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Books every Chinese Language Learner Should Read

recommended by Chris Livaccari

China covers a vast territory, and is far more ethnically and culturally diverse than many outsiders assume. Chris Livaccari, a veteran Chinese language teacher, recommends books he believes every Chinese language learner should read.

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You have said that many students of Chinese in the US come away with a very narrow understanding of Chinese language, culture and society. Are the five books you’ve chosen a way of counteracting that?

Yes. I recently asked some schoolkids, “If you had the opportunity to go to China today, what do you think you would see?” One of the students said there would be a lot of lanterns everywhere, a lot of red, and a lot of dragons. I thought, “Wow. If this kid stepped into Shanghai in 2012, he would really be bowled over.” A lot of people in the US and other countries have a very narrow, stereotypical idea about what China is. It’s really important for Americans to understand that China is an incredibly diverse and even multicultural society. It is not a monolith, it is not isolated from the rest of the world, and there is, at the end of the day, no easy definition of what it means to be Chinese or China.

There has been an explosion of interest in Chinese language learning in the US – how many people are actually learning it?

That’s a question many people would like to know the answer to. It’s rather hard to pinpoint. The best data we have says that at university level there are more than 60,000 and a similar number at K-12 [kindergarten through high-school] level. So it’s at least 120,000 students. That’s not a very large number, but it does represent a 200% increase over a four to five year period, so the growth is just exponential. And those numbers are a couple of years old, so I would say that by now there are at least 150,000 Americans in formal Chinese language programmes, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Why do people want to learn it? It is because China is going to be – or is – an economic powerhouse?

I think it is as simple as that. Most schools, school districts and universities have a Chinese programme because parents want their children to be offered the opportunity to learn it. It’s almost exclusively driven by economic interest: “What can I learn to get a better job? What can I learn to make me more marketable in this global world I’m going to graduate into?” It’s interesting to me because I have studied and taught both Chinese and Japanese. I started learning both languages in the early 1990s, and I saw the flip-flop. In 1991 it was Japanese that was the language of the future, that MBA students and law students wanted to learn. It was a way to get a leg-up and be ready for a more global future in which Japan would be dominant. Now the shift is towards Chinese.

I read an article in the Economist recently about which language is the best to learn after English. The author, Lane Greene, was sceptical about the value of learning Chinese, for the same reason that learning Japanese didn’t take off – the written script is too unwieldy.

Chinese as a dominant world language does have a huge challenge in that the written language is so difficult and time-consuming to learn. However, if you look at the younger generation of American businesspeople in China, I’m struck by how many of them are able to function in Chinese in a business or professional situation compared with 10 or 15 years ago. English has a lot of advantages in terms of its utility and its penetration in education systems around the world. I don’t think Chinese is going to replace English overnight. But if people really want to have access to this country that is becoming a fact of our lives, and more and more influential in the world, they will need to learn to engage Chinese people on their own terms and in their own language.

In upstate New York a few months ago, I met a Chinese girl from Yunnan province [in southwest China] who was an exchange student at the local high school. I was really surprised – is that quite common now?

It is, and it’s not slowing down. In a former life in the Foreign Service, I spent a year working in the US Consulate in Shanghai and I had to do visa work. This was back in the early 2000s. At that time, it was almost impossible for young students to come to the US to study, or even for short-term exchanges. The visa guidelines were just too strict. Now, as so many Chinese people have become affluent, we’ve seen a huge increase, particularly in the number of undergraduate-level students in the US but also in the number of high school students. This is extremely positive. One of the things we would like to see more of is people-to-people exchanges between the US and China. This is something the biggest critics of China should be particularly invested in, because whether you like China or not you have to realise the central importance of the US-China relationship to global prosperity and stability.

Let’s get into this broader view of China by way of your book selection. Your first choice is The Languages of China by Robert Ramsey.

This book is an extremely exciting account of what Ramsey calls “China as a linguistic region”. He talks not just about the Chinese language but about all the various languages that are spoken within the territory of what we now call the People’s Republic of China, as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places. He discusses not just Mandarin Chinese and related languages like Cantonese or Shanghainese but also languages like Mongolian, Tibetan and Uyghur, and, in the south, Zhuang and other Tai languages.

It’s a wonderful history of Chinese dialectology, where these languages are spoken and how they developed. It’s also about the development of Mandarin as an official language. What’s most fascinating to me is how he brings in the languages of what he calls “the Chinese and their neighbours” – Manchurians, Mongolians, Tibetans. He talks about expanding our definition of what China is, and he broadens our view of what it means to think about China linguistically. If you look at a Chinese banknote, you will see a number of languages written on that currency: Chinese, but also Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang, four of the largest minority languages spoken in China. This book does a wonderful job of opening up the vision of China as a very diverse place.

