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Bridge to the Past

The Treasure House of Chinese Classics, the most influential book series on traditional Chinese culture in Taiwan’s publishing history, has built a bridge between modern common readers and traditional culture

By NewsChina Updated Jun.5

How to merge traditional culture and modern lifestyles in a global cultural landscape has been a concern of Chinese intellectuals for more than a century.  

In the oceans of ancient Chinese books, what classics are still necessary for modern readers? The Treasure House of Chinese Classics series gives a clear answer. The 60-volume series is regarded as the most influential popular classics series in Taiwan’s publishing history. 

The series has selected 60 of its “essential and best-read classics” from over 250,000 ancient texts, such as The Book of Poetry, The Analects, Tao Te Ching, Zhuangzi, Records of the Grand Historian and Zizhi Tongjian. Texts have been chosen to cover various fields of traditional Chinese culture, including philosophy, history, religion, literature, art, geography, agriculture and ancient technology.  

Each volume is finely written and interpreted by 60 renowned writers and scholars in Chinese literature, history and culture, including acclaimed writer and editor Jan Hung-Tze, prose writer Zhang Xiaofeng, linguist Lo Seo-Gim, historian Lei Jiaji and literary scholar Wang Meng’ou.  

First published in 1981 by the China Times Publishing Company in Taiwan, The Treasure House of Chinese Classics was well-received and became a milestone in Taiwan’s publishing history. More than five million copies have been sold and it has been reprinted each year. 
The series was first introduced to the Chinese mainland in 2013, and a reprinted edition was published by Jiuzhou Press in April this year. 
“By reading it, one may find the cultural genes that bind the ancient, modern and contemporary Chinese together and see the process of how the genes were formed, evolved and deconstructed, and then reformed, re-evolved and reconstructed,” the writer Liang Xiaosheng comments. 

Tradition or Modernity  

“We all know that Chinese traditional culture was greatly suppressed after the May Fourth Movement. On the Chinese mainland, traditional culture was crushed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Taiwan also suppressed its culture, but with the ceaseless efforts of cultural scholars such as Qian Mu, Xu Fuguan and Mou Zongsan, the vein of our culture has been maintained and continued,” Zheng Chuangqi, deputy editor in general of Jiuzhou Press, said during the book launch of The Chinese Classics on April 18.  

The May Fourth Movement, one part of the New Culture Movement, was an intellectual revolution and sociopolitical reform movement that traced its roots to May 4, 1919. The movement was directed toward Chinese national independence and rebuilding society and culture. During the New Culture Movement, young intellectuals almost wholly repudiated traditional culture and exalted Western ideas, particularly science and democracy. The New Culture Movement greatly accelerated China’s pace toward modernization, but broke the bones of traditional Chinese culture. 
Initially, the industry saw the publication of The Treasure House of Chinese Classics as an unbelievably bold venture, considering its gigantic quantity, high price and popular indifference toward traditional culture at the time.  

In the late 1970s when Taiwan’s economy had yet to take off, it was hard to imagine the prospect of a multi-volume series selling for 20,000 NTD (US$668) – the rough equivalent of three months’ income for a typical Taiwanese high school teacher. To promote sales, the China Times Publishing Company even launched a campaign, in which a fine bookcase was offered as a bonus for each customer who bought the series. 
In Taiwan, in the aftermath of the New Culture Movement, the arm wrestling between Chinese and Western cultures continued into the late 1970s. The economy, social development, school curriculum and urban planning of Taiwan were thick with the aura of modernization. Young Taiwanese showed a great interest in Western technology, literature and art, and they rushed to Western countries to study, turning their backs on traditional culture. 
It seemed odd to highlight traditional culture in the modernization-oriented economic, social and cultural environment of the time. 
“We knew it was not easy, but the work must be done. We hoped that the series could enter each household and every parent could prepare it for their children as a way for young Chinese to cherish our culture. To publish this series was a significant cultural movement and cultural program back then in Taiwan,” Taiwan-born scholar and thinker Gong Pengcheng, a professor at the Chinese department Peking University, told NewsChina. Gong participated in editing the Journey to the West volume of the series. 
Gong said that in the 1950s and the mid-60s, Taiwan scholars were most concerned with the political question of whether to choose centralization or democracy. From the mid-60s to the 1970s, the most-debated question among intellectuals was the direction of culture. 
“This book series gave a straight answer to the problem of whether society should go back to traditional culture or embrace modernity. We need to sail toward modernization, but we need to know more about ourselves, seek our own cultural roots, know how our culture was born and grew, so we can stride toward a better modern society,” Gong said. 
Gong said the series would have not been a success were it not for the ceaseless efforts of the acclaimed Taiwanese writer, editor and publisher Kao Hsin-chiang. 
Kao played an active role in promoting Chinese culture in Taiwan. He was once the chief editor of Human Realm, the literary supplement of the China Times (Taiwan’s leading newspaper). Kao and his wife Ko Yuan-hsing, chief publisher at the China Times Publishing Company, were determined to create a series of books on the most essential texts in Chinese culture. 
In 1966, former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek launched the Chinese Culture Revival Movement, which saw a large number of annotated ancient classics published. 
However, from Kao’s perspective, these publications were too academic to be understood by the public, which made the purpose of popularizing classics “hit the rocks,” as he wrote in the preface of the first edition of the series.
“Our decision to edit, compile and publish The Treasure House of Chinese Classics is a reflection and reaffirmation of our path of classics popularization,” Kao wrote.  

