- China and Russian Literature in Historical Perspective
The idea that literature, by teaching and enlightening the mass populace, could help to spur social change appealed to many readers in twentieth-century China. Their culture contained the beginnings of a moral view of literature as old as the ancient Book of Songs (ca. 600 B.C.E.) and Tang-dynasty poetry (seventh to ninth centuries C.E.). Their attraction to a Russian literary tradition that seemed to share such a vision is, in general, well known. Mark Gamsa, however, not only examines the Sino-Russian cultural encounter more closely than anyone heretofore has done, but also reflects on it perceptively from the viewpoint of a new century. The Chinese Translation of Russian Literature: Three Studies, published in 2008 (hereafter Three Studies), is based on extensive research and provides deep support for the shorter and more analytical volume, The Reading of Russian Literature in China: A Moral Example and Manual of Practice (2010) (hereafter Reading). [End Page 204]
The two books differ in scope and intended readership; the earlier Three Studies primarily addresses scholars, while Reading also speaks to a more general audience. They have certain characteristics in common as well. The first is timing: the populations of both Russia and China are now experiencing relative relaxation in the arts and culture. Today, the Soviet Union appears in retrospect as an episode in Russian history; meanwhile, the People's Republic of China, the world's second largest economy, pursues what its former leader Deng Xiaoping called "socialism with Chinese characteristics." In both Russia and China, doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism is dead, and changes over the last few decades have facilitated study of the long career of the literary method known as socialist realism. That path extended from harbingers in the writings of mid-nineteenth century Russian literary critics through explicit early twentieth-century formulation (stemming from the Bolshevik Revolution  in Russia and the related May Fourth era [ca. 1915-1923] in China), and from mid-century extremes (associated with Stalinism in Russia and the Cultural Revolution in China) through late twentieth-century decline in influence (the mid-1950s thaw and later dissidence in Russia and the post-Mao reform from ca. 1978 in China). We now can discuss this trajectory fully because a significant chapter has closed and because evidence from both countries is more accessible than it was.
One explanation of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been that Marxism-Leninism seriously undervalued the individual and his or her "desire to own . . . need to believe and . . . urge to speak out" (that is, private property, freedom of religion, and free speech).1 While the implications of undervaluing the individual usually appear in the context of collectivization, industrialization, and other Communist Party-led socioeconomic transformations, Gamsa calls attention to their importance in literature and art. In this way, his discussion leads on to interesting reflections on what literature is, whether it really can change society and history, and in what, if any, sense it can teach and guide readers.
Second, in both Three Studies and Reading, Gamsa sees Russian literature in China through the prism of its translators. This approach is more complicated than may at first appear because most of those translators worked not from the original Russian but rather from English versions, or from those in French, German, or Japanese. According to Gamsa, prominent translators of Russian literature in the Republican era included only a few who knew the Russian language (Three Studies, p. 309). In both Three Studies and Reading, Gamsa seeks highly specific knowledge of the careers of translators and of the social and political contexts in which they worked. A remarkably thorough researcher, he investigates even places and times that might have contributed to translation of Russian literature in China...