Genji, Haiku, Rumi, Tagore, Ah Q

Books of Asia that transformed the last millennium

NOT MANY people realise this, but Asia does not exist, except in the minds of westerners who lump all yellow or brown people as “Asia”. What exists in reality are distinct, disparate and different civilisations and cultures in China, India, Persia, Japan, Korea, Turkestan, the Middle East and neighbouring regions.

While most westerners were still grunting in hovels and dank castles in the Dark Ages, Japanese court ladies were ornamenting their bedside diaries with delicate lines of poetry; Sufi mystics were preaching union with the divine; and Chinese scholars were paying fortunes for out-of-print books.

Books, indeed, played a seminal role, as both a mirror of society and a catalyst for change in the East. For several millennia, men and women of ideas, insight and wit have written extensively on human life in all its manifold diversity -- spiritual quest, social manners, high culture and low comedy, the art of government and war, the love of nature and artifice, and so on.

To select a list of such works will require a thick book, such as Ian McGreal’s Great Literature of the Eastern World (1996) which runs to 554 pages.

History has many cunning passages, says the poet T. S. Eliot. My choice, based on the past 1,000 years of Asian history, is necessarily subjective. It is a list of written work from China, India, Japan and the Middle East. Most of the classics of India and China are excluded here because they are more than 2,000 years old.

I picked these works for the impact they made on the society of the day and for their enduring relevance, and because they fulfill certain criteria: they are entertaining, thought-provoking, vibrant with human pathos, universal in appeal, and above all, superbly written.


Some of the earliest and most beautiful literary works in the world were written by women in the Heian era (平安時代 which means peaceful era, 794-1184 CE) of Japan at the turn of the millennium. The supreme example is Tale of Genji, the first significant modern novel in the world. The western world's first novel, Don Quixote (Miguel Cervantes), came 400 years later.

Another superlative work, also from the era, is The Pillow Book, the first and best written “lifestyle” diary.
Japanese men also wrote extensively, specially in the latter centuries when Zen Buddhism took root in the country. The haiku are the distilled essence of Zen thought in Japan.

TALE OF GENJI (Genji monogatari)
Murasaki Shikibu (composed in 1003)

Genji monogatari is called a work of mono no aware 物の哀れ. “Aware” (a-wa-rey) means being sensitive to the pathos or tragic implication of the moment. In human love and relationships – and Genji monogatari is all about these – what matters is the particular moment. By its nature, the moment is fleeting and ungraspable. Only its memory stays, hence remembrance brings only a sense of loss and tragedy.
The central character Prince Genji is not remarkable for anything except as a good-looking, randy, promiscuous lover, who is out to seduce and fuck as many women as he could. And each woman evokes a different response from him.

Such a tale may seem sick to modern-day politically-correct women. But moralising is not what the book is about. When all the sermons and pontifications of the world have been flushed down the toilet of history, what remains is love and its accompanying artistic expressions.
Murasaki also wrote a separate pointillist Diary which chronicles the minutae of court

THE PILLOW BOOK (Makura no soshi)
Sei Shonagon (1010)

When I was a highly impressionable teenager, I was charmed by the wit, elegance and grace of Sei Shonagon's writing. Although her Pillow Book (a notebook kept by the bedside to record “the night's delights and the day's impressions”) was almost 1,000 years old today, I did not notice anything alien or awkward about the things she observed, the people she encountered and the sentiments and ideas she expressed.

Sei (Shonagon is not her surname, it means “minor counsellor”) served in the court of the Empress Sadako, one of the most culturally refined courts in history. With an eye for details and a lively mind, Sei observed and evaluated the appearance, conduct and way of life of each of the many aristocrats around her. Her comments are pointed and often memorable, although at times scathing.

“It is delightful when a man on horseback recites poetry at dawn. I remember that once I heard a splendid line of verse accompanied by the flapping of a horse's mud-shields. Who could the rider be? I was dismayed to see that he was a vulgar commoner.” So writes Sei, who obviously could feel elated one moment and pissed off the next. In an entry in her Diary, Murasaki described Sei as a conceited woman who valued a person’s pedigree above all else.

