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On the launching of a new library of classical Chinese literature

250 years ago, Ji Yun compiled one of the world’s largest premodern encyclopedias for the Chinese court. This fall Oxford University Press launches the first endowed bilingual translation library of Classical Chinese Literature thanks to a generous gift by Ji Yun’s descendant, Agnes Hsin-mei Hsu-Tang and her husband Oscar Tang. How will the launch of this historic project transform our understanding of the Chinese canon, East Asia’s literary heritage, and world literature?

Designed to present works from three millennia of literatures in classical Chinese from China and East Asia’s greater Sinitic World in fresh, bilingual translations that are honed to be solidly scholarly, yet eminently readable, The Hsu-Tang Library (HTL) is a pioneering, unprecedented endeavor.

As an endowed library built to last for future generations, HTL will gradually and strategically tap the monumental treasurehouse of “Literature”—scriptural, historical, philosophical, poetical, dramatic, fictional, devotional, or didactic—produced before 1911 in forms of the classical Chinese language. It carries an ambitious symbolic charge through Ji Yun (1724–1805), the maternal ancestor of Agnes Hsin-Mei Hsu-Tang, who served as chief compiler of one of the world’s largest premodern encyclopedias, The Complete Library of the Four Treasuries (Siku Quanshu).

We are launching HTL this year as this encyclopedia celebrates its 250th anniversary and bring classical Chinese-language literature to a new global world of anglophone readers avid to more fully experience one of the world’s most continuous and voluminous literary traditions. At its projected pace of publishing three to four volumes per year, HTL will quickly showcase the immense variety of this literary tradition.

“We are launching The Hsu-Tang Library in 2023 as the encylopaedia celebrates its 250th anniversary.”

Establishing HTL now has historical significance. With the rise of divisive nationalisms and Japanese imperialism across Asia, the twentieth century saw the rapid death of classical Chinese as the lingua franca of the “Sinographic” world of China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and other states that for many centuries were tightly interconnected through its script, and political, religious, and literary institutions. This shared legacy is currently obscured, but as scholars we have the duty to stand above our historical moment.

 In this first century of the death of classical Chinese, we have the privilege and duty to curate East Asia’s Chinese-style literary heritage in bilingual translation. This happens at the exciting point in time when the Chinese literary tradition prior to the twentieth century has rapidly become “classical” in the face of vernacularization and modernization movements—a process that took a revealingly different shape in Europe since the Renaissance, with the emergence of vernacular literatures from the peripheries of Latin (see Wiebke Denecke and Nam Nguyen). Despite its historical significance for the East Asian region, an endeavor like HTL can currently only happen outside of China and East Asia, at healthy academic distance from the political and ideological imperatives that keep East Asia fiercely segregated in our historical moment.

Facing the magnitude of this task and opportunity we start humbly this fall with the minute cornerstone of five launch volumes. We kept honing our vision, thinking in growing circles about how to start off not too canonical, but also not too uncanonical, not too challenging, but also not too crowd-pleasing, not too stereotypically Chinese, but also not too un-Chinese, not too narrowly literary, but also not too unliterary, by current tastes (see an extended statement of our vision and launch line-up). It’s hard not to be self-conscious in such a moment, first, because HTL aims to become a library of standard bilingual editions, inspired by the by now century-old Loeb Classical Library of Greco-Roman literatures; and second, because HTL will inevitably create a new anglophone canon of Chinese literature, distinct both from Sinophone canons of Chinese literature or the world-literature-great-books-style mini-canons of Chinese literature institutionalized for example by the Norton Anthology of World Literature (which, as I may say as one of its editors, has its own value and place).

“In this first century of the death of classical Chinese, we have the privilege and duty to curate East Asia’s Chinese-style literary heritage in bilingual translation.”

But forget for a moment about grand imperatives like massive classical text corpora, historical moments and scholarly duties, or canons. Founding Associate Editor Lucas Klein and I have both a professional and personal passion to make HTL into a platform for an emerging new culture of translation, which transcends the kind of Sinological translationese that is still wired into our classical training and that our students and colleagues of other literatures put down, however much we strive to enlighten them of the original’s magic. We want to be a home for translations that open possibilities for the English language and the global literary imagination today; translations that join the classical corpus to a future potential. Translations that, as Lucas Klein, once poignantly put it, blend “erudition” and “taste,” and are smartly scholarly and eminently readable.

Only literarily vibrant translations will entice readers into the wondrous diversity of the human experience, as it intersects with verbal creation—this is what we want our readers to taste. Take our launch volume Changchun’s Journey to the West, a travelogue of a Chinese Daoist master summoned to the court of Chinggis Qan narrated through the eyes of a disciple. Previous translators had dropped the 70-some poems included for lack of “literary value.” They are translated here for the first time. As our author encounters the rough beauty of magisterial mountains and fur-clad, blood-and-meat eating peoples across Central Asia and the Mongolian Plateau, his breathtaking experiences overstretch the Chinese poetic idioms nurtured in Chinese landscapes, cultural and aesthetic values over centuries. Whether discovering Daoist-style primevalness or ambivalently-coded primitive high antiquity, or trying to speak the unspeakable, these poems are fascinating material for a comparative cultural poetics of literary traditions—and humans— stretched at their limits.

“We want to be a home for translations that open possibilities for the English language and the global literary imagination today.”

As for featuring female authors, we wanted many—something more representative of the female experience. Beata Grant’s An Anthology of Poetry By Buddhist Nuns of Late Imperial China features mostly first translations of poetry by 65 nun-poets, variously driven to the devotional life as children, vulnerable widows, or lone survivors of violent political cataclysms. The experiential depth of these poems—when read as traces of the nuns’ moving life stories—has value beyond “performing” by any type of literary standards. See Yikui Chaochen (1625-1679) pinpoint a mystical experience in a frightening world, capped by a casual yearning for femininity:

This hard life is chaotic and confusing

            with lust, greed, and anger,         

But when suddenly the mind-flower opens

it is spring everywhere in the world; 


Lazy when it comes to asceticism,

I’ll let my hair grow long!

Page 165

The female religious experience is philosophically alluring in Shangjian Huizong’s (1644-1661) “Village Life” where accessories of the female boudoir merge in a flash of enlightenment before the self-reflective mirror.

Living here impoverished

   I’ve lost all taste for ornaments. […]

The face of the woman in my mirror,

   is a flower that knows Emptiness.

Page 71

How will HTL reach audiences beyond East Asian Studies, and across the world? Western academia is significantly understaffed and quickly losing experts teaching non-Western classical literatures. In the midst of the crisis, particularly in the historical humanities, it is heartening to see that our demographically diverse students are ever more excited about their own or others’ literary heritage, beyond the West. And their brains are wired through architectures of the digital world. Might they become a backdoor to finally making Chinese into a world literature? The generation of our teachers has tried hard to fight “Eurocentrism,” but typically only reached the already converted.

Will this not hardwire the Chinese literary tradition into our notions of world literature through a digital ruse of reason? When, in the future, HTL volumes appear on OUP’s digital platform, Confucius, Du Fu, and Cao Xueqin will just be a click away from Plato, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

Featured image by Jean Beller via Unsplash (public domain)

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