Ethnic diversity is often celebrated in China, but do you feel China really has preserved these minority languages?

I guess you’re asking more of a political question about how they’ve been preserved?

Yes, does he touch on the politics? As books like You Are What You Speak argue, language is almost always political.

No – this is a book written for language lovers. It’s about the structure, development and history of these languages, and doesn’t deal very much with the status of minority languages in China today. It’s a very accessible linguistic introduction to them, and a celebration of the richness of China’s languages. I think many people would be surprised if they opened up a book called The Languages of China and discovered languages like Uyghur, spoken in [far western] Xinjiang province, which is written in the Arabic script, related to Turkic languages and spoken by people who – particularly from a Chinese lens – look very Caucasian.

For people who don’t know much about Chinese, the history of Mandarin is pretty fascinating also, isn’t it?

That’s another thing I like about the book. It gets into the history of Mandarin and shows you that, in a sense, it is no one’s native language. Mandarin is an artificial construct that developed over time so that people in various regions of China could communicate with each other. There’s always a debate in China about where the most standard Mandarin is spoken. Is it in the northeast? Is it in Beijing? At the end of the day, standard Mandarin is an artificial language which no one speaks as their native tongue. Almost every Chinese person is to some degree multilingual, or at least bilingual. If they live in the northeast or Beijing, what they speak with friends and family will be very close to Mandarin. If they live in the south, it might be quite different. Mandarin in itself is a lingua franca that was created over time as a common language for the whole country.

Your next book is The Sextants of Beijing by Joanna Waley-Cohen. The classic story of China’s relationship to the outside world is that of George Macartney’s 1793 mission from Britain to China’s imperial court. Emperor Qianlong, rather than embracing this chance to trade with the West, told Lord Macartney he wasn’t interested in his trinkets. Waley-Cohen argues that China was much more open and engaged in the world than this stereotype suggests.

This book carries on the same theme as Robert Ramsey’s but deals more with history. It’s important for people to know that China has long been connected in very integral ways to the rest of the world. Influences from Central Asia, India and Southeast Asia have long been accommodated or assimilated into Chinese culture. Most people know about the encounter with the West that started in the 17th and 18th centuries and ramped up in the 19th and early 20th century. But China had an earlier journey to the West, particularly around the time of the Tang dynasty – from the seventh to 10th centuries – when India became an important cultural force in China.

Buddhism came to China around this time, and for the first time China had to confront psychologically, intellectually and culturally a civilisation that it could not dismiss as barbaric and assert the superiority of Chinese culture over. In Buddhism, the Chinese found a highly complex and attractive philosophical, religious and psychological system that dealt with questions which native traditions like Confucianism and Daoism did not deal with. It dealt with metaphysical questions, questions of suffering, and existential questions. What does it mean to exist in the world? Why do we suffer? How do we overcome suffering? How do we think about the experiences that we are having in the world?

Waley-Cohen’s book is a very accessible introduction to this history. It focuses mostly on the Macartney mission onwards, looking at the Jesuits and the Opium Wars for the most part. But it also suggests that during the Tang dynasty there was an incredible cosmopolitanism in Chinese culture. And going back even further into the archaeological evidence, increasingly scholars are coming to understand that Chinese civilisation does not originate from a single point. There are at least four or five different cultural regions that are identified as proto-Chinese. What we now identify as Chinese culture really comes out of the long history of these multiple traditions, unravelling over centuries and indeed millennia.

Whether you’re an outside observer or a Chinese historian, you may at times try to define something that is uniquely or purely Chinese. But the more you look at Chinese history, the more you realise that the definition of what China is evolves over time. That definition is never completely pure – it’s always brought together from a mixture of different cultures. I love books that problematise the notion of what it means to be Chinese, or what we mean when we say China. It’s a relatively short book and very accessible, but it looks at the grand sweep of history from the origins of Chinese civilisation to the post-Mao era.

Are you closer to an answer to what it means to be Chinese?

Just like what it means to be American or Japanese or French, there are multiple answers and definitions. But it’s clear that throughout history territories which were once not considered Chinese – whose people were seen as barbarian – became Chinese over time, by adopting the Chinese language, dress, customs, philosophies and so on. Being Chinese meant being able to use chopsticks, speak Chinese, wear the proper clothes and talk about Confucianism. In that sense, people who were not racially or ethnically Chinese could in time become Chinese. This is quite unique. In Japan and Korea, ethnic and racial definitions of what it means to be Japanese or Korean are very strong. But China has such huge diversity, and is such a huge swath of territory, that to become Chinese really means to adopt Chinese culture.

