A Short Discussion on the Zuo Reader with Editors Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg

To celebrate the recent release of the The Zuo Tradition / Zuozhuan Reader: Selections from China’s Earliest Narrative History, editors Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg had a virtual conversation about the guide to the study of early Chinese culture and thought. Below is their conversation.

Wai-yee Li: Our intention in putting together the Zuo Reader was to emphasize that Zuozhuan is not only a valuable source of historical understanding but also an indispensable source of information about early Chinese culture and thought. Consequently, rather than organize the passages selected for it in chronological order, we have organized them according to fifteen topics or themes. As we explain in the introduction, our selection of topics is somewhat arbitrary, although we do believe they cover issues that recur and illustrate the variety and richness of the full text.

David Schaberg: This topical organization of the reader is not meant to obscure Zuozhuan’s importance as a work of history. In fact, it can give modern students a keen sense of how important historical memory and historical writing were to the early Chinese and can convey some of what they aimed to accomplish in their historical writing. Beginning in the eighth century BCE, the work already shows a fascination with details of social and cultural change and the continuous unfolding of new challenges. The text also conveys a strong sense of how governing practices and rituals helped define the early Chinese world and laid the foundation for a broader set of East Asian political debates and institutions. The Zuo Reader can also convey a sense of China’s role as one of several historical cultures to have defined itself in part around an early set of texts and religious practices.

Stephen Durrant: Not only does the Zuo Reader convey an understanding of an ancient culture and history but it also reminds us how many problems and issues broached remain relevant. So often as we read about the past, even the deep past as in the case of Zuozhuan, we suddenly realize that we are also reading about ourselves. This was brought home to me just recently while reading papers written by men at the Oregon State Penitentiary who were using the Zuo Reader in a class on Chinese narrative. Their papers discussed such issues as the passages concerning “Succession Struggles” (ch. 2) and what they might tell us about the recent controversy over presidential succession here in the United States. They struggled with the complex personalities of Chong’er (ch. 4) and King Ling of Chu (ch. 10), comparing some of the character traits and life experience of those ancient Chinese personalities with their own problem-fraught pasts. And they argued as they read “Laws and Punishment” (ch. 9)—men who have all had direct experience with our legal system—whether or not Shuxiang was right in saying, “Why should there be any penal codes at all? When the people have learned how to contend over points of law, they will abandon ritual propriety and appeal to what is written.”

DS: These kinds of personal responses highlight the advantages of being able to read Chinese history through a translation like the reader rather than a summarized overview. A summarized overview would be effective in relating historical facts, but it would omit something that the materials in the Zuo Reader do exceptionally well: they convey historical actors’ individual responses to facts, often quoting conversations and long speeches. Both in reading quoted remarks and in reading the historical narratives themselves, students encounter the attitudes and emotions of the ancients and learn to experiment with seeing the world through the values that are written into the text. The difference is something like that between giving someone a fish and teaching them to fish. By reading the narratives gathered in the Zuo Reader, students will get a direct sense of the kinds of historical stories Confucius and other thinkers knew and took into account in their arguments.

SD: Moreover, a handy one-volume collection of these narratives facilitates using it in comparative courses. For example, a course on comparative early historiography would use it alongside portions of the Hebrew Bible and the writings of classical Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. In fact, we believe from a pedagogical perspective, the Zuo Reader is highly serviceable.

DS: Not only might it be used in comparative courses but it also could be used as the main reading in a class on early Chinese historiography, paired with supplemental materials from other early Chinese texts, or it could be used in a course on the history of Chinese prose narrative. Moreover, the topical arrangement is particularly suitable to a course on early Chinese thought, perhaps by pairing chapters on subjects with especially relevant “Masters” texts: “Law and Punishment” with The Book of Lord Shang or Han Feizi, “Ritual” with Xunzi’s “Discourse on Ritual,” “Confucius” with Analects. Whatever the course, there are a variety of ways a teacher might use the Zuo Reader in the classroom: organize weekly discussions around one or two chapters, using the chapter topics to introduce the discussion and steadily building the interconnection of themes each week; break students up into small groups for close reading of narratives, then bring them back together to share their readings; have students identify a theme or character in it and investigate it further in the complete translations; have students examine the use of poetry citation and recitation in speeches; have students write a speech or narrative in the style of Zuozhuan; and so forth.

WY: The Zuo Reader is wonderful for the classroom also because the narratives are condensed and often provocative. Because of its long and complex process of formation, Zuozhuan often contains multiple perspectives on the same issue. For example, we find arguments both for and against the right of the people to protest unjust policies, both praise and suspicion of centralizing power, both idealistic and cynical views of ritual propriety, and so on. In our choice of passages, we have made sure to bring out these differences. In a classroom scenario, students can be easily organized to debate the different positions and processes of reasoning underwriting various passages. Those who have some knowledge of later Chinese history may be surprised by the more varied views of loyalty and political hierarchy in the Zuo Reader. Unlike the elevation of imperial authority and glorification of the subject’s absolute loyalty in some later materials, students will find in it lively debates on whether the expulsion or even assassination of a ruler can be justified or questions on the proper balance of power between the Zhou king and the lords. Some of the moral precepts readily associated with the “Chinese Tradition” take on different contours in the Reader. Also, because Zuozhuan is both interested in offering judgments and committed to “respecting the facts,” it ends up with stories of surprising moral complexity. Dissecting such nuances will be really fun in the classroom.

Stephen Durrant is professor emeritus of Chinese language and literature at the University of Oregon. Wai-yee Li is professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. David Schaberg is professor of Asian languages and culture and dean of humanities at UCLA. Their joint translation of Zuo Tradition / Zuozhuan: Commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals” was awarded the Patrick D. Hanan Book Prize for Translation, sponsored by the Association for Asian Studies.