A Chinese Bestiary
Richard E. Strassberg
The Shan Hai Jing is the seminal Chinese bestiary, in fact one of the most creature-packed creature books in existence! (It’s also where Borges got his Chinese fauna from) And if you’re in the unfortunate position of being unable to read Chinese, like myself, you’re going to need a translation. This is where Strassberg’s A Chinese Bestiary (ACB) comes in, and it delivers in spades.
It’s the Shan Hai Jing. Need I say more? I do? Oh. It’s an English translation of the Guideways, with ample commentary and the original illusrations.
Once more, this is not a complete compendium of mythical creatures nor does it pretend to be. Its narrow focus is what makes it good.
Introductions and Notes frame the Shan Hai Jing translation, which is the meat of the book. The text is broken up by region and by creature, with each notable creature having its own number to identify it in the illustration and (in most cases) commentary. Straightforward and easy to use.
It’s a translation of a classic Chinese text. And I don’t read Chinese, so I can’t comment on how good of a translation it is (Chinese-reading ABC readers should feel free to chime in with opinions, if any). But it’s written clearly, thoroughly referenced and footnoted.
Black and white and simple enough, but most importantly they are the original illustrations. So what you’re seeing is what people at the time (or at least, one artist at the time) thought those creatures look like. As opposed to, you know, some teratologist with delusions of competence presenting a subjective interpretation…
As mentioned above, there are references and notes for just about everything. As the Shan Hai Jing is itself an ur-reference, there is little need for more – but there is more! These range from folklore notes to Guo Pu’s commentaries and everything in between.
If it’s not academic enough for you, there’s always the massive Mathieu translation, which is extremely academic. Also it’s in French.
I can’t really sing the praises of this book enough. It’s good. Like Meeting with Monsters it has a (relatively) narrow subject and it uses that to excellent effect. Another must-have book for anyone with a passing interest in Chinese teratology.