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Archive for the 'Asian Literature' Category

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Trickster Tales and “True Crime”: An Interview with Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, translators of The Book of Swindles

Book of Swindles
This week, we introduced The Book of Swindles, a chronicle of scams and deception from Ming China. These stories of fortunes made and lost, of cunning crooks and unsolved crimes make us ask: was swindling so widespread in 1600s China? What caused the profound social changes and moral anxiety at the time?

To learn more about the stories’ background, we talked to Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, professors at the University of British Columbia and translators of The Book of Swindles. They told us about rising consumer culture in the early modern period, parallels with American literature, and Zhang Yingyu’s “delight in criminal cleverness.”

Question: You write in the introduction to The Book of Swindles that Zhang Yingyu’s time, the early 1600s, was one of rapid social and economic change. Why was the Ming empire suddenly so commercialized and its roads and rivers busy with itinerant merchants? Many of Zhang’s stories are set in coastal provinces like Fujian. If we were to travel with him across late-Ming Fujian, what would we see that was new and different?

BR: First, we’d see a lot of merchants—and even more porters and boatmen—carrying goods over long distances, some for domestic markets and some coming from, or bound for, overseas. We’d encounter other travelers of many kinds, such as opera troupes, itinerant doctors, and even some we could classify as tourists, male and female, going to see famous sights, to perform pilgrimages to holy mountains, or to do a little of both. More than ever before, we’d pass through villages devoted to the production of a single commodity such as fruit or ceramics, whose producers would use the revenue to buy their staples, such as grain produced in other areas. And in the towns and villages we would see many signs of rising prosperity, people of middling status who owned works of art, books, and fancy clothes; some had hobbies such as goldfish-raising or bonsai. Many contemporary writers remarked on these changes, often seeing them as illustrating a decline from the ideal social order. To them, one of the ills of the age was a new fluidity of social status resulting not only from new wealth but also the increasing need to interact with strangers of uncertain background either in populous cities or “on the road,” in inns, taverns, and on boats. These anonymous and transitory spaces were perfect settings for the shape-shifting swindler.

Modern economic historians disagree about exactly what factors caused these broader economic developments. Some point to favorable climate trends. Others emphasize the role of huge amounts of silver—the main form of money in the period—coming in from new mines in Japan and the New World. Foreign traders used silver to purchase Chinese goods such as tea, silk, and porcelain and this trade increased the money supply in the late Ming economy. Internal factors include a long period of relative stability that allowed local, regional, and long-distance trade networks to develop, which fostered more efficient, specialized production in agriculture and industry. Swindlers and other criminals were all too ready to siphon off these new flows of goods and money.

Q: Zhang ends each tale with a moral lesson, yet the stories are clearly also meant to entertain. As you point out, a story like “A Eunuch Cooks Boys to Make a Tonic of Male Essence” is long on scandal and social criticism and short on helpful advice. Who was The Book of Swindles written for, and what would you say is its closest contemporary equivalent in terms of genre?

CR: Well, the “Male Essence” story does teach people with sons not to sell them to eunuchs—who in the late Ming numbered in the tens of thousands and who did purchase boy servants—but my hunch is that at-risk readers of that particular swindle were few. Zhang often panders to popular prejudices about eunuchs, monks, women, and government underlings. You could say his commentary is a mix of moral posturing and earnestness. Still, his stories do educate as they entertain. “Male Essence” is a good example: its sensationalism notwithstanding, it actually begins with a polemic about taxation.

As for audience, most of the stories involve merchants, and Zhang discusses their interests extensively, so it seems likely that they were his primary intended readership. He expresses sympathy with men who get lonely on the road, and notes that this makes them vulnerable to false friends. He gives detailed advice about the handling of silver. He suggests ways to vet potential business partners. But he also offers a much wider variety of scenarios of how people perpetrate and foil fraud at home, on the road, in the marketplace, in court and in courtship. As we mention in our introduction, one of the fun things about this book is that it can be read for fun and profit.

BR: One additional hint to the audience is the language of the stories: it’s simple, but it follows the syntax of Literary Chinese (aka Classical Chinese), not the more colloquial language of some novels and stories of the same period. But it is also short on the sort of allusions and historical references a more scholarly work would contain. So it was probably aimed at readers with the kind of literacy that many merchants at the time would have had, enough to write letters, keep accounts, draw up contracts, and make use of books for practical and religious purposes as well as for entertainment.

