January 30, 2009

Readings from Chinese Writers

The second Chinese book that I've read this year was Readings from Chinese Writers, volume 1 (1919-1949). It is a collection of texts including short stories and excerpts from novels and plays. Following each text is a list of vocabulary, with a brief gloss in English and French. These are some of the most well-known pieces of literature from the 1919-1949 period, including "The New Year's Sacrifice" by Lu Xun, "Spring Silkworms" by Mao Dun, an excerpt from Family by Ba Jin, and an excerpt form Camel Xiangzi by Lao She. I had already read these texts in English, but it has taken me years to get around to reading this volume, which I bought long ago in America. You can still buy this book online, but I don't think you will find it at any bookstore in Taiwan.

This book was published in China. In Taiwan, I have only seen one volume of modern literature intended for foreign learners of Chinese. In Japan, on the other hand, this kind of book is common enough that I saw some books like this while browsing bookstores at the airport. I suppose there aren't too many people in Taiwan looking for a book of this type, but on the other hand, there are a lot of people studying Chinese in Taiwan, and I imagine that most of them would rather read some good modern Chinese literature rather than more of the usual textbook readings which earnestly and tediously explore Chinese culture. Furthermore, this type of book would not be very difficult to make. The book adds value by first offering some historical or cultural contexts for the texts, and by conveniently defining difficult vocabulary. A version of this book designed for Chinese learners in Taiwan might have some definitions in simple Chinese and some definitions in English, Japanese, and possibly Korean.

For a text intended for advanced learners, it is hard to guess which vocabulary the reader will need defined. Some words and phrases obviously need to be defined, such as rare idioms and words from dialects. For a lot of moderately difficult words, it's not easy to decide whether to include a definitions. So, it seems like this would make electronics texts a perfect solution, where readers can theoretically point to any word and get a definition. However, I still much prefer to read anything on paper and would prefer not to read anything longer than a short story in front of the computer.

In this period of literature, the writing attacks the "half-feudal, half-colonial society" of China. Most of the writers also wage war on subtlety. Ba Jin is the worst in this regard. Lu Xun had some nice words to say about Ba Jin, so I'm a little hesitant to criticize him, but Ba Jin's Family is the most melodramatic book I have ever read. The tears leak from every eye and the hearts of the righteous beat with indignation. Mao Dun's short story, Spring Silkworms, although not terribly subtle, is the best story in the collection. In details the process of raising silkworms and gives readers a look at the poverty of those living off credit and trying to keep up with the changing times. For me it brought back memories of waiting anxiously for silkworms eggs to hatch and of raising silkworms. In "peasant literature" there can be a lot of specialized vocabulary related to working (in this case the work of raising silkworms) as well as dialect used in dialog. The definitions are a great help in reading this.

A few of the English definitions leave you scratching your head, but they are generally a great convenience. The first story, The New Year's Sacrifice, for example, has 241 words defined. The excerpt from Family has 277 words defined, but it is actually much easier to read. If you are able to read "The New Year's Sacrifice," you will probably only need to check a small fraction of the vocabulary in Family.



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