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The four classic novels of Chinese literature

Water Margin, Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber; these four novels form the core of Chinese classical literature and still inform modern culture. As with Dante or Shakespeare in Europe, they are touchstones to which Chinese literary culture persistently returns to discover new relevance and fresh insight.

Dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, these four novels are the bedrock of Chinese literary culture. Their influence has spread across Asia to inform elements of Japanese, Korean and South East Asian mythology. The writing and dissemination of these four works marked the emergence of the novel form in China as a counterpart to more refined philosophical and poetic works. The more expansive form of the novel allowed for a synthesis of the historical and the mythological, whilst also developing along more accessible narrative lines. These works thus marked a limited but notable democratization of literature which is perhaps most evident in their use of vernacular Chinese, rather than the Classical Chinese which had previously dominated. These four works also revealed the novel’s potential to embrace a multitude of perspectives, and to allow for irony; this permitted writers to voice previously suppressed critiques about the ruling order, whilst also expressing the vast multitude of voices which made up the Chinese populace.

Water Margin

Published in the 14th century, Water Margin was the first of the four classical novels to be released, and introduced the vernacular form and style which the others would adhere to. The title has been translated in a number of ways, including as Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, All Men Are Brothers, Men of the Marshes, or The Marshes of Mount Liang, and whilst doubts persist over the identity of the author, most attribute it to Shi Nai’an, a writer from Suzhou. The novel is set in the Song dynasty and depicts a group of outlaws who eventually go on to serve the Emperor in battling foreign invaders. It was based on the real life story of the outlaw Song Jiang, who was defeated by the Emperor in the 12th century, and whose gang of 36 outlaws came to populate folk tales throughout China…

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8 best books on South-east Asia

South-east Asia has undeniably had its fair share of war and torment through the centuries, from colonisation in Malaysia to communist rule in Cambodia and civil war in Vietnam.

But in the 21st century, the countries are recovering from their pasts and are instead known by nicknames such as Cambodia’s The Land of Smiles and the Philippines’ moniker, The Pearl of the Orient Seas.

There are beautiful beaches, incredible mountains and welcoming people. You have super-modern cities and ancient temples, which combined form the fascinating area we call South-east Asia.

And if you can’t get there to see it for yourself, read about it. We selected eight books covering the region. This list includes a mix of new releases and some older titles that have become classics of their genre.

1. First They Killed my Father by Loung Ung: £7.99, Mainstream Publishing

Loung Ung’s story caught the attention of Angelina Jolie, who is currently directing a film for Netflix of her harrowing early life. Ung was forced to leave the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to become a child soldier at just five years old when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army captured the city. This non-fiction book graphically retells the story of a family – and nation – torn apart. She vividly describes the sight and smell of rotting corpses and being forced to eat whatever scraps they could get their hands on, and the terror and loss suffered by so many. It’s a story of survival that will grip you and not let go, even after you’ve turned the final page.

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2. Smaller and Smaller Circles by FH Batacan: £7.99, Soho Press

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Inside the OED: Can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?

In February 2009, a Twitter user called @popelizbet issued an apparently historic challenge to someone called Colin: she asked if he could “mansplain” a concept to her. History has not recorded if he did, indeed, proceed to mansplain. But the lexicographer Bernadette Paton, who excavated this exchange last summer, believed it was the first time anyone had used the word in recorded form. “It’s been deleted since, but we caught it,” Paton told me, with quiet satisfaction.

In her office at Oxford University Press, Paton was drafting a brand new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary. Also in her in-tray when I visited were the millennial-tinged usage of “snowflake”, which she had hunted down to a Christian text from 1983 (“You are a snowflake. There are no two of you alike”), and new shadings of the compound “self-made woman”. Around 30,000 such items are on the OED master list; another 7,000 more pile up annually. “Everyone thinks we’re very slow, but it’s actually rather fast,” Paton said. “Though admittedly a colleague did spend a year revising ‘go’”.

Spending 12 months tracing the history of a two-letter word seems dangerously close to folly. But the purpose of a historical dictionary such as the OED is to give such questions the solemnity they deserve. An Oxford lexicographer might need to snoop on Twitter spats from a decade ago; or they might have to piece together a painstaking biography of one of the oldest verbs in the language (the revised entry for “go” traces 537 separate senses over 1,000 years). “Well, we have to get things right,” the dictionary’s current chief editor, Michael Proffitt, told me.

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Remembering the conscience keeper

It is time to recite poems of Raghuvir Sahay as they not only relate to woes of the common man but are also in sync with the socio-political reality of today.

