On Reading-Part VI: Beyond the West

The Indians and Chinese were creating great literature long before English became a language. We tend to focus on English first and then European classics. We tend to forget there is exemplarily literature in the great cultures of the East. At one time this was because the cultures were alien and the languages unfamiliar but with wide-spread translation, immigration and air travel this should no longer be an excuse.

Indian Classics
The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic of over 200,000 lines of verse might just be the greatest book ever written. While the original is probably overwhelming for even the most dedicated readers there are many excellent and enjoyable abridgments in English (or just about any other language). Other great works of Indian literature that we should all read include the other great epic Ramayana, and the many great collections of Indian stories.
Vyasa’s Mahabharata
Valmiki’s Ramayana
Narayana’s Hitopadesa
Sarma’s Pancatantra
Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara

Chinese Classics
Chinese poetry is one of the most subtle and complex inventions of the human mind. It benefits from the peculiarities of the Chinese written language and a culture that is rich in allusion, ritual and implied meaning. Absolutely none of this is conveyed in translation. In English these multifaceted gems often come across as vague, obscure and pedestrian. Chinese prose on the other hand is largely unhindered by these problems. Much of the richness, beauty and humor come across well in translation. The Analects of Confucius is an exception. However, Chichung Huang has put together an excellent translation with notes to each saying that help a western reader navigate and understand what in previous editions came across as odd or obscure.
Guanzhong’s  Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West
Shi Naian’s Outlaws of the Marsh
Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber
Analects of Confucius (translation and notes by Chichung Huang, Oxford, 1997)

Japanese Classics
Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji

Korean Classics
Kim Man-Jung’s Dream of Nine Clouds
HoKyun’s Hong Kiltong
Hyegyong’s A Record of Sorrowful Days

~ by severalfourmany on January 14, 2013.

8 Responses to “On Reading-Part VI: Beyond the West”

  1. I must confess that I have a deep distrust for anything written in India. They don’t seem as moral as other Asian cultures. (If one has an eternity of do overs rather than one chance at life, one might not live this particular life to the fullest.). The Japanese and Chinese I trust much more.

    But, please tell me if the Indian works have a good message overall, and I might give them a shot.

    • Well, the Japanese and Chinese seemed to think the Indians were moral as they imported many of their values and beliefs from them.

      I think you would really like the Mahabharata. The main premise is on how to live a moral life, particularly in those situations where the answers are not clear and values may be in conflict. The Bhagavad Gita episode is a classic example. You might try reading the R. K. Narayan version of Mahabharata. If you like it you could try his retelling of the Ramayana.

      Did you know that P5 (Pandavas 5) and Earth Maiden Arjuna are based on the Mahabharata?

      There are two others that you might like:
      The Pancantantra is said to have been written at the request of the king to help guide his three wayward sons.

      In Sivadasa’s Vetalapancavinsati (25 Tales of the Genie) a genie presents the King with 25 tales, each with a riddle that he must solve to become a wise and good ruler.

      Hope this helps.

      • It helps a lot. Thanks for the information. I suppose that G. K. Chesterton’s distrust of the orient is somewhat unfounded. I’ll have to check out those books at some point.

      • I only know of his article “The Indian Nationalist Movement” from The Illustrated London News in 1909 where he seems more critical of Herbert Spencer than he is of India or Indians. In fact it had some influence on Ghandi who had the article republished in India and inspired his famous (and only) book “India Home Rule.”

  2. This is a wonderful project. I enjoyed the way you justified it in earlier posts, and of course the lists themselves are like ice cream for bookish folks.

    Some version of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana really are fundamental reading.

    Genji and Dream of the Red Chamber are on my Someday List.

  3. Updated to add the Korean classics that somehow got left out of the initial post. These are even less well known than the Indian and Chinese classics. So little known and read outside Korea that they deserve a series of post all their own someday. Well worth reading if you can find a copy. I particularly like Kim Man-Jung’s Dream of Nine Clouds.

  4. […] On Reading-Part VI: Beyond the West (severalfourmany.wordpress.com) […]

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