Interview with Professor Wilt Idema on Insects in Chinese Literature

Wilt Idema

Insects in Chinese Literature: A Study and Anthology by Wilt L. Idema was just published and launched at the 2019 AAS conference in Denver two weeks ago. There was much interest in this unusual book, and so we have conducted the following interview with Professor Idema.

Cambria Press: In the introduction to your book, you mention that that insects, especially “anthropomorphized insects that talk to each other,” are quite rare in animal tales. What sparked your interest in this rare subset of animal tales?
Wilt Idema: I have always been interested in animal tales, animal fables, and beast epics, likely because Van den vos Reynaerde (Reynard the fox) is one of the most famous and enjoyable works of Dutch medieval literature. Perhaps because I was frustrated by the near-absence of texts involving talking animals in Chinese literature, I have been keeping track of those tales I did encounter. Once I thought I might have enough for a book on the topic, I only intensified my search. When looking for insect tales, I was quite surprised to find a considerable number of tales about the weddings of insects, the funerals of insects, their battles and wars, their disputes and court cases in Chinese popular literature, and once I had found those materials I wanted to compare the depiction of insects in popular tales to those in classical poetry and in vernacular prose. The result in my Insects in Chinese Literature.

CP: You note in your epilogue that “insects are still used as the embodiments of evil and destruction in science-fiction horror movies in the East and West.” Why do you think that is? And why do you think the texts you chose to include in your book treat them differently?
Insects rarely are cuddly. The bee may be useful, but still has a sting. Perhaps the only insects that immediately draw our attention by their beauty are butterflies and dragon flies. Not only have people felt an aversion to many insects since times immemorial, the invention of the microscope has revealed the insects as truly “other,” creatures with different heads, fearsome maws, curiously shaped body parts, etcetera. The film has of course been the perfect medium to confront us with enlarged, moving, close-up images of these strange creatures, making them even more fearsome and horrible. The texts I deal with basically date from the pre-modern period before the insects had been disclosed in their full horrible ugliness, so authors treat insects as the small animals they are.

CP:  The insects in the passages in your book have been anthropomorphized (i.e., assigned human characteristics). But the reverse is often also true: an insect’s traits are laid over a human personality, albeit in an insect’s body. How do you think writers balanced human and insect characteristics in their characters?
WI: It is one of the great attractions of animal literature to see how authors handle the combination of beastly and human characteristics in their texts. Portraying a  character as an animal immediately calls up a host of associations, so fable characters rarely need any further description. But at the same time the character cannot be reduced to only a few fixed animal characteristics, it also has to be given a human rationality that operates from its specific position in the animal kingdom. This requires skill and talent. Some authors in this collection limit themselves distributing human roles over a large number of different insects, others bring flies and mosquitoes, or lice and fleas together in extended dialogues. In classical poetry authors may borrow the voice of despised insects such as locusts or bed bugs to satirize human society.

CP: Although your book deals with insects in Chinese literature, you also discuss the differences and similarities between the treatment of insects in Eastern and Western literature. What attitudes in each of these cultures do you think made their respective treatment of insects so different, and what attitudes do you think dictate our treatment of insects today?
WI: Many of the attitudes towards insects in China and the West are actually quite similar, but practical issues account for some major differences. The Chinese kept bees, but the economic importance of bees was minimal in comparison with the importance of sericulture. Europe rarely suffered from locusts, but many regions of China did so quite often.  People in pre-modern Europe apparently did not keep crickets as pet, and they also did not bet on cricket fights, so the “insect cultures” of pre-modern China and pre-modern Europe were quite different. This is reflected in the texts devoted to insects. In China there Is no trace of the metaphor of the hive, and ants are praised rather for their military than their economic organization.  What is changing our attitude towards insects nowadays is most of all the growing awareness of the destruction wrought by decades of unlimited use of insecticides worldwide on  insect life and the possible consequences for sustainable food production. The insect that in the West would seem to have most benefitted from that development would appear so far to be the bee.

CP: To what extent do you think the West’s treatment of insects influenced the East’s, and vice versa?
WI: The West learned sericulture from China—if we believe the old tales, by stealing silk worms from China. The early twentieth century witnessed the introduction of modern entomology to China. A title that has to be mentioned in this connection are the many volumes of Jean Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques. This work with its many detailed descriptions of insect behavior is still widely available throughout East Asia in various adaptations and translations. At an early date it had a clear impact on Lu Xun who had hoped to produce a Chinese translation in cooperation with his biologist younger brother. Lu Xun also was fascinated by the descriptions of the encounters between the title hero and insects in De kleine Johannes (Little Johannes), a fairy-tale novel by the Dutch author Frederik van Eeden, which he rendered into Chinese as Xiao Yuehan.

