Academic journal article Humanitas

Babbitt's Impact in China: The Case of Liang Shiqiu

Academic journal article Humanitas

Babbitt's Impact in China: The Case of Liang Shiqiu

Article excerpt

Liang Shiqiu (1903-1987), one of Irving Babbitt's Chinese students at Harvard, was an important critic, litterateur, lexicographer and translator in twentieth-century China. Liang was chairman of the English departments at Peking University and Peking Normal University before going to Taiwan in 1949, where he taught at Taiwan Normal University until his retirement in 1966. He first came to national attention in China for his extended literary debate--the famous "war of words"--with Lu Xun, who was everywhere regarded as China's leading leftist or "proletarian" writer of the 1930s. Decades later, Liang's reputation would attain new heights when, having been invited to join a committee of prominent scholars who were jointly to produce the first translation of Shakespeare's complete works into Chinese, he somehow managed to finish the gargantuan task all by himself.

This article will discuss Babbitt's influence on Liang Shiqiu and the ways the latter actively advocated the ideas of Babbitt's New Humanism through his writings and translations. In particular, I intend to demonstrate that Babbitt had a decisive influence on Liang's literary and social thought, which in turn profoundly affected his selection of Western literary works for translation into Chinese, together with his critical commentary on those works. Finally, I shall argue that the influence of Babbitt and his intellectual ally Paul Elmer More played a crucial role in Liang's literary battle with Lu Xun, which is ranked among the most notable intellectual events of twentieth-century Chinese history.

That Babbitt is the thinker who had the most significant influence upon Liang's worldview would be hard to dispute. When Liang was a student at Tsing Hua (sometimes transcribed as Xinghua) College (1915-1923), he was a romantic young man who was very interested in romantic writers, particularly Oscar Wilde. Liang considered Wilde "a great figure in every aspect." (1) Liang also maintained a good relationship with the Creation Society ("chuang zao she"), the ideas of which were largely inspired by romanticism. On the day he left for America, the people who saw him off were Creation Society members. (2) Liang's writings during that phase of his life also show his positive opinion of romantic literature. In February 1925, (3) he published an article in the Chinese Students' Monthly entitled "The Chinese 'New Poetry,'" (4) in which he praised Guo Moruo, then the leading romantic poet in China, and in which he described novelty as an important quality of poetry. (5) When he arrived in America, Liang first studied at the University of Colorado, where he wrote an article, "Baron and Romanticism," (6) in which he lauded Rousseau as "the pioneer of the French Revolution" and "the ancestor of the romantic movement in the whole of Europe." The mission of Rousseau, Liang declared, was to "get rid of the fetters on the human spirit and to help people acquire the freedom to develop themselves without restraint." (7) He also praised Byron, saying that his ideas represented "universal human liberal thought" and that his poems symbolized "the holiest earth-shaking outcry of humankind." Liang added that no romantic poet could surpass Byron in poetic self-expression and that, in spirit, Byron was "equal to Goethe." (8)

But great changes occurred after Liang took Babbitt's course on "Literary Criticism after the Sixteenth Century." Liang decided to take the course not because he admired the renowned teacher but because he intended to challenge him. At first Liang found Babbitt's opinions hard to accept as they were completely different from his own, but after reading Babbitt's books and attending his lectures Liang's opinions changed dramatically. "From an extreme romanticist," he later would recall, "I changed to a stance which is more or less close to classicism." (9) This change of viewpoint is reflected in Liang's writings of that period. In a course paper entitled "Oscar Wilde and his Romanticism," (10) he appraised Wilde, who had previously been his favorite writer, from a new perspective. …

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