In Common Words  

The series was first introduced to the Chinese mainland in 2013. Two more classics have been added in the latest reprinted version: the ancient Chinese divination text I Ching, also known as Book of Changes, and the classic doctrine of Confucianism, Zhongyong.
A clear message of the series is that Chinese classics should be shared by all, not available only to a small privileged community of humanist scholars.  

“A large number of these classic Chinese texts were written by common people for the common people. Why did we cast aside the treasure trove that was prepared for us?” Kao wrote. 
“Accessibility is one outstanding feature of the series. Take The Analects as an example. Unlike the one annotated by the famous philologist Yang Bojun and published by the Zhonghua Book Company, which is too academic for the public, The Analects in this series is presented in a simple style for young readers,” Zheng  
Chuangqi told NewsChina.
The selected text in the series has been interpreted and rewritten in modern Chinese by renowned scholars and writers. To popularize and promote these classics, the writers had to make some bold changes to the original texts.
Ordinary readers might shrink at the sight of the quantity of Zizhi Tongjian, the historiography by Sima Guang and others from 1084 AD that consists of 294 volumes. Here, historian Lei Jiaji has shortened it into a single book and rewritten it in a more accessible, popular style.
At the same time, some short classic texts in the series have been expanded. The 5,000-word Tao Te Ching has been thoroughly annotated, interpreted and rewritten into a 100,000-word book by the scholar Yu Peilin.
The series gives each ancient classic a modern title, such as Chinese Holy Book, Analects and Mirror of Emperors: Zizhi Tongjian. Shishuo Xinyu, a book consisting of over 1,000 short historical anecdotes, is given the title, Tweets of the Six Dynasties. Liaozhai Zhiyi, translated as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a collection of nearly 500 mostly supernatural tales from the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), is given the title A Ghost Talk in the Melon Shed.
In an interview with People.cn, the renowned cultural scholar and writer Yu Qiuyu described the series as “a happy visit to traditional culture in common words and modern thinking.”  

Build a Bridge 

In the latest book launch, history scholar Yan Chongnian said The Treasure House of Chinese Classics had built a bridge between popular readers and classic culture. 

“Reading it is worthwhile. Different levels of readers can choose their own way to read the series. Experienced readers with a knowledge of classics can turn directly to the original text while popular readers can read the modern language version and understand the essence of the classics with the assistance of thorough interpretation,” Yan said. 
“I myself resolved to read one volume every month, and finish the entire series in five years,” he added.
Yan shared a story that impressed him during his visit to Taiwan in 2007. He asked the same question of three Taiwanese reporters who interviewed him, “Can you recite the whole Analects and Mencius?” The three answered that they could. 

“Later I was told that, in Taiwan, if students couldn’t recite the entire Analects and Mencius, they can’t graduate from high school. Then I asked the same questions to a few of my Taiwanese friends, who were all above 50, and they responded confidently that they could recite them right now right here. I was so impressed by that,” Yan said. 

Why is it important for modern readers to read the classics? From the perspective of Yu Shicun, a writer and distinguished researcher at the graduate school of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, modern Chinese could lose their sense of “self” if they don’t have the right attitude toward their own culture. 
“Chinese intellectuals haven’t helped Chinese people settle down with our own culture very well. It leads to the sad fact that a large number of Chinese see emigrating to foreign lands as their ultimate life goal. Even many Chinese scholars see it as their life’s purpose to find a job in international academia and get their children to emigrate to another country,” Yu said in a speech at the book launch. 
“We have yet to establish a consistent attitude toward our own culture. As a result, young people shy away from traditional culture, oblivious to the fact that life should be supported by knowledge of the classics. It is far from enough for individuals to live and seek for their ‘self’ in society and never reflect on classical culture. Without the backbone of classics, the ‘self’ could just be a castle in the clouds,” Yu said. 
Yu Qiuyu argues one thing that turns ordinary readers away from traditional Chinese culture is that many complacent intellectuals with a smattering of culture tend to portray the ancestors as pedantic metaphysicists and moralists.
“The Treasure House of Chinese Classics shows a totally different picture of Chinese culture, full of vivid life stories, wit, interesting ideas and imagination. Ancient philosophical thoughts are presented in a free, diverse and not-in-the-least pedantic way, giving readers the freedom to contemplate, select and evaluate on their own. […] It helps readers understand what the Chinese are really like,” Yu said.