CR: As for genre, works like The Book of Swindles are easy to find in China nowadays. Some collections actually pair stories about contemporary scams with stories about historical swindles under titles like Panorama of Swindles Old and New, and even include story-end commentaries à la Zhang Yingyu. So, you can find pretty exact genre equivalents in the Chinese-language book market today. “True crime” stories would be an approximate genre category in English, and there are links to folklore such as trickster tales. You also have a similar impulse to compile stories of trickery in anthologies like Michael Farquhar’s A Treasury of Deception: Liars, Misleaders, Hoodwinkers, and the Extraordinary True Stories of History’s Greatest Hoaxes, Fakes, and Frauds (2005).

BR: Entertainment is definitely one of the “hooks” of the Book of Swindles, even when it purports to teach a moral lesson. This is true of much Chinese fiction of the period, however tenuous the link between story and moral might be. It’s also true of a lot of writing about swindles from around the world—for example, American novels like Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and of course much of Mark Twain. The Book of Swindles shares a delight in criminal cleverness with these works and with other Ming dynasty collections of stories about ingenious officials who catch often equally ingenious lawbreakers. Unlike that kind of “case fiction” (gong’an xiaoshuo), however, the Book of Swindles usually has the criminal outsmart the detective, or makes it a merchant or other unofficial party who gets to the bottom of the case. In this way it’s strikingly different from most of the fiction of its time.

Q: Several stories concern scams perpetrated by women. As you summarize in the introduction, “Women seduce merchants far from home, prostitute female relatives, frame innocent men, steal horses on the highway, and enter into sham marriages for purposes of murder and extortion.” How does Zhang portray gender? Does the book show any changes in, or anxieties about gender roles in Ming China?

CR: The Book of Swindles is about how to recognize tell-tale signs that you’re being had, so its main concern is with showing typical scenarios and behaviors. Characters do have names, but they tend appear less as individuals than as representatives of certain social types. Women, scholars, government clerks, brokers, Daoist priests—Zhang objectifies them all. He does make admiring comments about the brilliant schemes in the first two stories of the “Women” swindles section, especially in the excellent “Three Women Ride Off on Three Horses.” But then we have categorical statements like this one: Even the chastest of women, without exception, will be led into sin if she encounters and is enticed by a licentious woman.

Zhang’s representations of women, prejudicial though they are, don’t represent the main anxiety about changing social roles in his collection. Looming much larger, to me anyway, is his sense that merchants are being too cavalier in handling their money and in trusting people they encounter while traveling. While the courts sometimes do help a dupe obtain restitution, in most stories it’s clear that a man going out on business has to rely mostly on his wits—and the accumulated vicarious knowledge offered by The Book of Swindles—to keep him safe.

Q: Which is your favorite story in the book, and why?

CR: The two in the “Poetry” swindles section were a delight to translate; see especially the pleasure boat poem in “Chen Quan Scams His Way into the Arms of a Famous Courtesan.” Plus, I like the idea of poets as swindlers. I enjoy Zhang’s comment on the “painless scam” in “Forged Letters from the Education Intendant Report Auspicious Dreams,” which was based on a true story. And the four-in-one appearing under the title “A Geomancer Uses His Wife to Steal a Good Seed” made me rethink what it means to be the victim of a swindle.

BR: I am taken with the audacity of the monk in “A Buddhist Monk Identifies a Cow as His Mother,” in which the cleric uses simple, even childish, tricks to spin yarns about past lives and promises of a better rebirth.

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Conflict between North and South Korea, on an Intimate Scale

Meeting with My Brother
Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Ani Kodzhabasheva, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, reflects on Yi Mun-yol’s novel Meeting with My Brother and current events.

Are you confused by the barrage of threats launched daily from North Korea towards the United States, and vice versa? Following the news on the issue has shown me that I’m not the only one. Even policy analysts and military strategists can seem at a loss.

One of this week’s attempts to explain the situation in Northeast Asia is a New York Times piece that takes us to Yanji and Dandong, two cities on North Korea’s border with China. The reporter, Chris Buckley, talks to locals and tourists in an attempt to gauge their mood. What do they think of North Korea? Of the United States? His brief conversations reveal some of the anxieties that those in the region deal with on a daily basis.

