- Getting Ideas about World Literature in China
A number of seminal figures come to mind when one considers the formative moments of world literature: Goethe, Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz, Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett, and sometimes Engels and Marx, if only to give global capitalism its due. On a more contemporary scale, Franco Moretti, Pascale Casanova, and David Damrosch offer models for a new world literary history and system, steadily moving beyond their predecessors. Given this constellation of dialogues, it is hard to imagine that the names John Albert Macy, John Drinkwater, Richard Green Moulton, William Lee Richardson, Jesse M. Owen, and Caleb Thomas Winchester would carry much discursive weight. Even less expected would be the important textbook value they served for the likes of Zheng Zhenduo, Zhou Zuoren, Yu Dafu, and other intellectuals and writers in China in the 1920s and 1930s who were trying to invent a modern national literary history, on the one hand, and to gain authority over a literature of the world, on the other.
These mostly unfamiliar literary scholars would not be strung together if not for their convergence on one issue: how and where does one get the idea of "world literature" outside of its presumed discursive lineage? To provide an answer via East Asia, one trajectory might be to polarize Western and non-Western conceptions of world literature by filling a "China" gap in an intended global literary history. Another approach would be to show the inevitable defeat of world literature in competition with national literatures by exposing world literature's still provincial interests, despite the fact that it has cast its net wide. Yet neither would say very much about how world literature is less about literary texts than about how the idea of a globalized literature caught on, a speculative process of worlding that is equally powerful in its ideational as well as material contents. [End Page 290]
After all, we're not just tracking the movements of translations, texts, and anthologies. To plot out a history of world literature seems to require more than just connecting the dots from text to text, readership to readership. One surely shows a lack of methodological imagination in thinking of world literature as the sum of all literatures since the dawn of time, hosted in some nebulous zone of contact. Yet the very idea does exploit a particular assured sense of being in the world in an ageless and supranational way. How was creating this confidence especially important during a period of national uncertainty in early twentieth-century China? An examination of this contrast highlights the force of asymmetry, rather than commonality, behind the projection of a global literary humanity. Why is it better to participate in world literature? How does this awareness of the superiority of the idea of "world," as opposed to nations or cultures, open up a space of emulation and dissimulation? Is it not enough to be just in the world? To approach these questions, Chinese intellectuals and writers pursued what I describe as a "narcissistic" notion of world literature. By this I mean less the familiar indictment of Euro-American self-preoccupation than the process by which world literature was made into its own audience as an intellectual project, emerging field, and a threshold of national reflexivity in the formative decades of modern Chinese literature.
Bickering about the World
To date, there is no consensus as to what world literature should be or what it should do for the world. Most recent discussions focus more on its shortcomings than its virtue. That the very idea of a more inclusive literary humanity should provoke such disharmony would not have surprised Oliver Goldsmith, having already foreseen it in the early 1760s. In a series of letters written in the fictional voice of a traveling Chinese philosopher Lien Chi, who was reporting back on the strange European social customs he encountered, The Citizen of the World was an instrument of social satire in the vein of Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu. Issuing a call for world literature closer to Goethe's than to our own, Goldsmith observed the real difficulty in establishing any literary community:
The republic of letters is...