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  • Chinese Literature as World Literature
  • Wang Ning

When talking about Chinese literature as world literature we should first of all confront two issues: historically, Chinese literature was regarded as world literature due to Sino-centrism; nowadays, Chinese literature should be regarded as an integral part of world literature, although it has been “marginalized” due to the mode of thinking of Eurocentrism and Western-centrism. Then, we could deal with the two-way relationship between Chinese literature and world literature: Chinese literature moving toward the world, and world literature recognizing and including Chinese literature. Undoubtedly, the advent of globalization has more or less broken through old-fashioned Eurocentrism, enabling China to benefit in the process. Cultural globalization has also enabled literary scholars to reflect on the old issue of world literature in a new context, in which world literature certainly means different things, and thereby should be remapped. So it will be endowed with some new significance in a new era. As Chinese scholars of comparative and world literature studies, what shall we view as world literature from our own perspective? In this aspect, such eminent Euro-American comparatists as David Damrosch and Theo D’haen have offered their definitions or descriptions of world literature, but largely referring to the Western practice, seldom dealing with non-Western literature.1 This is what the present article will go ahead with, based on their previous efforts. Obviously, we do not want to follow the Eurocentric mode of thinking as we did in the past decades. Therefore, it is necessary for me to redefine world literature first from a Chinese perspective.

World Literature and World Literatures

As in the case of modernity, which has already manifested itself in diverse forms [End Page 380] in different countries, there is no such thing as a singular form of world literature.2 The utopian concept of “Weltliteratur,” conceptualized by Goethe in his conversation to Eckermann, was later developed by Marx and Engels as a sort of cosmopolitan means of bourgeois intellectual production. It is one of the direct consequences of cultural globalization. Actually, in the Communist Manifesto, co-authored by Marx and Engels, world literature has already expanded its narrow domain to the entire scope of intellectual and cultural production and circulation. From a disciplinary point of view, world literature is one of the sources of the newly-rising discipline of comparative literature in the latter part of the nineteenth century, which aimed to break through the separation of individual national literature studies and explore the factual relations between different national literatures. But during the past hundred years, world literature has been largely coloured with certain Eurocentric or, later, Western-centric characteristics. Many people simply view European literature as world literature, as there have indeed been numerous eminent writers in Europe who have had tremendous influence worldwide. Or, world literature studies have been practiced by a few elite comparatists within a very limited sphere. It does not truly cover the various aspects of literary studies, nor does it include the various national literatures beyond Europe and North America. Although world literature functioned as the early stage of comparative literature, according to Franco Moretti, “comparative literature has not lived up to these beginnings. It’s been a much more modest intellectual enterprise, fundamentally limited to Western Europe, and mostly revolving around the river Rhine (German philologists working on French literature). Not much more” (54). After all, world literature as a theoretical concept has been travelling across time and space through translation and finally culminated in the current age of globalization. Although in the present era, literature and literary studies, challenged by various forms of popular culture and consumer culture, are often reported to be “dead,” world literature, on the contrary, has flourished more and more. It has attracted the attention of not only literary theorists and comparatists, but also scholars of national literatures who are not satisfied with only narrow-minded individual national literature studies. It has more or less helped comparative literature move out of its crisis, and helped literary studies in general step into a much broader cross-cultural context. Over 180 years ago, the great European thinker and literary master Goethe...


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pp. 380-392
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