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  • From Ithaca to Beijing:Hu Shih’s Peripheral Centrality
  • David Damrosch

In his Routledge Concise History of World Literature and in several related talks and essays, Theo D’haen invites us to think freshly about the complex relation between “major” and “minor” or semi-peripheral literatures. Within the European and North American context, even major cultures in other parts of the world have often been relegated to a peripheral or at best semi-peripheral role, and in the case of Asian literatures, until recently it was almost exclusively premodern works that figured within Western world literature anthologies and courses. The modern literatures of China, Japan, and India-indeed, any works written there during the past three hundred years-hardly had even a peripheral presence in these courses and anthologies, and even the field of “East/West” comparative literature was skewed heavily toward the premodern. This situation is beginning to change, but a fundamental reorientation will have to go beyond the inclusion of neglected works; the discourse of world literature needs to open up to a more truly global range of critical perspectives, including non-Western appropriations and transformations of Western literary discourse itself. Here I would like to take up Theo’s challenge to broaden our understanding of world literature by looking at a key Chinese intellectual from the early twentieth century: Hu Shih, a leading figure in the creation of modern Chinese literature and criticism.

We can begin in the summer of 1915, when a small circle of Chinese students at a rural university hotly debated the crucial literary and linguistic questions of their day. Should classical Chinese be abandoned in favor of the vernacular language spoken by common people? Should the Chinese script itself be retained, or simplified, or replaced outright by Romanization? Should contemporary writers continue to use classical literary forms, or did new social conditions require new modes of writing, inspired by European novels and plays? Far from Beijing or any other center of Chinese culture, the friends were hammering out their ideas with great intensity, [End Page 360] and their discussions would soon have a tremendous impact on China’s “New Culture” movement. Yet for all their modernism, like centuries of literati before them, they pressed their points home in poems as readily as in late-night drinking sessions. Brilliant and polemical, arrogant and self-mocking, they were testing the limits of language and of friendship alike.

Their debates continued throughout the school year, and reached a climax the next summer when a classically-minded member of the group, Mei Chin-chuang, accused his friend Hu Shih of merely recycling stale ideas from Tolstoy. Hu replied with a long poem written entirely in the vernacular, at once demonstrating the possibilities of a supposedly sub-literary language and also trying to lower a little the temperature of debate:

“The man has leisure, the weather is also cool,”Old Mei has entered the battlefield.Banging on the table, cursing Hu Shih,Saying that his words are really too ridiculous.

Old Mei rambles on, old Hu laughs heartily.Let’s regain our calm equanimity, what kind of a debate is this!Words are not new or old, but they may be dead or alive.

(Hu, Autobiographical Account 171-72)

Mei was not persuaded. Nor was their friend Jen Shu-yung, who called Hu’s poem “a total failure” and asked: “Considering your great talents and capacities, why do you reject the main road and insist on frivolous bypaths, to plant beautiful flowers among the thorns?” (173-75). Undaunted, Hu formulated his ideas for a “literary revolution” in a manifesto, written in formal literary Chinese, based on eight succinct principles: “Don’t use clichés [...] Don’t groan without being sick [...] Don’t imitate the ancients” (Chou 149). Writing under his Darwinian pen name, Hu “Shih,” or “fittest” (as in “the survival of the fittest”), published his “Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform” in January 1917 in the new Shanghai journal La Jeunesse, whose French title proudly announced its Westernizing internationalism. There would be no turning back after that.

What is particularly striking about the exchanges between Hu Shih and his friends is that they did not take place outside...


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