New look at cultural icons

Updated: 2014-01-28 07:55

By Mei Jia (China Daily)

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A team of contemporary experts is taking fresh pens to some of China's leading lights in a new biography series, Mei Jia reports.

A team of select literary professionals has been invited to refresh China's cultural history by contributing to a new series of biographies. Writers Publishing House plans 120 books published in Chinese - the first 10 just released - to give a fresh, contemporary perspective on more than 120 masters of culture. The team of writers, researchers and biographers began the ambitious publishing project 21 months ago, highlighting key cultural figures who lived in eras ranging from the 4th century BC to the late 20th century. The series will take another five years to complete.

He Jianming, director of the project's editorial committee, says the committee selected the list of masters and their respective biographers with great care. The publishers even organized two experts' teams - one of history academics and the other literature critics - to evaluate the works and ensure that they're factual, original and fun to read.

 New look at cultural icons

A new biography series sheds light on the country's masters of culture, such as philosopher Zhuang Zi (top left), scholar Liang Qichao (top right), Shi Nai'an, author of Outlaws of the Marsh, and Cao Xueqin, author of A Dream of Red Mansions. Photos Provided to China Daily

"We chose literary writers who can do research as well as history researchers who can write fictional works well," He says, adding the biographers included award-winning writers Wang Meng, Zhang Wei and the late Zhou Ruchang.

"We haven't had books like this before. The existing biographies are either too dry to read for non-academic readers, or too distorted and too fictitious to be credible," says Zheng Xinmiao, culture expert and former curator of the Palace Museum.

The big number and range of biographies, Zheng says, will "present the contour of Chinese culture as a whole".

The biographers are combing a vast number of known resources and also tracing their subjects in different parts of China, sometimes making new discoveries.

To Hebei-based He Xiangjiu, a veteran writer known for his studies on Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) scholar Ji Xiaolan, writing a biography of Ji for the project means rediscovering him as a great man caught in tumultuous times.

With his witty speech in a TV series, Ji is vividly portrayed as the emperors' beloved subject and smart fighter against the villainous official He Shen. In reality, he was more a serious scholar who led the editing of Siku Quanshu (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries), the largest book collection in Chinese history.

"Ji was a typical Chinese intellectual with classical values, struggling between conscience and self-protection," He says. "His inner world, rarely revealed in other works about him, makes him real and attractive," he adds.

To veteran scholar Zhou Ruchang and poet Han Zuo-rong, the project became the last chance to summarize their lifelong learning.

Zhou, the country's leading scholar in the study of the classic novel A Dream of Red Mansions, completed five books on the novel's author Cao Xueqin. Zhou died in May 2012 before completing his last book on Cao for the current series, but his daughter carried on the work. The result is the most authoritative biography on the master in 70 years; it is among the first 10 books recently launched by Writers Publishing House.

Like Zhou, poet Han died before seeing his contribution to the series in print. When he died in November, Han had just finished the draft of his book on Li Bai, Chinese "immortal poet" in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

The editorial committee sees the books as capturing the essence of traditional culture - the significant assets the Chinese should inherit. They also hope the books could elaborate the basic cultural spirits that shape the Chinese people and their society, and avoid being what one member called "old wine in new bottles".

"How we write about our history shows our stance and attitude as contemporaries," says writer He Xiangjiu.

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(China Daily 01/28/2014 page22)