Conférence “Heroic Spiders and Litigating Lice: Insects in Traditional Chinese Literature” Wilt Idema – 08/12/2017





Wilt L. Idema,

Professor of Chinese Literature, Harvard University, Emeritus


Le vendredi 8 décembre 2017 à 14h30


à l’Université Paris Diderot

Salle des Thèses (580F), Halle aux Farines

Esplanade Pierre Vidal-Naquet, 75013 Paris



One of the books translated by Lu Xun was De Kleine Johannes (Little Johannes, 1886) by the Dutch poet and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932). When Lu Xun published his translation in 1928 as Xiao yuehan he expressed in his preface his special fascination which the first five chapters in which the book’s protagonist meet with a number of small animals, especially insects, from the Dutch dunes. Klaas Ruitenbeek, the Dutch translator of Lu Xun, has suggested that Lu Xun may have been attracted to this book by comparable tales told to him as a child by his grandmother. Chinese tales featuring talking insects are very rare in classical poetry and prose. The insects that are most prominent in traditional vernacular narrative of stories and novels turn out to be seductive spiders. We find the greatest variety of tales on speaking insects in the popular ballads of late imperial times. Most of these narratives deal with highly formalized social events such as marriages and funerals, many of them ending in a fight. We also have long ballads on the war of the insects. In many of these texts the spider appears as brave warrior and effective judge. While these narratives want to include as many different kinds of insects into their narrative as possible,  tales of disputes (between the fly and the mosquito) and of court cases (of the louse against the flea and the bedbug) allow a limited cast of insect characters more space for their discussions. Most of these texts would appear to have been written as light, satiric entertainment. In Lu Xun’s Shaoxing the most popular insect tale would appear to have been The Marriage of the Mantis.



Wilt L. Idema was Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Leiden university from 1976 to 2000, and Professor of Chinese literature at Harvard from 2000 to 2013. His research was originally focused on traditional vernacular fiction, but later shifted to early traditional drama and popular ballads and tales. He has also published on women’s literature of the premodern period, and translated many works of Chinese poetry, plays and narratives into Dutch and English.

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