The quest for wen

David Der-wei Wang’s opus demon­strates the vi­brancy of mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture and an ea­ger­ness to em­brace out­side cul­tural and lin­guis­tic in­flu­ences. Steve Donoghue re­ports

The National - News - The Review - - Non-fiction - Steve Donoghue is manag­ing editor of Open Let­ters Monthly.

When The Columbia Com­pan­ion to Mod­ern Chi­nese Lit­er­a­ture ap­peared last year, Har­vard pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture David Der-wei Wang sang the praises of both book and sub­ject. “In this vol­ume,” he wrote, “Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture ap­pears to be a most pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tion that in­scribes, and some­times even pre­scribes, the his­tory of mod­ern China.”

In A New Lit­er­ary His­tory of Mod­ern China, Wang ed­its an un­der­tak­ing of per­haps even greater au­dac­ity. In this enor­mous 1,000page vol­ume, pro­duced in a beau­ti­ful edi­tion by the Belk­nap Press of the Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, brief es­says from more than 140 schol­ars, Chi­nese and non-Chi­nese alike, shine quick, in­tense light on hun­dreds of facets of the Chi­nese con­cept of wen, “lit­er­ari­ness”.

It runs through a stag­ger­ing ar­ray of lit­er­ary forms, from prison mem­oirs to trav­el­ogues to So­cratic di­a­logues to stage plays to pop song lyrics, to the rough equiv­a­lent of fan fic­tion writ­ten about silent films.

The book is a rac­ing pro­fu­sion of names, time pe­ri­ods, na­tions and peo­ple: count­less writ­ers, ed­i­tors, copy­ists, pub­lish­ers, ac­tors, po­ets, scroungers, scoundrels, cen­sors, poseurs, and even the oc­ca­sional lowly book re­viewer.

In his in­valu­able in­tro­duc­tion to the vol­ume, Wang fo­cuses on “the dis­tinc­tive moder­nity that char­ac­terises Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture alone” and spends the rest of his In­tro­duc­tion and most of the book try­ing to map the ge­og­ra­phy and bound­aries of wen as it ap­plies to a vast body of writ­ing, an al­most un­man­age­able body of writ­ing.

Wang’s aim is “to view Chi­nese lit­er­ary mod­erni­sa­tion not as a mono­lithic process, with each stage in­evitably lead­ing to­ward a higher one in ac­cor­dance with a cer­tain timetable, but as a process with mul­ti­ple en­try points and rup­tures”.

A key el­e­ment of that mod­erni­sa­tion, the key in­gre­di­ent of all those mul­ti­ple en­try points and rup­tures feels at first a bit counter-in­tu­itive: the out­side world.

The stereo­typ­i­cal view of lit­er­ary China has al­ways been one of iso­la­tion, even xeno­pho­bia – a clois­tered, in­ward-look­ing lit­er­a­ture. Wang and his fel­low con­trib­u­tors am­ply demon­strate that this couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth. In fact, Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture has al­ways been ea­ger to seek out for­eign in­flu­ences and is hy­per-sen­si­tive to their ef­fects. Our host calls this “tran­scul­tur­a­tion” and de­fines it as “lin­guis­tic, cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­ac­tions be­tween con­ti­nents, na­tions, so­ci­eties, in­sti­tu­tion and com­mu­ni­ties”.

Wang and some of his con­trib­u­tors oc­ca­sion­ally re­sort to this kind of aca­demic dou­ble-speak, which can lead with woe­ful ease to phrases like “the het­eroglos­sia of the di­as­poric com­mu­ni­ties”. But con­sid­er­ing the fact that this book will cer­tainly be used in grad­u­ate-level lit­er­a­ture cour­ses, blocks of heavy jar­gon are mer­ci­fully rare.

In­stead, what read­ers get is a gallery of colour­ful char­ac­ters and an im­pos­si­bly long list of books and authors they’ll be in­trigued to con­sult (in­deed, one of the per­haps un­in­tended con­se­quences of a book like this is to un­der­score how com­par­a­tively lit­tle of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture ex­ists in mod­ern English-lan­guage trans­la­tions).

Each of Wang’s con­trib­u­tors writes a brief (two to six pages, on av­er­age) piece in­tro­duc­ing some lit­er­ary fig­ure and con­cisely but colour­fully sketches in the broad de­tails of their work and then moves briskly off-stage in order to al­low the next scholar to step up and do the same. This is cer­tainly more dis­ori­ent­ing than the slower pace and more fo­cused am­bit of an ac­tual an­thol­ogy of the prose in trans­la­tion, but its strength lies in its in­clu­sive­ness.

