- Reflections on Five Decades of Studying Late Imperial Chinese Literature
During my graduate school days in the late 1960s, students of late imperial literature were all excited about discovery. Taiwan’s scholarly establishment was still getting its feet under itself, universities and research institutes in China were in shambles because of the Cultural Revolution, and scholars in the west and in Japan were seeking out new authors, new texts, new topics that were relatively or totally unstudied. We were explorers, an exhilarating occupation for the young and relatively inexperienced. Many scholars’ work then relied heavily on the first wave of post-1949 scholarship from China, the biographical and bibliographical excavations that, beyond the relatively superficial “Marxist” class analyses, provided tantalizing information while leaving broader implications for others to explore. There seemed to be important foundational work for us to do.
Outside China, debates involved which critical approaches to apply, and how they might be used effectively. C.T. Hsia at Columbia University (who had studied with Yale New Critics) and a few others were steadfastly clinging to analytical techniques and theoretical concepts from the study of European literature in the analysis and criticism of individual Chinese literary texts; in Prague the eminent literary historian Jaroslav Průšek (who had studied in Beijing) presented his European Marxist readings of the social settings that shaped vernacular literature more generally. Their differences produced a mutually revealing paper exchange between Průšek and Hsia – both of whose approaches were [End Page 5] circumscribed by political preconceptions.1 Yet at the same time, careful historical — and nonpolitical — research on specific novels by Patrick Hanan was revealing the texture of cultural developments in fiction; in his Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies review of Hsia’s Classic Chinese Novel he perceptively critiqued the over-reliance on foreign models for analysis of Chinese texts.
Fifty or more years ago the study of late imperial Chinese literature differed from the study of Chinese history in that it was not always historical. C.T. Hsia’s two studies, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction 1917–1957 (1961) and The Classic Chinese Novel (1968) had two profound effects. The first was to make Chinese fiction far more widely accepted as a field worthy of serious study, and the second was to evaluate new and old individual Chinese works of fiction, often harshly, by western standards. Although some western-language scholarship of the mid-twentieth century still presented China as static and unchanging, in certain regards the work of younger literary scholars all too often reflected similar Chinese academic views rather than taking a more objective perspective. From the late 1910s onward, many of China’s young intellectuals had endeavored to castigate the past, the Qing and every period that led up to it, as “static and unchanging” and, of course, as “feudal.” Positive change, especially modernization, was available only if it corresponded to western models, including those supplied by Marxist thinkers. These overtly political standpoints seemed to reinforce as well as reflect western stereotypes; acknowledging the more substantial contributions of China’s own scholars – as many Western academics rightly did in the 1970s and afterward – often meant inadvertently endorsing their modernization narrative, even when critiquing the obvious limits of specifically Marxist definitions. By insisting on the importance of literary artistry over contemporary political trends, Hsia’s work provided inspiration even to those who criticized his emphasis on aesthetics.
The late 1970s saw a new generation of scholars apply the more scientific method of simply examining all the evidence available to complicate both May Fourth and post-1949 generalizations about [End Page 6] premodern Chinese fiction. Wilt Idema in Leiden was an essential leader in this regard, and many followed. Princeton’s Andrew Plaks begin his groundbreaking applications of European literary theory to the study of novels, while exhaustively surveying the best of Chinese-language scholarship on their cultural contexts to support his innovative interpretations. In Tokyo Tanaka Issei was among the first to situate the development of Chinese theater firmly in its religious contexts, utilizing ethnographic description to draw attention to performance in addition to the literary readings of play texts. The broad approaches of such scholars as...