"Why don't they get us?"
By Dylan Levi King, published
That's the question in a piece by Wang Yan, for the Liaoning Daily. The article is from a seven part series called, "Re-evaluating Chinese literature."
It features the thoughts of a gang of Chinese scholars, whose opinions range from reasonable to... let's say, unreasonable:
In this installment, "re-evaluating" will take on a slightly different meaning, as we evaluate the position of Chinese literature in a more global sense. We will re-evaluate the status of Chinese literature, from the point of view of cultural exchange and translation of Chinese books. No matter what is achieved in our contemporary literature, the question remains of its standing on the world stage.
Translating books and promoting them overseas is our literary bridge to the West. Currently, that bridge might be said to resemble a plank of wood spanning a wide river. This single narrow and flimsy link to the West is no longer sufficient.
Western translators and scholars of Chinese culture are known as Sinologists. They have been studying China for centuries, but there are very few scholars focusing on contemporary literature. Chinese scholarship on Western literature has a history of at least a hundred years, but Western scholarship on Chinese literature is a field with history of only two or three decades. The West and China do not have an equal understanding of each other. Many Chinese authors are simply ignored by Western scholars. There is a general ignorance of Chinese literature in the West, yet Chinese writers still take to heart everytime China is overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The West ignores Chinese literature but we still hang on every word that Wolfgang Kubin says. Every Chinese writer still wants to become an international writer. Taking all of that into account, let's rethink our answer to the question of how far Chinese literature has progressed down the road to global acceptance.
China's economic and international political status is always improving. The entire world is focused on China. This must be the turning point for Chinese culture. Chinese fiction can become window on the Chinese national spirit. Therefore, it cannot pander to a Western conception of China. Chinese literature must reveal the truth of the national spirit. Chinese literature must offer the world the benefit of its unique spirit and ideas. This must be taken as the ultimate goal of Chinese culture, and Chinese literature.
A Chinese writer, living in this brave new world of international cultural exchange, must directly face these questions. In fact, these questions should provide a frame of reference for Chinese writers.
When this paper proposed the "Re-evaluating Chinese literature" series, it planned to discuss Wolfgang Kubin's recent comments on Chinese literature. When all is said and done, though, Kubin's is merely another face in the crowd. No matter his opinion or way of looking at things--and perhaps his words have been distorted by the media--they are simply one school of thought. Looking at the entire field of Western scholarship, how do these Sinologists view Chinese literature? What is their final verdict on Chinese contemporary literature? These are questions that are not often asked, or answered. So, this paper went to the people who have the answers. Starting in December of last year, we sat down with Nanjing University's Xu Jun, Shanghai International Studies University professor Xie Zhen, and Shenyang Normal University's Shi Guoqiang, as well as the head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Foreign Literature, Chen Zhongyi. The goal was to get an objective picture of international scholarship on Chinese literature and the global perception of the works of Chinese authors.
Sinology has a history of several centuries. Everyone will recognize the names of Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell. Sinology encompasses many fields of study. Sinologists are simply people with an academic interest in a field of study as it relates to China, and who are not Chinese, or are overseas-born Chinese.
Xu Jun, Chen Zhongyi, Xie Tianzhen and Shi Guoqiang, because of their research interests, frequently come into contact with foreign scholars on and translators of Chinese literature. In their opinion, overseas research on China, as well as scholarship on Chinese literature, remains in the earliest stages of development. The elementary level of development, and often immense ignorance of the subject, means that it is unavoidable that there will be misunderstandings of Chinese literature. As we see more foreign interest directed at Chinese literature, the problems in foreign scholarship mentioned above become more apparent.
"I've don't have the statistics on hand and there might not even be any, but from my own experience and understanding, the number of scholars of contemporary Chinese literature is quite low," says Chen Zhongyi, who has closely followed foreign scholarship on Chinese literature. He has his personal assessment of Chinese literature and is interested in how foreign scholars assess the same works. "There are many different opinions among foreign scholars of contemporary Chinese literature. Some of them like to compare contemporary literature with the writing of the May 4th era. It's not a very scientific method. Lu Xun and his contemporaries were pioneers. They created China's contemporary literature. They were influenced by the best of the West's 19th century writing. The atmosphere of the time was nothing like today's situation. If insist on bringing up May 4th, you'll only find yourself with a mess of differing opinions on how it relates to contemporary literature."
