Interview with Professor Wilt Idema on Insects in Chinese Literature

Wilt Idema

Insects in Chinese Literature: A Study and Anthology by Wilt L. Idema was just published and launched at the 2019 AAS conference in Denver two weeks ago. There was much interest in this unusual book, and so we have conducted the following interview with Professor Idema.

Cambria Press: In the introduction to your book, you mention that that insects, especially “anthropomorphized insects that talk to each other,” are quite rare in animal tales. What sparked your interest in this rare subset of animal tales?
Wilt Idema: I have always been interested in animal tales, animal fables, and beast epics, likely because Van den vos Reynaerde (Reynard the fox) is one of the most famous and enjoyable works of Dutch medieval literature. Perhaps because I was frustrated by the near-absence of texts involving talking animals in Chinese literature, I have been keeping track of those tales I did encounter. Once I thought I might have enough for a book on the topic, I only intensified my search. When looking for insect tales, I was quite surprised to find a considerable number of tales about the weddings of insects, the funerals of insects, their battles and wars, their disputes and court cases in Chinese popular literature, and once I had found those materials I wanted to compare the depiction of insects in popular tales to those in classical poetry and in vernacular prose. The result in my Insects in Chinese Literature.

CP: You note in your epilogue that “insects are still used as the embodiments of evil and destruction in science-fiction horror movies in the East and West.” Why do you think that is? And why do you think the texts you chose to include in your book treat them differently?
Insects rarely are cuddly. The bee may be useful, but still has a sting. Perhaps the only insects that immediately draw our attention by their beauty are butterflies and dragon flies. Not only have people felt an aversion to many insects since times immemorial, the invention of the microscope has revealed the insects as truly “other,” creatures with different heads, fearsome maws, curiously shaped body parts, etcetera. The film has of course been the perfect medium to confront us with enlarged, moving, close-up images of these strange creatures, making them even more fearsome and horrible. The texts I deal with basically date from the pre-modern period before the insects had been disclosed in their full horrible ugliness, so authors treat insects as the small animals they are.

CP:  The insects in the passages in your book have been anthropomorphized (i.e., assigned human characteristics). But the reverse is often also true: an insect’s traits are laid over a human personality, albeit in an insect’s body. How do you think writers balanced human and insect characteristics in their characters?
WI: It is one of the great attractions of animal literature to see how authors handle the combination of beastly and human characteristics in their texts. Portraying a  character as an animal immediately calls up a host of associations, so fable characters rarely need any further description. But at the same time the character cannot be reduced to only a few fixed animal characteristics, it also has to be given a human rationality that operates from its specific position in the animal kingdom. This requires skill and talent. Some authors in this collection limit themselves distributing human roles over a large number of different insects, others bring flies and mosquitoes, or lice and fleas together in extended dialogues. In classical poetry authors may borrow the voice of despised insects such as locusts or bed bugs to satirize human society.

CP: Although your book deals with insects in Chinese literature, you also discuss the differences and similarities between the treatment of insects in Eastern and Western literature. What attitudes in each of these cultures do you think made their respective treatment of insects so different, and what attitudes do you think dictate our treatment of insects today?
WI: Many of the attitudes towards insects in China and the West are actually quite similar, but practical issues account for some major differences. The Chinese kept bees, but the economic importance of bees was minimal in comparison with the importance of sericulture. Europe rarely suffered from locusts, but many regions of China did so quite often.  People in pre-modern Europe apparently did not keep crickets as pet, and they also did not bet on cricket fights, so the “insect cultures” of pre-modern China and pre-modern Europe were quite different. This is reflected in the texts devoted to insects. In China there Is no trace of the metaphor of the hive, and ants are praised rather for their military than their economic organization.  What is changing our attitude towards insects nowadays is most of all the growing awareness of the destruction wrought by decades of unlimited use of insecticides worldwide on  insect life and the possible consequences for sustainable food production. The insect that in the West would seem to have most benefitted from that development would appear so far to be the bee.

CP: To what extent do you think the West’s treatment of insects influenced the East’s, and vice versa?
WI: The West learned sericulture from China—if we believe the old tales, by stealing silk worms from China. The early twentieth century witnessed the introduction of modern entomology to China. A title that has to be mentioned in this connection are the many volumes of Jean Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques. This work with its many detailed descriptions of insect behavior is still widely available throughout East Asia in various adaptations and translations. At an early date it had a clear impact on Lu Xun who had hoped to produce a Chinese translation in cooperation with his biologist younger brother. Lu Xun also was fascinated by the descriptions of the encounters between the title hero and insects in De kleine Johannes (Little Johannes), a fairy-tale novel by the Dutch author Frederik van Eeden, which he rendered into Chinese as Xiao Yuehan.

CP: What was your favorite insect tale, and why?
I like everything I translate, but in this volume my favorite items are Wang Ling’s dream encounter with a locust, Ding Yaokang’s overheard conversation between a fly and a mosquito, and the anonymous account of the underworld court case of the louse against the flea and the bed bug.

Order Insects in Chinese Literature by April 30, 2019, to save 30% by using the coupon code AAS2019 at the Cambria Press website  (libraries can enjoy this discount too, so please forward this to them). And don’t forget that if your library orders the platinum e-book edition of any title because of a professor’s recommendation, students will have free digital access to the purchased titles and the professor will receive a complimentary hardcopy of the purchased titles—a perfect solution for chapter reading assignments. See the Asian studies catalog.

About the author: Wilt L. Idema is Professor Emeritus of Chinese Literature at Harvard University. A recipient of the prestigious Special Book Award of China, Dr. Idema’s many publications include The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial ChinaPersonal Salvation and Filial Piety: Two Precious Scroll Narratives of Guanyin and Her AcolytesMeng Jiangnü Brings Down the Great Wall: Ten Versions of a Chinese LegendHeroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women’s ScriptThe White Snake and her SonJudge Bao and the Rule of Law: Eight Ballad-Stories from the Period 1250–1450Monks, Bandits, Lovers and Immortals: Eleven Early Chinese PlaysThe Butterfly Lovers: The Legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu YingtaiEscape from Blood Pond Hell: The Tales of Mulian and Woman HuangBattles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood: Early Chinese Plays on the Three KingdomsThe Generals of the Yang Family: Four Early PlaysThe Resurrected Skeleton: From Zhuangzi to Lu Xun; and ”The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven” and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu.

Insects in Chinese Literature is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

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