A Companion to The Story of the Stone: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide, Susan Chan Egan, Pai Hsien-yung (Columbia University Press, April 2021)
A Companion to The Story of the Stone: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide, Susan Chan Egan, Pai Hsien-yung (Columbia University Press, April 2021)

The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) is widely held to be the greatest work of Chinese literature, beloved by readers ever since it was first published in 1791. The story revolves around the young scion of a mighty clan who, instead of studying for the civil service examinations, frolics with his maidservants and girl cousins. The narrative is cast within a mythic framework in which the protagonist’s rebellion against Confucian strictures is guided by a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest. Embedded in the novel is a biting critique of imperial China’s political and social system.

Journey to the West, and especially the character of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is beloved by readers across China, East Asia, and beyond. The story and its characters have been written and rewritten in books, comics, graphic novels, movies, television shows, and video games. In many ways, Journey to the West and Son Wukong have become archetypes: stories and characters that people refer to and recognize, without ever looking at the original source material.

“100 poems by 100 poets”: compiled in the 13th century by the famed poet, Fujiwara no Teika, (1162–1241) the Hyakunin-isshu (百人一首) is the most widely-read poetry anthology in Japan. Long celebrated in the arts, including in a famous woodblock series by Hokusai, the anthology is part of the curriculum of all Japanese school children, much as students in England might study Shakespeare.

Centuries ago, in an empire far far away, an anonymous journeyman scribe authored and assembled a picaresque that became one of China’s most revered and influential literary works. “Assembled” because Monkey King, or Journey to the West (c 1580), is in substantial part a collection of the folk tales of many previous centuries, based on the legendary journeys of a T’ang Dynasty (618-906) monk, Tripitaka.

The Hōjōki, written in 1212 by the Buddhist monk Kamo no Chōmei, is one of the most beloved works of medieval literature in Japan. The opening lines of his chronicle are familiar to most people:

 

The flow of the river never ceases
And the water never stays the same.
Bubbles float on the surface of pools,
Bursting, reforming, never lingering.
They’re like the people in the world and their dwellings.

 

The title of this book is the first “imposture”, flouting the venerable approach of calling this 12th-century Arabic classic the “Assemblies” or the “Seances of Hariri”. Maqamat means a halting place, where an audience might sit around and tell stories. It can, at a stretch, mean “to get up”, focusing on the storyteller standing before his audience. With “Impostures” as the title, Michael Cooperson, a professor of Arabic literature at UCLA, puts us on notice not to expect a traditional translation. The Maqamat recounts in 50 episodes the impostures of the protagonist Abu Zeid, posing as beggar, poet, plaintiff, scholar or sufi, in order to con money out of his appreciative and affably gulled assembly of listeners. He succeeds in opening their purses by deploying the most dazzling verbal gymnastics imaginable. Acrostics, palindromes, rhymed verse, rare words, this does not even begin to describe the extent of Abu Zeid’s rhetorical arsenal.