I've wanted to read this book for ages but it is quite hard to find. I managed to rescue a copy at work from disposal, which appeared not to have been read.

The author is one of the great critics of the treatment of women in Chinese society and in many ways the book is designed to point out the injustice of the inequality between the sexes. In the book the women are all educated and achieve great success with their literary abilities. Set in the time of Empress Wu, she ordains that there should be examinations for women, and the 100 girls that are the focus of the novel, all pass the imperial examinations. However, after passing the examinations none of them enter government, but most of them marry, and in the course of events later in the story end up committing suicide when their husbands die. Likewise the author points out the pain of footbinding, and the frivolity of beauty. However, the main focus of the book is also to reclaim the throne for the Tang emperor and dispose of Empress Wu. So on the one-hand women should be treated better, but they should still know their place.

The book was written as a satire and is intended to be very funny as it points out the absurdity and hypocrisy of many aspects of Chinese society. Even in this translation it does this well, not only in the section of visiting many lands, but also in the end with the self-defeating spells where the men all fall victim and die of gluttony, alcoholism, lust and avarice. (And of course the women are able to break the spell and save the day for the army).

The main characters are the flower immortals that were cast down from heaven for obeying the wishes of Empress Wu, to make all the flowers bloom at once in defiance of the laws of heaven. The flower immortals are all reincarnated as young girls who are good scholars, and some good warriors from China and the strange countries around the sea. Part of the book also describes the visit by the main character's father to many different islands; this part of the book is why it is often referred to as the Chinese Gulliver’s Travels.

Like most traditional Chinese novels it is 100 chapters long and unfortunately the only translation of it that I've been able to find in English (Even the dual language version) is about a quarter that. At least the translator will sometimes give brief descriptions of the parts that he skipped; though it often seems that these parts are very interesting and quite exciting. The biggest problem with the translation is as he puts it
I have tried to render a version which will appeal to the Western readers. The original version had some 400,000 words of which I have deleted most of the passages which have to do with classical texts and discussions of Chinese language, dissertations on history, poetry, phonetics, etc

which begs the question why would you be reading it if you weren't interested in Chinese, history, poetry and philosophy? It's like he said I'm taking out all the bits about Chinese culture cause people reading a book famous because of it's criticism of Chinese culture won't be interested in that! Needless to say I found that terribly frustrating and added it to my list of reasons to keep studying Chinese so that someday I can read it in the original. (I've already found an e-text version and with Pera-kun might be able to get through it in a year or two).

There was an amazing part that was left intact where the danger of drinking tea was discussed at great length. I was of course reminded of Sheridan La Fanu and all the health benefits associated with Green Tea in today's health food circles. After discussing the history of tea, Purple Jade goes on at length to criticise it.
As for tea itself, apart from quenching thirst, nothing good can be said about it. In the Book of Medical Plants, it says tea will take off fat and make a person thin. Tea often makes all kinds of illness converge in the body. In my father's book, he also counsels people not to drink too much tea. He often tells me, it is better to drink less tea than more tea, and to drink no tea than little tea. There are a few good teas, and many bad ones. If tea is good, it is habit-forming, and too much tea-drinking will impair the principle element in the body and cause the blood and vital essences to be reduced, and cause stomach troubles, stones in the stomach, as well as paralysis, both the painful kind and the kind which is not painful. It will cause the small intestines to swell and be obstructed. People who have diarrhoea or vomit or stomach ache, or are thing and swallow-complexioned due to internal injury can often find that tea is the cause of it. But few people know this, and seldom blame tea for their illness. The ancients lived a long time, but nowadays people do not enjoy such longevity. That is because tea and wine are taken in too great quantities and do harm to the internal organs. Thos who like tea and wine always burst out laughing when they hear this argument, and say that it is not true. People say that tea is a greater purger of the impurities of the body, but are not aware of its hidden bad effect, which works slowly in the body.

Despite the abbreviated translation it was very enjoyable, a delightful read, and one I really look forward to reading all of someday.
This is a book written by a bibliophile for other bibliophiles. Rather than a straightforward history of libraries in Western culture it is rather a series of essays looking at the meanings associated with books, libraries and the pursuit of knowledge. The essays tend to have one or two major historical people or events that are discussed in relation to his ideas. Some of these examples fit better than others and towards the second half these seem to be a bit haphazard. But I learned a lot from these examples, from the destruction of the Aztec's books by the Spanish, to the life of Abi Warburg, (who I learnt spent 4 years in an insane asylum after his library was opened to scholars). In addition to the standard early history of libraries, library classification and architecture he also looks at censorship, book burning and the destruction of libraries and cultures.

The book is full of interesting and useful information but there were a couple of times where it was felt that he was missing the point. He came across as very critical of digitisation and the use of the Internet and digital libraries. He seemed to misunderstand their purpose a bit. When talking about his personal library he talked about how it was great that books could be related to each other and how reading a part of one would give him an idea to follow in another. Clearly this type of idea is one of the main reasons behind digitisation and the use of hypertext and the Internet, where it is much easier to relate ideas to each other than in the printed page. He also mentioned the Dunhuang manuscripts, but failed to appreciate their significance, he thought of them as a haphazard collection, collected by Stein, "change brought them together" rather than looking at the contents of the library as a whole, which were very specifically selected and sealed up together. A very specific library in a specific time and place that can teach us a great deal about not only the social history of the time, but also the intellectual and economic history. It is not "the stammering chronicle of a lost civilisation" (174).

The book is also full of gorgeous illustrations of libraries and books. My personal favourite though was the Biblioburo, because it was such a funny image.

In all it was an interesting and insightful read. It had its flaws, and I have to say it was a little overtly personal at times, going on about his own library a bit too much, but even those times just gave the impression that it was written by someone who was clearly obsessed with books and knowledge. Something which I can very much appreciate.


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