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After reading ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘, I decided to read the Oxford VSI (Very Short Introduction) on the subject, ‘Chinese Literature : A Very Short Introduction‘ by Sabina Knight.

Sabina Knight’s book is divided into five chapters, each of which focuses on a different theme. The first one is on Chinese philosophical works, the second one is on poetry, the third one is on early prose works, the fourth one is on prose epics and drama, and the fifth one covers 20th and 21st century literature. The book starts slowly, and in the initial chapters the prose veers towards the academic, with sentences like this –

“Sensitivity to these dynamics fostered awe for the potentials underlying natural dispositions, plus profound faith in human capacities to navigate these propensities.”

But the pace picks up by the third chapter and the book kicks ass after that. The book is just 120 pages long and can be read in a few hours, but the amount of information it packs is amazing.

I loved most of the book, and the book’s coverage of the Chinese prose epics and its analysis of classical Chinese poetry is brilliant. One of my favourite lines in the book is this one –

“Scholars sometimes liken traditional novels to Chinese gardens and landscape painting, both of which encourage wandering rather than a single fixed perspective or presentation.”

It is a perfect depiction of all the major Chinese prose epics, which are complex and refuse to get pigeon-holed into restrictive themes and structures.

Sabina Knight says this in the chapter on poetry – “Du Fu, arguably China’s greatest poet…” It made me smile 😊 (I love Du Fu, but Li Bai was, is, and will always be, China’s greatest poet. Sorry Sabina 😊)

The last chapter in the book was fascinating, and was especially my favourite, because it featured many 20th and 21st century writers who were new to me. That is many exciting new writers waiting to be explored. I was disappointed that Jin Yong, the most popular Chinese writer of the 20th century, just gets a mention in one sentence, while ‘Fortress Besieged‘, one of the greatest Chinese novels of the 20th century, doesn’t even get a mention. But I was happy that two 20th century greats, Lu Xun and Ba Jin (both of whom should have won the Nobel Prize, in my opinion), both got good coverage. I was happy that Wei Hui and her controversial ‘Shanghai Baby‘ were featured, and I was also excited that the book introduced me to many wonderful women Chinese writers, including Wang Anyi, Dai Houying, Zhang Jie and Yang Mo.

This book is a great introduction to Chinese literature and a great companion read alongwith ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘. These two books cover most of the same ground but in completely different styles and so they complement each other perfectly. Sabina Knight’s book is not always easy going, and it is a bit challenging initially, but if you are persistent, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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