Paul W. Kroll. Essays in Medieval Chinese Literature and Cultural History

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Paul W. Kroll. Essays in Medieval Chinese Literature and Cultural History. Variorum Collected Studies Series No. 929. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009. xii +, 348 pp. Hardcover $154.95, ISBN 978-0-75-4-65990-7.

Ashgate Publishing makes a great contribution to the study of classical Chinese literature by publishing these eleven well-written articles by Sinologist Paul Kroll. These articles were written during a span of twenty-four years, between 1979 and 2003, and represent the highest development and achievement a great scholar can possibly have over the course of an academic life. In this book, these essays are divided into two parts: "In and about the High Tang" and "Poetry from Various Angles" As the author states, "The eleven essays reprinted in this volume deal with different aspects of medieval China, from humanistic and philological perspectives" (p. vii).

To the average reader, it is a book that is fun to read. The author is masterful with his words. He is able to ensure that readers will patiently keep on reading, even though what they are reading happened thousands of years ago in a foreign and remote land. He constantly and joyfully links what happened in ancient times to the present day. For example, while explaining the fact that a great amount of literary works memorializing the Tianbao era appeared during the later Tang period, he says, "We might think, for instance, of our increased interest in the history of the Civil War shown in the United States from about 1930 onward, or our recent reattachment to the history of World War II." All of sudden, the gap between history and reader disappears, leaving only the "understandable human impulse and need" (p. 299, essay 5).

In essay 4, "Lexical Landscape and Textual Mountains" while reminding readers how different the men of Tang were from modern men, he says, "We live in an age, indeed a global culture, that is superlatively, grandly contradictory--in both senses of the word. And however much some of us may wish it otherwise, our world is one that, with all its riot of communication media and technology, no longer requires poetry or art as an essential need" (p. 89; emphasis in original). Here, by contrasting the two different times, he not only highlights the close relationship between the ancient Chinese and their literature, but also criticizes the anti-art or anti-intellectual characteristics of modern times.

He is also able to interject interesting points from his scholarly research, which amuses readers while inspiring them to think critically. For instance, while showing his admiration for Cao Zhi's ability to compose great poems at a young age, he says, "Is it not inconceivable that Wang Pi wrote and died before reaching the age when today he would just be beginning graduate school?" He also points out a common malpractice: "[W] e think of the writers whose works we prize as speaking to us as approximate equals or elders in age, rarely if ever our juniors" and, "It never catches us short to recall with a conscious effort of mind that Keats was dead at twenty-six, Shelley at thirty, Byron at thirty-six" (p. 12, essay 6, "Seven Rhapsodies of Ts'ao Chih").

As an experienced teacher and great scholar, the author is able to explain the features of Chinese literature in very simple but powerful ways. For example, he states, "that the reason that 'most' of Ts'ao Chih's poetry is 'melancholy' is just because Chinese poets were traditionally expected to display themselves in melancholy roles" (p. 3, essay 6).

This book, however, is not just another entertaining book to read to learn about Chinese literature and history. It provides an impressive demonstration of how to conduct research in the field of classical Chinese literature. The author locates one issue or object of study in each of his writing, collects copious data about the object, and then unveils a comprehensive picture of all the author has discovered through analysis of the literary work. …