It is possible to learn a lot about China by reading books written by
China experts but to truly get inside the Chinese mind one must read the
original Chinese works. If, like most overseas Chinese, you cannot read the
language, then your next best bet is to read these works in their translated
forms. And, yes something will get lost in the
translation but a lot will be gained too.
But let's talk about the challenges first. The biggest challenge to the first time reader is trying to keep the names straight. Romanized Chinese names (both people names and place names) simply look unpronounceable except for a Western student of the Chinese language. Both of the prevailing romanization systems, Wade-Giles and Pinyin, assign non-intuitive pronunciations to standard letter or letter combinations of the roman alphabet. For example, in the Wade-Giles system, the letter J must be pronounced like the letter R. Not to be outdone, the Pinyin system dictates that the letter Q must be pronounced like CH. Although most recent translations use Pinyin as the system for romanization, many translations still abound which use the Wade-Giles system thus adding to the confusion. One early improvement of the Pinyin style romanization over Wade-Giles is the dropping of the hyphen between two-character words. Thus Mao Tse-Tung (Wade-Giles) became Mao Zedong (Pinyin). A more recent translation device has been to actually translate the given name. For example, the given name of the main character in "The Deer and the Cauldron", Xiaobao ("little treasure"), was translated as Trinket in John Minford's translation. This is quite appropriate because Chinese names don't really sound strange to the Chinese, they are simply names of everyday things.
Most major works of the classical Chinese literature have been translated into English, with some works benefiting from multiple translations. Generally, I find that the most recent Pinyin translation is the most readable one because the English text will be similar to that which we read on a daily basis. However, some older translation offer a more literate prose that you might find more suitable to the work. For example, C.H. Brewitt-Taylor's 1959 edition of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" starts with "Empires wax and wane; states cleave asunder and coalesce." Moss Roberts' 2000 translation of the same starts with "The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide." I find the more erudite language of Brewitt-Taylor more in-tune with the epic nature of the novel. However, this does not necessarily make it a better or more accurate translation. In this case, the Moss Roberts' translation has been widely acclaimed for its inclusion of abundant notes and maps. Another factor to consider when multi-volume translations are involved, is whether all volumes have been published. The task of translating is a long and tedious effort. Hence each volume usually takes one or two years to complete. You may not want to be left in suspense for that long, especially when an alternate translation if available.
What gets lots in the translation? That depends. Words are never truly equivalent but most translations try to emulate the feel of the original; for example, keeping the language informal when the original is written in a simple vernacular while switching to more formal language when the original is written in Classical Chinese. More is lost in the case of poems and rhymes which just about every novel has a fair amount of. Partially lost are puns based on different meanings of identically pronounced words. Translators usually try to point them out but obviously with lesser effect. Some novels make extensive allusions to older work or legends which even a modern Chinese reader would find pretty obscure. In those cases, reading the translated work can actually add to the enjoyment if they provide sufficient annotation and commentary appropriate for the western reader.
Some writing formulas are pecularly Chinese. Chinese novels are essentially written extensions of the wandering storyteller who would tell a few stories for tips. Just like a storyteller would end each session with an invitation to return the next day for the next installment, each chapter invariably ends with what sounds like an ad with something like: "if you want to know what happened, you must read the next chapter." This practice may seem odd but keep in mind that old Chinese books were not bound that same way that modern books are. Usually, they consisted of bundles of individually bound booklets containing just a few chapters each. And it was possible to buy individual booklets.
The primary reason for reading the Chinese works should be because they are great reads, not because they are instructional. But instructional they are. Reading any of the classical novels provides great insight into the complexities of the Chinese society. Etiquette and protocols permeated all forms of human interaction. It was a Confucian society but Buddhist and Taoist beliefs seamlessly complemented each other. It was the land of arranged marriages but love, passion, and loyalty was the central theme of many a novel and play.
So where should you start from? In the classical fiction category, there are four works that are generally accepted as the greatest of the Chinese novels: Journey to the West, Outlaws of the Marsh, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber . Each of these novels is a masterpiece in its own right. In the non-fiction category, every well-read person (whether they have an interest in the Chinese culture or not) should read the Tao Te Ching and the Art of War. Unlike the novels mentioned earlier, these works are extremely small but pack enough wisdom for a lifetime...or two.
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