CP: What was your favorite insect tale, and why?
I like everything I translate, but in this volume my favorite items are Wang Ling’s dream encounter with a locust, Ding Yaokang’s overheard conversation between a fly and a mosquito, and the anonymous account of the underworld court case of the louse against the flea and the bed bug.

Order Insects in Chinese Literature by April 30, 2019, to save 30% by using the coupon code AAS2019 at the Cambria Press website  (libraries can enjoy this discount too, so please forward this to them). And don’t forget that if your library orders the platinum e-book edition of any title because of a professor’s recommendation, students will have free digital access to the purchased titles and the professor will receive a complimentary hardcopy of the purchased titles—a perfect solution for chapter reading assignments. See the Asian studies catalog.

About the author: Wilt L. Idema is Professor Emeritus of Chinese Literature at Harvard University. A recipient of the prestigious Special Book Award of China, Dr. Idema’s many publications include The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial ChinaPersonal Salvation and Filial Piety: Two Precious Scroll Narratives of Guanyin and Her AcolytesMeng Jiangnü Brings Down the Great Wall: Ten Versions of a Chinese LegendHeroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women’s ScriptThe White Snake and her SonJudge Bao and the Rule of Law: Eight Ballad-Stories from the Period 1250–1450Monks, Bandits, Lovers and Immortals: Eleven Early Chinese PlaysThe Butterfly Lovers: The Legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu YingtaiEscape from Blood Pond Hell: The Tales of Mulian and Woman HuangBattles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood: Early Chinese Plays on the Three KingdomsThe Generals of the Yang Family: Four Early PlaysThe Resurrected Skeleton: From Zhuangzi to Lu Xun; and ”The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven” and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu.

Insects in Chinese Literature is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

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#ISA2019 Toronto Highlights

#ISA 2019 Toronto

Visit the Cambria Press booth (112) to browse our books, chat with an editor, and learn about some frequently asked questions on topics such as the fast publication turnaround after passing peer review and complimentary index-page generation for authors.

New and noteworthy titles will be sold at a special conference price of US$25/CAD$30 (usual list price US$35-$39), while supplies last, so do get to the booth quickly to get your copies.

JUST PUBLISHED! Ensuring National Government Stability After US Counterinsurgency Operations
by Dallas Shaw

ISA 2019 Shaw

The newest book to be released at the ISA conference is Ensuring National Government Stability After US Counterinsurgency Operations: The Critical Measure of Success by Dallas Shaw, and it has been lauded by General Anthony Zinni for being “a brilliant and insightful work” and “a must read for all who want to truly understand what it takes to implement a very complex doctrine and theory in real-world conflicts.”

This book is part of the in the Cambria Rapid Communications in Conflict and Security (RCCS) Series, headed by Dr. Geoffrey R. H. Burn. Watch the videowhich already has nearly 8,000 views, to see the growth of this exciting new series.

NEW! The Gathering Pacific Storm
by Tai Ming Cheung and
Thomas G. Mahnken

“This is a timely, thought provoking book on the state of the increasingly heated military-technological competition between the United States and its great power rivals, China and Russia. Coming on the heels of new National Security and Defense strategies that emphasize the return of great power competition, The Gathering Pacific Storm: Emerging US-China Strategic Competition in Defense Technological and Industrial Development is essential reading for those concerned about the erosion of U.S. military-technical advantage. Dr Cheung and Dr. Mahnken’s book is sure to provide an important intellectual foundation for debate over this important issue. Highly recommended!” 

–Robert Work, 32nd Deputy Secretary of Defense 
and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)

ISA 2019 Cheung Mahnken

Dr. Thomas Mahnken’s ISA 2019 Sessions:

TC55: Thursday 1:45 PM – 3:30 PM
Makers of Global Strategy: Asian Experiences 

SA52: Saturday 8:15 AM – 10:00 AM
Emerging Technologies, the Rise of China and the International Order

NEW! Military Strategy in the 21st Century
by Charles Cleveland, Benjamin Jensen, Susan Bryant, and Arnel David

“In Military Strategy for the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Influence, four authors who have devoted their careers to the security of the United States share their thoughts about the evolving character of war in an increasingly interconnected, networked world—and suggest innovations that will make us safer and more capable. Highly recommended.” 