But, as is often the case, there is more to the story than one can glean from the news. In fact, the people of Yanji have been affected by North and South Korea’s political fluctuations for decades, and the precariousness of international relations in the region has more or less persisted since the onset of the Korean War. Yi Mun-yol’s novel Meeting with My Brother, set in Yanji in the early 1990s, shows that the city has long been subject to secret police spying, as well as a base for legal or not-so-legal cross-border exchange. In Yi Mun-yol’s novella, the South Korean narrator encounters his half-brother from the North for the first time, and the traumas of Korea’s division play out on an intimate scale.

The plot of Meeting with My Brother unfolds over just a few days in Yanji—in a hotel, a couple of restaurants, and on the bank of the Tumen River, which separates North Korea and China. Within this tightly delineated setting, Yi weaves together multiple narratives that create a microcosm of whole societies torn apart by military and ideological conflict. In addition to the two long-lost brothers, Yi populates his novella with a Chinese Korean woman from Yanji who is bitter about the prejudice she experienced in the South; the overly zealous “Mr. Reunification,” who often bores his companions with his utopian pronouncements; and a cynical businessman engaged in mysterious trade with the North.

Struggling to make the best of their predicaments, Yi’s flawed characters can sometimes make you laugh, although the overwhelming mood is one of reflection and mourning. Yi shows to what extent our lives are shaped by historical events much larger than us and how, at the same time, these events demand of us that we take a moral stand. During his stay in Yanji, the narrator, who first approaches his long-lost brother with a sense of pity, is forced to reckon with his own life choices.

The little book is written in a dispassionate, reportage-like tone (the narrator is a professor of history in Seoul), yet it carries a surprising emotional heft. Several characters who boast a certain ideology—be it capitalism or communism, nationalism or pro-American beliefs—are brought by the events in Yanji to a new sense of humility. Nobody leaves without any scars, or a bit of redemption. Fiery rhetoric gives way to self-doubt, as the encounters in Yanji make clear that the Korean War has left no absolute winners and losers. Hyeok, the North Korean brother, struggles with jealousy; the narrator, Professor Yi, begins to confront his suppressed guilt about the way he achieved his success. The struggle to communicate leads to many dramatic reversals, as certain words or memories elicit pain or misunderstanding.

The book provides no clear answers about politics, diplomacy, or the future of the Korean Peninsula. It is these very conflicts, which are once again crowding the news today, that are being dramatized in Meeting with My Brother. Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker that “There is no moral to Yi’s story.” That is essentially true. Yet, in the end, the moral is that political divisions have a human dimension and that, in order to understand history and how it shapes current events, we need to look beyond the political agendas of the day.

At this historical moment, Meeting with My Brother’s finely crafted story gives us an occasion to ask ourselves, What would it be like to empathize with people in North Korea? Yi Mun-yol’s narrator, through his self-exploration, serves as an example of how that radical question might be answered.

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

Read the Story “Pilfering Green Cloth by Pretending to Steal a Goose”

Book of Swindles
“‘I won’t lie to you,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I’m a petty thief… I’ve got a plan, and I just need your help to pull it off.’” — Zhang Yingyu

Today we are happy to present an excerpt from The Book of Swindles: one of the over forty stories of scams and deception in Ming China featured in the volume.

Stay tuned for an interview with the translators, Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, to be published on Friday. Rea and Rusk talk about changing social norms and other reasons why theft and scams were on the rise.

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

Low-Brow Culture and the Art of Deception in Ming China

The Book of Swindles

If your first association with Ming China is delicate blue-and-white vases or the dreamy landscape paintings of Shen Zhou and others, The Book of Swindles will give you a very different idea of the period. This book reveals the seedy, funny, cruel and absurd aspects of a culture dominated by a complex government bureaucracy, on the one hand, and rampant commerce, on the other. While in its thoroughness it stands on par with, say, canonical Chinese writings on warfare, The Book of Swindles is a classic of a different kind. This is a treatise on one of the less dignified aspects of human nature: the art of deception.

The experience of reading Zhang Yingyu is comparable to that of Boccaccio’s Decameron. While the buildings and frescoes of fourteenth-century Florence are a testament to the Renaissance city’s loftiest aspirations, Boccaccio’s tales show a world of widespread corruption, illicit sexual exploits, strong passions, and shameless scams. Perhaps human nature has not changed all that much since then. Writers like Zhang Yingyu and Boccaccio show us the darker, funnier, and more human side of even the most glorious historical periods.

