[New publication] Modern Language Quarterly (2018) 79 (3): Chinese Encounters with Western Theories

Modern Language Quarterly (2018) 79 (3): Chinese Encounters with Western Theories

Guest editors: Wang Ning and Marshall Brown

Introduction by Guest Editors:

It is neither the best of times nor the worst of times. China is not now in turmoil.

Still, it remains a society undergoing rapid change, and powerful winds are blowing from China toward the rest of the world. Political, economic, ecological, even, on occasion in recent years, public health concerns have been thrust from China into the Western consciousness. We, as well as literary scholars in the West, cannot stop thinking about China.

What applies in the public arena is likewise true in our discipline. Chinese universities have been modernizing and expanding with a speed and a sense of style that continually astonish us, and the humanities fields that seem under threat in the United States are full of new life there. Senior scholars who lived through the genuine turmoil of the Cultural Revolution have guided their younger colleagues and eventual successors out of that troubled era and toward the future of a world in which China is quickly recovering its rightful place. This issue of MLQ is offered as an introduction to representative tendencies and tensions of the moment.

Although Western scholars often hear such sensational statements as “Literature is dead,” “Literary theory is dead,” and even “The golden era of cultural theory is long past,” literary and cultural theory is flourishing in China. Every year Chinese scholars publish original theoretical works and translations of Western scholarship, organize many conferences on literary theory, and engage in discussions on issues of literary creation and criticism. There also continues to be enthusiastic debate on cutting-edge theoretical issues in the Chinese context, such as postmodernism and its critical and creative reception in China, Derridean deconstruction, Edward Said’s orientalism, Fredric Jameson’s Marxist-postmodernist theory, the crisis of comparative literature and the rise of world literature, and parallel elements of cosmopolitanism in the West and in ancient China. Unfortunately, for lack of translation and critical introduction, some of these discussions are seldom heard in the outside world, like many renowned Chinese theorists or scholars, including Qian Zhongshu, Li Zehou, and Liu Zaifu. Consequently, Chinese-Western literary and cultural interaction remains largely unidirectional, with too few opportunities for balanced exchange. Almost all the important Western theorists have had their major works translated into Chinese, whereas few Chinese theorists and comparatists have published internationally or have been introduced to or translated for English-language academic circles. The present collection is meant to expand the dialogue between Chinese and Western theorists and literary scholars.

This is Wang Ning’s second special issue for MLQ. The first, “China in the Twentieth Century” (MLQ 69:1, March 2008), with essays by a mix of senior and then junior (now established senior) scholars, provided an overview of the stages of imaginative creation in that historic epoch, the first decade of the new century. For the present, very different issue, Wang has organized an exchange of views between three of China’s most influential scholars of literary theory and three leading Western comparatists with broad experience in China. (Liu Kang is Chinese-born and has held a prominent post at Shanghai Jiao Tong University but has been US-based since arriving in Wisconsin as a graduate student in 1982.) The issue thus offers a snapshot of cross-currents and ferment in a country that is at once absorbing and assimilating powerful influences from abroad while seeking to assert a distinctive profile on the world scene. To compete, you have to understand, but to understand, you also have to compete—to find how foreign sources resonate with and empower your native culture without letting them overpower it. Scholars in the West have hardly begun to undertake the reflection and self-reflection about their cultural positioning that these Chinese essays so forcefully communicate and that they have provoked in the Western respondents. The debate initiated here (not only here, of course, but not yet widespread) comprises position takings and critiques that repeatedly give one pause and that surely will stimulate the journal’s readers.

The three essays approach from various angles the internal dynamics of the reception of Western theories in China. Zhu Liyuan’s narrow-angle account of the lively responses to a single lecture by J. Hillis Miller is a case study of the spectrum of views in this cultural field. Zhu gives particular insight into the diversity of Chinese academic life today. Wang’s middle focus surveys three of the most intensively received theorists over the past sixty years, showcasing their impact so as to identify the gaps and distortions in it. Because these theorists are French, Wang likewise illuminates the distortions of reception by virtue of indirect transmission through English translation. The upshot here is a profile of opportunities taken, others missed, and still others waiting in the wings. Finally, Zhang Jiang, as a central figure in China’s intellectual life in the past few years, represents in his broad view fundamental drives simultaneously toward closer relationship and greater autonomy.

These essays have elicited lively critique. The three respondents evoke the kinds of disputation that occur when we differ from our smartest and most respected colleagues about the directions that our writing and teaching should take. The facts are deficient or one-sided: if only they were better thought through, these colleagues would see things our way. So we always argue, and should, yet always, and properly, we do it with the nagging awareness that we are equally partial. By debating, we come to understand what our respondents draw out, the unplumbed premises and biases in their thinking and knowledge, and ultimately, we hope, in ours.

Wang Ning and Marshall Brown, who thank each other for the enthusiastic interest and efficient work that made this special issue possible, hope that it will attract more critical and scholarly attention to Chinese literature and China’s literary theory studies.



