- China in a Polycentric World: Essays in Chinese Comparative Literature
"With each move, we are revealed"—"tout mouvement nous découvre"—wrote Michel de Montaigne in 1580. Every step we take toward knowledge, he cautions, not only reveals a previously unseen part of the world to us, but exposes us to the judgment and scrutiny of others. This is the risk that Yingjin Zhang has gamely accepted in editing and publishing China in a Polycentric World: Essays in Chinese Comparative Literature. Collected here are essays in the truest sense of the word, uniting "to assume a set of interrelated responsibilities": specifically, to "reflect on the status of Chinese comparative literature, reconfigure the boundaries of literature and other disciplines, refashion certain methodologies and theories, and reread selected canonical as well as marginal writers and texts from new perspectives" (p. 1). Faced with this daunting and, as he and his fellow contributors believe, incontrovertible challenge, Zhang might well have attempted to minimize "exposure" by presenting the scholarly equivalent of a united front. Instead, this volume treats its readers to the more engaging spectacle of the process of reflection itself, replete with the contradictions and questionings, and insights and misfires, that naturally accompany any earnest attempt to make headway toward establishing, understanding, and advancing a field of study still in the throes of self-definition: in this case, that of Chinese Comparative Literature (whose representative association has, since publication, tellingly changed its name to "The Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature.")
The result is a collection whose strength rests in its usefulness as a snapshot of a dynamic and contested field at a particular moment, rather than in the false comfort of an airbrushed portrait. If the picture is messy in places, that is because it reflects a theoretical shifting, rendered both necessary and desirable by our collective presence in the "polycentric world" alluded to in the title. That world's multiplicity of interacting points of view (geopolitical, cultural, and academic) is not merely a fact of postcolonial life; it is its beneficial legacy, promising an end to the marginality that has so long been the fate of both Hong Kong (where, we are told, Chinese comparative literature first emerged) and the field of Chinese comparative literature itself.
But this is where the good news of a happy coincidence between pragmatism and ideology ends and contradictions begin, as scholars of Chinese literature face what Zhang identifies as two ambient "ironies": "a general skepticism of the conventional generic categories" and "the putatively irreconcilable difference between 'Western theory' and 'Chinese text.'" In this context, some scholars are striving to [End Page 23] encourage dialogue and—to use Zhang's word—engagement, where there has traditionally been opposition and refusal: in short, to "re-envision Chinese comparative literature and cultural studies as a category broad enough to embrace multiple approaches currently adopted in the field."
Each of the theoretical pieces contributed by Zhang Longxi, David Palumbo-Liu, and Eugene Eoyang does offer a somewhat different way to confront the ironies of the field. The eight remaining essays of practical criticism range widely in their subject matter (thus appearing to do away with the limitations of conventional generic categories), with the best among them either enacting or examining the literary and critical border-crossings presented here as constituting the very heart of the field. One is happy to find included an essay by Mark E. Francis on the formation of the traditional poetic canon, side by side with Palumbo-Liu's and Yingjin Zhang's expressed concerns about the feasibility of even including premodern literature in this field.
"Fluid boundaries," then, are the order of the day; but, there is also a clear sense here that the boundaries must not be so fluid as to undermine the integrity of the field itself. Somewhat surprisingly, the resulting tension between the ideal of global inclusiveness and a marked resistance to specific types of literary scholarship remains unmentioned and even less resolved...