If anyone thought Sei Shōnagon (ca 964-after 1027) was little more than a gossipy, snooty, disingenuously prim and sometimes acerbic observer of life at the effete Heian court of ancient Japan, here is a book to prove that notion completely wrong. Not only can her classic Pillow Book be read on several levels, but it has enjoyed a life of its own as different generations of readers interpret it and reimagine it.

Literary Information in China: A History, Jack W Chen (ed), Anatoly Detwyler (ed), Xiao Liu, Christopher MB Nugent ed), Bruce Rusk (ed) (Columbia University Press< May 2021)
Literary Information in China: A History, Jack W Chen (ed), Anatoly Detwyler (ed), Xiao Liu (ed), Christopher MB Nugent (ed), Bruce Rusk (ed) (Columbia University Press, May 2021)

“Information” has become a core concept across the disciplines, yet it is still often seen as a unique feature of the Western world that became central only in the digital age. In this book, leading experts turn to China’s textual tradition to show the significance of information for reconceptualizing the work of literary history, from its beginnings to the present moment.

Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet  (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)
Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)

Joseph Conrad’s favored destination was Asia, the bustling transit port of Singapore, the remote islands and ports of the Dutch East Indies. It was from Singapore that he made four voyages as first mate on the steamship Vidar to a small trading post which was forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo. A river and a settlement which he described as “One of the last, forgotten, unknown places on earth”. His Borneo books—Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rescue and the latter part of Lord Jim—were all based on the places he visited, the stories he heard, and the people he met during these voyages.

Many cultures under, or in the shadow of, an empire sometimes make use of that empire’s language to express themselves. Latin was used throughout Europe, while for a couple of centuries after the Norman conquest, the dominant written language in England was French. China exerted a similar cultural pull over its neighbors: Japanese poets would write kanshi and Koreans hansi, both terms being probably derived from the word Han, referring to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China. For both, using written Chinese was to make a cultural statement, indicating that these writings were for an elite class of people. Furthermore, despite the invention of hangul, an optimized Korean script, by king Sejong in the 15th century, classical Chinese—both the language and the script—remained the preference of Korean literati for several centuries. Hangul did not in fact hit its stride until well into the 19th century; and, given their acute sense of class-consciousness, Koreans may simply have felt more comfortable reading their stories in classical Chinese. 

The 19th-century Indian poet Mirza Ghalib always evoked strong opinions about his literary worth. An early 20th-century critic proclaimed, “India has just two scriptures or divine gospels, the holy Vedas and the poetry of Ghalib.” Meanwhile an anonymous Delhiwallah  quipped: “I get the verse of Mir[1]Mir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor but Mirza’s just too odd. Maybe he gets himself, or maybe only God.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. Mir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor