Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd and Nathan Sivin in, The Way of the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece, raise the following questions: "In what circumstances did inquiries about the world outside human society begin? and What paths [my own italics] did those inquiries open up?" One such "path" or "guideway" is found in the Shan hai jing , or "The Scripture, Classic, Canon, Warp-text [and now Guideways]--however one wants to render jing--Mountains and Seas," as Robert Ford Campany puts it in his review of Riccardo Fracasso and Anne Birrell's earlier translations. He goes on to say, "The list is the trope of plenitude, and an overwhelming plenitude of anomaly is what this book conveys." The Shan hai jing is one of the earliest Chinese works that attempted to provide a description of what was then believed to be "the world outside human society." It sought to provide an embodiment of taxonomic reckoning of its landscape and all of its natural and supernatural fauna and flora, especially to those who ventured into it. There gradually arose amongst the ancient Chinese intelligentsia a weltanschauung, or "world concept" of their biophysical and socioanthropological environment in which they conceived of themselves as being an integral part of the cosmos and intrinsically interjoined with its spiritual, physical, and moral "influences."
To explore the Shan hai jing is to undertake an odyssey in search of its mysteries. This literary venture can easily boggle the mind, especially when it comes to accomplishing a creditable translation with a plausible exegesis of its contents. Many of the traditional commentaries are, for the most part, useless, since the commentators were themselves ignorant of the folklore and palæozoology that underlies this venerable and probably composite text. It requires a whole critical apparatus built around it before an even reasonably full interpretation can be achieved, especially by the philological unwary. Richard Eric Strassberg, Professor of Chinese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles, offers us an exceptionally fine work of scholarship in his thorough editing, excellent translation, and extensive commentary of this ancient work. He provides his readers with a new and invigorating approach to wandering through this arcane world. He leds us along this jing, or "guideway" and familiarizes us with its passages as a jing, or a "classic." As our guide, he points out in his introductory remarks (p. 5), as a daybook to guide the reader in "choosing auspicious days for travel and avoiding danger from gods and demons." As its expounder, he penetrates its "sacred geography filled with strikingly unusual denizens" (p. xiv) and acquaints us with its mysteries.
Strassberg reminds us that he has "undertaken the risky venture of providing translations whenever possible of the names of creatures, places, and things. Though well aware of the risks involved in the more polysemous case, I offer these translations as reasonable significations that would have occurred to traditional Chinese readers both to facilitate the readers contact with this difficult text and to stimulate further consideration among specialists of what these names might have meant." (p. xviii) One can never be too exacting when it comes to translating ancient Chinese words, nor should such exactitude be so constrained as to preclude the full rein they must be given in order to convey the splendor of their exquisite implicitness. And, again, one can never be too careful when it comes to avoiding renderings which are vitiated by the bland assumption that they meant then what they mean in later dynastic periods; accordingly, such assumptions can be distorted or entirely false. The author has adroitly avoided such pitfalls and he does not misguide his readers.
The contents of A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas (hereafter cited as A Chinese Bestiary) consists of eight parts: List of Illustrations; a Preface; Editorial Notes; a meticulous introduction, followed by 76 plates of the rare illustrations found in the 1597 Yaoshantang reprint of the earlier Wang Chongqing edition as well as 345 descriptions of its demoniac/theriomorphic denizens; extensive Notes; an inclusive Selected Bibliography; and a thorough Glossary Index to Plates. Strassberg has gone to considerable effort to cull through resources in order to provide his readers with what is regarded as being the earliest surviving illustrations of woodblock engravings from the above rare work, making the illustrations available perhaps for the first time in any foreign publication, thereby, providing his readers with an artistic tour de force into the realm of a Chinese bestiary.
In discussing the origins of A Chinese Bestiary, the author refers to how "the yi-physicians credited Divine Farmer (Shennong) and the Yellow Thearch...with having written important medical and pharmacological treatises." (p. 4) One is reminded of Angus Graham's remarks that "legends of Shennong and the Yellow Emperor develop in interaction as representatives of rival tendencies to political centralization and decentralization...." This political dichotomy within medicine also reflects a gradual division within Chinese society between the illiterati (the bearers of oral traditions, including folk medicine) and the literati (the bearers of written traditions, including what would later become known as traditional Chinese medicine). Consequently, one can with caution suggest that materia medica may have been later more closely associated with folk traditions even though it is referenced in the Huang di nei jing su wen, or "The Inner Canon of the Yellow Thearch, Basic Questions" which forms in part the literary foundation of Chinese medicine.
As for minor suggestions, I would offer the following remarks: It would be more convenient for the reader to have the ideograms side by side with their Romanized counterparts, not to mention having the footnotes at the foot of each page for immediate and convenient referencing; there are a few entries, such as guai, yi, xi, and qiu whose ideograms are missing in the Glossary Index; there is some question to rendering of yu and jin as "jade" and "gold,"or zhen as "minister," since in most texts as early as this they mean "precious stones," "precious metals," and "magnate." Similarly, jing bi shi probably means "azure pi stones" (bi is an unidentified stone in early texts, used for making arrowheads; its use as a color word is much later); and, even given all of Strassberg's extensive footnotes, the undaunting quest for more appears to be an insatiable need (e.g., the guanxiong min, or "the people with perforated chests" (pp. 163-164) may refer to those people who were carried on planks of simple construction before the advent of sedan chairs).
The contents of A Chinese Bestiary are not vitiated by bland assumptions of contextual meanings misplaced in dynastic disorder or by a "highly imaginative rendition" (p. xvii) in which assumptions can be distorted or entirely false. Strassberg's literary astuteness and refined linguistic sensitivity provide his readers with an encompassing grasp of its numerous subtleties and variegated shades of meaning. He has not failed to afford his readers, specialists and nonspecialists alike, with an exceptional opportunity of improving our appreciation and understanding of this fascinating ancient Chinese text. It joins the ranks of Yuan Ke's Shan hai jing jiaoyi, Rémi Mathieu's Étude sur la Mythologie et L'ethnologie de la Chine Ancienne and Riccardo Fracasso's Libro dei monti e dei mari (Shanhai jing): Cosmografia e mitologia nella Cina Antica, as being the best translation in its language--English--as well as a must read for those whose penchant is ancient Chinese studies.
Dr. Strassberg has done some intensive researches on the zhiguai genre as well as the Chinese Travelogue tradition (the two in fact has a germane connection). This book is to provide you with a collection of pictographs of the strange creatures from Shan Hai Jin, an eerie...no, no, no sacred book about the landscape of si-hai (four seas) and jiu-zhou (nine provinces) of the middle kingdom (ancient China). I have both of his two books (this & Inscribed Landscape) and will be more than happy to recommend them to anyone who either has an interest in the study of ancient mythology, Chinese literature, or the so called "sacred geography" of eastern mysticism.:)