Academic Adventures in China

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I am a professor of literature and theology at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and before 2008 I had never been to China. Quite by chance, I found myself invited, through the good offices of a Chinese academic working in Glasgow in the field of literature and religion, to speak at a summer conference in Wenzhou, and from there was invited to take up a Changjiang Chair for three years at Renmin University of China in Beijing, teaching courses to undergraduates and postgraduates in English literature and hermeneutics, that is, the theory of interpretation. For two months each year since then, that is what I have done to the best of my ability.

Allow me, then, to begin this brief essay with some very broad reflections on exchanges between cultures and the nature of literature as these have been guided by this experience. Understanding next to no Mandarin I have got by through the generosity of Chinese people in the university speaking with me in English, and occasionally French, ever more convinced of two truths as they impress themselves upon me. First, that there is a universal language in literature and that is as true in the exchanges between Chinese and English literature as it is in those between ancient Greek literature and English. Across the boundaries of ages and cultures, poets and writers speak to one another with a grace forbidden to philosophers or theologians. I have found a certain familiarity in the midst of strangeness in even the most ancient of Chinese texts in often rather stilted translations.

Before I properly begin it may be useful to refer to the current discussions in the field of art history amongst scholars such as James Elkins and James Cahill on the 'globalizing of art history'. Elkins, a distinguished American art historian, has written on Chinese landscape painting despite, like myself, having little Chinese and in full awareness of his "alien epistemological and hermeneutical structures" as a critic. Cahill has written of the Chinese emphasis in art criticism on the 'verbal' while the Western is on the 'visual'. In short, there is no escaping our built-in cultural biases and the fact that we perceive as outsiders to another culture. Nevertheless, we ought not abandon the task of such intercultural critical enterprises, provided we are aware of the complexities and hermeneutical implications of our increasingly 'globalized' activities as critics--whether in art history, literature, or, indeed, religion. And so I return to my own literary field of study.

Now it is the case that, in some respects as readers of any texts, even those within our own tradition, we are always trespassing in unknown territory; George Steiner pointed this out long ago, remarking that a contemporary English reader of Daniel Defoe's eighteenth-century prose is immediately in a very strange country, its contours and language somewhat recognizable as 'English', but often barely so. (1) But, still, whether I read a classic Chinese work like A Dream of Red Mansions (in translation) or Qian Zhongshu's Fortress Besieged (by a modern Chinese writer partly educated at Oxford and Paris), to a degree I know where I am, and what comes into critical operation is a hermeneutical machinery that at the very least provides a space across the text for conversation and comparison in a way that other forms of study within the fields of the Humanities--religion, for example-very largely fail to do. There you almost have to start each time from scratch and translation is virtually impossible as any Christian theologian who tries to read the Tao Te Ching quickly discovers. (Reading it as poetry is another matter.) At one level the Tao seems to the Western theological reader to be somehow familiar, another example of a kind of "negative theology" with a relationship to the Pseudo-Dionysius and others, but then you find that there are just no words in English to translate its key terms. The religious vocabulary simply does not exist, and so, like James Legge and others before us in the West, we have to use words from our own tradition in our attempts at translation--most famously Logos for Tao--knowing that they are wrong. …