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  • Ralph Cohen, New Literary History, and Literary Studies in China
  • Wang Ning (bio)

In the history of literary studies, as well as in the humanities more generally, there are two sorts of people who influence and push forward the development of literary studies in a particular cultural context: one by means of insightful theoretical thinking, the other by means of organizational ability. I should mention in particular two eminent American literary scholars who have influenced not only my own career as a Chinese scholar of literature, but also literary studies in China more broadly. These two people both have close relations with the prestigious journal New Literary History. Fredric Jameson, one of the advisory editors of the journal, not only influenced my studies on postmodernism in the Chinese context but also helped reroute China's postmodern studies and cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s with his monumental work on postmodernism.1 Ralph Cohen, founder of the journal and editor during the past forty years, not only helped reorient my own academic career, but more importantly, helped reorient the study of literary theory and comparative literature in China during the last ten years, thanks to the impact of New Literary History as well as the volume he edited, The Future of Literary Theory. About three years ago, when I was attending the fourth Sino-American Symposium on Comparative Literature held at Duke University in 2006, I told Jameson of my desire to see Ralph Cohen. Jameson immediately expressed his gratitude for the considerable help Cohen had given him in the early part of his career. I am sure that many of today's prominent literary scholars are likewise indebted to Cohen. But in this essay, I will first reflect on Cohen's help to me and his unique contribution to literary studies in China before dealing with the remarkable role played by New Literary History.

Ralph Cohen in China: A Personal Retrospective

Although Ralph Cohen visited China only twice, in 1994 and 1995, both visits remain significant to literary studies in China generally, as [End Page 739] well as to my own career. Unlike many other Western scholars who visit China only to give lectures or for the purposes of tourism without any continued cooperation with Chinese scholars, Ralph played a prominent role in reorienting literary theory and comparative literature studies during the 1990s. Today, when I recollect his two visits to China, I cannot help, first of all, thinking of my first essay published in New Literary History in 1993, which laid a solid foundation for my literary studies in an international context and allowed my work to be noted by international scholars during the past ten years. In this respect, I feel all the more indebted to Cohen for his insightful suggestions for revision and his far-sighted perspective on the future of literary studies in China.

During the academic year of 1990–1991, at the invitation of Douwe Fokkema, the former Director of the Research Institute for History and Culture at the University of Utrecht, I did my postdoctoral research in the Netherlands. Occasionally, due to the fact that very few Chinese literary scholars were carrying out postdoctoral research in Europe or North America, I was invited to lecture at some European universities. I understood that my European colleagues were especially interested in the current state of literary and cultural studies in China in a broad cross-cultural and international context. For the purpose of satisfying their expectation and promoting Chinese literature and literary studies abroad, I prepared a long paper, "Western Influence and Current Chinese Literature: Cultural and Theoretic Trends and Literary Creation," in which I traced the origin and development of some major Western cultural trends and literary theories in China (including psychoanalysis, structuralism and poststructuralism, existentialism, modernism, avant-gardism, and postmodernism), how these Western cultural and theoretical trends had influenced modern Chinese literature, theory, and criticism, and how some of the major Chinese writers and literary critics have received these trends in a dynamic and constructive manner, paving the way for a modern Chinese literary and critical tradition. I lectured on this topic at over ten leading European universities and received favorable responses.



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