The Chinese Essay

Edited and translated by David E. Pollard

Reviewed by Charles A. Laughlin
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2004)

David E. Pollard, editor and translator. The            Chinese Essay. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 372            pp. US $65.00, ISBN: 0-231-12118-0 (cloth); US $24.50, ISBN: 0-231-12119-9.

David E. Pollard, editor and translator. The Chinese Essay. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 372
pp. US $65.00, ISBN: 0-231-12118-0 (cloth); US $24.50, ISBN: 0-231-12119-9.

The Chinese Essay is the first anthology to provide a comprehensive introduction to Chinese literary non-fiction prose from earliest times to the present. Comparable collections in print, such as Richard Strassberg’s Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China and Sang Ye’s Vignettes from the Late Ming, are restricted to the premodern period, and until now modern essay translations (often Pollard’s) have only appeared scattered in journals like Renditions and Chinese Literature and in more general anthologies like The Literature of the Hundred Flowers, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, and monographs devoted to individual authors such as Zhou Zuoren and Yu Pingbo. The selections in The Chinese Essay represent most of the best-known Chinese essayists, through some of their most anthologized and well-known works. Never have premodern and modern essays been placed next to each other, and never has the considerable tradition of the modern Chinese essay been presented so richly. Pollard’s effort is commendable, and should be interesting not only to the general reader but a great boon as well to instructors of courses devoted to Chinese literature or to the essay across cultures.

Pollard has translated all of the essays himself. As a much-published translator, and author of A Chinese Look at Literature: The Literary Values of Chou Tso-jen (Zhou Zuoren, the pioneer of the modern Chinese literary essay), there could hardly be a better choice for this task. Not only are the translations faithful to the semantic meaning of the original texts (as far as I can tell), but Pollard’s clipped, dry, and often humorous style is also often perfectly suited to the spirit of the essays presented here. The anthology also includes portraits or photographs of many of the authors as well as their calligraphy or handwriting. Though not numerous, these illustrations very effectively convey the love of writing and the emphasis on personal style that tie together the many phases of the Chinese literary essay’s long tradition.

Because of the infancy of the study of the Chinese essay in English, an anthology like this and its introduction are potentially seminal statements, situating this genre in the field of Chinese cultural studies in general, justifying our interest in it, and pointing the way to avenues of further inquiry. But if The Chinese Essay answers the question, Why publish or read such an anthology?, it does so only meekly. Pollard observes that there has not been a general anthology of Chinese essays published since Herbert Giles’ 1884 Gems of Chinese Literature, so his argument begins from a gap or lack in the representation of a genre. Rather than engage with this lack critically, Pollard goes on to assert two reasons for it, almost as if to justify it, namely, the inherent difficulty of representing and discussing linguistic style in a foreign language (but why should this not have been a hindrance to the translation and circulation of other Chinese literary genres?), and the decline in prestige of the essay in the English-speaking world. Thus, in effect, rather than answering the question of why he is offering this anthology now, Pollard is simply providing convincing reasons why it had not been done before. What is missing from this explanation is why the prestige of the essay in modern and contemporary China, unlike the English speaking world, has not declined. If this book could bring the English reader around to understand the power and agency of the essay in contemporary China, despite all that has been said in our field about the overwhelming importance of fiction, it would create more than enough motivation and capacity to appreciate the importance of the contents of this anthology on its own terms, even for a general reader.

The general reader, moreover, seems to be the main target of this anthology. Yet this general-audience orientation is belied by the inclusion of Chinese characters for authors’ names and titles to works. Indeed those who would benefit from the Chinese characters (most of the likely audience of this collection) will generally want more bibliographical information, as well as some engagement with scholarship in the field such as Yu-shih Chen’s Images and Ideas in Chinese Classical Prose: Studies of Four Masters, Chih-p’ing Chou’s Yuan Hung-tao and the Kung-an School. In addition to a more in-depth and informative introduction, I think the book as a whole could have included more scholarly apparatus, including a less sketchy, multi-lingual bibliography, without harming its appeal to a general audience.

