A Day in the Life of Ancient China (in Japanese)

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In November, 2021, a small paperback published in Japan was selling well and causing a buzz among the twitterati. Here's the listing on Amazon (note the cover illustration).  The author acknowledges that he followed the style of (the Japanese translation of) A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Italian paleontologist, writer, and journalist, Alberto Angela, but the book is obviously the result of decades of data collection from the Chinese classics, as the endnotes (about 900 of them), ranging from Shǐjì 史記 (The Grand Scribe's Records; ca. 91 BC), Hàn shū 漢書 (Book of Han; 111 AD), Zhuāng Zǐ 荘子 (Wandering on the Way; 4th c. BC), Hán Fēi Zǐ 韓非子 (Master Han Fei; d. 233 BC) to Tàipíng Yùlǎn 太平御覧 (Imperial Reader of the Taiping Era; 977-983), show, supporting every bit of the statement in the text, a feature not found in Angela's above work (as far as I see in the French translation at hand). It is no wonder that the author reportedly received an immediate offer of Chinese translation from a Chinese publisher.

Now it's out in the Traditional Chinese version, by Kakinuma Yōhei 柿沼洋平 (rhymes with Ōtani Shōhei), Kodai Chūgoku no 24 jikan Shin-Kan-jidai no ishokujū kara seiai made 古代中国の24時間 秦漢時代の衣食住から性愛まで (24 hours in Ancient China, from clothing-food-dwelling to sexual life in Qin and Han times), published by Chūō kōronsha 中央公論社 (2021.11.25). For the Chinese translation, Amazon.co.jp only gives the Kindle version, but the book version is available, e.g., from this distributor, where you can see the data of the publisher.

Blurb on the original:

Shikōtei, Kōu, to Ryūhō, Butei-ra eiyū ga katsuyaku shita Chūgoku no Shin-Kan jidai. Ima kara ni sen'nen mae no hitobito wa mainichi asa kara ban made, don'na nichijō seikatsu o okutte ita no darou?

Kiei no Chūgoku shika ga shiryō o yomikomi, kōkogaku mo sanshō shinagara, fukusō, shokuji kara enkai, sekkusu, kosodate no yōsu made sono jitsuzō o maruhadaka ni. Kōshū ni urusaku, josei-tachi wa ikemen ni nekkyō shi, sake ni obore, don'yoku ni sei o tanoshimi…… Odoroki ni michinagara, gendai no wareware-tomo tsūjiru kodaibito no sugata o shireba, rekishi ga masumasu tanoshiku naru.  Odoroki ni michinagara, gendai no wareware-tomo tsūjiru kodaibito no sugata o shireba, rekishi ga masumasu tanoshiku naru.


気鋭の中国史家が史料を読み込み、考古学も参照しながら、服装、食事から宴会、セックス、子育ての様子までその実像を丸裸に。口臭にうるさく、女性たちはイケメン*に熱狂し、酒に溺れ、貪欲に性を愉しみ……驚きに満ちながら、現代の我々とも通じる古代人の姿を知れば、歴史がますます愉しくなる。 驚きに満ちながら、現代の我々とも通じる古代人の姿を知れば、歴史がますます愉しくなる。

*From iketeru イケてる (cool) and メンズ (menzu, men).  Iikeru ()ける (to go; to do [in a particular manner]; to be well; stylish).  Cf. ikemenboisu イケメンボイス ("a cool / suave voice").

DeepL Translation (edited by VHM):

The Qin and Han dynasties of China, where heroes such as Shi Huang (First Emperor), Xiang Yu, and Liu Bang, and the Wu Emperor were active. What was daily life like for people 2,000 years ago, from morning to night?

This spirited Chinese historian has read historical documents and consulted archaeology to reveal the real picture, from clothing and food to banquets, sex, and child rearing. The book is full of surprises, but it also provides a glimpse into the lives of the ancient people, who were fussy about their breath, women were crazy about good-looking men, they indulged in alcohol, and they enjoyed sex …… voraciously. Knowing how the ancients were full of surprises and at the same time resonating with us today makes history all the more enjoyable.

You can get the original Japanese version in ePub. Just going over the endnotes for the sources, you'll see the book is dead serious in spite of its appearance of light entertainment.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]


  1. Mark S. said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 7:48 am

    I'm quite willing to believe that way back when, women were crazy about good-looking men, indulged in alcohol, and enjoyed sex voraciously. But Qin Shi Huang was a hero? Providing convincing evidence of that would be by far the greatest surprise the book could muster for me!

    Regardless, it sounds very interesting.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 9:38 am

    If you search for "24 hours in ancient", you'll find them for Rome, Athens, Egypt, and China. Here's the one for China:


  3. Michael Watts said,

    April 1, 2023 @ 1:29 am

    I can't shake the feeling that instead of "24 hours in Ancient China", it'd be more appropriate to have 12 double-hours.

    It's also interesting that the word for necessities of life in Japanese is 衣食住 [clothes, food, and shelter, I guess], whereas in Chinese it's 食衣住行. [Food, clothing, shelter, and transportation.] The use of an obsolete word for eating tends to suggest the Chinese word is fairly old; how old is the equal weight given to transportation?

  4. Josh R. said,

    April 2, 2023 @ 10:54 pm

    Mark S. said,

    "I'm quite willing to believe that way back when, women were crazy about good-looking men, indulged in alcohol, and enjoyed sex voraciously. But Qin Shi Huang was a hero?"

    This is an interesting linguistic question in and of itself. Historically, the word used, 英雄 eiyuu, literally meant "bold man," and idiomatically was used to describe men of great intelligence and valor in battle — without necessarily the moral implications that "hero" has in English. Since Japanese has come in contact with Western literature, it has been almost uniformly calqued to "hero." To the point that of course DeepL would translate 英雄 as hero, and probably the vast majority of human translators, as well. (The same could undoubtedly be said of Chinese as well, since "Hero" is the title of Zhang Yimou's film 英雄.) That said, I for one would certainly balk at using that term to describe such historically ambiguous (to put it lightly) figures such as Qin Shi Huang or Oda Nobunaga. I don't believe the use of 英雄 here is meant to have the positive moral implications of "hero," but more to indicate "bigger than life" personages.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2023 @ 6:55 am

    You can sample quite a few pages of the Chinese version at Google Books, illustrations and all, and presumably buy an e-book at about US$12.00 from Google Play Books.

    Time for somebody to do an English translation!

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