Insects in Chinese Literature: A Study and Anthology

by Wilt L. Idema


This book is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

Despite the “nonhuman” turn in the humanities, studies of animals in Chinese culture are still quite limited in number, while studies of insects in literature are even rarer and tend to focus on only a few aspects, such as cricket fights. The available studies on insects in Chinese literature are almost exclusively limited to insects in Chinese classical poetry, and so provide only a very limited view of the many ways in which insects have been viewed in Chinese culture at large.

This book helps to fill this gap. The first part of this volume begins with the fascination of modern author Lu Xun with entomological literature and satiric animal tales from the West. The book then traces the characterization of individual insects in three thousand years of classical Chinese poetry, from the ancient Book of Odes to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), as emblems of virtues and vices. Separate chapters are dedicated to the selfless and diligent silkworm, the pure and outspoken cicada, the social organization of the ants and the bees (as well as the philandering tendencies of bees and butterflies), fighting crickets and disastrous locusts, slanderous flies, and sly mosquitoes, as well as body parasites as lice, fleas, and bedbugs. Each chapter includes extensive translations, highlighting lesser-known aspects of well-known poets and introducing original works by lesser-known authors.

Preceding the second part of the book is a short intermezzo devoted to insects in classical and vernacular narrative literature, which shows a preference for tales in which insects appear in human shape. The second part of the book delves into the popular literature of late imperial China, in which insects spoke their minds in the formal settings of weddings, funerals, wars, and court cases. A representative selection of such ballads and plays is discussed and translated and is followed by an epilogue, which contrasts the treatments of insects in Chinese and Western literature.

By contrasting the ways in which traditional Chinese belles lettres, traditional classical and vernacular literature, and popular songs and ballads treat insects, it becomes clear that each of these written traditions portrays insects in particular in its own way: as examples of virtues and vices, as fairies and demons in human guise, and as contentious characters speaking in their own voice. While some insects basically remain the same in all three traditions, other insects show unique characteristics in each tradition. Spiders, for instance, transform from wily hunters in classical poetry, to exhibitionists maidens in vernacular narrative, and to champions of justice in popular songs and ballads. Last but not least, the search for texts on insects reveals many works of considerable literary value which are presented in highly readable renditions.

Insects in Chinese Literature will be of interest to all persons who are interested in Chinese literature and comparative literature, all those who are interested in insects in Chinese culture at large, and all those who are interested in cultural entomology and animal studies.


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