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Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Sheryn Morris, Librarian, Literature & Fiction,
Book collage for Asian Pacific American Month
A selection of ancient classics available through our e-media

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month which was officially designated and signed into law in 1992.

Library of Congress defines the geographic areas of the world as the following:

“...A rather broad term, Asian-Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and Easter Island).”

Asia is the world’s largest continent in size and population with fifty countries and two dependencies: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan(Asian), Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Cyprus, East Timor, Egypt (Asian), Georgia (Asian), India, Indonesia (Asian), Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan (Asian), North Korea, South Korea, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russia (Asian), Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey (Asian), Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Yemen, and two dependencies: Gaza Strip and West Bank.

There are hundreds of cultures, religions, ethnic groups, languages, and dialects in each country. Despite past and present differences, some peaceful and some violent, the overall canon of literature is vast, going back centuries, covering all manner of interest and thought: religion, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, cooking, art, music, dance, theater, business, sex, love, war, government, and multitudes of stories and folklore. In the written word, the past and the present are alive and well-read in the United States and abroad. May is the month to honor and celebrate this rich heritage from authors who live here and from those who live in the various countries and regions.

There is no way to cover books from all of these countries and regions, therefore here is a small selection of ancient classics available in e-media. Many of the books, character names and subjects have become very much a part of popular culture and can be found in films, animated feature films, children’s books, graphic novels, television programs, and self-help books. The names Aladdin and Sinbad come from another time and place, not from popular entertainers, and Ali Baba was a person’s name long before it became the name of a multinational corporation.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Book List

The Arabian Nights: Tales From a Thousand and One Nights
Burton, Richard (Translator)

The stories go back centuries, and many countries and civilizations have laid claim to them: Arabia, China, India, Persia, and others. The plot is ubiquitous: a young woman is summoned to be the bride of  a King, who is bitter and angry over his former wife’s infidelity, and had her killed. His angry discontent cannot be satisfied, so he orders a succession of virgin brides brought to him and has each killed after one night of marriage. All of this mayhem stops with one woman, known as Scheherazade, who saves her own life, and that of others, by telling the King enchanting tales and using a clever ploy. She never finishes a story until the succeeding night, and this goes on for 1,001 nights. Combining brains and beauty, she wins over the King, who spares her life. Some of the themes and characters include magic, horror, greed, tricksters, genies, and sex. Depending on the translation and abridgment of the tales, the theme of sex has been the reason for sometimes banning them. The spin-offs abound and have not always been so wonderful in their cliched depictions of countries and people. The film versions date back to the silent film era, with swashbuckling heroes rescuing princesses held captive in glamorous prisons. The Disney Company has created a nice little franchise with several characters. There have been ballets, operas, symphonies, and Broadway musicals. Think about it—1,001 tales are quite a treasure chest to be plundered, and no need to worry about copyright.

Art of War
Tzu, Sun

With its origins in China, dating back to the 5th century BC, this ancient treatise on the art of war provides physical and mental strategies and tactics for real battles. In recent times the book has inspired numerous books that utilize those battlefield strategies for success in actual warfare; for business and negotiations; in sports; the ways and means for women, who work in male-dominated professions, to succeed; and even ways to win at billiards.

The Dream of the Red Chamber
Cao, Xueqin

This is one of the four great Chinese classical novels, set in the 18th century, it covers the history of two aristocratic families, who are affiliated with the imperial court. The work covers political intrigue and favoritism; the significance of numerous cultural mores; the importance of artistic influences; and human frailty in all of its manifestations. With a monumental cast of characters, the novel has been compared to War and Peace, and has been admired by Chinese leaders from the past to the present. There are themes in the novel that touch on illusion, as does the history of the book itself. The author may have deleted and then added chapters; some of the book may have been censored because key characters too closely resembled real people, and the work seems to be semi-autobiographical. In China, depending on which regime has been in power the book has at times been reviled, revised, regaled, and censored.