In the case of Ming China, scams and deception are also reflected in some of the visual art of the period. The handscroll painting on the cover of The Book of Swindles shows a busy market in which a visitor is being given false assurances by an insistent salesman. The new edition’s translators, Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, explain:

“The cover illustration shows detail from ‘Bustling Nanjing’ 南都繁繪圖卷, a long handscroll painting by an anonymous Ming dynasty artist (formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英, 1494?–1552) currently held in the National Museum of China. This scene of a marketplace in the capital features in the foreground a row of shops, including the Yonghe Fabric Emporium; a money changer, identifiable even to the illiterate by the silver ingot and bronze coin depicted on the top of its two signs; and what appears to be a candle vendor. An itinerant musician—a quintessential figure of the Rivers and Lakes—walks by on the left, carrying a lute on his back. Across the street, we see a vendor of ceramic dishware on the left and, on the right, a man selling tea or warmed wine. Drawing our attention at the center is a man gesturing toward a restaurant called ‘Zhang’s Place’. Yet the animals flanking the passerby suggest he should be wary of accepting the tout’s invitation: this establishment is probably one that ‘hangs a lamb’s head out front while selling dog meat in the back’, as a common expression for bait-and-switch would have it. This roadside scene thus depicts a cultural tableau of commercial institutions, itinerant characters, and deceptive practices similar to what we find in Zhang Yingyu’s work.”

The Book of Swindles includes some forty-odd tales of deception, from the daft to the elaborate, with each one ending poorly for either the potential victim or the scammer. Stay tuned for an excerpt from the book, which will be published on the blog tomorrow.

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Book Giveaway! The Book of Swindles

Book of Swindles

“In The Book of Swindles, Rea and Rusk give us hilarious and sobering proof that swindling isn’t just a contemporary concern but has been around for centuries. We are treated to stories of porters cheating officials who cheat porters, of conniving Taoists and gullible officials, of lusty widows who provoke their husbands’ death, and of debauched gentry who prey on poor locals. Yet many of these tales sound eerily familiar to today’s world, and especially today’s China. We are confronted with a widespread, ambient feeling of social mistrust in which people across the land feel that they are constantly being cheated. Besides giving insight into deep societal concerns, The Book of Swindles is a great read.” — Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

This week, our featured book is The Book of Swindles, by Zhang Yingyu, translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

An excerpt from A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden)

Book to Burn

“A rich translation of essays revealing Li Zhi as the epitome of dissent. His tragic suicide culminated Li’s life as a free thinker, but at the same time his enemies immortalized him as someone who had defrocked Ming autocracy of its elegantly woven orthodoxies. He also provided Ming precedents for political repression under the Republic of China and the People’s Republic. The PRC ironically appropriated Li Zhi’s rhetoric, pretending that everyone was now liberated, as long as they towed the party line. Later Pierre Bourdieu honored him as China’s homo academicus!” — Benjamin A. Elman, Princeton University

A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden) introduces the controversial Ming scholar Li Zhi through his letters, essays, poetry, and historical writings. Below, we excerpt the volume’s introduction, by editors and translators Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy.

Monday, August 7th, 2017

#WITMonth Book Giveaway!

City Folk and Country Folk

In celebration of Women in Translation Month, we are offering the chance to win a copy of three recent works by women, translated by women. The giveaway titles include: the newly published novel City Folk & Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov from our Russian Library series; Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila by Julia Kristeva, translated by Lorna Scott Fox; and new in paperback The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter. Throughout the week, we will feature more on these titles and others on the blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

On Wm. Theodore de Bary (1919–2017)

Wm. Theodore de Bary

The following post is by Jennifer Crewe, associate provost and director of Columbia University Press. As an editor she worked with Wm. Theodore de Bary for many years before his death earlier this month.

Ted de Bary’s contributions to Columbia University, Columbia University Press, and America’s understanding of the East are immeasurable. All of Ted’s books mentioned in the recent New York Times obituary, and many more, were published by the Press. His extraordinary idea in the 1950s, to introduce and to teach the Asian humanities to Columbia students, was realized in part when he began to commission translations of key historical, philosophical, and literary source texts from China, Japan, and India. After all, he could not create a course for English-speaking students until at least some of the canonical works existed in English. Once the texts were translated, he enlisted the Press in publishing them so that they would be available to scholars and students across the country and around the world.