—John Nagl, author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife and
Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War

ISA 2019 Jensen.jpg

Dr. Benjamin Jensen’s ISA 2019 Sessions:

WA06: Wednesday 8:15 AM – 10:00 AM
Crisis Dynamics and Cyber Statecraft: Simulating Cross National Perspectives 

WB28: Wednesday 10:30 AM – 12:15 PM
Trust and the Cyber Security Dilemma

WD28: Wednesday 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM
War Gaming and Simulations in International Security



The RCCS Series is headed by general editor Dr. Geoffrey R. H. Burn, a former army officer with a doctorate in organization theory and strategy as well as thirty years of experience as the chief executive of book and journal publishing companies. He is a fellow of the Inter University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, a member of the Royal Canadian Military Institute, and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts.

ISA 2019 Book Discount – SAVE 30%

If you’re not headed to the ISA, you and your library can still enjoy a 30% discount on all hardcover titles. Please use coupon code ISA2019 upon checkout. This special discount ends on April 30, 2019. Please forward this e-mail to your librarian so that they can use this discount. Visit for the full list of our titles.

AAS 2019 Highlight: Wendy Larson, author of Zhang Yimou

Professor Wendy Larson, author of the highly acclaimed Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture, will be the discussant for the panel “Literature from China’s Borderlands: Conforming and Resisting the State” in the Colorado room, Tower Building, on Friday (March 22) at 11:15AM-1:00PM.


Come to the Cambria Press booth (403) to take a look at her book, which has earned much praise.

Larson’s wide-ranging theoretical knowledge and the ambitious articulation of the often slippery idea of culture will attract a large academic readership in cultural studies, Chinese studies, film studies, and history. Her detailed, concrete, and brilliant close readings of the nine films also serve as a rich and useful pedagogical resource for a Chinese film course or a Chinese culture course.”

Journal of Asian Studies

This book is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Professor Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

See also The Sinophone Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien: Culture, Style, Voice, and Motion by Christopher Lupke.

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AAS 2019 Denver Highlights

Visit the Cambria booth (403).
Look for this banner!

AAS 2019 Denver

Come to the Cambria Press booth (403), which will be located near the exhibit-hall entrance, to browse our books and chat with an editor and learn about some frequently asked questions on topics such as the inclusion of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese characters and color illustrations in our books.

This year we are proud to partner with the AAS in their scavenger hunt; please come to the Cambria booth to scan the QR code to unlock the question and answer it to earn points toward your chance to win a free registration and 3-night stay at the AAS 2020 conference in Boston!

You will also have a chance to win a free Cambria book of your choice, including two of our newest books The Poetics and Politics of Sensuality in China by Xiaorong Li and Insects in Chinese Literature by Wilt Idema, which are being released at the AAS conference. See our ad on page 129 in the AAS conference program.

NEW! The Poetics and Politics of Sensuality in China by Xiaorong Li

Li Xiaorong.jpg

NEW! Insects in Chinese Literature 
by Wilt Idema

Wilt Idema

If you’re not headed to the AAS, you and your library can still enjoy a 30% discount on all hardcover titles. Please use coupon code AAS2019 upon checkout. This special discount ends on April 30, 2019. Please forward this e-mail to your librarian so that they can use this discount.

Download our Asian studies catalog here for select titles in Asian studies. Please be sure to see page 2 for the FAQs, especially on how to get affordable—even free—digital versions of our books for classroom use. Visit for the full list of our titles.

Front Cover

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Cambria Press Publication Review: Chinese Women Writers and Modern Print Culture


Congratulations to Professor Megan Ferry (Union College) on the outstanding review of her book Chinese Women Writers and Modern Print CultureChina Review International commends her book for being “a meticulous achievement of nearly twenty-year research” and for how “Ferry has convincingly depicted how print media in twentieth-century China constructed both gender and identity, which, to a certain extent, tempered and regulated a woman writer’s physical body as well as her intellectual authority.”

The book review further notes that

Ferry goes in depth into a great variety of newspapers and periodicals, including both serious literary publications and tabloids. She also makes good use of numerous visual images to illustrate the contradictory position of women writers as both consumers and commodities. Particularly in the case of Ding Ling’s disappearance and reappearance in public, Ferry exemplifies how renowned left-wing intellectuals almost created a ‘reading method’ to connect the woman author and her texts by (mis)interpreting her images. Another example of her detailed archival research is that Ferry notices the woman writer Chen Hengzhe started to write vernacular fiction even before Lu Xun, though the latter took all credits for this revolutionary new genre, leading a pioneering fashion in literature style (p. 85). … The approach of gender that Ferry picks is quite innovative [and her] criticism of the ‘women category’ is indeed thought-provoking. She carefully compares ‘modern girl’ and ‘new woman,’ concepts that are often mixed without sufficient consideration. … make inspiring discussions and arguments even more meaningful at present. … Her illustration on gender consciousness and protocols in the print industry since 1980 reminds us of how state-led propaganda attempted to regain control of the discourse on reproductivity in just recent years and make us rethink how women writers address their own physical presence in the male-dominated literary tradition past and present.”

