, cultural modernity, and national identity in Japan since the Tokugawa period.

Drawing inspiration from current Japanese scholars of Chinese literature such as Saitō Mareshi and building upon important studies of Sino-Japanese literary interaction in English by specialists like Atsuko Sakaki and Matthew Fraleigh, Hedberg lays out his analytical framework with a [End Page 180] provocative initial query in a well-crafted introduction.1 Instead of "reading works of Chinese fiction like Shuihu zhuan as a source of inspiration for Japanese literature," Hedberg ponders, "what does it mean to read them as Japanese literature?" (p. 8). In other words, Hedberg asks us to free our minds from the limitations imposed by analytical categories defined by the nation-state; his examination of how Japanese readers acquired, discussed, and interpreted the fantastic tale woven in Shuihu zhuan of imperial outlaws on the margins of Song-era Chinese society offers a path forward in achieving that end. Moreover, shedding light on the history of Shuihu zhuan in Japanese society, according to Hedberg, makes clear that "readers, rewriters, and literary historians did not simply consume or 'indigenize' Chinese texts; rather, these texts engendered radical reconsiderations of both the function of writing and its relation to larger discourses of cultural affiliation" (p. 22).

Chapter 1 ("Sinophilia, Sinophobia, and Vernacular Philology in Early Modern Japan") explains how Edo-period Japanese specialists in Chinese fiction saw their work as embodying something qualitatively different from what Japanese experts in Chinese philosophy had done in previous centuries. As Hedberg explains, the "guides to the language of Shuihu zhuan and other contemporary Chinese texts" produced by such scholars "represent a deliberate attempt at severing the nascent discipline of Tōwagaku [the study of vernacular or colloquial language] from its roots in the study of the Chinese Confucian classics" (p. 29). This shift, Hedberg contends, represents "a transitional episteme, one serving as a potential link between the moral and political concerns of early eighteenth-century classical studies and the more narrowly lexicographic and positivist focus of late-Edo and Meiji-period sinology" (p. 30). Hedberg examines a wide array of Japanese scholars in his pursuit of this argument, but his conclusion concerning the significance of the Tosa scholar Suyama Nantō's work effectively captures one of the most important interpretive claims in the chapter. In the analysis of Shuihu zhuan laid out in 1757 by Suyama in his Chūgi suikodenkai, Hedberg suggests, "China as a locus of normative authority and universal meaning has been replaced with a China that is decentered, culturally and geographically unique, and irreducibly Other with respect to Japan" (p. 49).

The stated goal of chapter 2 ("Histories of Reading and...