Your third choice is the tales and parables of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, translated by Victor Mair.

There are a number of important texts that form the core of the Daoist tradition. The most famous one, and the earliest, is Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, which is very short but suggests a lot. The second most important is what this book is a translation of. In Chinese it’s called Zhuangzi, supposedly written by a man named Zhuang Zhou, and it is one of the most playful texts you’ll ever read. It’s not philosophy in the way Plato or Aristotle did it, it’s very literary and, although written in prose, wonderfully poetic. Although written in a very early period of Chinese history, the fourth century BCE, in a way it’s post-modern. It questions all the things that we take for granted.

Give me some examples.

There is a very famous passage in which the author dreams he is a butterfly, and he doesn’t really know whether he is a man dreaming he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man. It’s a poetic image that is designed to question our accepted view of reality. There’s also the story of the frog in the well, who can’t see the great big complicated world outside because he only knows the well. Or the story of insects that only live for one season, so will only know summer and never understand the concept of the cold. There’s a lot in the book about relativism, perspective and ways of looking at the world. Zhuang Zhou challenges and problematises our conventional notions of reality every step of the way. He asks: Why do we make these kind of assumptions about the world?

How does Daoism as a religion – if that’s the right word – relate to this book?

There is a religion that became identified with the Daoist tradition. This book is incorporated into that tradition to a certain degree, but it is really quite separate from what eventually becomes the Daoist religious tradition – which is tied up with things like alchemy, longevity and so on. To me, this book is more of a polemical attack on an emerging Confucian orthodoxy. In addition to subverting our accepted views of reality, it challenges the idea that the social world and political life is most important, as it is for the Confucians.

There’s a wonderful story in the book about Zhuang Zhou being asked to take up an official post by the king of a nearby state. The king’s ministers say: “We’ve heard of your wisdom, we want you to become an adviser to the ruler of our state.” Zhuang Zhou replies: “I have heard there is a dead turtle that the king cherishes and is kept in a gold box, wrapped in the finest silks. Do you think this turtle would be happier sitting up there on the emperor’s throne or dragging his tail through the mud with the other turtles?” The ministers scratch their head and Zhuang Zhou says: “I prefer to just drag my tail through the mud.” He suggests that there is a deeper and more fundamental reality and experience of life than the order, harmony and social duty and responsibility that Confucians value – this book is a wonderfully playful attack on that.

Why did you choose this book for the purposes of our topic?

In China, Confucianism has been the orthodoxy, so when most people learn about Chinese culture it’s through a Confucian lens. For many scholars and political figures throughout history, Confucianism has become the definition of what it means to be Chinese – you follow these rituals and you read these texts. Zhuangzi represents an alternative tradition within Chinese thought. When I visit Chinese schools, some of them seem to me incredibly militant. Students live in a very authoritarian school system where they are made to memorise a lot of facts, and recite poetry and ancient texts. I’ve always thought that these schools could use a little less Confucius and a little more Zhuangzi.

Do you tell them that?

I don’t dare! But Zhuangzi does offer the idea that there is a natural order to things, and that the Confucians were trying to change or regulate the natural order of the universe. The Confucians would say they were harmonising with the universe by building an orderly society. The Daoists would say the Confucians were creating a very artificial and authoritarian society, whereas people should be free to follow their natural instincts and not follow a rule book in meeting challenges, but just go with the flow.

Zhuang Zhou has wonderful stories about artisans – for example, a butcher who can cut through animals missing all the bones because he is not focusing on the technique or thinking about what he’s doing. By just acting naturally, he’s able to follow the natural patterns and lines within the animal, and cut through it in almost magical ways. Again, it’s incredibly post-modern. He says we don’t need to have elaborately defined and structured rituals of performance that regulate Confucian society, we can just feel it and go with our instincts. That’s a wonderful thing to discover in a society which often wears a Confucian gown, and puts a Confucian spin on almost everything that it does.

Let’s move onto Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman, a short story he published in 1918. Lu Xun was a fan of the Russian writer Gogol, which is why he chose the same title for his own story. But first you had better remind us who Lu Xun is.

Lu Xun is venerated as the first modern Chinese writer. I have a book of his stories in Chinese sitting on my shelf right now, titled “The Father of Modern Chinese Literature”. He uses vernacular language, writes in the tradition of realistic fiction and grapples with the problems of his day. Like many Chinese students and scholars of that period, Lu Xun first went to study overseas in Japan, where he was a medical student during the time of the Russo-Japanese War.