If Pollard assumes anything about his audience, it is that they are familiar with the European prose essay, which I think leaves some room for doubt especially with respect to the younger generations. The European essay was of course an important context for the modern Chinese essay, but Pollard is probably putting unnecessary emphasis on features peculiar to the European tradition (“absence of dignity,” “refining and directing sensibilities to create a polity that was new and particular,” “entertainment value,” [p. xii-xiii] “independence of thought,” [p. 7] etc.) in the effort to define the Chinese essay for the general English reader. It might have been more effective and engaging to discuss what prose essays in China are like and what they are used for, rather than comparing them (often unfavorably) to the European tradition that the reader may not be very familiar with anyway.

After detailing in the Preface negative aspects of traditional Chinese culture and literary conventions that explain why premodern Chinese essays do not resemble those of Montaigne and Bacon, Pollard does go on to list what he feels are some of the positive aspects of the Chinese essay in general: “The qualities are on the one hand common to mankind, on the other particular to Chinese literary arts. The first kind includes the expression of character in the writer, either impressively strong or appealingly weak; the expression of sentiment, usually to commemorate friends and relatives; nostalgia for past times; appeals for justice and compassion; pleasure in diversions. The second kind concerns the musicality of the language, a prime and often, regrettably, the prime requirement for approval.” Then he goes on to explain why musicality cannot be translated. Thus, all of the positive aspects of the premodern Chinese essay that are particular to Chinese literary arts are here lost in translation, and what is left is a variety of expressions of ideas and sentiments. I am not certain, but a general English readership (which has already proven itself lukewarm to Chinese fiction and poetry in translation) may not be inclined to delve into this anthology thus described. Why not say more about the extraordinary personalities and intellectual genius evinced in included works by Tao Qian, Han Yu and Su Shi, Lu Xun, Zhou Zuoren, Feng Zikai and Zhang Ailing? Why not talk about some of the larger cultural themes for which the Chinese essay served as the principal vessel, and which through the essay traditional and modern writing are linked—the cultivation of the art of living, the struggle between transcendent and worldly values, or the contrarian resistance to “political correctness” of every imaginable kind?

In an anthology with such broad coverage but short length, the editor is obliged to explain his principles for selection, and Pollard very honestly acknowledges that it would have been impossible to adhere to a single principle. I applaud his insistence that personal taste—an important theme in ancient and modern essays—was his principal guide. This accounts for his enthusiastic inclusion of essays by Gui Youguang (1506-1571) despite their criticism by the modern essayist Lin Yutang, his exclusion of Lin Yutang’s own essays, and no doubt as well the inclusion of contemporary writer Yu Qiuyu, well-known for his popular, fictionalized imaginings of significant historical moments, over those with strong links to the Republican period essay tradition like Wang Zengqi, Zhang Zhongxing and Ji Xianlin. On the other hand, in his note on sources Pollard states that “the classical prose section consists almost entirely of anthology pieces; they had to be so in order to represent the classical heritage” (369). He also states that he felt he had to include certain perennial classics (both traditional and modern) that may not have been among his favorites, even when they were available in other collections. In saying this Pollard makes it clear that he intends this collection to represent the Chinese essay with some authority and self-sufficiency, which seems out of step with his claim of using personal taste as his guide. Nevertheless, I think the resulting balance between personal taste and the need to reflect the received canon makes for a selection that both makes good reading and a good textbook.