The style, syntax and structure of The Pillow Book have long been recognised as being the most elegant and accessible in the Japanese vernacular (in old Japan, the educated scholars and officials preferred to write in Chinese which is highly unsuitable for polysyllabic Japanese words and phrases). Even in translation today, The Pillow Book retains its charm and freshness, unaffected by time or cultural chasms.

Matsuo Basho (mid-1600s)

Multimedia was not available in olded times, but then who needed it when readers had haiku poetry, particularly that of Matsuo Basho? He creates visual and auditory sensations with a few strokes of his writing brush.

Absolute stillness!
Piercing into rocks
the voice of the locust.

Haiku is an unrhymed 5-7-5-syllable verse form which usually includes two references – a visual scene and another sensory impression. In the above haiku, a picture of stillness (the rock) is broken by sound (a locust cry).

Scent of chrysanthemums
And in Nara
All the ancient Buddhas.

The fragrance of chrysanthemums pervades the musty Buddhist temples of the old capital Nara.


The reader is spoilt for choice when he tries to pick the important books of the past thousand years, from the poetry of Su Tung Po and the vibrant Yuan street opera dramas to the epic novels of the Ming and Ching dynasties, to the intense short stories of Lu Xun and the elegant English-language book-essays of Dr Lin Yutang.

The Water Margin (Mao Zedong's favourite bedside reading), The Unofficial History of the Scholars, Journey To The West, Dream Of The Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the erotic Ching Ping Mei, are among the great novels that continue to influence and entertain.

Cao Xueqin (1792)

The Hunglou is perhaps the greatest modern novel in the world. Lu Xun (Hsin), in his 1920s lecture notes on Chinese literature, says of the Hunglou that “it is because this novel keeps to the truth and is based on personal experience that it is so fresh and original”. Even today, it enjoys wide readership as evident by its countless reprints and movie and television adaptations in China, Hongkong and Taiwan.

On the surface, it is a story of the life, manners and escapades of members of an extended ducal family. But it can also be read as a record of mid-18th-century China, its imperceptible but sure decline, and the national collapse a century later.

The novel is panoramic in scope and cast of characters. There are more than 400 characters in 80 chapters (extended to 120 chapters by one or perhaps more sequel writers).

Anything and everything that could have happened to any individual, family and community is described in vivid detail and elegant language: birth, growing up, education, teenage infatuation, love affairs, sitting for examinations, mismatched marriage, conflict with in-laws, adultery and fornication, imperial favour and disfavour, friendship, betrayal, domestic servitude, family intrigue and gossip, religious quest, ill fate, illicit pleasure, the theatre, wet dreams, quarrels, drinking and being drunk, writing sentimental and bawdy poetry, expounding on joy of playing the zither, garden delights, flying kites, Taoist mysticism and Buddhist doctrines, filial impiety, and so on.
The book, however, is more than a collection of soap opera trivia. Its brilliance lies in its sentimental ideology of everyday living. Life is capricious, fortune is fickle, and only the sentimental moments of human relationship matter. Hence, the idea that we are here on this Earth to “repay a debt of tears”.

Lu Xun (1921)

Ah Q, the village laughingstock, has the mental knack of turning defeat into victory. Gangs of idlers would beat him up, pull his pigtail and bang his head against the wall. But when his tormentors are gone, he would stand there for a second, thinking to himself, “It is as if I were beaten by my son. What is the world coming to nowadays...” Thereupon he too would walk away, satisfied at having “won” a victory (because it is not a defeat to be beaten by one’s sons).

The True Story Of Ah Q was written by Lu Xun, one of the greatest short-story writer in the modern age. The year was 1921, when China’s situation was even more humiliating than Ah Q’s. The land was plundered by rapacious westerners and its citizens molested and humiliated by local and foreign troops. In the great cities like Shanghai, elegant parks had signboards that read: No dogs and Chinese allowed.

After each diplomatic or military humiliation by the westerners, Chinese officials would write long reports in classical language telling how they had won the moral victory over the barbarians at the gate.

This mini-novel shamed and shocked the country out of its delusion. For the first time, a Chinese was saying openly to all Chinese that China was not superior to the foreign devils. It was, in fact, a very sick patient, and if shock treatment was not given soon, it would die. The country could well be broken up into a welter of European-administered colonies, much like India and South-east Asia.

