The China Quarterly



Book Reviews

The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Edited by VICTOR MAIR. [New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. 1,342+xxiv pp. $75.00; £52.50. ISBN 0-231-10984-9.]


Bernhard  Fuehrer 

Following his Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (1994) and the Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (2000), the Columbia History of Chinese Literature intends to complement these two widely used readers. Edited by Victor H. Mair, the 55 chapters of this single-volume history of Chinese literature are chronologically arranged with thematic chapters interspersed. Indeed, a closer look at the chapters reveals that the book at hand follows the traditional dictum of wen shi zhe bu fenjia, i.e. that literature, history and philosophy should not be separated but regarded as one field of studies. Hence the scope of this history goes far beyond the scope of what is traditionally subsumed under the heading of literature. In addition to the topics (all genres and periods of poetry, prose, fiction, and drama) that one expects in a book of this sort, wit and humour, proverbs and rhetoric, historical and philosophical writings, classical exegesis, literary theory and criticism, traditional fiction commentary, as well as popular culture, the impact of religion upon literature, the role of women, and the relationship with non-Chinese languages and peoples (ethnic minorities, Korea, Japan, Vietnam) feature as topics of individual chapters.

Most of the chapters are written by leading specialists in those areas and are highly informative as well as concisely presented. Moreover, a number of chapters are thought-provoking enough to inspire questions that may lead towards a more focused research on hitherto neglected or less well-documented topics. In this sense, The Columbia History of Chinese Literature may also be perceived as a potential major impetus for further developments in the study of pre-modern and modern Chinese literature and related fields. Since the volume aims at bringing the riches of China's literary tradition into focus for a general readership, the majority of chapters can probably be best described as outlines of specific developments that should encourage readers to consult more specialized publications.