Jim Grimsley's Reviews > The Scholars

The Scholars by Wu Jingzi
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really liked it

I read this book when I was in college and recently picked it up again to reread. No fear that the book would hold up; it's one of the six great books of Chinese literature, a set of classics that have been taught for generations. There's really nothing else I've read that compares to it in terms of subject or style. This is an hilarious depiction of snobbery, academia, and pretension; also of sincerity, generosity, and humanity. The whole of the Chinese world falls into these pages. Well, that sentence sounds a bit pretentious, since I don't know the whole of China; but the book is exhaustive and convincing in its depiction of every sort of daily life from the era. The structure of it is intricate and unusual; it's described as being more like a collection of stories than a novel, but the real structure is more complicated than that. We meet a character, follow his life through a problem, maybe for an extended period of time, and then something happens - often a meal, a drinking session, a feast, a poetry-writing contest - and a new character enters. There is a kind of fadeout of the old episode and then we follow the new character. As though as readers we are meandering through the world ourselves. The world itself is fascinating. In every context there is a means of reinforcing the social hierarchy; at dinner parties, for instance, the guests sit in ranked positions. There are constant discussions of who should bow and who should not. Characters exist in terms of family obligations, friendships, social position, and debts. And food. There is so much food. After three days of reading I'm starved for pork dumplings. This is the kind of writing that Isak Dinesan refers to as "tale" rather than modern story; the inner lives of the characters are absent except for occasional glimpses. The story is driven by events, by the plain outline of what happens, and in this way covers an enormous territory. It falters in the last third in my opinion; the episodes become less certain and more muddled. But it is a magnificent book. This particular edition has gorgeous woodcut illustrations in it depicting the various scenes. A treasure.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 11, 2020 – Shelved

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