Xie Tianzhen has met many foreign scholars and translators, "The translators and scholars I've met all have a generally positive view of contemporary Chinese literature. They're usually quite excited to introduce our literature to the world. The problem is that outside of China, there's a lack of understanding of our literature. Those translators have a wide range of texts that they'd like to introduce to overseas readers. I know a Korean writer who has completely given up on her own writing in order to throw herself into translating new Chinese fiction. She's sensed that Chinese fiction will continue to attract readers. She's anticipating massive development in the world of Chinese literature and a growing readership overseas. When one of Mo Yan's books is translated in Korea, it's translated by her. Mo Yan even paid a special visit to Korea. From that, you can see that Chinese contemporary literature has a bright future."
Xie Tianzhen thinks that with China's rise will come more interest in Chinese literature, and more scholarship on and translation of Chinese books. "The number of foreigners studying Chinese is increasing all the time. The number of foreigers that can speak the language fluently is increasing, too. If things continue like this, foreign understanding of Chinese literature and Chinese culture can only deepen."
But even if what Xie Tianzhen suggests is true, the appeal of Chinese literature in the West is still extremely limited. Shi Guoqiang insists that there is no real audience for Chinese fiction outside of China. He says that if you look at a bookstore in America, "you might come across a collection of Wang Anyi's short stories, with a picture of herself as a child on the cover, but no other Chinese writers will be available. There's a chain of bookstores called Barnes & Noble. In their "China" section, most books will be about feng shui, enough to fill a whole rack. If Americans are more interested in our superstitions than our literature, what hope is there?"
After Wolfgang Kubin's statements about Chinese literature were blown out of proportion by the Chinese media, he's become the posterboy for modern Sinologists. There is a saying about monks coming back from India reading sutras, but Wolfgang Kubin is the monk that studied Sanskrit to bitch about the sutras.
Chen Zhongyi reminds us that Kubin's opinion is simply one of many and might not be representative. Chen says: "If you really look at it, Mr. Kubin wasn't attacking Chinese contemporary literature as a whole. Kubin is a serious scholar, sure, but you can't exactly say that his understanding of Chinese contemporary literature is particuarly comprehensive or deep. His views aren't particularly harmful but it you can't forget that they are based on outdated Western ideas and often deal with theories outside the realm of literature."
Shi Guoqiang suggests that Kubin has a very limited view of Chinese literature. "What I mean is, his ability to read Chinese is probably not as good as we imagine. If you look at some of what he's written, his reasoning is simply baffling. Like, when he said that Wang Anyi is writing in the tradition of Zhang Ailing. His evidence was that Love on a Barren Mountain, Love in a Small Town had titles that reminded him of Zhang's Love in a Fallen City." [The original article goes further down this road, with Shi Guoqiang quoting various things Kubin has written. Not having the original texts at hand and not wanting to misrepresent something that Shi Guoqiang might already by misrendering or mistranslating, I'll make a snip here. You're not missing anything].
On the other hand, Xu Jun says, translators and readers are must take world literature as their framse of reference. To examine Chinese literature we must know what's happening in contemporary Chinese literature but we also need to know what's going on in contemporary literature elsewhere. Xu Jun has a relatively positive view of foreign scholars of Chinese literature, "The fact that Kubin made those statements about Chinese literature shows us that he's reading Chinese literature, he's following Chinese literature, he cares about the creative process of Chinese literature. Really, he has close links to many Chinese writers."
"When it comes to interacting with literature," Xu Jun says, "the interaction starts with opening a book. That is the beginning of the dialogue, the one between author and reader. So, the first step, if we want to bring our literature to the world isn't asking for praise or criticism. The first step is simply letting people read the books. When readers open the books, that is the beginning of a process of understanding and appreciating literature. ... Now, when the process of globalization is speeding up, keeping the world situation as a state of reference is key. The opinions of foreign readers and scholars deserve our attention."
Shi Guoqiang agrees, saying that even if we shouldn't take Kubin's opinion to heart, we should still respect him. In the end, Kubin is an ardent admirer of Chinese literature and feels he can offer his opinion of it, which comes from a background of extensive reading and a rigorous approach to literature. "We can't take everything he says seriously, but we can't ignore him, either."
Asked to identify the Chinese author who's followed most closely in the West, Xie Tianzhen points to Mo Yan. "Mo Yan is the writer that foreign scholars and translators pay the most attention to. Yu Hua, Jia Pingwa, and Wang Anyi get a lot of attention, too. Wolf Totem was a book that received a lot of attention overseas. It was the right book for the right time because it had a lot to say about environmentalism and the green movement. There are many reasions a book might make a splash in the West. We often talk about the literary aspects, but sometimes a book is a hit because it's released at the right place at the right time."