Groundbreaking books under Ted’s editorial direction and published by Columbia University Press are still in print and include the monumental primary-source collections Sources of Chinese Tradition, Sources of Japanese Tradition, and Sources of Indian Tradition. The first editions of these works were published in 1959, and The Sources of Chinese Tradition is one of our long-term best-selling texts. Early individual volumes in the Translations from the Asian Classics series, which Ted founded and edited, include Donald Keene’s Major Plays of Chikamatsu and Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko; Burton Watson’s Records of the Grand Historian of China and Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings; and Ivan Morris’s translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. From South Asia we published Chakravarthi Narasimhan’s The Mahabharata. The Chuang Tzu (now in pinyin transliteration as Zhuangzi) is another perennial best-seller. New translations were added in the 1970s and 1980s, including The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoller Miller, and Ryokan: Zen-Monk Poet of Japan, translated by Burton Watson. The Translations from the Asian Classics series gave American students, whose understanding of the “classics” was based on ancient Greek and Roman texts, new ways of thinking and understanding these ancient civilizations and their relevance to the modern West. (more…)

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Kyūzō and the Red Army

Beasts Head for Home

“During that night, however, Kyūzō’s mother went out to the back shed to find some empty packing crates. There she was hit by a stray bullet, shattering her back. They called for a doctor, but after administering an injection he hurried away without issuing any clear instructions. Everyone was in a state of high agitation. Not knowing what to do, Kyūzō merely remained at his mother’s bedside staring blankly ahead.” — Abe Kōbō

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book describing the chaos at the end of the Second World War experienced by the Japanese inhabitants of Manchuria.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Kyūzō Heads for Home

Beasts Head for Home

“The corner of an eroded sand dune could be seen where the river sharply diverged to again touch the edge of town. A few slanting Korean pine trees stood there, under which lay the unknown grave of his mother. When Kyūzō was in middle school, he had examined the sand dune’s movement as part of science class. He discovered that as the dune eroded with the annual spring floods, it moved northward by twenty or thirty centimeters. Before long it would overtake his mother’s grave, swallowing it up. After several hundred years, in the sandy plains created after the sand dune had swept through, what would someone think if they came across those crumbled, yellow bones?” — Abe Kōbō

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. In April, The Guardian featured an excerpt from the novel as part of their Translation Tuesday series. Today, we are happy to present a short piece of that excerpt. You can read the excerpt in full at The Guardian.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Kyūzō Heads for Home
By Abe Kōbō. Translated by Richard Calichman

Raising his head, Kyūzō saw light dimly shining in above the door. There was a hole about the size of his thumb, and a dusty light could be seen whirling about. Peeking through the hole, he noted that the fog had nearly disappeared, and that several sheets of mist that had failed to escape hovered close to the ground, moving south. By the horizon a milky white light had begun to shine.

On his left, a large patch of fog was burning off in swirls, exposing the lowland that stretched from the northwest to the southeast. This was Xinghe. Here and there the snow had become bare, revealing a surface of ice that gleamed like new sheets of zinc. Further to the right, the town of Baharin stretched out like a stockyard of black brick.

In such light, however, it would no longer be easy to change cars. Suddenly the train emitted a burst of steam. Kyūzō stood motionless, vacillating, when again he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. They stopped directly in front of him. Someone rapped on the door with a stick and spoke in Chinese, with a provincial Shandong accent, “What happened to the cargo that was supposed to have been loaded here?” (more…)

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

Introducing Beasts Head for Home

Beasts Head for Home

“By the end of the novel, Kō indeed appears to have lost all semblance of reason in his lunatic ravings, while Kyūzō, who is consistently described in bestial imagery—for example, panting like a dog, eating like a dog, potentially being killed like a dog, and so forth—seems to have surrendered all traces of humanity in being transformed into a howling, enraged beast. The pain that these two men suffer is extreme, and yet Abe steadfastly resists any notion that salvation is to be found through an ideal return to humanity.” — Richard Calichman

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to present Calichman’s forward to the novel.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Beasts Head for Home, by Abe Kōbō

Beasts Head for Home

“The earliest work by one of Japan’s foremost writers to appear in English, Beasts Head for Home tells the story of a young Japanese man who undertakes a harrowing journey in an attempt to reach Japan after the collapse of the Japanese Empire. The story is particularly affecting to read in this historical moment with so much forced migration all over the world. Calichman’s translation is flawless.” — J. Keith Vincent, translator of Junichiro Tanizaki’s Devils in Daylight

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Introducing Remains of Life

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“As one of the first contemporary literary works to address the scars left by the Musha Incident and its brutal suppression, the novel stimulated a renewed dialogue and cultural debate about the incident in Taiwan. After centuries of oppression, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan remain largely marginalized, and Remains of Life is one of the few literary works by an ethnic Chinese writer to address the plight of the island’s original occupants under both the Japanese colonizers and the Nationalist regime.” — Michael Berry

