In the Midst of Joy by Yuehong Chen, Zhang Hui and Zhang Pei
Chen, Yuehong, Zhang Hui, and Zhang Pei, eds. In the Midst of Joy [Le zai qi zhong]. Beijing: Peking University Press, 2011. 400 pp. Print.
In the Midst of Joy is a recent collection of essays by domestic and international Chinese comparative literature scholars in celebration of the 80th birthday of Peiking University (PKU) professor Yue Daiyun, the undisputed central figure in the discipline of comparative literature in China. All contributors either have been, or are currently, students of Yue; given the fact that modern Chinese comparative literature was born at PKU and most Chinese comparatists have studied either with Yue or his students, the publication of this festschrift is not surprising. However, including only comparative scholars related to one single figure – no matter how influential – while excluding other prominent scholars such as Cao Shunqing, Liu Jiemin and Wang Ning (to name only a few) renders this endeavor a less-than-accurate picture of the state of the discipline.
That being said, the twenty-nine articles in this collection still provide an informative resource for the state of comparative literature in China, making good on the intention of the editors to capture the breadth and diversity of contemporary Chinese comparative literary studies. Indeed, although three key themes run through In the Midst of Joy – a desire to explore the potential of comparative study as a methodology, the relevancy and vitality of comparative research as a mode of reading, and an approach to texts as cultural phenomena – individual essays vary in length and tenor, and address a variety of issues. On the subject of the classical China-Western comparison, Chen Yuehong and Huang Xuejun look at the dialogue between Chinese and Western poetics and the comparison between Chinese and Western short story writing techniques, respectively. Regarding emerging concerns in the Chinese context, such as studies in new media and popular culture, Ma Xianyang provides a cutting-edge comparative investigation of discourses of sexuality in blogs, while Kong Shuyu analyzes the relationship between mass media and Chinese nationalism. Mi Jiayan conducts an eco-critical comparison of the imagination of natural disasters. The subject of Chinese classical and contemporary literature is addressed by Zhang Hongbo’s rereading of Dream of Red Chamber, and Cheng Wei’s study of Ailing Zhang. In world literature and literary theory, Yang Naiqiao offers a systematic evaluation of the Chinese-American intellectual James Liu, the sinologist as a comparatist; Zhang Hui investigates Nietzsche and his idea of the reader; and You Jiazhong looks at Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. Last but not least, Hu Suqing discusses the American comparative philosopher Roger T. Ames’ translation of Chinese classical philosophical texts.
The topics covered are rich. An excellent example is “Shilun zhongsi shixue duihua de ruogan jiben wenti” (On Some Basic Issues in Poetic Dialogues between China and the West) by Chen Yuehong. In this essay, Chen reflects on fundamental issues concerning China-West dialogues, such as the logic of having such a dialogue, the relationship between the sides and some basic conditions upon which such dialogues depend. Chen first concedes that, in any form of dialogue, inequality – which is re-conditioned by cultural ideologies and standpoints that the participants adopt – already exists as a reality. In order to change this situation, the “inferior” side (China) should not be obsessed with calculating the loss it suffers from unequal dialogues nor should it reject any future dialogues; rather, it should engage more ardently in academic debates and work to find a theoretical solution for this problem. Chen proposes three suggestions for a more equal China-West poetic dialogue. First, both sides should act rationally, resisting any cultural arrogance resulting from an inferiority complex. Second, both should also take the initiative in questioning and then understanding the other culture in the dialogue. In addition, both should employ multiple perspectives to approach the other side. Only when all preconceptions and prejudices are discarded can an equal dialogue become possible between China and the West. Chen furthers this argument by highlighting certain universalities underlying heterogeneous cultural forms, which, he strongly believes, are the requisites for having dialogues in the first place. Though dialogical equality has long been discussed, especially in post-colonial theory, the balance and optimism demonstrated in Chen’s articulation makes his article very appealing to and reflective of Chinese comparatists.
