Opening up Chinese literature to the world



Professor CAI Zong-qi


Having studied and taught in the United States, Professor Cai Zong Qi, Lingnan’s Lee Wing Tat Chair Professor of Chinese Literature and Director of the Centre for Humanities Research, has a perspective shaped by his bi-cultural experiences. In his writing in Chinese he has used Western theoretical approaches to examine the nation’s classical literature in innovative ways.


Meanwhile, ever since his student days, he has nurtured the desire to help Western readers appreciate the beauty and profundity of classical Chinese literature.


Now, he’s in the midst of realizing this ambition. The first three books in his How to Read Chinese Literature series, which focus on poetry, have been published by Columbia University Press, and he is working on subsequent volumes. The primary purpose of the project, he says, is to make cutting edge scholarship in Western Sinology available to a general audience and enable readers in the West to enjoy pre-modern Chinese poetry like their Chinese counterparts.


Professor Cai’s first book, How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology, has been a top-seller in the field. In it he breaks down four of the barriers which can impede anyone teaching, or learning about, Chinese literature: the barrier between research and teaching; between English translation and the original; between language learning and literary teaching; and between the translated words and the sound of the Chinese original.


Even today, Chinese poets are writing in a range of styles dating back to various historical periods. Yet these different styles have previously tended to be translated into a single Western form, flattening out a three dimensional creative work. In his writing, Professor Cai Cai sets himself the task of conveying these other levels of meaning.


While this book is a means to lead the poetry reader into an engagement with the Chinese language, the second volume, How to Read Chinese Poetry Workbook, is primarily a language text aiming to encourage Chinese learners to explore the riches of Chinese poetry.


The third in the series, How to Read Chinese Culture in Context, describes how poems were shaped by the culture of their time and how, in turn, they helped shape that culture. Chapters look at topics such as: women’s status, family life, and the tension between the individual’s desire for love versus the restrictions of the prevailing moral code.


So far the series has been made available in 16 countries, and it offers its international readership a means, through the nation’s poetry tradition, to develop a deeper understanding of the values and aspirations of the Chinese people.


But there is little time for Professor Cai to celebrate the success of the first three volumes, as Columbia University Press have commissioned three more two-book sets. The sets, on Chinese non-fiction prose, Chinese fiction and Chinese drama, will consist of one literary anthology and one language text. In addition, Professor Cai will also produce an anthology of literary theory.


To know more about Professor CAI Zong-qi's research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.