Why are poets like Kabir, Tulsidas, Rahim, Ghalib or Faiz considered to be great? The answer to this question lies in our urge to repeatedly visit and revisit them on account of their relevance to our lives. In different everyday situations, lines from their poetry come to our mind without any effort on our part as they fit those situations so well, shed light on them and illuminate them to make us comprehend them better. At a time when the country is witnessing fundamental changes in its political, economic, social and cultural life and anti-democratic tendencies are bent upon creating a fear psychosis, Raghuvir Sahay (December 9, 1929-December 30, 1990) is one of the few modern Hindi poets whose poetry continues to resonate in one’s mind because of its ability to bring the irony of the situation and the helplessness of the ordinary citizen into sharp relief.

Besides being a front-ranking poet, Raghuvir Sahay was also the editor of news weekly Dinman which, for nearly two decades, remained the most prestigious and respected magazine in Hindi. Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan, known to the literary world as “Agyeya”, had conceptualised and launched the magazine in 1965, bringing together talents like Raghuvir Sahay, Manohar Shyam Joshi, Shrikant Verma and Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena on its staff.

Starting young

In 1969, he handed over the baton to Raghuvir Sahay who had already worked as a journalist in Hindi dailies Navjeevan and Navbharat Times, and the news division of the All India Radio. Sahay edited Dinman from 1969 to 1982 with such great distinction that it was compared with Time and Newsweek.

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Even what doesn’t happen is epic

The revival of science fiction in China

Science fiction isn’t new to China, as Cixin Liu explains in Invisible Planets, an introduction to Chinese sci-fi by some of its most prominent authors, but good science fiction is. The first Chinese sci-fi tales appeared at the turn of the 20th century, written by intellectuals fascinated by Western technology. ‘At its birth,’ Cixin writes, science fiction ‘became a tool of propaganda for the Chinese who dreamed of a strong China free of colonial depredations’. One of the earliest stories was written by the scholar Liang Qichao, a leader of the failed Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, and imagined a Shanghai World’s Fair, a dream that didn’t become a reality until 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, given the degree of idealistic fervour that followed Mao’s accession, very little utopian science fiction was produced under communism (in the Soviet Union there was plenty, at least initially). What little there was in China was written largely for children and intended to educate; it stuck to the near future and didn’t venture beyond Mars. By the 1980s Chinese authors had begun to write under the influence of Western science fiction, but their works were suppressed because they drew attention to the disparity in technological development between China and the West. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when Deng’s reforms began to bite, that Chinese science fiction experienced what Cixin calls a ‘renaissance’.

Cixin himself has been at the forefront of the scene since the 1990s. He is the first Asian writer to receive a Hugo award (in 2015), and the author whose work best captures the giddying, libidinous pace of the Chinese economic boom. His monumental Three-Body Trilogy – first published between 2006 and 2010, and recently translated into English by Ken Liu, a Chinese-American sci-fi writer – is Chinese science fiction’s best-known work. Barack Obama is a fan, and the forthcoming movie adaptations are already being described as ‘China’s Star Wars’. The trilogy concerns the catastrophic consequences of humanity’s attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials (it turns out that the reason we haven’t heard from aliens yet is that we’re the only species thick enough to reveal our own location in the universe). It is one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written. The story begins during the Cultural Revolution and ends 18,906,416 years into the future. There is a scene in ancient Byzantium, and a scene told from the perspective of an ant. The first book is set on Earth, though several of its scenes take place in virtual reality representations of Qin dynasty China and ancient Egypt; by the end of the third book, the stage has expanded to encompass an intercivilisational war that spans not only the three-dimensional universe but other dimensions too.

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John Berger contemplates life and death at the graveside of Mahmoud Darwish

A few days after our return from what was thought of, until recently, as the future state of Palestine, and which is now the world’s largest prison (Gaza) and the world’s largest waiting room (the West Bank), I had a dream.

I was alone, standing, stripped to the waist, in a sandstone desert. Eventually somebody else’s hand scooped up some dusty soil from the ground and threw it at my chest. It was a considerate rather than an aggressive act. The soil or gravel changed, before it touched me, into torn strips of cloth, probably cotton, which wrapped themselves around my torso. Then these tattered rags changed again and became words, phrases. Written not by me but by the place.

Remembering this dream, the invented word landswept came to my mind. Repeatedly. Landswept describes a place or places where everything, both material and immaterial, has been brushed aside, purloined, swept away, blown down, irrigated off, everything except the touchable earth.