This book is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Professor Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

This book is available in print and digital versions from Cambria Press.

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5 Essential Books for Presidents Day


Cambria Press Tough Times for the President

Tough Times for the President:
Political Adversity and the Sources of Executive Power
by Ryan J. Barilleaux and Jewerl Maxwell

“A fascinating, challenging, and important book. It looks at presidents in trouble, and the authors rightly claim that presidents are in trouble more often than they are in good times. … Barilleaux and Maxwell examine how presidents respond to tough times and what strategies they might employ to govern under such difficult and common circumstances. … Barilleaux and Maxwell have given presidency scholars much to chew on. … given the frequency of tough times, it behooves a president to explore the alternative approaches to governing outlined in this book.” —Presidential Studies Quarterly

Buy this book from Cambria Press.

*     *     *     *     *


Cambria Press New Book

Presidential Electors and the Electoral College:
An Examination of Lobbying, Wavering Electors, and Campaigns for Faithless Votes
by Robert M. Alexander

“A solid, well-composed work of research, an important, if not definitive, study of the subject. Recommended.” —CHOICE

Buy this book from Cambria Press.

*     *     *     *     *


Cambria Press Jockeying for the American Presidency 9781604977806front

Jockeying for the American Presidency:
The Political Opportunism of Aspirants
by Lara M. Brown

“Opportunism is a trait we often spot in politicians, usually ones we do not like. Lara Brown seeks to operationalize this candidate trait and assess its impact upon candidate success in presidential nominations and elections over the course of our nation’s electoral history … Her extensive analysis yields a variety of new and important findings … This volume contains much of value for scholars of the presidency and presidential elections.” – Presidential Studies Quarterly

Buy this book from Cambria Press.

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Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter and the Water Wars:
Presidential Influence and the Politics of Pork
by Scott A. Frisch and Sean Q Kelly

CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title!

“Frisch and Kelly not only tell a great story, but also systematically analyze the effect of Carter administration efforts to lobby members of Congress. The result is an important study of presidential influence in Congress.” –John Anthony Maltese, Albert Berry Saye Professor of Political Science, University of Georgia

Buy this book from Cambria Press.

*     *     *     *     *


How Trump Governs


How Trump Governs:
An Assessment and a Prognosis
by Michael A. Genovese

How Trump Governs provides keen insights into the president’s character, his campaign for the presidency, and the beginning of his administration. The book is characteristic of Genovese’s careful scholarship and engaging writing. This is an excellent analysis of the early Trump administration, and I recommend it highly.” —James Pfiffner, University Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University

Buy this book from Cambria Press.

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Cambria Press Publication Review: Zhang Yimou

Congratulations to Professor Wendy Larson (University of Oregon) on yet another glowing review of her book Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture. The China Journal commends her book for being “a sophisticated, nuanced assessment of the ways in which Zhang Yimou displays and performs culture and the unexpected ways in which he deliberately undermines expectations.”


The book review further notes that:

“Larson does this through careful analysis of eight of Zhang’s first nine films as a director, from 1987’s stunning Red Sorghum to 2005’s cross-cultural elegy Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles…. Larson opens with a masterful discussion of the question of culture in relation to the study of China, Eurocentrism, postcolonial assessments, and the nation. This sets the scene for a discussion of the arc of the treatment of culture in Zhang’s socalled Red Trilogy: Red SorghumJudou, and Raise the Red Lantern. This provides Larson with an opportunity to investigate Chinese critics’ debates about authenticity and performance of the nation. She also deftly addresses other issues in these three films, such as women’s agency. … The movies she discusses include Hero, which many critics and scholars at home and abroad have labeled as fascist in its presentation of culture against a background of the formation of the Chinese state. Contrary to this critique, Larson presents a persuasive argument that Hero fits neatly into the development of Zhang’s directing career. Larson’s analysis of Hero illustrates the subtlety of her argument on culture. Arguing persuasively against the notion of it being a fascist work, she emphasizes the contest in the film between two kinds of power: that of the emperor (associated by critics with fascism) and that of the xia (usually translated as knight-errant, though not in these pages) culture of the would-be assassins of the emperor. … Less well-known films equally get impressive treatment in these pages. … English-speaking fans and critics of Zhang’s films have much to contemplate in this richly argued and original book.”

This book is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Professor Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

This book is available in print and digital versions from Cambria Press.

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