In the early-1990s Xie Tianzhen worked at the University of Pittsburgh on a book comparing Western science-fiction with Chinese knight-errant fiction. "Back then, I noted that Chinese science-fiction barely existed, but it was a huge part of Western literature. You even had university classes on it at American schools. First, I thought it was because of some difference in the national characters of our two countries. Chinese and Americans are both human and both have the power of imagination. But American imaginations tend to the fantastical, while Chinese imaginations tend to the realistic or concrete. Western science-fiction was always talking about other planets, but nobody was thinking about that stuff in China. In America, Star Wars was a huge hit, but nobody in China gave a damn. If we compare Western science-fiction to our Chinese knight-errant fiction, the imaginative aspects are very different. Knight-errant fiction starts from a set plot and the novels are set in a quite realistic time and place. Then, starting from these these relatively realistic settings and a set plot, fantastic things can occur. Now, if you look at the younger generation, you'll see that they grew up watching Ultraman and Astro Boy. So, when they come across science-fiction, it's not like earlier generations." Xie Tiezhen thinks that an admiration for a certain strain of literature arises from many factors. "If you didn't grow up in the same world as the literature you're reading was written in, there are some barriers to appreciating and understanding it."
Xu Jun says that there is a long way to go in promoting literary and cultural exchange between China and the West. But, Xu Jun says, there's been a fundamental shift since the 1980s. Chinese literature is finally, if slowly, creeping into the consciousness of the world. For example, Yu Hua's Cries in the Drizzle, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, as well as Jia Pingwa's Abandoned Capital have been well received. Authors such as Mo Yan, Su Tong, Bi Feiyu, Tie Ning, Chi Li and others have also gone over well in the West. Xu Jun's area of expertise is French literature and has a decent understanding of the situation of Chinese literature there. From what Xu Jun has observed, cultural exchange events like the China-France Cultural Year led to many great works of Chinese fiction being introduced to French readers, to great acclaim. "The reception of Yu Hua's Brothers was very enthusiastic! Compared to the former state of things, I think there's been a radical change."
Xu Jun reminds us that France has a long history of Sinology. The number of contemporary Chinese books published that have been published in French translation is quite high, around two hundred in total. But, says, Xu Jun, whether it's Chinese scholars looking at the West or Western scholars looking at China, the first requirement is an understanding. Howard Goldblatt has said that when he translates Chinese fiction, he takes on a heavy burden. The burden lies in accurately representing Chinese works to his American readers. If he translates an inferior book, he's effectively destroying the already limited readership. But French readers, suggest Xu Jun, tend to have a more discerning eye.
But, as Chen Zhongyi points out, the Western public's knowledge of Chinese literature seems to have stalled at a certain stage of understanding, a biased, novelty-seeking stage. "Not all Western readers are like this, but there is definitely a portion of readers that are. You might even say that most readers are stuck at this elementary understanding of Chinese literature. China is the backdrop for all Chinese literature, and they still see China in its current condition as a bizarre place. And lots of the works being published overseas are deeply flawed." Chen Zhongyi says that Chinese literature available overseas can be divided into three types: "The first type is good literature, like Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, Chi Li, Wang Meng, Su Tong, Yu Hua. Serious literature. The second type is literature that has been banned or criticized in China. Foreign readers are very interested in this writing. This reveals their bias, and it adds up to a lot of sales for this kind of fiction. This type includes writers like Wei Hui. The third type is the writing of authors who were born in China but are now writing overseas."
... Among all three types, the second is most influential. Wei Hui's book sales are impressive. Jia Pingwa's Abandoned Capital has also sold quite well. All of these books have been banned, for various reasons. Biased overseas readers read these books to catch a glimpse of China's ugliness. This is the furthest thing from an appreciation of good literature. The fans of these books are well aware that they don't represent great writing but that doesn't stop them from wanting to read them, and they're rarely disappointed by what they find in them.
Xie Tianzhen says, "We have a hundred year history of interpreting Western literature. How did we begin to translate and understand Western literature? Lin Shu was the first translator to introduce Western literary works into China on a larger scale. In order to allow Chinese readers to understand Western literature better, he used the form of Chinese traditional serialized fiction. Today, we can say that Chinese translation of Western literature has a history of more than a hundred years. But Westerners have only begun reading and translating Chinese fiction during the last twenty or thirty years. So, I hope that someday Western readers can have an understanding of Chinese literature similar to our understanding of Western literature. As it is now, it's too much to ask for Westerners to have a real understanding of Chinese literature. We understand them far more than they understand us. This is an important background to these issues, but it's often forgotten. If keep that background in mind, it is easy to see why Westerners misread our literature, and sometimes go as far as to criticize it."
The original article is here: 西方为何不了解文学的中国？