Classics of Chinese Literature in Translation

This course offers a panoramic overview of classical Chinese literature—the world’s oldest continuous literary tradition still alive. As we read texts from a breath-taking span of three thousand years (some originally inscribed on turtle shells and bamboo strips!) we will learn how to appreciate the interventions writers made in their own time and cultural context, while also grasping their significance, comparatively, in the broader context of literary traditions from around the world.

While focusing on first-hand encounters with original works in English translation (we will examine poetry, philosophy, history, rhapsodies, drama, short stories and several great classical novels), we will ask questions such as: what distinctive role did writing and literature come to play in Chinese society over the course of China’s many dynasties? How did the genres Chinese authors developed shape the content of their works and help articulate their desires, fears, hopes, creative fancies, and their ideas about life and death, virtue and violence, love, belief and knowledge, and the human condition? What does classical Chinese literature have to offer to readers and writers in today’s global world?

As we read across three millennia, we will have the unique privilege to witness in fast-forward motion, like in a historical laboratory, how Chinese authors increasingly adapted, satirized, rewrote or resisted earlier literary themes and models as their literary tradition grew older and ever more diverse.

All texts are in translation. No language skills are required.