The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness narrative, much like Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, with authorial comments embedded.

Lu Xun’s language is plain, sombre and sly. With deadpan humour he recounts the anti-hero’s ancestry and misadventures. There is no need to moralise or make judgment: the shock of the Chinese reader recognising himself in the bumbling Ah Q was good enough.


At first glance, it appears that all India's great books -- spiritual and romantic -- have been written more than a millennium ago. But this is not true, judging from the seemingly endless number of great poetic works, such as the stylish and elegant Sanskrit compilation known as the Treasury of Well-Turned Verses, the love lyrics Song of the Lord by Jayadeva and the robust and inspired poetry of Muhammad Iqbal, Ghalib and Tagore.

Even more remarkable is the stream of brilliantly-crafted English-language works by Indian writers, starting from The Discovery Of India by the country's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (written in 1941-42 when he was in a British colonial jail) and the literary masterpieces of modern-day novelists.

Tulsidas (1574)

India's spiritual civilisation is the oldest existing in the world (Egypt's was older but it has since been buried under the sands of history).

One of the most well-loved spiritual stories is the Ramayana or adventure of Rama, written in Sanskrit. The Ramcaritmanas is the Hindi-language version by Tulsidas, which is extremely popular with the masses.

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Tulsida had a long and productive career but, again like Shakespeare, little is known about him. His work loosely follows the original Ramayana. Tulsida's narrative consists of over 1,000 stanzas, each about 12 to 18 lines, set in elegant rhyme. The entire work has a hynoptic musical quality impossible to translate into other languages.

Today, it is reported that almost every village and town in the Hindi-speaking regions of India has a troupe that performs the story of Ram based on Tulsida's work.

The world view of the Ramcaritmanas is focused on the Hindu version of dharma, an individual's duty in life. What is one's dharma, and how does one conduct one's life to be true to dharma, are vexing questions for both the ancients and the moderns.

Rabindranath Tagore (early 1900s)

I seem to have love you in numberless forms,
numberless times,
In life after life,
in age after age, forever.  

The greatest literary writer in India, and perhaps the greatest lyrical love poet in the world, Bengali writer and Nobel Literature Prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore produced songs, poetry, short stories and novels that have continued to captivate and enthrall readers in almost every country and culture.

His poetry, especially the Gitanjali, is an affirmation of the joy of life, in the presence of suffering, pain and separation. Reading him can be a healing experience.

In the last poems of his life, he instructs us on the coming to terms with ultimate death: "And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well."


Jalal Al-din Rumi (mid-1200s)

Rumi was born in Afghanistan but lived most of his life in Turkey. His poetry, however, belongs to the world. Considered one of the greatest mystic poets of all times, he influenced not just Turkey, central Asia and Iran, but, through countless translations, almost anyone anywhere who reads and appreciates poetry and the spiritual life.

As a confused young man looking for love and a meaningful life, I was fortunate enough to come across some of his luminious poems in a translated compilation of Sufi (Islamic mystic) writings.

Lines of his poetry have the uncanny ability to create instant insights in the reader. For instance, as I am sitting in my newspaper office cubicle, banging on the computer, Rumi says:

God’s creation is vast
Why do you sit all day in a tiny prison?

And when I’m all mixed up, he urges me:
Go beyond your tangled thoughts,
And find the splendour of Paradise.

Running like a golden thread through his thousands of songs and quatrains (rubaiyats) is the idea of Divine Love and the Beloved. The work is often characterised by extreme longing for the absent beloved, which can mean an individual you love, or, God, whom your spirit loves.

Voyage of discovery

“The real voyage of discovery cannot be confined to books,” Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote to his daughter Indira, “yet books are essential for they tell us of the past.” (Letters from a Father to His Daughter, 1928).

These books promise an intellectual and a sentimental voyage of discovery into the past millennium. Read them and refresh your vision for the next millennium. English translations of the titles (even Mao’s obscure book) are available in major bookshops here or you can order them from Pity, I could not find many of the titles in the public libraries.

– Francis Chin, Dec 31, 1999. The article was published in The Straits Times Singapore newspaper as part of its millennium supplement.

Contents  |  Re-reading Dream of the Red Chamber