Tian Wen

Relatively unknown in the West, Tian Wen: A Chinese Book of Origins is a fascinating, though often baffling, archaic collection of 186 “questions” about the origins of life and the meanings of a wide variety of happenings startling and mundane, earthly and celestial. Because the poem has no single narrative thread, the most informed speculation posits group authorship by a number of roving Taoist scholars, each contributing riddles about the history and legends of his own province as well as ironically posed inquiries into the nature of the universe. The enigmatic and sometimes Sphinxlike conundrums may have been originally intended for debate––to give the popular and prominent dialecticians of over 2,300 years ago a tool for honing their convoluted responses. But however the poem took on its present shape and content, it remains the single most comprehensive catalogue of ancient Chinese mythology and pre-Imperial legend in existence. This translation by Stephen Field of The College of William and Mary combines sound scholarship with an artful grace to produce the 186 questions in couplets that both tease and enchant. In addition to a historical introduction that clearly explains what is known and not known about the poem, Field provides extensive notes to help the English-speaking reader understand the basic Chinese myths alluded to in the questions.

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Paperback (published October 1, 1986)

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Clothbound (published October 1, 1986)

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