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are happy to present Michael Berry’s introduction to Remains of Life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Introducing Meeting with My Brother

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“In his literary work, and in his private life, Yi not only responds to themes directly relevant to himself; he is also profoundly aware of the contemporary predicament of Korea—currently ranked the sixth most “wired” nation on the planet according to Bloomberg—in the age of the Internet and media manipulation. It is not only the younger generation of Koreans that is ruled by consumerism, narcissism, and hunger for fame and fortune. Yi’s work seems to be designed precisely to be disillusioning, and perhaps even traumatic, to such a readership because it dares to go against the grain of both popular and normative thinking.” — Heinz Insu Fenkl

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are happy to present Heinz Insu Fenkl’s introduction to Meeting with My Brother.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

The Musha Incident

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“[B]ut who would have imagined that the ‘civilized savages’ would turn around and send their civilized planes, cannons, and poisonous gases to the ‘savage primitives’ to show them the true face of civilization; customs and rituals in the end led to a horrifying and destructive cycle of revenge, the result was the historical-political entity known as the ‘Musha Incident’…” — Wu He

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are pleased to present an excerpt from the beginning of Remains of Life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

The Madame of Yanji

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“She lowered her voice and sneaked a quick glance toward the kitchen. ‘You’re from Seoul, so I’m sure you’ve heard,’ she said quickly, ‘but do you know how I scrounged to make that money? I made it washing bloody underwear for prostitutes and getting groped by drunkards while I was bussing tables at a hostess club. What else but money would make a married woman put up with that sort of thing?’” — Yi Mun-yol

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from Meeting with My Brother.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“Yi Mun-yol is one of South Korea’s most gifted writers, and this translation gives his simple style all of the elegant force it can bring to bear. This story of two brothers who find each other only after their defector father has died balances the weight of the country’s history on their meeting as effortlessly as only a master could achieve. Compelling and essential reading.” — Alexander Chee, author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh

“After spending ten years living in seclusion, Wu He began publishing a series of short stories, novellas, and novels that culminated in the publication of Remains of Life. The novel stands as a singular statement, at once profound and powerful, that could only come from the brilliant literary imagination of Wu He.” — Chu T’ien-wen, author of Notes of a Desolate Man

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

Announcing Center for Korean Research Books

CKR Logo

The Center for Korean Research and Columbia University Press announce the new Korean Studies Book Initiative.

The Center for Korean Research in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University and Columbia University Press are pleased to announce a new Korean studies book initiative. A $10,000 subvention will be awarded each year on a competitive basis to an author who has secured a contract from Columbia University Press for an outstanding Korea-related book in any academic discipline and covering any time period. Applications for the subvention are not required. Columbia University Press will consider all Korea-related manuscripts under contract in a given year for the award. The designation “A Center for Korean Research Book” will appear on the title page of the book, along with acknowledgment of the funding source on the copyright page.

“The Center for Korean Research is happy to have the opportunity to expand its publications activity through its partnership with Columbia University Press. We hope that Center for Korean Research Books will advance Korea-related scholarship in the social sciences and humanities,” remarks Theodore Hughes, director of the Center for Korean Research in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University.

Christine Dunbar, editor, Columbia University Press says, “From Peter Lee’s Sources of Korean Tradition to Janet Poole’s When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea, Columbia University Press has long been dedicated to publishing seminal translations and forward-thinking monographs in Korean studies. We are delighted to be working with the Center for Korean Research to continue this important work.”

Those interested in publishing in the series should send to Christine Dunbar, editor at Columbia University Press (cd2654@columbia.edu), a proposal containing a brief description of the content and focus of the book, a table of contents or chapter outline, literature review and market analysis, and professional information about the author, including previous publications.

About the Center for Korean Research:

The Center for Korean Research (CKR) in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University plays a leading role in the study of Korea on the local, national, and international levels. CKR collaborates with institutes and departments across Columbia University, providing support for Korea-related research across the social sciences and humanities in the form of programming assistance, graduate fellowships, postdoctoral positions, undergraduate teaching grants, and library funding. By sponsoring public lectures, conferences, workshops, and cultural events, CKR advances academic knowledge and a greater public awareness of Korea in the New York City area. CKR serves as a bridge between Korean studies in North America and the most recent work of the Korean academic world through its active partnerships with universities and institutions in South Korea. The Center also maintains a global reach via its sponsorship of the field’s leading journal, the Journal of Korean Studies (published by Duke University Press).

