Sunday, November 27, 2011

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

I'm currently reading "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio", which is a classical Chinese work ("Liao Zhai"), translated by the famed sinologist Herbert Giles.

Now, there are usually uppity people who refuse to read translated stories of any sort, with claims that the content is necessarily distorted, or that the original flavor is lost. I don't agree with such ideas, because a work is a work, however distinct it is from the source material. It's acceptable as a form of entertainment.

I really like "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio", for a few reasons. First is the distant familiarity of the material, which has been presented in various refracted forms in movies (A Chinese Ghost Story, Painted Skin). It's certainly interesting to see how the original tales and ideas have been fleshed out, or more often, dramatized. The second reason is that the stories, in themselves, quite entertaining tales- in fact they are more akin to Chinese fairy tales.

"Strange Tales" is also quite an intriguing study, for two meta-reasons. The first is that the stories, being written in the 18th century, necessarily provides a look into Chinese society of that time. In fact, several customs and behaviors unique to that time are described within the book, which contributes much color to the stories. 

The second reason is the prevalence of footnotes, provided by the translator Herbert Giles, in the text. These footnotes give an explanation of Chinese behaviors or customs, in a Westerner's context. Sometimes these footnotes are quite quaint in nature, such as one where he commented on a named Chinese dish as being especially tasty. At other times the footnotes describe a decidedly Orientalist interpretation of traditional Chinese customs, which I (ironically) read with a sort of Occidentalist delight ("I find it amusing that this Englishman finds this Chinese tradition amusing!").

I have yet to finish the book, but I'm enjoying it very much now.

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