There’s a small hill called Al Rabweh on the western outskirts of Ramallah, it’s at the end of Tokyo street. Near the top of this hill the poet Mahmoud Darwish is buried. It’s not a cemetery.

The street is named Tokyo because it leads to the city’s Cultural Centre, which is at the foot of the hill, and was built thanks to Japanese funding.

It was in this Centre that Darwish read some of his poems for the last time—though no one then supposed it would be the last. What does the word last mean in moments of desolation?

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11 Books and their 11 spectacular trees

From Italo Calvino’s Oaks to Arundhati Roy’s Mangosteens, trees have been the stuff of inspiration for as long as we’ve told stories

The year after I graduated college, I was broke. Hungry broke. So broke that I didn’t need to set an alarm clock, because my growling stomach would wake me up every morning at seven. I was living in the last house at the dead-end of a dirt road at the top of a mountain in southern Vermont, surrounded by forest, and every morning I’d get up, pour myself a small bowl of Cheerios, and read. And look at the trees. And then read some more.

That fall, I put cereal on the table by working as a woodcutter. For ten dollars an hour, I’d swing a maul, over and again, splitting piles of firewood for the winter — oak, hickory, birch, ash, locust, beech — and then I’d go home to my books. I read most of Shakespeare’s plays that year, and Goethe’s Faust, and Nietzsche’s collected works. I dove into Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, and I read and reread Invisible Man. It was the year I discovered Rebecca Solnit and reacquainted myself with Willa Cather. When I got paid, I’d go to the used bookstore, pick up a few titles, and then return home to read and contemplate the trees.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that my own book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent (forthcoming in 2018), is about trees and what happened when certain nineteenth-century Americans, skeptical about the social and environmental costs of capitalist progress, looked out at them. I spent ten years reading everything about trees and culture that I could; yet what I read is only a fraction of what’s out there — even in English. It seems that humans have never tired of writing about the sylvan world.

Here are a few of those books, and a handful of the trees I discovered, a highly idiosyncratic list, that have helped to define my life. Maybe some of them will guide you through your inner forest.

Tree: Wolf Willow
Book: Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier, by Wallace Stegner

Stegner moved frequently as a child, but he spent his boyhood in southern Sasketchewan on what was the last North American frontier. His book begins when the middle-aged Stegner returns, for the first time, to his hometown, only to find it utterly strange, until he crushes a few leaves of the scrubby, silver-leafed wolf willow, and brings it to his nose. What ensues is a Proustian remembrance that blends fiction, lightly fictionalized memoir, history, and philosophy of history — “a librarian’s nightmare,” Stegner called it — every page of which is bewitching.

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Rewriting myths for the modern world

Dec 31, 2017-Poet Madhav Prasad Ghimire once described Ghanashyam Kandel as a writer capable of making nature cry, but had Kandel not won the Madan Puraskar, the prestigious literary award in Nepal, most readers would have never encountered his poetic vision.

He is one of the few writers, who believes that an artist exists as the vehicle of his work and once the book is written the writer is no longer needed––naturally, a man with such beliefs has maintained a low profile.

When you visit him at his residence in Kuleshwor, his personality can challenge the popular, even mythical image of a writer––reading his works, one might imagine him to be an eccentric man bent on changing the ethos of religious myths, but when you meet him, he will only complain to you about the throes of old age.  However, prompt him to speak about language and literature, and he might as well forget that he exists in a body. For a few seconds, he stammers and struggles to find words, but soon he enters into an eloquent soliloquy explaining to you the intricacies of this or that piece of literature. And, as he speaks he can recall from memory some of his favourite lines to explain his thought. “K ho Jiwan ko satya Janna Sakdainan kohi pani/ payeko jindagi bhogna byekti badya cha thehi pani—this is what Dhritarastra felt and I feel this too… I saw the injustice in society and fought against it, but I also cannot claim to have understood life.”

Kandel through his literary creations has been fighting the social injustices of the modern world. He has been actively writing for over four decades, and his literary vision culminated in Dhritarastra, for which he won the literary award.

Dhritarastra is a monologue given by the blind father of the Kauravs, Dhritarastra, in the Mahabharata. Kandel said that his poem reflects on the nature of humans and the reasons for war. In the historical narrative of Mahabarata, Dhritarastra, though blind, is a morally reprehensible character with whom Krishna and the Pandavs find necessary to go to war. In Kandel’s narrative, however, that necessity is questioned, and Dhritarastra wonders if Krishna made the right call by preaching the Gita to Arjun, who became the catalyst for manslaughter during the Kurukshetra war.