About Columbia University Press:

Columbia University Press was founded in 1893. With nearly 125 years of continuous publishing activities, it is the fourth-oldest university press in America. Notable highlights in its history include the publication of the Columbia Encyclopedia in 1935, the acquisition of The Columbia Granger’s Index to Poetry in 1945, and the introduction of the three Sources anthologies of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian classic works in the 1950s. East Asian studies has always been a strength of the Press, which has published such luminaries in the field as Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, Burton Watson, Haruo Shirane, and JaHyun Kim Haboush. For more information see: http://www.cup.columbia.edu/.

Friday, April 7th, 2017

On Burton Watson (1925-2017)

Burton Watson

The following post is by Jennifer Crewe, associate provost and director of Columbia University Press. As an editor she worked with Burton Watson for 30 years before his death earlier this month.

Burton Watson died a few days ago, and with his passing the world has lost one of its greatest translators. Burton was one of the only people who possessed the extraordinary ability to translate equally well from both Chinese and Japanese. In fact, one of the early anthologies he translated and edited for Columbia University Press was Japanese Literature in Chinese, a title that puzzled me greatly when I first arrived at the Press, knowing nothing about Chinese or Japanese literature. Burton was deeply familiar with both languages and cultures. He started learning Japanese while serving in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Japan during World War II (as did several giants in the field of his generation, including Donald Keene and Wm. Theodore deBary, also seminal Columbia figures who created the Columbia Asia program and started the Press’s list in East Asian civilizations). After Watson’s discharge he enrolled at Columbia and received his Ph.D. in Chinese literature in 1956. The Press published a revised version of his dissertation, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Grand Historian of China, beginning what would be a sixty-year relationship.

In addition to working freely in both languages, Burton also moved easily from premodern classics (his Zhuangzi, originally published in its Wade-Giles version in 1968, is still one of the Press’s best-selling books) to works from the modern period. He was at home translating a similarly wide range of genres, from ancient history (Records of the Grand Historian of China) to philosophy and religion (Analects of Confucius and The Lotus Sutra), to literature (Tales of the Heike and Selected Poems of Du Fu).

I marveled at his ability and at his copious production. When he finished one book and sent it to me, there was often a period of silence; then he would write and ask what I thought he should translate next.

I once heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, told to me by someone who visited Burton’s Tokyo apartment and watched as he sat at his manual typewriter looking at whatever book he was translating and simply typing the translation as he read the original, without having to look up any words. As a nonspeaker of Chinese and Japanese, I rely on experts to tell me whether a transition is an accurate and faithful rendition of the original. But as a reader I rely on my ear. It was clear to me that Burton was an avid reader of American poetry—particularly of the Williams era. His translations, particularly of poetry, are concise, deceptively simple, and evocative. And they employ the language of everyday speech, which is why they are so successful with students. Burton’s translations opened up the world of East Asian culture to countless students and general readers. Over the years I would occasionally hear criticisms—Watson’s translations were not “scholarly” enough. Burton eschewed notes, and it was often difficult to coax even an introduction out of him. But his translations will last because of the simple beauty of his English idiom. Many “scholarly” translations do not display that inner beauty. Burton’s translations seem effortless. He strove for that.

By my count Columbia University Press has 41 books in print with Watson’s name attached to them. I have been at the Press 30 years, so that is how long I knew Burton. I got acquainted with him slowly, by means of old-fashioned letter-writing. He would send me carefully typed pale blue aerograms, which I would open with trepidation lest I accidentally tear off any of his prose, which was friendly, spare, and efficient, sometimes with a note of petulance—“I don’t suppose you liked my last manuscript much”—if I had failed to respond promptly to what he’d sent. I never saw his apartment, but I always imagined him sitting in a barely furnished Japanese-style room, with the typewriter, and later the computer, in the center on a small desk, and with books all around.

My relationship with Burton remained mostly epistolary on into the e-mail era, when his messages were shorter and lost a bit of flair, but I did see him several times when he came to Columbia for a semester some 20 years ago, and then twice in Tokyo more recently. The last time I saw him was in 2012, and he seemed in good health and rather chipper. He took me on a long walk through the Imperial Palace Gardens, and it seemed to me that he could go on walking forever.

