- Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture by Michael Gibbs Hill
Lin Shu Inc. is an ambitious undertaking and a rigorous and original work of scholarship. Late Qing and early Republican literary studies have developed over the course of a few decades into a burgeoning field of engaging scholarship. With this fine piece about Lin Shu, an unjustifiably neglected, influential figure on the late Qing press market, Hill intervenes into those, at times contentious, debates about critical [End Page 337] changes in late Qing China, advocating a new focus on translations as an essential player in the literary field. As Hill sets out from the beginning, the study does “not center solely on Lin Shu as a quasi-author figure, but rather [intends] to take him to be a key member of a larger network of individuals occupied with translation and the reproduction of texts from earlier periods of Chinese history—what I call ‘Lin Shu, Inc.’” (p. 6).
Hill presents a masterly and well-researched study, combining a close reading of Lin Shu’s translations and writings with explorations into broader transformations of print media, the press market, and intellectual debates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And it is from Lin Shu’s translations themselves, rather than any paratexts, that Hill elicits Lin’s interventions in the polyphonic debates on the future of China and, most prominently, its language. As an intellectual history of Lin Shu, the book also serves as a corrective to previous accounts, which highlight his affiliation with “Mandarin Ducks and Butterfly” writers or emphasize his “sentimentalism or emotional moralism” (p. 7).
The six core chapters of Lin Shu, Inc. are divided into two parts. Chapters 2–5 concentrate on Lin’s career as a translator and his translation strategies and practice. The second part traces Lin’s latter life journey from advancing to a master/celebrity in ancient style prose to being degraded to an icon of reactionary cultural politics (Chapters 6–7). Indeed, this review cannot do justice to the many thought-provoking insights dispersed throughout the book. I will therefore concentrate on its grand narrative and the main themes of each chapter, and conclude with a discussion of some questions raised by Hill’s study.1
In the introduction Hill explains theoretical approaches and problems. One problem is that most of Lin’s enormous output, despite being marketed as produced by Lin, was in fact in large part produced by others. Consequently, it is impossible to extract from this corpus either a unified philosophy or a set of thoughts that can be identified as Lin Shu’s (p. 6).
Hill next discusses how translation is to be understood in the case of Lin Shu, who himself did not master any foreign language. Hill [End Page 338] expands on the concept of translation as a cultural practice that is situated within the parameters of “mental labor” and “intellectual thought” (Hill’s translation of sixiang 思想). Hill proposes an absorbing new approach to understand translations, not in terms of their power to intervene in political and cultural discourses by introducing new ideas through foreign texts, but as new and original texts that through the process of translation convey novel meanings beyond the original source texts. Consequently, translations as a “translingual practice”2 are vested with a power of intervention nearly equal to that of original thought or original literature, and as such they constitute an important part of “the archive of the literary and cultural history of modern China” (p. 20). This innovative and programmatic approach informs Hill’s close reading of Lin Shu’s thought, in that he is following Lin’s intellectual journey not through an analysis of a conventional “text of thoughts” (apart from a few exceptions) but through his translations.
The second chapter, “Broken Tools,” addresses the problematic of Lin’s choice of ancient-style prose (guwen 古文) as the appropriate linguistic register for introducing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European novels, which were written in the...