Text: Richard P. Benton, “Poe’s Acquaintance with Chinese Literature,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1969, Vol. II, No. 2, 2:34


[page 34, column 1:]

Poe’s Acquaintance with Chinese Literature

Trinity College

What did Edgar Allan Poe know about Chinese literature? The writings of Confucius and Mencius were well known to Emerson and Thoreau, but if Poe knew of these great Chinese thinkers they did not impress him enough for him even to mention them in his works. There is evidence in Poe’s writings, however, which makes it certain that he read an essay on the Chinese drama and that he very likely read a Chinese novel and play.

In his burlesque “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (”The Psyche Zenobia”), first published in the American Museum for 1838, Poe cites the Chinese novel , Chiao Li (The Beautiful Couple), a late Ming work by an unknown hand. It is a love story involving Chinese manners of the fifteenth century. In Poe’s tale, Mr. Blackwood advises the blue-stocking, Signora Psyche Zenobia (who may represent Margaret Fuller), that if she wishes to write an article (that is, tale) for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine she must, among other things, use such “piquant expressions as ‘The venerable novel Ju-Kiao-Li ‘.” He explains: “By introducing these few words with dexterity you will evince your intimate acquaintance with the language and literature of the Chinese” (1).

Whether Poe actually read this novel, or simply read or heard about it, is uncertain. He himself was in the habit of employing “piquant expressions” to suggest learning beyond what he possessed, so his satire here is something of a self-parody. But he could easily have read Yü Chiao Li. It had been translated from Chinese into French in 1826 by Jean-Pierre-Abel Rémusat under the tide Iu-kiao-li ou, les deux cousins; roman chinois, and was published at Paris in four volumes. In 1827 Rémusat’s work was translated into English by an unknown person under the title Iu-kiao-li; or, the Two Fair Cousins, and was published at London in two volumes. A German translation followed in the same year, and another French edition was published in 1829. Poe could have read about Yü Chiao Li in the Asiatic Journal (a publication with which he was acquainted; see Works, VI, 89), where the English translation was summarized and reviewed in Vol. XXIII (January-June, 1827), 789-797. At the same time, this Chinese curiosity must have been a topic of conversation among Poe’s friends and acquaintances, for it attracted the attention of writers abroad and at home. Goethe and Carlyle both read it and admired it. Emerson referred to it favorably, and Thoreau was so interested in it that he copied passages from it in his Journal and commented approvingly on them.

Whatever the uncertainty as to whether Poe read the novel Yü Chiao Li, there is no doubt that he read an essay on the Chinese drama; for he quotes from it in one of his “Marginalia” pieces. His “Marginalia” pieces, which were usually based on his reading, appeared in print through the years 1844-49. The essay to which I refer was by John Francis Davis, a British sinologist and diplomat, and was entitled “A Brief View of the Chinese Drama, and of Their Theatrical Exhibitions.” It was prefaced to his translation of a Chinese play called Lao [column 2:] Sheng Erh, whose original was composed during the Yüan Dynasty. Davis ’ book was issued under the title Lao-Seng-Urh, or “An Heir in his Old Age.” A Chinese Drama, and was published at London in 1817.

Poe’s quotation is not entirely accurate and hence may have been quoted from memory. He remarks on “the preposterous ‘asides ’ and soliloquies” which occur in Western plays, which in his opinion, make “the shifts employed by the Chinese playwrights altogether respectable.” Then he observes: “If a general, on a Pekin or Canton stage, is ordered on an expedition, ‘he brandishes a whip, ’ says Davis, ‘or takes in his hand the reins of a bridle, and striding three or four times around a platform, in the midst of a tremendous crash of gongs, drums and trumpets, finally stops short and tells the audience where he has arrived ’ “ (Works, XVI, 68-69). This quotation is somewhat inaccurate, since Davis actually writes: “. . . . a general is ordered upon an expedition to a distant province; he mounts a stick, or brandishes a whip, or takes in his hand the reins of a bridle, and striding three or four times round the stage in the midst of a tremendous crash of gongs, drums, and trumpets, he stops short, and tells the audience where he is got to. . . .” (2). If Poe quoted from memory it would indicate that Davis ’ essay made a strong impression on him.

It is not likely that Poe read Davis ’ essay without also being aware of his translation of the play Lao Sheng Erh. This play, which in the original Chinese has survived in print in a collection of one hundred Yüan dramas called Yüan Ch ’ü Hsüan, published in 1616, is a domestic comedy written by Wu Han-ch ’en. (Davis apparently did not know the identity of the author.) It has to do with the importance of filial piety and ancestor worship; or, specifically, as Davis writes in his essay, where the plot of the play is summarized, it illustrates “the misery arising out of the want of an heir to perform the duties which filial piety demands, both to the living and the dead” (3). But it is not a play for which Poe could have developed much enthusiasm, for its point of view is so uniquely Chinese that anyone without a sound background in Chinese philosophy and customs would have difficulty appreciating it. Furthermore, it is not a particularly good play. If it impressed Poe at all, he has left no evidence in his writings to suggest how strong this impression was, not even mentioning it by name.

Therefore, Poe’s knowledge of Chinese literature was apparently limited to the foregoing works. If he did not know much about Chinese literature, at least he knew something — more than students of Poe have hitherto credited him with.



(1)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), II, 278.

(2)  Lao-Seng-Urh, or “An Heir in his Old Age.” A Chinese Drama (London, 1817), p. xi.

(3)  Lao-Seng-Urh, p. xli. Davis ’ translation was reviewed in the Quarterly Review, XVI (January 1817), 396 ff. It was reviewed and quoted in part in the Asiatic Journal, V (January-June 1818), 33-37, and XXVIII (July-December 1829), 145-148.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]