The Importance of Studying Chinese Literature

Published in University of Pennsylvania journal Confucius Says, Spring 2013 issue

In my field, I am accustomed to exaggerated responses from people when they first hear what I am studying in grad school. This is not without both cause and precedent. Chinese literature has often seemed like a random subject of study, outside of China, to those not within the field of East Asian studies, something they have never stopped to consider. This is less the case now that China has such a large presence on the global scene, which leads many people to nod knowingly at my choice of topic, evidently assuming that it has to do with China’s rise as a world power. In this way, I have perhaps an easier time of it than those who study Czech, Japanese, Nigerian, or any other so-called “obscure” literatures. Nevertheless, I definitely still frequently encounter surprised responses from those who wonder how I ever came to pursue such a seemingly-random subject. I understand this kind of response. How could they think differently, in a world where literature written in Western European languages (and Russian) is privileged?

The kinds of responses that really get to me are the incredulous ones, where people seem almost annoyed, or at least bewildered, that I haven’t chosen to study something more conventional. “Why in the world Chinese literature?,” I have on occasion been asked. “Why not French? German? Italian?” These kinds of responses seems to imply that there could be no good reason to justify choosing Chinese literature over such esteemed literary legacies as those mentioned above. Why Chinese literature, indeed? Is it just some odd-ball subject chosen by academic hipsters who want to be “different” from their peers in literature? Is it chosen primarily because of China’s prominence on a global scale?

Perhaps the answer to one or both of these questions is “yes” for some people, but neither is true for me. I can also vouch for the fact that neither of these have been prevalent attitudes among the many graduate students in Chinese literature that I know.The truth is that, like in any other field, people come to the study of Chinese literature for many different reasons. All I can hope to do in this essay is explain my own path for choosing the field, and then from this build an argument for one reason that the study of Chinese literature is important—there are naturally many others as well.

I have always been drawn to literature, practically from before I could read. It was thus always obvious that I was destined to study literature in college and grad school, even if I was sometimes in denial about it growing up (due to our society’s propensity to dismiss humanities majors as unimportant, which is another issue altogether). I began to study French, like many Americans, at the young age of eleven or twelve, and I was of course quite familiar with not only American, but also British and Irish literature, since these literary traditions all maintain a fairly strong presence in American public high school English classes. If things had stayed the same, then most likely I would have gone into French or English or Irish literature, and I’m sure my motivation for studying them would have been much clearer to those who would have asked.

But things did change. In ninth grade, a pink slip was passed out to us in English class that announced that our high school would be pioneering a Chinese language program, and would we like to volunteer? I had no intention of dropping French, but still shrugged and signed up for the class without much hesitation. I had never thought much about Chinese before, but it sounded like a neat opportunity. Plus, I wasn’t averse to taking two language classes. I left school that day and didn’t think about it anymore.

It always sounds melodramatic to say things like “little did I  know at the time that that little slip of pink paper would direct the course of my life,” but in a way, that’s exactly what happened. Isn’t it interesting that some of the decisions that turn out to be the biggest of our lives don’t seem like much in the moment? In any case, from the first day of Chinese class the next year I was hooked, falling head over heels in love with the language the second I was first introduced to the concept of “tones.” I think I liked it because it was totally different from anything I had been exposed to before. It thus made me realize how big the world was and how little of it I knew and understood from my little corner in a Boston suburb.  Not even a year into my Chinese language studies, I began to dabble in reading Chinese literature (in English translation), because literature had always been my way of connecting with everything I was interested in. When I entered college, though, I wasn’t quite willing to abandon those other literary traditions I adored—English, Irish, French—so I became a Comparative Literature major and studied all of them.

Now that I am in graduate school, though, I study just Chinese literature—I am based in the East Asian Languages and Civilizations department. What happened? You know now how I stumbled upon the “random” subject of Chinese literature, but what led me to eventually give up the academic study of the other national literatures I love and focus on just Chinese? It isn’t because China is a world power or because I’m a hipster or because I have some kind of orientalist obsession with “Chinese culture,” whatever that means. It is, conversely, precisely because I still receive incredulous responses when I tell people what I study. It is because studying Chinese literature is for some reason still often perceived to be not as “normal” as studying British or French literature, outside of China.

