The Distant Person in the near Scene: Kubin's Study of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Literature

By Wang, Jiaxin; Li, Haipeng | Chinese Literature Today, July 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Distant Person in the near Scene: Kubin's Study of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Literature


Wang, Jiaxin, Li, Haipeng, Chinese Literature Today


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1.Recognizing the "Obsession"

In the introduction to the section on modern literature in History of Chinese Literature in the Twentieth Century, Wolfgang Kubin speaks of Hsia Chih-tsing's (C. T. Hsia) ... famous "obsession with China," a phrase so often discussed that it later became famous.

This "obsession with China" expressed a uniform career that absorbed all ideas and actions into itself, such that nothing unrelated to the motherland could be considered. As a moral obligation, this mindset was not just a sort of patriotic enthusiasm that had undergone artistic processing, but also a kind of narrow patriotic localism. The political demands caused many writers to emphasize content over form, and to be oriented toward realism. As a result, artistic exploration of twentieth-century Chinese literature is often guided by a study of modern Chinese history. Modern Chinese literature and its times are often so closely related to the traits of world literature, and the concept of it, because the latter implies that one has transcended one's time and race to become something that everyone can understand and that can be effective anywhere. There are so few examples of literature written for Chinese purposes that point beyond the Chinese reader.1

On the surface, this passage appears to be an interpretation of C. T. Hsia's ideas, but if considered carefully, a subtle difference between the two can be seen. The result leads to a sort of surprising divergence in judgement.

In Hsia's writings, the phrase "obsession with China" carries his judgements of "a narrow patriotism" in modern writers, but Hsia does not simply cut off completely the relation between modern Chinese writers and modern Western writers, but points instead to a potential connection. He writes, "Even though Chinese literature is not outward-focused, if the writers can describe China's troubles thoroughly, when we compare their works with the best of Western literature, there is a point of commonality in spirit."2 That is to say, if the works of Chinese writers could reveal Chinese reality with sufficient depth, then modern Chinese literature would also be in line with the universal meaning of a problem. Undoubtedly, if a work is to achieve this goal, it must be sufficiently effective in its criticism. In this respect, Kubin's "obsession with China" is in complete disagreement with the rest of world literature, and the question of whether or not it is critical need not even be discussed in the framework of this concept. Kubin's "obsession with China" simply means that the works revolve around the motherland and exist as part of the construction of the modern nationstate. Kubin is clearly not satisfied with such a gesture.

It is this difference that directly determines both parties' judgements of contemporary Chinese literature. In C. T. Hsia's view, the "obsession with China" ended with the founding of the new China in 1949, and it was only a generalization of the inherent spirit of modern literature, having nothing to do with contemporary literature. In his view, contemporary literature "was only a tool to promote the work of the ruling party; the sort of criticism of the contemporary situation that existed in the 1920s and '30s had disappeared." By contrast, Kubin's evaluation seems much more tolerant, with his "obsession" actually covertly forming an inclusive concept. In discussing the nature of the new China, he used the concept of "intensive modernity," believing that "the People's Republic of China began to be a modern country since its founding in 1949, though its concept of modernity was different from that of the West. China hoped for an intensive modernity rather than an ambiguous one."3 The meaning of "ambiguous modernity" is itself inherently ambiguous, but it is clear that it refers to the opposite of intensive modernity. In other words, it coincides with Hsia's understanding of modernity. …

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