In a wonderful introduction to one of his collections, he writes about his time in Japan. One day, at the end of class, the professor brought in some slides of the war. Lu Xun saw a picture of two or three Chinese who had been taken by the Japanese, accused of being spies for the Russians and were about to be beheaded. This was a turning point for him, sitting in this classroom in Japan, looking at pictures of his countrymen being humiliated. What he noticed was not so much the people who were going to be executed but the crowd of Chinese people standing around gawking at them. This inspired in Lu Xun a revolutionary fervour that what he needed to do was not become a doctor and cure the body, but become a writer and cure China’s soul.

He started to write incredibly scathing stories, attacking the existing feudalistic, Confucian social system that China had had up to that point. For “Diary of a Madman” he did borrow the title from Gogol but it’s a completely different animal to Gogol’s story, which is fanciful and light. Lu Xun’s story is really dark. It’s about someone who seems to be a madman, seeing cannibalism everywhere. He looks at ancient Confucian texts and sees the words “Eat People!” emerging between the lines. Lu Xun was using cannibalism as a metaphor for the dog-eat-dog world of Confucianism, in which there were very rigid hierarchies – an aristocratic class of scholars at the top of society, and then a huge underclass that did not enjoy many privileges or freedom, or material wealth or comfort. So Lu Xun is a revolutionary figure who really transforms Chinese literature.

His most famous story, which is also translated in this collection, is “The True Story of Ah–Q”. Ah-Q is a fascinating caricature of the Chinese national character – he gets into fights with people and finds ways to win what he calls a “psychological” victory. Even though someone beats him into the ground, he thinks he’s superior, his older brother, more educated, more intelligent. You mentioned the British Macartney mission earlier. Ah-Q is doing the same thing that the Chinese were at that time, which is to say they are superior to the barbarians. But at the end of the day, the British had bigger guns and were able to dominate China. Lu Xun is one of the first figures to take aim at traditional Chinese society and try to liberate China by curing its soul.

Is this the equivalent of studying F Scott Fitzgerald or one of the other early 20th century greats of American literature? Or are you choosing it to help people see what China has been through over the last century, and so get more of an

understanding of their current attitude to the world?

“The True Story of Ah-Q” is one of the most wonderfully prescient but also playful and engaging demonstrations of what China was experiencing in the 20th century. It’s also important cultural knowledge. Often, when we learn a language, we might have a huge vocabulary, good grammar and speak fluently. But we also need to understand the references in a language and culture. If you don’t know about Lu Xun, a Chinese person will immediately feel that you don’t know very much about China.

Unlike the American case, where I might name six or seven other writers who are equally venerated, in the canon of 20th century Chinese literature Lu Xun emerges as the towering figure. That’s why it’s so important for students to know about him. The cultural references that come out of his stories are very influential in terms of modern Chinese language and cultural consciousness. It’s required reading for anyone who really wants to know what is in Chinese people’s minds when they think about contemporary China and literature.

If you look at modern Japanese literature, there’s a similar figure who emerges a little bit earlier than Lu Xun called Natsume Soseki. For the Japanese, Soseki is the father of modern Japanese literature. He’s the first person to write in a realist tradition and deal with the problems of the day. And for both Soseki and Lu Xun, the biggest challenge of the day was encounters with the western world.

Also, Lu Xun is something a student might be able to read in Chinese after not too many years, right?

Yes, Lu Xun’s stories are also accessible – for upper-intermediate or advanced learners of Chinese – to read in the original.

Your last book is the 18th century Chinese novel The Story of the Stone.

Like Lu Xun for the modern literary tradition, if you ask scholars – or most people in China – for the greatest novel in the classical tradition, there are generally four novels of the Ming and Qing that are venerated. This is the most recent. It’s a very long and complex novel, and hard to summarise. For me, in the literary tradition of the whole world, this book along with two others – The Tale of Genji from Japan in the 11th century, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past from France in the 20th century – are the three works in which the experience of reading the novel is genuinely an experience. It becomes a world in which you can live and get lost. As you read through each chapter it feels like you are going through what the characters are going through.