All day
In the mountains
Ants too are walking

From For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santoka
Translated by Burton Watson

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

An Interview with Carrie Preston, author of “Learning to Kneel”

Learning to Kneel, Carrie Preston

“My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.”—Carrie Preston

The following is an interview with Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching

Q: Learning to Kneel examines the Western interest in the Japanese noh theater from many different perspectives, historical and scholarly, as well as via your own experiences as a teacher, student, and performer. How did these different vantage points shape your approach to the book?

Carrie J. Preston: I began thinking about this book as a fairly typical scholarly study of the noh theater’s influence on modernism. As I read previous scholarship on the topic, I kept encountering a disclaimer that went something like this: I tried to watch a noh play but understood next to nothing; that’s ok, there is no need for a deep knowledge of noh because W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin Britten, and other Westerners knew nothing about noh. Aside from the homonym fun (nobody knows noh), this was a troubling and decidedly un-scholarly disclaimer. I set out to learn deeply about noh, and I soon realized that experts locate the essence of noh in training, always in private lessons where the student mimics the teacher’s chant and dance so as to memorize the noh repertory. I clearly needed to take lessons, and my experience as a performer helped me undertake this rather daunting enterprise. My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.

I decided that the story of my experience taking lessons in noh performance technique needed to be central to the book. I tried to interweave that personal story with the accounts of how the various artists I was discussing learned about noh. I treated us all as noh students who bring personal desires and goals to our studies that impact how we understand and use noh. This approach allowed me to face the disclaimer that none of us know anything about noh by acknowledging that there are always limits to a student’s knowledge. But students also develop unique and interesting strategies for learning. By focusing on the techniques for learning and teaching noh, I hoped to open up the rather esoteric topic of noh theater’s influence on modernism so that the book will be of interest to many students and teachers of cultures—and we are all students and teachers of cultures on some level.

Q: Yeats, Pound, Brecht, and Britten’s approach to noh is often viewed as an example of cultural appropriation. In what ways does your book alter this perception?

CJP: I don’t disagree that these figures were engaged in cultural appropriation and orientalism, but in some ways, that’s the least interesting thing to say about them. It’s easy to accuse them of cultural insensitivity and prove their guilt. At the same time, we often celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, believing that study abroad will produce cultural sensitivity in our students. I find the binary of good multiculturalism and bad appropriation to be particularly unhelpful. Who owns a culture? Who should be allowed to study and perform the theater of a particular culture? What is the difference between being inspired by noh and appropriating noh? If the answer is that only those born into a culture can study, use, or be inspired by it, what does that mean for study abroad, diversity requirements, and global studies?

These are difficult questions, and international/transnational teaching and learning is messy work. In Learning to Kneel, I embrace that mess and get down on my knees in the dirt, so to speak. And that taught me that all cross-cultural or global learning involves a degree of appropriation, whether we’re studying noh or opera. But, of course we don’t put those two lyric musical theaters in the same category because of unequal power relations between the so-called “east,” where noh originated, and “west,” the birthplace of opera. Was Ito Michio appropriating opera when he moved to Germany to become an opera singer? I recognize that power disparities are absolutely crucial to understanding cultural exchange and that some appropriation is regrettably malicious, but I also hope to recognize and question the habits of mind that make us treat noh so differently from opera.

Q: Ito Michio is one of the more fascinating figures in your book. How does his life affect the way we think about cross-cultural exchanges?

CJP: Ito’s life is the perfect example of the messiness of cultural exchange. He traveled to Europe as a young man hoping to become an opera singer and then a western dancer and slough off his stultifying Japaneseness. Upon reaching London, Ito was valued most as an “oriental” artist” by Pound and Yeats, who wanted him to help them translate noh plays and work on modernist noh adaptations. He claimed that they taught him to value his own culture, but they also taught him how valuable the popular fascination with Japan could be for his career as a performer. He began to advertise himself as an “oriental dancer” and exoticize his modern dance practice. When he arrived in New York during World War I, Ito began staging Pound’s translations of noh plays, even though he had no training in noh. And in spite of the fact that he was adapting Pound’s already adapted versions of noh texts, Ito advertised them as absolutely authentic. His tendency to stretch the truth and invent a powerful position for himself in Japan raised the suspicions of the CIA, and he was arrested shortly after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor as an enemy alien. He was eventually repatriated to Japan, where he staged spectacular revues for the U.S. occupying forces and introduced American modern dance and beauty pageants (for better and worse).

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