“I had suffered from retina displacement and I was blind on one eye for a long time,” Kandel elucidated the inspiration behind his poem, “I was searching for a blind character to portray the woes of differently-abled people.” Despite the moral undertone of the epic poem, many criticised Kandel for distorting the myth and some who were Kandel’s friends were upset with the writer for depicting the Hindu god Krishna in a negative light. “I am interested in taking the skeleton of a mythical story and recasting them in a new light,” Kandel said, “As a writer, I am more interested in using my pen in raising the voice for social justice and my way of doing that is by deconstructing popular myths.”

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46 Books by women of colour to read in 2018

I’ve heard it argued that it’s been a banner year for books by women of color already: there’s Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 National Book Award, for one. It’s the first time the fiction prize has been conferred twice upon any black person or woman—thereby formally, prize-wise, placing Ward in the company of William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. This year’s National Book Award ten-book fiction longlist featured six titles written by women of color; three out of five 2017 New York Public Library Young Lions finalists were women of color; and so on.

But there’s such a long way to go. Look, for instance, at the New York Times’s weekly “By the Book” section, in which, to a shameless extent, prominent men continue to suggest we just read still more men’s books. Consider the fact that, as recently as this May, Leonard Chang wrote about a novel of his that was rejected by big-house publishers for not being “Asian enough.” As one editor told him, critiquing his manuscript, “You have to think about ways to make these characters more ‘ethnic,’ more different…in the scene when [a character] looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.”

As it so happens, I’m Asian; I’m publishing my debut novel this summer, and my characters, much like me, don’t spend any time contemplating their slanted eyes. If that editor had read more widely in the first place, he might previously have recognized how limiting his stereotypes might be, and he could have broken free of the rigid confines of his own narrow mind. Perhaps it’s too late for him, but it’s not for us. Let’s read more broadly; let’s try inhabiting one another’s wildly varied, entirely human points of view. It’s late in 2017, and the situation’s desperate. If we can’t imagine one another, how will we get through these next few years?

I tried, I really did, to avoid mentioning our current president, but as wicked tyrants tend to do, he poisons every day. Still, since this is a forward-looking list, a joyful celebration of what’s to come, I want to glance past him. This, too, will pass. In honor of our next president, the 46th—whoever she, he, or they might be—I picked 46 splendid novels, memoirs, anthologies, and collections I’m anticipating. These writers are here, their 2018 books are coming, and look how glorious.

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Nazm for the Messiah

Urdu poetry is replete with references to Ibn-e-Maryam, the son of Virgin Mary, writes Rakshanda Jalil in the Indian Express.

Ibn-e Maryam, the son of the Virgin Mary, is a recurring figure in Urdu poetry. Sometimes appearing as an icon of fortitude, sometimes as the healer and provider of succour and mercy, Isa Masih, as Jesus Christ is called in Urdu, is the embodiment of love that Iqbal describes as hararat li nafas-ha-e-masih-e-Ibn-e-Maryam se (“the ardour of love’s breath taken from the Son of Mary”). Perhaps the most often-quoted reference to Ibn-e Maryam is by Mirza Ghalib who called out to the saviour in this enduring couplet: Ibn-e Maryam hua kare koi / Mere dukh ki dawa kare koi (Let there be a Son of Mary / To find a cure for my grief)

And there is Ghalib again invoking the life-giving figure of Christ in this lesser-known couplet: Lab-e-Isa ki jumbish karti hai gahvara-jambani / Qayamat kushta-e-laal-e-butan ka khwab-e-sangin hai (The lips of Christ quiver like a rocking cradle / Apocalypse is the terrifying dream of the killing of the jewels of the beloved).

Darshan Singh Duggal wrote an entire poem entitled Ibn-e Maryam describing Jesus as rooh ki azmat ka aina (“the mirror reflecting the greatness of the soul”), ahinsa ka payami (“the messenger of non-violence”), the one who gladly wore the crown of thorns upon his head: Teri himmat muskurai ranj-o gham ke daar pe / Tera azm-e sarfaroshi rooh ke maidan mein (Your courage smiled at the scaffold of grief and sorrow / You had the courage to lay down your life in the field of life).

The Urdu poet, forever subversive, forever looking for new ways to invoke old icons is irresistibly drawn to the figure of Christ on the cross as this verse by Saif Zulfi demonstrates: Phaila tha masih-e-waqt ban kar / Simta to saleeb ho gaya hai (When he scattered he was like the Messiah of his Time / When he gathered, he became a crucifix).

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