David Knechtges: Translation of Wen Xuan

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"...[T]his is a book that should be acquired at once by every scholar with a serious interest in pre-modern Chinese literature; once acquired, it will surely prove to be one of the most frequently and gratefully consulted volumes in his library."

--Daniel Bryant, in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies footnote 1

The Wen xuan, or "Selections of Refined Literature," is considered the most important anthology of classical Chinese literature. In its present form, it consists of 761 pieces ranging in length from short poems of up to ten lines, to long poems and prose essays of more than a thousand lines. Its 60 chapters contain works by over 130 writers, covering the period from the third century BCE to the sixth century of the common era. Compiled by Xiao Tong (501-531), Crown Prince of the Liang dynasty, the Wen xuan represents the "cream" of classical Chinese literature, containing many famous masterpieces.

Themes treated in the Wen xuan span such subjects as fate, immortality, ethics, good government, and theories of art and music. Scholars specializing in Chinese literature rely on it for much of their knowledge of ancient and medieval Chinese literary history. Non-specialists find it useful in the study of genre theory, canon formation, and anthology creation. The compilers of the anthology intended it to represent all the major types of literature; the works are arranged into 37 literary categories.

Anyone who would translate the entire collection must master all of these genres, which include such diverse poetic forms as rhapsody, lyric poetry, elegy, petition, and memorial (five types), letter, preface, eulogy, imperial edict, historical, philosophical and political disquisition, lament, and even examination essay.

"The Wen xuan was the most revered anthology in the Chinese literary tradition," explains David R. Knechtges, UW professor of Asian Languages and Literature. "It was the text from which all literary men, from the Tang (618–907) dynasty on, obtained their literary education. Everyone who sat for the civil service examinations was expected to have mastered this work. The Wen xuan also was influential in Japan and Korea, where it was studied, imitated, and printed into modern times."

Knechtges has undertaken a major project to publish a complete, annotated English translation of the Wen xuan in eight volumes. Two volumes of his translation, which include the first twelve chapters, have been published by Princeton University Press, in 1982 and 1987; the third volume follows in June 1996.

The only complete translation of the Wen xuan into another language is a modern Japanese version done by Obi Koichi and Hanbusa Hideki, published in seven volumes over the period of 1974 to 1976, but the annotations have been found to be lacking in rigor. About 90% of the Wen xuan had been translated into German during the 1920 and 1930s by Austrian sinologist Erwin von Zach, but it contained no annotations and the version has been described as being rather flat and prosaic.

"The volume under review is by itself a prodigious work of scholarship and would be considered for any other sinologue the crowning culmination of a lifetime of dedicated research. The completed project will put David Knechtges on a par with the greatest sinologists of the past century and a half."

--Wilt Idema, in T'oung Pao footnote 2

Knechtges's volumes have been highly praised for the quality of both the translation and the annotations. The publication of his first volume in 1982 was hailed as "an event of the greatest importance for all scholars of premodern China. The unprecedented range and detail of the annotation, no less than the vigour and resourcefulness of the translation, left as a reader's only important ground for dissatisfaction the prospect of having to wait for the remaining seven volumes to appear." footnote 3

Knechtges began the project in 1977 under a grant from the Translations Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He joined the UW faculty in 1972.

In addition to the Wen xuan translation, Knechtges is co-editing The Handbook on Classical Chinese Literature. The Handbook will comprise some 2,000 entries on classical Chinese literature, from the earliest works that date back to about 1,000 BCE, to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The project, a collaborative effort between scholars from the U.S. and China, is part of a larger program, called The Culture and Civilization of China, which aims to encourage cooperation and cultural exchange between China and the West. The latter is expected to result in a series of up to 100 volumes that will enable both the informed general reader and specialist to benefit from recent research into a large array of original sources that previously have not been available to scholars.

Collaborating with Knechtges on the Handbook is Professor Stephen West of the University of California, Berkeley, and Professor Deng Shaoji of the Institute of Literature in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the premier Chinese institution concerned with the study of Chinese literature.

  1. D. Bryant in a review of Wen xuan, Volume One, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44.1, 249 (1984).
  2. W. Idema in a review of Wen xuan, Volume One, T'oung Pao, 71, 139 (1985).
  3. D. Bryant in a review of Wen xuan, Volume Two, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 50.l, 341 (1990).

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