Chinese Literature

It is an almost universally-received creed that behind the suicidal prejudices and laughable superstitions of the Chinese there is a mysterious fund of solid learning hidden away in the uttermost recesses—far beyond the ken of occidentals—of that terra incognita, Chinese literature.

Sinologues darkly hint at elaborate treatises on the various sciences, impartial histories and candid biographies, laying at the same time extraordinary stress on the extreme difficulty of the language in which they are written, and carefully mentioning the number (sometimes fabulous) of the volumes of which each is composed. Hence, probably, it results that few students venture to push their reading beyond novels, and remain during the whole of their career in a state of darkness as to that literary wealth of China which enthusiasts delight to compare with her unexplored mines of metal and coal. Inasmuch, however, as it is not absolutely necessary to read a book from beginning to end to be able to form a pretty correct judgment as to its value, so, many students who are sufficiently advanced to read a novel with ease and without the help of a teacher, might readily gain an insight into a large enough number of the most celebrated scientific or historical works to enable them to comprehend the true worth of the whole of this vast literature. For vast it undoubtedly is, though our own humble efforts to appraise it justly, in comparison of course with the other literatures of the world, brought upon us in the first hours of discovery that some years of assiduous toil had been positively thrown away. Sir W. Hamilton, if we recollect rightly, said that by so many more languages as a man knows, by so many more times is he a man—an apophthegm of but a shallow kind if all he meant to convey was that an Englishman who can speak French is also a Frenchman by virtue of his knowledge of the colloquial. The opening up of new fields of thought through the medium of a new literature, is a result more worthy the effort of acquiring a foreign language than sparkling in a salon with the purest imaginable accent; and herein Sir W. Hamilton counted without Chinese. The greater portion of the “Classics,” cherished tomes to which China thinks even now she owes her intellectual supremacy over the rest of the world, is open through Dr Legge’s translation to all Englishmen, and those who run may read, weighing it in the balance and determining its status among the ethical systems either of the past or present. Had we found as much that is solid in other departments of Chinese literature, as there is mixed up with the occasional nonsense and obscurity of the Four Books, our protest would have taken a milder form; as it is, we think it right to condemn any and all random assertions which tend to strengthen in the minds of those who have no opportunity of judging, the belief that China is possessed of a vast and valuable literature, in which, for aught any one knows to the contrary, there may lie buried gems of purest ray serene. Can it be supposed that, if true, nothing of all this has yet been brought to light? There have been, and are now, foreigners possessing a much wider knowledge of Chinese literature than many natives of education, but, strange to say, such translations as have hitherto been given to the world have been chiefly confined to plays and novels! We hold that all those whom tastes or circumstances have led to acquire a knowledge of the Chinese language have a great duty to perform, and this is to contribute each something to the scanty quota of translations from Chinese now existing. Let us see what the poets, historians, and especially the scientific men of China have produced to justify so many in speaking as they have done, and still do speak, of her bulky literature. Many, we think, will be deterred by the grave nonsense or childish superstitions which they dare not submit to foreign judges as the result of their labours in this fantastic field; but to withhold such is to leave the public where it was before, at the mercy of unscrupulous or crazed enthusiasts.

We were led into this train of thought by an article in the North China Daily News of 10th July 1874, in which the writer speaks of China as “a luxuriant mental oasis amidst the sterility of Eastern Asia,” and “possessing a literature in vastness and antiquarian value surpassed by no other.” He goes on to say that the translations hitherto made “have conveyed to us a faint notion of the compass, variety, solidity, and linguistic beauties of that literature.” Such statements as these admit, unfortunately, of rhetorical support, sufficient to convince outsiders that at any rate there are two sides to the question, a conviction which could only be effectually dispelled by placing before them a few thousand volumes translated into English, and chosen by the writer of the article himself. When, however, our enthusiast deals with more realisable facts, and says that in China “there is no organised book trade, nor publishers’ circulars, nor Quaritch’s Catalogues, nor any other catalogues whether of old or new books for sale,” we can assure him he knows nothing at all about the matter; that there is now lying on our table a very comprehensive list of new editions of standard works lately published at a large book-shop in Wu-chang Fu, with the price of each work attached; and that Mr Wylie, in his “Notes on Chinese Literature,” devotes five entire pages to the enumeration of some thirty well-known and voluminous catalogues of ancient and modern works.


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