C.T. Hsia as Mentor
By Charles Laughlin, published January 23, 2014, 12:38a.m.
I write the following as a tribute to C.T. Hsia, as a student of his and as a modest contributor to the field he created almost single-handedly with the publication of A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. I had been trying to visit Hsia over the course of the fall semester because I had not seen him for about two years. But my own difficulties prevented it until late December, when I had the opportunity to visit him in New York on Dec. 19--as it turns out, just one short week before he passed away.
I started my PhD studies in Chinese literature at Columbia University in 1988, three years before C.T. Hsia retired, which means that I took the full three years of PhD coursework under his direction. I applied to six graduate schools, and Columbia was one of the two that made compelling offers to me. My decision to go to Columbia was in part based on an attraction to New York City, but the real reason was the opportunity to study with C.T. Hsia; I had read his History and The Classic Chinese Novel in college and was aware of his preeminent stature in the field of modern Chinese literary studies. I had no idea that the timing put me right at the end of his teaching career.
That being said, if students ought to choose their advisors based on intellectual affinities, I probably would not have wanted to be C.T. Hsia’s student. At the University of Minnesota where I did my undergraduate work on Chinese Language and Literature, after establishing a solid basis in language and literary history, I began in my last couple of years to veer strongly in the direction of critical theory. Yu-shih Chen had started to nudge me in that direction before I spent 1986-87 as an exchange student at Nankai University in Tianjin, and the following year when I returned, Rey Chow was teaching at Minnesota while completing her first book, Woman and Chinese Modernity. I also took a course on critical theory from John Mowitt, in which I wrote papers about Lu Xun and Yu Dafu using ideas from Derrida, Foucault, and the Frankfurt School. It seemed to go without saying that graduate school would take me deeper into theory, allowing me to help take modern Chinese literary studies to a new level of sophistication and interaction with comparative literature.
What happened was quite the opposite: at Columbia I immersed myself deeply in the study of Chinese literature. I took every graduate seminar C.T. Hsia taught from 1988-1991: Tang dynasty “chuanqi” short stories, Song dynasty “ci” lyrical poetry, late Qing fiction . . . I think there was one on modern Chinese fiction. I also took his year-long undergraduate survey of modern Chinese literature in translation, which covered the pre-1949 period in the fall semester, and then socialist literature from the PRC plus writers from Taiwan in the spring. The New Era literature of the post-Mao period had not yet hit the syllabus; at any rate, Prof. Hsia did not seem to be very impressed with works from the 1980s. Almost all of the classes I took for my six semesters of PhD coursework were in the Dept. of East Asian Languages and Cultures. Sometimes people asked me why I did not take courses in Comparative Literature, Philosophy, or History (except for one modern Japanese history course) and to tell the truth I am not sure why I didn’t.
C.T. Hsia’s seminars were a lively affair, to a large extent because of Hsia’s own peculiar energy, which kept the pace quick, and his propensity to drop politically incorrect bombshells without warning, which usually mixed profound insight with shock value. I say this knowing it would not have offended him; C.T. reveled in being “politically incorrect.” I remember at the beginning of every semester he would go around the room (seminars usually had about 6-8 students), touching base with each student, either to ask his or her name, or to catch up with returning students; this would be the occasion for frequent jokes. Names were of special fascination to him: he would make guesses (sometimes accurate) about your ancestry based on your surname and your appearance, and then explore the significance of your given name, musings that would often lead him inexplicably and inexorably toward what seemed to be his favorite non-academic topic: the Golden Age of Hollywood. If you bore any resemblance to a star of the 1930s-1950s, Hsia would certainly let you know, just about every time he saw you, and he would even speculate about your personality based on such resemblances.
Yet just when we began to wonder whether Professor Hsia took teaching seriously at all, we would be caught by surprise by waves of scholarly erudition. Looking back on it, I think Hsia was probably dismayed at how spotty even the best graduate training in Chinese literature had to be in the US, due to the linguistic and time constraints of students (up to the 1990s there were still not that many native speakers of Chinese doing PhDs in the US); it was pathetic how little time we had to learn from such an immense corpus, which required such extensive reading and sophistication to master, when most students only had average to reasonably good Chinese. I remember Hsia speaking with admiration of one scholar (not of old, but a contemporary) who, when he went about studying a certain major literary figure, would as a matter of course read the author’s complete works, even if it were 20 volumes. He encouraged us to read entire dynastic histories to really master a period. That being said, one had to be aware of one’s limitations. One day when I had finished my PhD and was preparing to leave Columbia and take up my new teaching position at Yale, I mentioned to Hsia that I had an interest in translating Li Ruzhen’s novel,Flowers in the Mirror (Jinghua yuan, c. 1820), which Lin Yutang and his daughter had begun to do some decades before. He looked at me in shock and said something to the effect of, “Don’t be ridiculous! Your Chinese will never be good enough to do that!”
