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Chinese Text Initiative

University of Virginia Library
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Reviewed by:
Michael Chang
George Mason University
July 2003

The Chinese Text Initiative (CTI) is an ongoing effort to make texts of the classical Chinese literary canon widely available. CTI is actually a collection of sites, each centered upon a specific text—most of which are from the Tang period (618-907) and earlier. At present, only six texts are available; however, the editors plan to add additional works. Although most of the present sites are primarily aimed at students of the Chinese language or specialists in Chinese literature, four of the texts are accompanied by partial or complete English translations and may be of interest to world history teachers.

The first is 300 Tang Poems (Tang shi sanbai shou, 1763), an 18th-century anthology of Tang poems by Sun Zhu. Sun intended his anthology to be used as a literary primer that would simultaneously serve the didactic purpose of cultivating character. Containing representative works in all the classical poetic forms and well-known works by prominent Tang poets, this collection has remained popular and in print to this day. Especially useful for specialists and nonspecialists is the fully functional search engine that allows one to search the entire text (which is completely bilingual) by poetic genre, author, title, or keyword. Instructors in world history might use this text to explore the flourishing of Chinese civilization during the Tang period when the Chinese empire expanded into Central Asia. Poetic themes of cosmopolitanism and warfare on the frontiers might also be explored.

A second text that world history teachers may find useful is the Yu Xuan Ji (Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji). (This is an online version of David Young and Jian I. Lin, The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji [bilingual edition], 1998.) This collection consists of the 49 poems of a young poetess named Yu Xuanji (844-871) and provides a window into the life of a woman during the late Tang period. Teachers might use this text to dispel, or at least complicate, the common perception that women in traditional China were victims of an oppressive patriarchy that denied them education, physical and social mobility, or positive identities as gifted philosophers, poets, and artists. Unlike the 300 Tang Poems, there is no search engine for this site.

The other texts in English are the Book of Odes (Shijing) and Ancient Ballads and Proverbs (Gu Yao Yan, ca. mid-1800s). The first is fully bilingual and consists of 311 poems dating from the Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BCE) to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE). It is divided into four sections: (1) poems or folk songs from ordinary people; (2) poems or songs concerning life of the nobility; (3) poems or songs in praise of rulers; and (4) hymns written for religious ceremonies of the court. The second text consists of ballads and proverbs dating from the ancient period (as early as 17th century BCE) to the Ming period (1368-1644). Only 34 of the 100 chapters have been translated into English. Unfortunately, neither text is currently searchable.

In general, all of these sites may be used to explore with students the place and use of poetry in Chinese society at different periods in time. Why was poetry deemed important? How does this compare to the poetic traditions of other civilizations? What can literary sources tell us about historical developments, popular sentiments, or the lives of women?

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