Like Lu Xun but in a very different way, this book is critical of the social world and the Confucian tradition that informs it. It’s about Confucianism and its discontents. The story is of a young man by the name of Jia Baoyu, who comes from a great family which is on the decline. He is just about the most un-Confucian person you can imagine. He’s effeminate, he associates largely with women, he’s not very good at fulfilling his social duties, he’s not a very good student of the Confucian classics. His head is full of poetry and beauty, and the clothing and fragrances of his female cousins, but he is confronted with a social world in which what you really need to do is study hard to become a Confucian official. That is the hardest thing for him to do, to fit in with this society and be a success in the way his family wants him to be. It’s about people living in a society and not quite fitting in.

The book is also a wonderful way to discover what are called the three traditions in China: Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. It’s infused with all three of these traditions working themselves out. There’s a lot of Buddhist influence, in terms of defining a world which is a fleeting illusion we want to transcend. Jia Baoyu goes through all of these experiences in his life, but he eventually makes good. As happens in a lot in Chinese literature, he comes out at the top of the imperial exam and is given a great imperial post. But he ends up giving it all up to become a monk. That is a great paradigm in East Asian literature – at the point that you achieve the greatest success, you realise that this world of attainment and achievement is really quite empty. Then you long for something deeper, renounce your success, material goods and education, and become, in this case, a Buddhist monk.

Isn’t there a love story in there as well?

There is. He falls in love very deeply with a cousin of his, Lin Daiyu, who is a very sickly, frail girl. The whole book has an interesting frame. Jia Baoyu starts out as a magical stone in a metaphysical realm that comes down to earth. Lin Daiyu is the descendant of a flower that also comes out of this dream world into what is often referred to in the book as “the red dust” of the human world. She’s not really ready to live in this world, and dies very young from weakness. That’s kind of an aesthetic in East Asian literature – women whose beauty is in their delicateness and fragility. She actually dies because Jia Baoyu is tricked into marrying another cousin of his, who is a more Confucian picture of what the good wife should be – social, capable, robust, energetic, someone who can take care of her husband. But Jia Baoyu doesn’t want that, he wants the frail cousin. The choice is forced upon him to reject his desires and do what his family wants him to, which is to marry the more socially acceptable woman.

In the English-speaking world it seems like we read our own country’s literature, and then there are foreign language authors whom almost everyone has read or at least heard of, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. But I wouldn’t even know what the Asian equivalents are. War and Peace is a household name, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has heard of The Story of the Stone.

It’s more commonly known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, and it’s sometimes translated as The Dream of the Red Mansions. It is very much the War and Peace of China, just as The Tale of Genji is the War and Peace of Japan. This book, The Tale of Genji and another book written in Korea in the 17th century called The Cloud Dream of the Nine, are actually very interesting to look at together. They all have male characters who are not of this world – they’re somewhat frail, somewhat connected to a transcendent or metaphysical world, and they all end up becoming monks and looking for something more important.

The Story of the Stone is wonderful to look at in this larger East Asian context, because it shows the way people thought about the world in terms of these same traditions – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Confucianism told people how to live in the social world and how to live with each other. Daoism asked: “How do I live with nature, with my environment?” Buddhism brought something else when it came into East Asia heavily in the 7th and 8th centuries, the question: “How do I live with myself, with my emotions, my despair, my fear, my pain, my sadness?” These books do a wonderful job of showing why those three traditions all had to come together for people in East Asia to have a comprehensive view and experience of the world in which they were living.

Given these universal themes, why do you think these Asian books are less well known in the West than the Russian classics are? Is it because the culture is just so different?

I think a lot of it has to do with the history of translation. There are a lot more translations of War and Peace than there are for The Story of the Stone. At this stage, there just hasn’t been enough of a history of translation of Chinese literature into English. Chinese writers are much less known than their Russian counterparts, who were participating in a more European tradition. But it’s really about the lack of translations. This translation of The Story of the Stone by David Hawkes and John Minford is definitely the most complete and the best one that’s currently available, but I think it could be improved. Many of the great works of Chinese literature have now been translated, but probably not as well as some of the great Russian writers have been. I hope that’s something we’re going to see change in the near future.

March 13, 2014

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Chris Livaccari

Chris Livaccari

Chris Livaccari is Director of Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at the Asia Society in New York. He has taught English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean and was formerly a US Foreign Service Officer who held postings in Tokyo and Shanghai. His areas of specialty are East Asian and world languages education, language policy, and international education. Here is one of his blogposts on how learning Chinese can help your brain

Chris Livaccari

Chris Livaccari

Chris Livaccari is Director of Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at the Asia Society in New York. He has taught English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean and was formerly a US Foreign Service Officer who held postings in Tokyo and Shanghai. His areas of specialty are East Asian and world languages education, language policy, and international education. Here is one of his blogposts on how learning Chinese can help your brain