For C.T. Hsia, scholarship was not complicated; you had to read, and you had to read a great deal. The more you read, the better a reader you become, until the sensitivities you develop after a lifetime of reading make you rather impatient with new material, which rarely achieves the heights of your best reading experiences. Hsia may have been trained by the best in New Criticism at Yale, which could be viewed as the theoretical trend of his time, but the act of literary criticism for him was not a complicated matter: all criticism necessarily involves some kind of comparison, and the rest depends on how brilliant you are. Brilliant critics have excellent training, which meant not that someone taught you how to read or explained the meaning of texts to you correctly, but that the student influenced by the erudition of a brilliant reader, a supremely sensitive interpreter, one who could look at one line and spin out pages of its significance. If C.T. Hsia provided good training, it was not a systematic program; you just knew that you would have to read extensively and respond intelligently (in class and in research).
Hsia demonstrated this in his The Classic Chinese Novel, a superb introduction to the most important works of long fiction in China’s late imperial period. He did as one would expect do New Critical readings of these novels’ fictional art and moral universe, but what takes one by surprise is that for each one, Hsia also presented the state of the field for each novel’s textual history (the principal concern of traditional Chinese literary scholars) and, though himself not a specialist in traditional Chinese fiction, provided his own educated guesses as to the likely authorship, date of earliest publication, and authentic version of the story, when these were not yet established.
You knew what was expected of you, as his student, in terms of preparation, but you never knew what awaited you in the classroom each week. I remember one time Prof. Hsia was utterly flabbergasted at me in class, because he discovered to his horror that I had never read a novel by Charles Dickens. This was possibly in the context of discussing novels by Lao She, the modern Chinese writer most profoundly influenced by Dickens. Hsia’s shock showed a real pedagogical concern for his student, but also revealed that we were moving into an era in which American students would likely no longer recognize the supposedly classic Western influences on modern Chinese authors. For a man like C.T. Hsia, who really carried the torch of May Fourth cosmopolitanism through the end of the 20th century, Western literature was nothing less than the savior of Chinese civilization, and for any well-educated Westerner to be ignorant of the literary canon was scandalous.
The associative and often disjointed flow of his seminars, as likely to be interrupted by a 30-minute diatribe on American politics as by a digression on the etymology of a Chinese character and its surprising relationship to ancient theatrical rituals, or an intensely close reading of a key passage of a modern story, made each one a unique experience. C.T. Hsia’s seminars in Chinese literature covered broad categories much larger than could be comprehensively covered in a semester, but this gave him the freedom to improvise while still demonstrating his mastery by being able to provide scholarly insight on dozens of authors and works seemingly without much preparation.
C.T. Hsia was strict, and it often felt arbitrary, but he would also not hold back when he perceived excellence in his students. For better or worse, what he valued in me was my writing ability. For someone who wished to be a brilliant critic or an accomplished scholar, it was not much more gratifying to be praised for my writing ability than for my Chinese language ability, but over the years, I have come to value this praise, coming from such an enthusiastic and discriminating reader of English literature. I used to think it mattered a lot that American students learn about Chinese culture, but I’ve begun to realize that it is much more important for them to learn how to write well, and this realization was in part inspired by C.T. Hsia’s encouragement.
Hsia was an unsystematic mentor who held his students to the strictest standards without really showing us how to meet them; he was a New Critic passionately committed to the political significance of literature; he championed little-recognized writers marginalized by the revolutionary mainstream while yet giving credit to the literary talent of many of those devoted to the Communist cause, like Mao Dun, Xu Dishan and Ye Shengtao. C.T. Hsia’s greatness lay in his ability to encompass and energize these contradictions, compelling his readers and students to react to him. He was confident in his fundamental convictions—no room for relativistic quibbling there—but his vision of truth did not come easily. Many of us may not be able to accept his arguments, others may view his methods and concerns as outdated, but it is difficult to find such a forceful and astonishing and, let’s face it,entertaining presence in the field of Chinese literary studies today, and for that he will be sorely missed.