The wis­dom of an­cient sages and a poet’s in­ner self

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS -


For Wolf­gang Ku­bin, study­ing Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture sheds light not only on China, but on his in­ner self.

“It makes it clearer to me who I am, who I love and what I want from life,” said Ku­bin, 70, a prom­i­nent Euro­pean Si­nol­o­gist.

In that vein, Chi­nese writ­ers ought to work harder to im­prove their for­eign lan­guage skills and nur­ture them­selves with for­eign lit­er­a­ture, he said.

Ku­bin, who has stud­ied Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture for more than 40 years, is renowned for his trans­la­tions in the 1990s of short sto­ries and es­says by Lu Xun.

Lu Xun is the pen name of the ver­sa­tile writer Zhou Shuren (1881-1936), one of the first Chi­nese writ­ers to use the ver­nac­u­lar in­stead of clas­si­cal Chi­nese to cre­ate lit­er­a­ture, and widely rec­og­nized as one of the founders of mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture.

Ge Tao of the China-based Lu Xun Cul­ture Foun­da­tion said: “Lu Xun’s es­says are of­ten very in­ci­sive in his so­ci­etal com­men­tary. He is a mas­ter of irony, and that makes his works very dif­fi­cult to trans­late.”

How­ever, Ku­bin has cracked this tough nut, and he has com­piled six books of Lu Xun’s works. For Ku­bin, Lu Xun is the pre­em­i­nent Chi­nese writer.

Ku­bin also likes Li Bai (AD 701-762) of the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907) and Su Shi (10371101) of the Song Dy­nasty (9601279), be­cause they “have a strong abil­ity with lan­guage, their thoughts are deep and wise and they fear noth­ing in life”.

Li Bai was one of most prom­i­nent fig­ures as Chi­nese poetry flour­ished dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty. Be­cause of his ro­man­tic works, he came to be called the Fairy Poet; and Su Shi, a ma­jor per­son­al­ity and a politi­cian dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty, is fa­mous for his lyrics.

In Su’s po­lit­i­cal strug­gles one of his con­stant com­pan­ions was fail­ure, and he was sent into ex­ile more than once. His pe­ri­ods of po­lit­i­cal frus­tra­tion proved par­tic­u­larly fruit­ful for him in the ex­er­cise of his lit­er­ary tal­ents.

How­ever, such tra­vails fail to dim the poet’s en­thu­si­asm and the op­ti­mism con­veyed in his works, Ku­bin said.

“That is what he has taught me. ... They are fine mod­els; I want to be like them.”

Richard Trappl, di­rec­tor of the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute at Univer­sity of Vi­enna, agreed with Ku­bin on the im­por­tance of mas­ter­ing a for­eign lan­guage.

“Peo­ple can learn more about them­selves through learn­ing for­eign lan­guages. Look­ing be­yond one­self of­fers an­other an­gle to look back at one­self.”

Ku­bin has also com­piled the History of Chi­nese Lit­er­a­ture in the 20th Cen­tury (pub­lished in Ger­man as Geschichte der chi­ne­sis­chen Lit­er­atur im 20. Jahrhun­dert), which is widely con­sid­ered in­dis­pens­able and a clas­sic.

He voiced con­cern about con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture, say­ing that writ­ers of the era since 1949 have lacked pro­fun­dity of thought and are too pre­oc­cu­pied with mar­ket­ing.

“A writer who thinks of money or fame while writ­ing can­not be called a writer at all. He’s noth­ing more than a businessman. Be­fore de­cid­ing to write, Chi­nese writ­ers should ask them­selves whether they really like Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture it­self. They should know what they want and who they are.”

He also calls on Chi­nese writ­ers to read more books, so they can con­vey the deep wis­dom of clas­si­cal Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture through their own works.

Al­though Ku­bin is an in­flu­en­tial Si­nol­o­gist now and can write poetry and prose in Chi­nese, he said he was by no means a top-flight stu­dent. He was lazy, pro­cras­ti­nated and was ir­re­spon­si­ble un­til he was “en­light­ened” while read­ing a Bible when he was 16, he said.

He then threw him­self into his work, in which two of the prime el­e­ments were self-dis­ci­pline and de­ter­mi­na­tion.

“I learned per­se­ver­ance from Chi­nese writ­ers like Su Shi. Be­fore reach­ing your goals, you should stick to your ways.”

To this day Ku­bin has re­tained that work ethic.

In 2011 he re­tired from Bonn Univer­sity, but in­stead of set­tling for a quiet re­tire­ment opted to travel to China to con­tinue teach­ing, writ­ing and trans­lat­ing. Since 2011 he has pub­lished six books.

His work sched­ule is tightly planned, and af­ter get­ting up at 5:30 am ev­ery day he writes, trans­lates and does re­search un­til mid­night. He can­not stop writ­ing, be­cause if he stops, he “feels ill and can­not sleep well”, he said.

“You can­not be­gin to write un­til you have in­spi­ra­tion. Ac­tu­ally in­spi­ra­tion comes if you keep writ­ing. That’s ex­actly the thing of ‘prac­tice makes per­fect’”.

“When writ­ing be­comes an in­stinct, it’s not you are writ­ing ar­ti­cles; it’s more like poetry and prose show­ing them­selves through you.”

One way to in­spire this in­stinct is vis­it­ing grave­yards, he said.

Ouyang Jianghe, a friend of Ku­bin, said: “You have not lived un­til you know death. Ku­bin knows that very well; he is some­one who has lived.”

Ku­bin has vis­ited the tombs of many Chi­nese thinkers and lit­er­ary gi­ants, such as Li Shangyin and Bai Juyi, po­ets of the Tang Dy­nasty.

“As I stood in front of the tomb of Mas­ter Meng (372289 BC, also known as Meng Zi, an an­cient Chi­nese thinker, ed­u­ca­tor and Con­fu­cian philoso­pher), I felt I was com­mu­ni­cat­ing with him, he makes me think about who I am.”

Ku­bin stud­ied the­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Muen­ster from 1966 un­til 1968. In 1967 he read a poem by Li Bai and was so struck by it that he de­cided to study Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture. He even­tu­ally trav­eled to China in 1974 to learn mod­ern Chi­nese.

Like Li Bai he en­joys a strong drink, to the ex­tent that he said that only liquor with al­co­hol con­tent of more than 68 per­cent of al­co­hol can truly im­press him.

How­ever, Ku­bin said he does not drink as he is go­ing about the task of writ­ing or trans­lat­ing; for him the job needs his full con­cen­tra­tion.

“Be­ing both a writer and a trans­la­tor is a se­ri­ous pro­fes­sion. It’s like fac­tory work­ers and farm­ers. If farm­ers don’t farm there will be no har­vest in au­tumn.”

Writ­ers need a pure love of lit­er­a­ture free of util­i­tar­ian in­tent, he said. For Chi­nese writ­ers look­ing for level-head­ed­ness and seren­ity he has a sug­ges­tion: they can find it in grave­yards.

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