The Nine Cloud Dream
Kim, Man-jung

Over the centuries, in all parts of the world, great and ordinary people have thought about what it means to live a good life, and what is our purpose in life here on earth. That is the premise of this classic novel from 17th century Korea. What is real and what is an illusion? It is an allegorical tale about a young monk who is overwhelmed by the temptations of eight young women. For sinning against his vows, he is sent to hell, and later reincarnated, and thus he begins on another pathway to wisdom and enlightenment, but an unusual one. The work includes royalty, ghosts, dragons, creatures with supernatural powers, and a good share of battles, romance, sex and poetry.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Sei Shonagon

In the 10th century, Sei Shonagon was a poet and courtier to the Japanese Empress Teishi, and led a privileged life, closed off from the immediate and outside world. Following the customs of the time, she kept a diary, but hers was more than a mere accounting of daily events because she brought an aesthetic sensibility to all that she saw and felt: changes in the seasons as seen in plants and animals; the intricate clothing of others; the colors, designs and patterns of materials in the clothing. Her own preferences for the smallest of things are written in poetic language. Her perceptive observations extend to the personalities, interactions, and motivations of those around her; she lived in a very closed off-world, with very precise rules for all aspects of life, but her mind and emotions were unfettered. In today’s world, with all of its distractions, many of us seek help in focusing. Sei Shonagon’s writings are a lesson in mindful observation, brought to life in exquisite writing.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Volume 1
Kuan-Chung, Lo

This novel encompasses history, mythology, and legend surrounding the end of the Han dynasty and the feudal conflicts waged to get absolute control of China. As the main characters plot and fight to win ascendancy, alliances are formed that later change, depending on who wants the most power. Comparisons have been made to Shakespeare’s historical dramas, with sibling rivalries, plots, losses, and gains—all in the struggle for power. It is one of China’s great classical novels, which has had revisions and adaptations.

Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

A pre-Islamic history of Persia that is in the form of an epic poem. This new complete English translation brings the history to modern readers. It begins with the time of creation and continues to when there was an Arab invasion. This poetic version of a narrative history was written by the poet Ferdowsi and is said to be one of the longest epic poems in the world. The history goes back to Persia’s Zoroastrian roots, and history of the empire’s civilization in law, science, and the arts.

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu

An 11th century novel about the Heian Imperial Court that is about seduction told by a woman, Lady Murasaki. It is an instructional guide about how to seduce a woman: the reasons why, the way to do so, and what to do after. This is no Kama Sutra, instead, all of the instructions allude to sex, but never detail the sexual act or encounter. It is a story about courtly love and how to convince a woman that she should be won over by a particular man. It is about manners, maneuvers, and strategies for a world where women were hidden behind layers of clothing and shielded behind even more layers of veils, draperies, and screens. Religious beliefs, politics, and refined expressions were all part of the art of seduction. It is a very long book that has had far-reaching influences on other writers.

Lao Tzu

Dating back to 6th century BC, in China, this is a foundational text for Taoist thought and philosophy. The book has influenced many Asian religions, as well as other philosophies and religions, and inspired at least one parody. This newly translated version by Ursula K. Le Guin offers her personal comments and thoughts on a book she studied for many years. A basic tenet is self-awareness and what is one’s place is in the world—seemingly easy to summarize, but not to achieve. The goal is a calm self-awareness that is not self-congratulating. The parody is The Tao of Pooh, which provides a vivid insight into Taoist ideals as exemplified by the main character in a classic children’s book, Winnie the Pooh.

The Travels of Ibn Battuta
Batuta, Ibn

Ibn Battuta came from a family of legal scholars who were Berbers. He was born in Tangier, in what is now Morocco, and not a part of Asia. However, his travels took him to many parts of Asia, southeast Asia, and Africa at a time when there were not many who dared to travel to those parts of the world, and his writings bring a unique perspective to what he experienced. He was a seeker of knowledge and wanted to visit the best teachers and libraries, which were in Alexandria, Cairo and Damascus. Nothing stopped him from traveling beyond those cities, and his chronicles prove that he traveled more than Marco Polo.