Though Pollard alludes to wide reading in anthologies, the only one he cites is a 1987 publication, implying that anthologies tend to select the same works for each author. I am currently in the midst of a survey of anthologies of premodern essays that so far suggests to me that selections vary significantly across eras (Qing, Republican, Taiwan, Early PRC, recent PRC) for various different reasons. For example, premodern anthologies such as the seventeenth-century Guwen guanzhi generally favor formal essays of serious import that cleave to Confucian values, while more modern collections increasingly favor heterodox views, and include more “individualistic” essays on small, private matters. This is in part due to the gradual acceptance in the late imperial period that informal or casual writing possesses its own aesthetic value that can be appreciated by posterity. Moreover certain Republican period publications such as Shen Qiwu’s 1932 Jindai sanwen chao (A selection of early modern essays), Zhang Dai’s Tao’an mengyi (Dreamlike remembrance) edited with prefaces by Yu Pingbo and Zhou Zuoren, and Shi Zhecun’s 1935 Wanming ershi jia xiaopin (The Late Ming xiaopin: twenty masters) exerted an influence on the modern Chinese essay, and these could at least have been mentioned. The reader who wants to explore the Chinese essay in more detail would have benefited greatly from some guidance as to which anthologies are best, and which exerted the greatest influence.

It is interesting that The Chinese Essay, covering both premodern and modern periods, devotes the lion’s share of its space to the modern period. There are about forty pages devoted to ancient-medieval times (through the Song Dynasty), forty to late imperial times (Ming and Qing dynasties), about 170 to the first half of the twentieth century, when the modern essay came into its own, and ninety to the post-war period; thus over seventy percent of this collection is from the past 100 years. The slant in favor of modern essay has the effect of showing the reader the pre-modern essay through modern eyes, which I applaud, but the editor could have been more forthcoming about this in the introduction. If, for example, the reader took The Chinese Essay to be a general survey of the Chinese essay from antiquity to the present, it would give the impression that the essays of the twentieth century are much more important than those in the more than two millennia before. Modern Chinese essays can often be understood better through their relationships (sometimes conspicuous) with premodern literary or philosophical trends, and these relationships do not in themselves lessen the modern texts’ “modernity,” but help constitute it. In this respect, if it was in fact Pollard’s intention to present premodern essays primarily as precursors to modern ones, he could have done more in the introduction, commentary and translator’s notes to emphasize which kinds of premodern texts have particularly exerted agency in modern times, which modern texts manifest their influence, and how.

Turning to the modern period, the cavalier dismissal of prose literature under leftism and socialism is unfortunate; the development of the genre of reportage is misrepresented in the introduction as originating as anti-Japanese propaganda in the War Against Japan and developing in Communist China only to extol the Party (p. 20), and no mention is made at all of prominent lyrical essayists within the socialist camp like Qin Mu, Yang Shuo and Liu Baiyu, leading to the mistaken impression that all socialist prose is reportage. The exclusion of all of this material detracts from the anthology’s authority as a survey of the genre. As I have argued elsewhere, reportage may be looked upon as the leftist answer to the essay, but it originates as a form of revolutionary social critique in the 1930s, and its use in the War Against Japan is much broader than just propaganda. Moreover, though it would not be appropriate to include examples in the anthology, it should have been pointed out in the introduction that reportage made an important revival in the 1980s and beyond in the hands of Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang and others; the concern for the environment that Pollard so admiringly observes in the contemporary Taiwanese essay has been one of the major themes of mainland Chinese reportage literature for at least ten years.

Another ramification of the editor’s inattention to the condition of modernity is Pollard’s explanation of the Chinese term sanwen. Pollard presents the Chinese concept as stable and unchanging, and explains its meaning entirely in terms of contrasts with European concepts. But the term sanwen was not used to denote a literary genre until modern times and even now critics and literary historians struggle with the equivocal nature of the term (“literary genre” vs. “all kinds of writing not in verse form”). It would have been helpful to put more emphasis on the particular modes or genres that the premodern works belong to (memorials to the emperor, philosophical treatises, formal and informal correspondence, prefaces and colophons, travelogues, epitaphs, biographies, etc.). This is not to say that this variety of forms ought not to be placed in a more general category under the term “sanwen,” but it is regrettable that the modern cultural process by which this was achieved receives no emphasis or attention.

