Cross-Cultural Interpretation and Chinese Literature: A Book Review Article on Owen's Work in Sinology

By Li, Quingben; Guo, Jinghua | CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Cross-Cultural Interpretation and Chinese Literature: A Book Review Article on Owen's Work in Sinology


Li, Quingben, Guo, Jinghua, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture


Sinology [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] refers to non-Chinese scholarship, while Chinese National Culture Studies [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] refers to Chinese scholarship conducted by Chinese scholars themselves. In recent years, research by US-American Sinologist Stephen Owen has received attention from Chinese scholars. Importantly, his construction and application of a system for the history of poetry during the Tang Dynasty has more or less broken the stereotyped perception of US-American Sinology as perceived in Mainland China. In this book review we discuss some of Owen's works and their impact on Chinese scholarship. Owen studied at the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature of Yale University and obtained his PhD with a dissertation entitled Poetries by Meng Jiao and Han Yu in 1972. In 1982 he began to teach in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilization, as well as the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. In his research he explores the historical development of Chinese literature and artistic contents and meaning crossing the Chinese and Western binary opposition. Owen focuses on the method of cross-cultural interpretation to reveal the significance of Chinese literature itself in order to understand the universal value of Chinese aesthetics.

Owen's cultural background makes it inevitable to adopt Western cultural consciousness just as other US-American scholars did when they carried out literary study for the reason that their initial goal for their engagement in Chinese literary studies must be of serves for the Western readers. Precisely because of this, the methodological approach adopted in his studies on Chinese literature is easier for Western readers to understand. For example, in one of his books he chose the term "Middle Ages" because "this title is a useful starting point for English readers" (The End 1). With respect to the interpretation of specific works, Owen transcends genres and perspectives of Western theories focusing instead on the analysis of literary texts without distractions, a feature Chinese scholarship also shares. His cross-cultural interpretation of Chinese literature has significance upon scholarship in China, even with the presence of certain occasional misreading. Owen's initial research on Chinese literature followed apparently the "close reading" of the new criticism. However, this "close reading" in his study of the poetry of the Tang Dynasty is different from new criticism, because he did not focus only on the text and thereby cutting off authorship and reception from the interpretative process. While paying attention to text analysis, Owen never leaves out the historical background, the author's intention or the text's reception. Curiously, certain aspects related to "misreading" in cross-cultural communication can be found in "Remembering Li Po on a Spring Day" by Du Fu, one of Owen's objects of study:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Po it is-no rival in poetry,

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Wind-tossed, thoughts unlike the Crowd's.

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Clear and fresh: a colonel Yu Hsin,

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Noble, aloof: Pao Chao the officer.

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Trees in spring's sky, north of the Wei

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] The clouds of sundown in Chiang-tung

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] When shall we share a goblet of wine

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] And, together again, discuss fine points of writing.

(Trans. Stephen Owen, Traditional Chinese 212-13)

Traditionally, the poem is considered to express Du Fu's concern for his friend Li Po (Li Bai 701-762). Owen, however, reads in Du Fu's praise of his friend as an inner aspiration of competition and explains that "inside the simple praise poem, pride writes a very different poem- by a slight shift in tone of the written voice, by a certain allusion coming unbidden to mind, by a particular phrase forming itself by chance. …

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