Great Britain, the United States, France, Ireland, Russia, and Germany are all countries with rich, deeply-studied and widely-read literary traditions. I hope that these literary legacies will continue to attract students who are passionate about studying them for years to come. The problem is that there are lots of other countries out there with rich literary legacies as well, which go virtually ignored except by people who come from those countries. Luckily, this is starting to change. Latin American literature has become quite a hot topic, as have the literatures of various Francophone countries, for example.

For a complex variety of social, political, historical, and cultural reasons, literatures written in Western European languages and Russian have come to dominate the literary scene. That is to say, if a person in a given country is familiar with any national literature outside of his or her own, it is likely to be one of those named above. However, literatures written in languages other than those of Western Europe and Russia still tend to be horribly underrepresented outside of their respective countries. Chinese and Japanese literature have fared somewhat better in terms of the number of English translations available of books written in these languages, perhaps because their strong economies make the world more interested in them to begin with. I am willing to bet that few people who do not speak Arabic, Turkish, or Hungarian have ever read translations of literature written in those languages, however, myself included).

To read a country’s literature is to acknowledge that country’s voice, or rather chorus of voices—for all one has to do is begin to read various books from a country to realize the vast and diverse array of stories that make up its communities. To read a country’s literature is thus also to begin to understand it, even if this understanding ironically stems from realizing that nothing about the country is “easy” or “simple” to understand, and that for every generalization that could be made about it, there are thousands of exceptions and complicating factors. These voices are speaking all over the world, and the least you can do is to give now this one, now that one, your undivided attention for a time, so that each one sees that a pair of ears is listening to it, that its voice is heard. Tuning in and listening, through reading, increases the reader’s aweareness of all of the different textures that make an individual counry its own unique force in the world.

It is not, as I am trying to emphasize, that more “conventional” literatures such as French, English, and German are not as worthwhile a study as they ever were. For myself, I still enjoy reading works from all of those literary traditions in my spare time. But I personally decided that I wanted to devote my career to doing what I could to continue the process of introducing Chinese literature to the world, so that the import of this magnificent tradition could be felt, finally, by those outside of its borders. That is my personal reason for studying Chinese literature specifically.

In certain ways, the battle for Chinese literature is almost won. The Nobel Prize in literature last year went to Mo Yan, a Chinese writer. Another ethnically Chinese writer who also writes in Chinese, Gao Xingjian, won the prize in 2000 (although he is a French national, so he doesn’t technically count as a “Chinese” writer in the nationalistic sense of the word). However, it shouldn’t take a burgeoning economy for the world to turn its attention to a country’s literature, and I hope that other literatures written in non-Western European languages will begin to garner the attention they deserve as well.

I understand that one factor that keeps readers away from these literatures is the language barrier. Translations of many literatures written in languages other than those of Western Europe or Russia are often hard to come by. This will only cease to be a problem as more people decide to study literary traditions outside of the standard ones, unfortunately. Lack of interest in these literatures thus perpetuates itself in a kind of vicious circle.

Still, although work always remains to be done, English translations available today are more varied than they ever have been. I encourage you, the next time you’re looking for a good novel, to consider a translation of a work written in Chinese, or Japanese, or Arabic. Don’t give up your taste for French or German translations, naturally—rather, read them alongside each other, and consequently, through thoughtful comparison and careful consideration, learn even more about the world around you.

I would be remiss if I admonished you to read more Chinese literature and didn’t give you some direction in accomplishing this goal. Here are some recommendations of books I really like, and their translations, to get you started in your readerly exploration (they’re all from the twentieth century. Sorry for the lack of representation—that stems from my own personal reading bias) :

Collected Works of Lu Xun, translated by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang

Love in a Fallen City, by Eileen Chang, translated by Karen S. Kingsbury

Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian, translated by Mabel Lee

Finally, for those of you who like to go even further and learn to read literatures in their original languages, I can only speak to Chinese.  I promise you that the study of Chinese, while difficult, is also immensely rewarding. Pursue the study of the languages of your dreams, no matter how difficult or obscure they may seem! You will be the ones who will carry on this gradual unfolding of literary legacies of which I speak.

In any case, next time you encounter somebody who has chosen to study a national literature that doesn’t have a huge presence outside of its country of origin, please don’t react with incredulity. All national literatures are worthy of study, even ones whose languages pose challenges for non-native speakers.  Recognizing this is the first step to understanding the importance of studying Chinese literature.