Pollard’s concern here with limiting the scope of the collection to a describable form (“a free-standing, self-contained, relatively short composition” that “surfaced in the stable empire of the Han dynasty”) is, I think, unnecessarily limiting, and in fact might hamper the uninformed reader’s understanding of the broader context of the Chinese essay’s evolution. On page 2 of the introduction, Pollard makes a convincing, if somewhat defensive, argument for excluding the writings of the ancient Daoist philosopher Zhuang Zi. However, informed readers reading through the selections throughout both premodern and modern periods will easily discern the pervasiveness of Zhuang Zi’s influence in this genre. Indeed, Zhuang Zi’s playful spirit and philosophical critique of Confucianism may be described as one of the principal characteristics that distinguish the Chinese informal essay, which was the principal model for the modern literary essay, from formal prose. Similarly, though he devotes a page or so to the tremendous significance of Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian as a model for the spirit and the letter of prose writing, Pollard excludes it because, “[being] a work of objective history, however, or at least attempting to be such, the author’s own comments are minimal” (4), implying that self-expression is working as a criterion for selection (see also his comments on page 5 about Cao Pi’s use of the term qi to denote “the physical underpinning of the distinctive character, or personal stamp, that an author’s writing is imprinted with”), but that self-expression can only be manifested in the form of direct “comments.” How many readers of even a few biographies from the Shi ji, though, come away from it without feeling that Sima Qian has very forcefully expressed his own views through them? A similar example is the exclusion of the Six Dynasties collection of anecdotes, Shishuo xinyu (New account of tales of the world), of which a translation by Richard Mather was published a generation ago. Like Zhuang Zi and the wealth of apocryphal writings of the Daoist tradition, Liu Yiqing’s New Account, which describes remarkable events, actions and utterances of the medieval aristocracy, though perhaps not fitting. Pollard’s criterion, was an important and frequently imitated foundation of the Chinese essay tradition.

The introductions to the sections on each author, though at times impressionistic, often include insightful analytical meditations or epigrammatic summaries of the author’s style that strike me as most apt and useful. However, I am not sure it is necessary for Pollard to separately include “commentary” and “translator’s notes” (sometimes both) before or after certain works in addition to the introductory sections on each author. Often the translator’s note will emphasize interpretation in a cross-cultural context, as in the case of Zhu Ziqing’s “View from the Rear” (Bei ying), but I feet that such considerations would have been much more effectively delivered in a critical essay that treats a variety of issues of style or interpretation, or this could have been integrated with the historical overview given in the introduction. The second of the three paragraphs of commentary on Zhuge Liang, for example, is almost identical in content to the last page of Zhuge Liang’s own text; the first paragraph of the “Translator’s Note” to Han Yu’s “Address to the Crocodiles of Chaozhou” simply reiterates the corresponding section of the biography of Han Yu given in the “Commentary” two pages before. Together with the functional overlap of the preface and introduction, the commentary and translators notes make The Chinese Essay overly complex in its multilayered contextualization of the translations and thus unnecessarily confusing.

Apart from stealing thunder from the essays themselves, the volume of notes and commentary raises an important question that plagues the translation of Chinese literature into English in general: can these texts not speak for themselves? If this collection really is intended for a general readership, I think it is safe to assume that such readers would be more interested in texts that speak directly to them without a great deal of explanation from the translator. And it is not only a question of “how much” explanation would be needed to supplement a “raw” translation; the act of translation itself imparts meaning. If scholarly semantic fidelity were relaxed to the degree that items were made easier for the general reader to relate to with a reduced amount of explanation, the potential impact of this book would be greatly enhanced.

The Chinese Essay does nevertheless fill a crucial gap in materials for courses on Chinese literature in translation. While most scholars in the field of Chinese literature are probably not going to set up a course exclusively devoted to the essay even with a comprehensive anthology available, the selections in this book would mix well with other genres and materials in a more general course. I could see using it this way in either premodern or modern Chinese literary courses, but more likely for the modern period because of the greater concentration of material there.

Charles A. Laughlin
Associate Professor, Chinese Literature
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures
Yale University