French Theories in China and the Chinese Theoretical (Re)construction

by Wang Ning

Of all the Western critical theories received in China, French theories have exerted the greatest influence on China’s literary theory and criticism. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and literary theory have had tremendous influence not only on China’s contemporary literature but also on its literary theory and criticism; Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive critical theory has helped form a unique version of Chinese postmodernism; and Alain Badiou’s Maoist passion and his critical reception in China’s cultural and intellectual circles have spurred Chinese intellectuals to reflect on the legacy of Maoism. Inspired by these theorists, this article puts forward a theoretical construction of world poetics that is not founded merely on Western or Eastern literature, and is not simply Eastern and Western literary poetics put together, but offers a new theory, based on substantial studies of world literatures and theories, that can be used to interpret all literary phenomena, Eastern and Western alike.


On Imposed Interpretation and Chinese Construction of Literary Theory

by Zhang Jiang

No doubt twentieth-century Western literary theory has achieved remarkable results and historical advances. But the so-called imposed interpretation is one of its fundamental shortcomings. Imposed interpretation here refers to the practices that deviate from the text and dispel its literary significations. It is characterized by interpreting literary texts with a prepositioned mode of subjective intention in an attempt to reach a conclusion conforming to the critic’s intentions and theoretical doctrines taken off-field and from the critic’s own preconditioned logical cognition. Yet constructing Chinese literary theoretical discourse should discriminate among and examine various contemporary Western literary theories, actively draw on its useful achievements and experiences, and return to Chinese literary practice in an overall way. It is also necessary to adhere to the orientation of nationalization and realize the dialectical unity of external research and internal research.


Hillis Miller on the End of Literature

by Zhu Liyuan
In the first decade after 2000, the idea of “the end of literature” proposed by J. Hillis Miller aroused widespread controversy in Chinese academe. This article seeks to reiterate the original meaning of Miller’s statement while tracing the original Chinese context from which this debate arose. The article points out that the real reason for this debate is not that there are different understandings of Miller’s term the end of literature but that Chinese academics have become dissatisfied with and anxious about the increasingly marginal status of literature. This debate has coincided historically with scholarly concerns over visual culture, the aestheticization of everyday life, cultural studies, and globalization. Each of these discussions contains related insights into the future development and transformation of literary theory and its disciplinary boundaries.

With Chinese Characteristics

by Theo D’haen

The articles at the center of this issue of MLQ, Wang Ning’s “French Theories in China and the Chinese Theoretical (Re)construction,” Zhang Jiang’s “On Imposed Interpretation and Chinese Construction of Literary Theory,” and Zhu Liyuan’s “Hillis Miller on the End of Literature,” address the interchange between Chinese and Western literary theories. What transpires from these essays is that all Western theories, when “traveling” to China, assume “Chinese characteristics,” reflecting changing historical and ideological conditions but also the vector of influence running predominantly from Western theories to Chinese practice. To different degrees, and with varying urgency, all three Chinese scholars lodge a plea for greater recognition of Chinese theories in the West and for Chinese scholarship to construct a theory of its own, rooted in the Chinese tradition. By way of a new translation, with commentary, by Zhang Longxi of a celebrated 1980s article by Qian Zhongshu, the present essay argues that examples of a fruitful use of both Western and Chinese theory and literature already exist and may further put into practice what Wang, Zhang, and Zhu so forcefully call for.


A (Meta)commentary on Western Literary Theories in China: The Case of Jameson and Chinese Jamesonism

by Liu Kang

This essay takes Fredric Jameson and Chinese Jamesonism as a case in point to illustrate the Chinese anxiety of influence with Western theory and the battle between (Western) universalism and Chinese exceptionalism. Chinese Jamesonism shows how an eclectic American neo-Marxist academic discourse has been invented in China on selected themes of postmodernism and Third World “national allegory.” However, as a “shadowy but central presence” in Jameson and other Western left theories, Maoism is nearly absent from China’s appropriation of Western theories. A vigorous critique of the relationship between Maoism and Western left theories sheds light on the issues of politics and ideology underlying the Chinese anxiety of influence.


The authors of the essays on Western theory in China in this issue of MLQ all favor the development of a distinctively Chinese literary theory. Wang Ning focuses on the influence since 1950 of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and Alain Badiou. Zhang Jiang more or less totally rejects Western literary-critical theorists as guilty of what he calls “imposed interpretation.” Zhang eschews formulas or models in literary criticism in favor of reading each work as something unique and sui generis. Zhu Liyuan discusses in detail the influence in China of the present author’s “end of literature” essay. “Western Literary Theory in China” ends with a section about something the three Chinese authors do not stress, namely, the major changes in literary theory in every country, including China, brought about willy-nilly by the shift from print media to digital media. What happens to a literary work when it is read online rather than in print?