Texts and Transformations: Essays in Honor of the 75th Birthday of Victor H. Mair

by Haun Saussy


*This book was unveiled as a surprise at the 2018 Association for Asian Studies (AAS) conference in Washington, DC. For more details, photos, and a video of the event with speeches by Professors Haun Saussy and Victor Mair, see the Cambria Press blog post.

*Includes 37 B&W images.

From the introduction by Haun Saussy:

“Whatever moved the people of a thousand years ago to wall up a roomful of documents, one consequence, unknowable at the time, of their action was to create the conditions for the emergence of the scholarly species we know as Victor Mair. Victor Mair’s mind is Dunhuangian, if the expression may be permitted: polyglot, heteroclite, multimedia, syncretic, vernacular, with strong currents flowing from presumed margins to presumed center and back again. It contains a well-organized Indo-Chinese compartment and holds items from many other linguistic areas arranged in singular ways. It is a Silk Road kind of mind, a place of interaction, exchange, and overlay. […] Although fluent in such genres as translation, annotation, didactic expansion, stylistic appreciation, ingenious allegory, identification of common threads, life and works, intercultural comparison, and reframing, Victor Mair has always been drawn to the mystery genre. In even the best-settled accounts of literature and culture, something requires explanation. With his roving attention and boundless curiosity, Victor Mair keeps Chinese studies on the move. The essays of this book—with their breadth of concern, their carefully documented scholarship, and the boldness of some of their conclusions—is a fitting homage to Victor Mair, whose readers, students, and colleagues have long recognized the same qualities in him.”

The volume opens with a chapter by Perry Link on one of Victor Mair’s favorite topics—the eternally controversial conundrums of translation. Link notes that “What good translators actually do, and Victor’s translations of Lao-Zhuang texts could be exhibit A for this, might better be called ‘live re-creation.’”

Translation figures largely in the second chapter by Mabel Lee on Gao Xingjian as well, for at the same time as he was writing Bus Stop and Soul Mountain, Gao was translating Prévert and Ionesco and writing critically on Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Brecht, and Artaud. Gao’s “absurdist aesthetics,” however, is an original formulation sprung from the contact, in a restless and searching mind, of Chan Buddhism with the Theatre of the Absurd, and Lee illuminates this in her study.

The heavy hand of politics on Chinese twentieth-century writing gives the background to the third chapter by David Der-wei Wang on Sinophone literature. In what he calls “postloyalism,” “the politics of anachrony and displacement,” Wang sees a project of cultural reclamation, an “intervention with China” from several places of “heterotemporality.”

In the next chapter, mice occupy a “heterotopia” at the edges of human habitation—an alternate world structured, according to the New Year’s prints and ballads examined by Wilt Idema, exactly like the human one. The folk tale examined by Idema, with its many variants in China, links up with motifs from Europe, ancient Egypt, Persia and Turkey, indeed from wherever settled agricultural societies are found.

The interplay of agriculture, climate, settlement, and technology forms the basis of the next two chapters: Nicola di Cosmo explores the alliance between the Tang and Uyghur empires at the moment of Manichaeism’s widest spread, while Mark Bender writes on the significance of hunting equipment in “origin stories, creation myth-epics, ritual and folk songs, bridal capture tales, migration and colonization narratives, legendary accounts of wars, personal narratives/hunting tales, folk dramas, festival, crafting narratives,” and the like from minority regions of China.

Next, ties to outside cultures are foregrounded in the cultural conversion narrative described by Emma Teng, whose chapter examines a nineteenth-century story about an Englishwoman who adopts Chinese language, dress, and deportment. Both a reflection on debates of the time and a “what if?” work of narrative speculation, Wang Tao’s “The Story of Mary” from 1887 or thereabouts provokes reflection on the category of Chineseness and looks forward to the Sinophone interrogations of our time.

This is followed by a chapter on boundary-crossing women, the center of Ellen Widmer’s study, both thematic and bibliographical, of the late-Qing romance Nü yuhua. The novel, full of superhuman exploits and defiance of then-current law and morals, must have been extremely provocative for the readership of 1904, and Widmer sees in its illustrations some attempt to soften it.

Next, Jerome Silbergeld takes us, in spirit, through several masterpieces of the Chinese art of garden design in order to reveal the thought that went into planning each turn, contrast, or vista. As Silbergeld deftly shows, gardens are not merely places for entertaining “a green thought in a green shade”; they “tease us into thought,” memory, and comparison.

The arrival of Buddhist teaching expanded the Chinese universe in many dimensions—in time, in space, and in ontological possibility. The group of the next five chapters that concludes the book retraces the consequences of the expansion, indeed explosion, that resulted from the shoehorning of the Buddhist shijie into the traditional Chinese tianxia.

Koichi Shinohara’s study of Fotudeng (232–348), a foreign monk who found a succession of patrons partly through his ability to overcome natural and human disasters, present him as exemplary of many similar cases, evincing “a common culture of spell practice” that Shinohara then further relates to questions of ritual, the use of images, and the invocation of deities in this phase of Esoteric Buddhism.

The legal status of monks and nuns—their relative, absolute or nonexistent exemption from corvée labor, taxation, and other requirements—was a matter of intense dispute between members of the samgha and Chinese officials ever since the first monastic establishments were created, at a moment of disorder and fragmentation in the Chinese state. Phyllis Granoff retraces the uneasy relation between monastics and the legal system in Indic texts.

If the Buddhist samgha had any inalienable privilege, one reasons, surely it should have been that of managing its internal doctrinal affairs: of deciding which texts were to be maintained in the canon, how those texts were to be interpreted, and which versions or translations were to be adopted in doubtful cases. But as Tanya Storch shows in her essay, successive Chinese dynasties sought opportunistically to intervene in the processes of canon formation, and traces of this manipulation subsist in the catalogues and histories usually considered internal to the Buddhist establishment.

Tansen Sen’s essay looks at medieval world history through the travel writings of the Tang monk Yijing, who traveled to India and Sumatra in search of Buddhist monuments, learning, and texts. (A translation by Yijing is the basis of the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish that eventually gave rise to the Dunhuang scroll that plays such a large part in Mair’s T’ang Transformation Texts.)

A cosmopolis, however vast, must be bounded in space and in time; whoever proposes an account of the world must conceive of its beginning, end, and change. The imaginative construction of “the last days of the Dharma” in Heian Japan and Liao-dynasty China is the subject of the last chapter by Mimi Yiengpruksawan.

The depth and breadth of Texts and Transformations, like the many works of its honoree, will be a most welcome addition to scholars in Asian studies.


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