The strength of this collection, no doubt, lies in its kaleidoscopic array of essays, which provide an unusually extensive addition to our understanding of comparative literature, particularly as compared to similar collections. For instance, despite its grand title, China in a Polycentric World: Essays in Chinese Comparative Literature (a collection derived from papers delivered at the International Conference on “Literature, History, Culture: Reenvisioning Chinese and Comparative Literature” at Princeton University) includes merely eleven articles. That being said, the quality of the essays in In the Midst of Joy is quite uneven. While there are many brilliant contributions, such as that by Chen described above, some are either unsatisfactory (“Cong sibada dao bosi de yibang xingxiang The Image of ‘Alien Country’ from Sparta to Persia”) or seem only tangentially related to comparative literature (“Gelaoxiusi de fali xuewen On Hugo Grotius and ‘Jurisprudentia’”). Regardless, at its best, this collection still offers a taste of what Chinese comparative literature feels like, how it is done and who is doing it.
As a collection of essays on comparative literature written from a Chinese perspective, this book also differs inherently from its Western or international counterparts in both approach and emphasis. In the Midst of Joy is less concerned with the ontological status of comparative literature as a discipline or about classical China-Western comparativism than about the potential of what can be done in – or in the name of – comparative literature. There is only one essay that takes up the old debate of the discipline’s eternal existential crisis. Another outstanding feature of Chinese comparative literature study is a predominating focus on literary analysis (23 of 29 essays), especially case studies (16 of 29) rather than theory (only 6 of 29). Prominent collections of comparative literature from North America, whether Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism (1995), Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application (1998) or Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (2006), all strike the reader as theory-heavy. In contrast, this collection seems to be a good counter-balance to the overabundance of theory-driven scholarship in the West. Yet, what certain essays in this collection need to take from Western collections is critical strength, that is to say, the ability to engage issues critically instead of being merely informative. This weakness also exposes the greatest challenges that face Chinese comparative literature: problems of academic integrity, lack of a guiding disciplinary research standard and difficulty in reaching out to audiences beyond China. If Chinese scholarship is to develop its own way of doing comparative literature, there is still a lot to negotiate with the Western literary approach.
Although this collection is thematically diverse, on a structural level, it would benefit if the essays were presented in sections, rather than in the chronological order that the authors came to the field (an academic hierarchy somewhat reminiscent of the social hierarchy in old China). Essays in the same section would then respond to each other, which would create productive dialogues among them due to their commonalities. Grouping the essays according to their themes or approaches would also consolidate this book, providing a more systematic coverage of the state of the discipline.
Overall, this anthology provides an important and much-needed document about the way comparative literature is being practiced in China. The challenges and strengths of this collection reflect the challenges and strengths of Chinese comparative literature. Further, the collection calls into question the complicated relationship between comparative literature and national literatures: comparative literature was established, ideally, as a supra-national approach to literature, in which the idea of world literature should be prioritized over national literatures; in practice, though, comparative literature of different nations and regions still varies in its characteristics and differs in its concerns and goals. This collection works well as a window for comparatists outside the Chinese context to get to know a Chinese way of revitalizing comparative literature.
Bernheimer, Charles, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.
Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2006. Print.
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application. Textxet: Studies in Comparative Literature Ser Vol 18. Amsterdam; Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998. Web.
Zhang, Yingjin, ed. China in a Polycentric World: Essays in Chinese Comparative Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.
NOTE: In this article, Chinese characters are translated into English or rendered in 'pinyin'. Due to a technical issue Chinese characters cannot be displayed at this time. The problem will be corrected as soon as possible. In the original submission there are no such omissions. -Ed.
Wenjuan Xie is a PhD student in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta. She is the author of “Encountering Ghost Princesses in Sou Shen Ji: Re-Reading Classical Chinese Ghost-Wife Zhiguai Tales,” forthcoming in Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag. She is currently researching Chinese tales of transgender towards the completion of her dissertation.