A Creative New Start: Wai-Lim Yip in China

By Li, Chunlin | Chinese Literature Today, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Creative New Start: Wai-Lim Yip in China


Li, Chunlin, Chinese Literature Today


The year 1981 was a significant one in China's literary studies. Recovering from the wounds of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and emerging from the thirty years of political fanaticism and self-isolation, the People's Republic of China for the first time opened the doors to Western scholarship. In the fall of that year, Wai-lim Yip gave a series of lectures on comparative literature at Beijing University, the country's leading institution of humanities. Professor Yue Daiyun ..., who organized the lectures, recalled the event with excitement nearly thirty years later: "The lectures were given at the auditorium of the administrative building, which had a capacity of more than eight hundred. Both on and off stage, inside and outside the gate, everywhere was thronged!"1 Yip's visit, according to Yue, was "a creative new start"2 that introduced a whole new range of possibilities to the discipline of comparative literature in China. Yip has continued to visit and lecture at many universities in China, to publish influential collections of poetry and academic writings, and to inspire a number of important studies in poetics and comparative literature. In short, Yip has been a powerful presence in the field of comparative literature that no serious scholar can afford to ignore.

Two of Yip's publications-In Search of Common Poetics between Chinese and Western Cultures (Xunqiu kua xi wenhua de gongtong wenxue guilü ..., 1987) and Chinese Poetics (Zhongguo shi xue ..., 1992)-introduced Yip's seminal essays on comparative poetics, classical Chinese poetry, and Daoist aesthetics to Chinese comparatists. "The Use of 'Models' in East-West Comparative Literature (1974)," an essay that questions the conventional use of the cognitive model in literary and cultural studies, appeared in the first collection; it is fundamental to Yip's approach to literary study and proved to be enormously influential among Chinese scholars. It challenges both Eurocentrism in the West and orthodox Marxism in China as the dominant critical discourse, and was eye-opening and liberating for Chinese scholars who were eager to break away from the all-too-rigid socialist ideology. Furthermore, it reasserts the legitimacy and autonomy of Chinese aesthetics, and helped revive academic interest in classical Chinese literature and literary theory.

In 1998, Wai-lim Yip was invited again to Beijing University to give a series of lectures, which were later published as Daoist Aesthetics and Western Culture (Daojia meixue yu xifang wenhua ...). In these lectures, Yip warned the audience of the dangers of the culture industry in the age of globalization, for it threatens to level out the cultural diversity of the world and reduce human beings to calculating, economic machines. Yip was obviously speaking to a larger audience than the academia present, and tackling some fundamental issues concerning contemporary culture. According to Yue Daiyun, Yip "turned a new page for the development of comparative literature and comparative culture in China."3

Since his first visit to China, Yip's works have inspired many students and scholars of literature to reexamine classical Chinese poetry, literary hermeneutics, and East-West comparative poetics, and have rekindled in scholars a keen interest in the legacy of Daoist aesthetics. This shift in interest gained momentum upon the publication of Yip's nine-volume Collected Works (Yeweilian wenji ...) in 2003. In addition to Chinese Poetics, the Collected Works set made available for the first time Yip's poetry, essays, critical works on modern Chinese literature and culture, and his art criticism.4 With this collection, Chinese readers and scholars could fully access and appreciate the multifaceted achievements of Yip's literary activity. It should be pointed out that this event in publication had a canonizing effect, so to speak, on Yip's works, as his publisher, Anhui Education Press, also published the collected works of Zhu Guangqian . …

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