Blog Post

Thoughts on literary history I

I am teaching a graduate course this quarter on premodern Chinese literary history that begins with the so-called "Confucian Classics" (10th to 6th centuries BC) and ends sometime around the early eleventh century AD, with the emergence of the genre of ci  ("song-lyric").

 This course, a required proseminar for Asian Languages graduate students who work primarily on China, often takes me out of my scholarly comfort zone.  We cover approximately 2000 years in ten weeks, and I can claim specialization only in about three hundred of those years—from the 4th to the 7th centuries AD.  Still, it's a welcome course for me, one that allows me to renew my acquaintance with texts that I usually treat as sources of allusion and bibliographical mines.  I am also grateful for the chance to think more broadly about the history of a literary tradition, particularly one as extensive as that of China. 

Certain questions are raised in the course of my own re-readings.  For example, to what extent is the history of Chinese literature a twentieth-century concern?  Zhang Yingjin has examined precisely this question in a 1994 article, "The Institutionalization of Modern Literary History in China, 1922-1980," where he points out the publication of Zhongguo wenxue shi (A history of Chinese literature) by Lin Chuanjia in 1910 inaugurated critical attention to literary history in China.  In many ways, the writing of literary history was occasioned by fundamental changes in literature itself—the rise of modern literature in China and the need to account for the differences between so-called "classical literature" and its modern heir.  

Zhang Yingjin's important article is focused on the histories of modern Chinese literature that were written in various periods during the twentieth century.  For me, I am more interested in the attempts to compose histories of classical literature.  One of the literary histories mentioned by Zhang in passing is Liu Dajie's Zhongguo wenxue fazhan shi in 1941—a work that is still read in universities today.  I myself encountered Liu Dajie's monumental work as a graduate student, studying classical Chinese in Taiwan.  Liu Dajie provides what is now a kind of standard periodization of Chinese literature, identifying major authors and works, and correlating these to particular historical changes.  He tends to cite long passages from poems and other writings, archiving these works within his historical exposition, but not interpreting them.  The act of literary historical writing becomes one of encyclopedic reproduction, with the critical viewpoint displaced from the local site of the particular text to the more general framing of the texts as a periodized constellation. To put it another way, literary texts are subordinate to the historical narrative.  This poses problems, of course.  Where the literary historian wishes to emphasize a general tendency within a particular period, he might choose to highlight certain authors and works over those whose inclusion would complicate the narrative.  

A greater problem, however, is the question of textual sources, which is the point that I will take up in the next posting.

 

Jack Chen's picture

Jack Chen is Associate Professor of Chinese Poetry and Thought at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has studied at Yale, University of Michigan, and Harvard.  His research interests focus primarily on medieval Chinese literature, with an emphasis in poetry (though he is finding himself reading a lot of anecdotal literature lately).  His first book, The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty was published by Harvard University Asia Center in 2010, and he has published essays on imperial poetry, gossip and historiography, and the representation of reading in medieval China.  is at work on a second book on the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 (Recent Anecdotes and the Talk of the Age) and an edited volume on gossip in traditional China.