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  • Comparative Literature in Hong Kong
  • Eugene Chen Eoyang

In reporting on the situation vis-à-vis Comparative Literature in Hong Kong, I need to allude to René Wellek’s 1983 essay, “The Name and Nature of Comparative Literature.” I think it fair to say that the name of “Comparative Literature” is moribund if not well-nigh dead in Hong Kong, but the “nature” of Comparative Literature remains as vital and as flourishing as ever.

Let me first deal with the name. The Hong Kong Comparative Literature Association died in the 1980s. Its last president, Professor P. K. Leung, then a professor in the Comparative Literature program at Hong Kong University, now a Chair Professor of Comparative Literature at Lingnan University, is an active and productive poet, teacher, and cultural studies scholar, who recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany. In Hong Kong, there was (and is) only one Comparative Literature department, and that was (and is) at Hong Kong University—although comparatists were to be found in the Chinese University of Hong Kong as well. In the course of the past twenty-five years, the legacy that was left by such luminaries and stalwarts as Anthony Tatlow ( hku , 1965–1996), John Deeney ( cuhk , 1977– 1997), Yuan Hehhsiang ( cuhk , 1974–1998), Chou Yinghsiung ( hku , 1979–1985; cuhk , 1985–1994; hku , 1991–1994), and Yu Kwangchung ( cuhk , 1974–1985) has taken many forms and assumed many guises. They have not, however, materialized in a single Comparative Literature department of distinction, although distinguished comparatists dot the landscape in Hong Kong.

The decline of Hong Kong University’s Comparative Literature department stemmed from a combination of moral turpitude, administrative ineptness, and academic pusillanimity. Some individuals were asked to leave; some fled in disgust; some were reassigned. In the interest of discretion, I will detail only those who fled hku ; they include: P. K. Leung, a distinguished poet and scholar; Gregory Lee, a renowned scholar of Chinese modernism, and an expert on the Chinese translations of French poetry by Dai Wangshu; Anne Mette Hjort, formerly of McGill and Aalborg University in Denmark, who has contributed studies of Danish Cinema as well as a monograph on the Hong Kong director, Stanley Kwan. Given the diminution of Comparative Literature at Hong Kong University over the years, it is perhaps ironic as well as symbolic that the most influential work produced by the Hong Kong University Comparative Literature faculty in the last generation was Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1997). [End Page 8]

When I first proposed in 1999 that the 17th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association be held in Hong Kong, it was assumed that the Hong Kong Comparative Literature Association would play a central role. Alas, despite efforts to revive it in 1999, Lazarus would not rise from the dead, even though, as we shall see, Comparative Literature is alive and well in Hong Kong. The 17th Congress of the icla in 2004 (originally scheduled for 2003, but postponed as a result of the global hysteria about sars ) attracted over 350 participants from over fifty countries, and involved keynote speakers from Taiwan, Beijing, and Tokyo, as well as sixty-nine panels, forty-nine workshops, seven special workshops, and thirty-seven roundtables.

Although the name “Comparative Literature” has fallen on hard times in Hong Kong, the nature of Comparative Literature—in its cross-cultural dimensions, in its preoccupation with both “high” and “low” culture, in its interest in studies across media, both verbal and visual—more than survives. Even if Comparative Literature departments are not to be found in Hong Kong, Comparative Literature courses are staples in English, Chinese, and translation departments. At Lingnan University, where I teach, Comparative Literature courses are offered in the Chinese and English departments, as well as in the new visual studies program. It could be said that all the courses in the translation department are, indeed, Comparative Literature courses (indeed, many of the instructors have been trained in Comparative Literature), if one believes, as I do, that, contrary to the outlandish claims of a Susan Bassnett-McGuire, translation studies is a subset of Comparative Literature—and not the other way around.

At Lingnan University...