Shih-shuo Hsin-yü: A New Account of Tales of the World

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Shih-shuo Hsin-yü: A New Account of Tales of the World, attributed to Liu I-ch’ing, with commentary by Liu Chün, trans. Richard B. Mather.
Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, 1976; Second Edition, 2002; reprinted 2018. 735 pages. 
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

This is exactly the kind of thing you know doesn’t exist, couldn’t possibly exist, will never exist—and then here it is. It must be said that this is one of the supreme conveniences of being a native speaker of English: even books like this get translated.


Why am I speaking this way. Because. This text, you have to understand, was concocted in the early 5th century AD. It is a vast set of numbered anecdotes, very largely consisting of smart replies (sometimes by children), exemplary acts of generosity or respectfulness, remarkable incidents involving drunkenness and/or nudity, preposterous behavior in general, deceitfulness, mercy, taunting, ostentation, supernaturally quick judgment—and so on. The book is very strongly invested in recording verbal wit, a great deal of which depends on allusions that were already becoming obscure in the 5th century to the Chinese themselves. Hence, a vast apparatus was rigged up by Liu Jun, who died in 521 AD. Commentary, parallel quotations, cross-referencing—the whole kit. 


In order to translate something like this, you would have to Know Everything, and you’d need a minimum of ten years all to yourself, nothing else to do. Those conditions can never obtain, and so books like this cannot exist. And mostly they don’t. But then, once in a blue moon with a rabbit on it, somebody like this “Richard M. Mather” comes along, who’s wiling to devote his or her whole life to getting this one thing right.


But is the book actually good—? Well, I’ll be honest. To me, it’s a swell day at the water park, but I care a lot about this period of Chinese history. I do think you have to already care. You have to already know who these guys are. Does the name “Cao Cao” mean anything to you? How about “Wang Xizhi”? Right, so this might not be for you. It’s not like with Boswell’s Life of Johnson, where you read the book and get interested in the period. You have to bring to this table an already lively interest in the roughly 200 years following the breakup of the Han Dynasty.


Unless you’re just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, in which case, knock yourself out. It’s like forty bucks, online.


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).