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Grasping ancient culture: It's fun and easy! - August 28, 2020


To really know a country, you need to understand its culture and history.
From that starting point, journalist and media pundit Zhang Ciyun began work on a six-volume exploration of ancient Chinese wisdom as reflected in myths, classics works, idioms, paintings, historical figures and architecture.
The English-language edition of the book series was unveiled at last week’s Shanghai Book Fair. The series caters for an increasing number of foreign readers who are deeply interested in traditional Chinese culture. The books were published by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House.
“The idea of the book series came to me nearly three decades ago, when I discovered how little foreigners knew about Chinese culture,” Zhang said. “Oh, they knew about kung fu movies, the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors, and had vague impressions of Chinese emperors. But they wanted to know more about Chinese culture.”
Zhang, a founder and former editor-in-chief of the English-language Shanghai Daily, is fluent in English. He draws on that skill to spin the stories of ancient China in the everyday parlance and experiences of native English speakers.
Zhang said ancient culture has had a far-reaching impact on the behavior and thinking of contemporary Chinese, and gives foreign readers insight into modern-day China.
He recalled a Shanghai Daily survey of readers that showed foreigners wanted local news and feature stories, and information on entertainment and eating-out venues. But beyond the obvious, they also expressed curiosity about Chinese culture.
At that time, books that might help them delve deeper into that culture were fragments scattered over different publications. There were no books in English providing easy access to Chinese history and culture.
“As a journalist working for an English-language newspaper, I really wanted to do something to meet that need,” he said. “I decided to use my writing skills to tell ancient stories illuminating Chinese culture, especially its traditional aspects.”
He began his project in about 1993, beginning with a series of articles explaining the stories behind Chinese idioms. He produced more than 100 pieces.
The Beijing-based Foreign Languages Press subsequently asked him to compile the articles into a book. It received positive feedback and was later translated into German and other foreign languages.
The whole project was sidelined for years when Zhang moved from Beijing to Shanghai to start Shanghai Daily, which published its first edition in 1999.
“But it was always in my mind as a task I needed to finish,” he said.
Work on the project resumed in 2008, when Zhang was writing a weekly column in Shanghai Daily about myths, paintings, classics, historical figures and architecture.
A calligrapher and painter himself, Zhang was especially drawn to the culture of Chinese painting.
“Chinese painting is one of the oldest art forms in the world,” he said. “But due to the cultural differences, foreigners couldn’t appreciate it very deeply, just as many Chinese couldn’t understand fauvism and cubism.”

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