Academic literary exchange between the Cambridge Faculty of English and China has been coextensive with the history of the Faculty itself. I. A. Richards and William Empson had direct experience of China and developed that experience in their critical writing, some of which was drafted or written in China. Subsequently, F. R. Leavis and later Raymond Williams were taken up in China because they addressed the importance of literature, and the value of literary study, for a rising mass readership. Following the cultural revolution in China, and the opening of China to the West, Chinese students began to come to Cambridge for postgraduate study. In the spring of 2009 The Cambridge Quarterly received a submission from one of those graduate students, now teaching at Tsinghua University in Beijing, entitled ‘Translating Literature: The Cambridge Critics and their Significance in China’. The Faculty had been aware of its relationship with China, but had not found occasion to consider it in any systematic way. This submission from Cao Li (a revised version of which is included in this number) seemed to the Editors to provide that occasion.
The initial thought was to convene a conference on the subject, in Cambridge in the summer of 2011, in order to determine whether a ‘special number’ of the Quarterly on the subject might be assembled. This was to be kept small, a dozen to fifteen participants, all of whom would be present for all papers, and join in the discussion of each. The focus was to be on literary criticism and the teaching and study of literature – particularly English literature (though in the event the field of reference was much wider). In assembling this conference it became clear to the editors that the original tripartite division (Richards and Empson; Leavis and Williams; and the influx of Chinese research students in the 1980s) might be extended to include, at one end, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and King’s College before the Great War, and, at the other, J. H. Prynne, a contemporary English poet and current member of the Cambridge [End Page 1] Faculty. There was to be no other restriction, either as to subject or as to method. The event was to be informal, a conversation rather than a conference, and therefore to be designated a ‘colloquium’.1 Papers were to be revised and extended in the light of discussion, and submitted to the Quarterly for inclusion in a special number. Contributors were given no specific brief, nor was there any editorial interference to force coverage or uniformity. There is nevertheless, among the papers which form the number, an unforced internal coherence in which the whole has become much more than the sum of its parts.
What began as a modest historical enquiry has become, in the event, an analysis of the development of literary criticism, reflected in a Chinese mirror. ‘Cambridge English’ came into being with the foundation of a Chair in the subject in 1911. A dozen years later there was an established Faculty of English, with its own staff, its own course, and its own examinations. This was the last English course to be founded among English universities then extant but, by good fortune, its founding coincided with the educational turmoil confronted by universities in the aftermath of the Great War. To put it simply, literary education needed to be established on the basis of something other than philology. This had been made explicit by the founding terms of the Chair: it was to be a Chair in ‘English literature from the age of Chaucer’ and stipulated that the subject was to be treated ‘on literary and critical rather than on philological and linguistic lines’, clearly differentiating the duties of the holder of the Cambridge Chair from those at Oxford and other universities. But literary criticism, unsupported by philological, linguistic, or historical sophistication, was not recognised in Cambridge as a fit subject for study at university. It was but a matter of opinion, to be found in the newspapers; where was the academic rigour in that?
But even as the new Faculty was trying to establish itself in Cambridge, the idea of criticism as a serious intellectual exercise, and the study of literature...