The book in­cludes a very great deal – there is a teem­ing mul­ti­tude in these pages. For in­stance, we meet Sai Jin­hua, the cour­te­san who is said to have used her re­la­tion­ship with the com­man­der of the al­lied western forces in Bei­jing at the end of the Boxer Re­bel­lion in 1900 in order to save the city from fur­ther de­struc­tion. The fact that Car­los Ro­jas can out­line her story in a six-page es­say that also cov­ers top­ics rang­ing from his­tor­i­cal fic­tion to so­cial Dar­win­ism and make it all fas­ci­nat­ing is, against all odds, typ­i­cal of the con­tri­bu­tions in these pages.

This is se­ri­ous lit­er­ary his­tory, yes, but it’s also clearly in­tended to be en­gag­ing read­ing.

Eileen Cheng gives read­ers a fast-paced and heart­felt ac­count of the ca­reer of the great scholar and au­thor Lu Xun (1881-1936), mainly by con­cen­trat­ing on his su­perb short sto­ries.

Yale Uni­ver­sity scholar Kang-i Sun Chang of­fers a grip­ping au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sketch about Tai­wan’s 228 Mas­sacre and its long, heart­break­ing af­ter­math.

Clint Cape­hart tells the fas­ci­nat­ing story of the Tai­wanese writer who worked un­der the pen name of San­mao, who threw off her con­ven­tional up­bring­ing and be­came fa­mous by writ­ing up ac­counts of her farflung trav­els around the world (“She bridged the gap be­tween pop­u­lar fic­tion and high­brow lit­er­a­ture,” Cape­hart writes, “en­ter­tain­ing with sen­ti­men­tal tales while ed­u­cat­ing read­ers about the out­side world, en­rich­ing not only her au­di­ence but also her­self in the process”).

Ying Lei re­lates the pi­caresque life and times of the poet-monk Su Man­shu (1884-1918), who once drank five to six pounds of frozen dessert in a sin­gle day and “ended up ly­ing still on the floor like a corpse”.

In all of these en­tries and many oth­ers can be found one of the book’s main joys for the cu­ri­ous reader. They open by con­cen­trat­ing on one lit­er­ary fig­ure but then in­evitably broaden in all di­rec­tions.

Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Haiyan Lee, for in­stance, starts by telling the tragic story of the ac­tivist Lin Juemin (1887-1811) and the fa­mous last let­ter he left for his wife (“As I write this let­ter, I’m still a man in the land of the liv­ing; when you read it, I’ll be a ghost in the nether­world”).

But in short order, read­ers are also learn­ing about the great 14th-cen­tury epic Wa­ter Mar­gin, Xu Zhenya’s 1912 “lugubri­ous tale” Jade Pear Spirit, Tai­wanese singer Chyi Yu and half a dozen other ref­er­ences worth chas­ing down.

In his wonk­ish way, Wang earnestly tells read­ers that his an­thol­ogy of­fers four themes for ground­ing mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture firmly in the wider world: “ar­chi­tec­ton­ics of tem­po­ral­i­ties, dy­nam­ics of travel and tran­scul­tur­a­tion, con­tes­ta­tion be­tween wen and me­di­al­ity, and remap­ping of the lit­er­ary car­tog­ra­phy of mod­ern China”. Like most aca­demic jar­gon, a great deal of this is gib­ber­ish.

For­tu­nately for his read­ers, Wang has wrought far bet­ter than his ar­chi­tec­ton­ics knew. A New Lit­er­ary His­tory of Mod­ern China is a ver­i­ta­ble world unto it­self, a tri­umph of ex­pan­sive en­thu­si­asm and om­niv­o­rous lit­er­ary cu­rios­ity, sci­ence fic­tion, fan fic­tion, web fic­tion and the thou­sand ways more tra­di­tional Chi­nese lit­er­ary forms have al­ways grap­pled with the present, the past and the out­side world. All are il­lu­mi­nated in these pages. It’s a stun­ning col­lec­tion and its own wen is be­yond re­proach.

Tao Zhang / NurPhoto

A read­ing event for World Book Day at a sub­way sta­tion in Harbin, China, last year. There are few mod­ern English-lan­guage trans­la­tions of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture.

A New Lit­er­ary His­tory of Mod­ern China Edited by David Der-wei Wang Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, Dh114

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