What is Chinese about Chinese Literature?

What delimits Chinese literature?

I’m currently working on a critical analysis of the term ‘Chinese literature’ including my own role in the reproduction of it through for instance the title of this blog.

It involves asking a lot of questions, first of all: What is Chinese about Chinese literature? Who and what defines it?

Is it geography? If so, how to deal with overseas or exile writers? Is it Tu Wei-ming‘s notion of a ‘cultural China’? Or are might there be hybrids not answering to one cultural ‘root’ called China but to several roots? Is it about language? Current discussions in global Sinophone literature seems to be some of the most nuanced, but still fail to take into account ethnic Chinese who writes in other languages and foreigners writing in Chinese. And the Chinese language itself, even in its written form, is far from being a homogenous or easily limited subject.

Is this category of Chinese literature at all useful? For me at least, it sprung from a very practical wish to be able to access a lot of great novels and poems written in another language – Chinese. So it started with language, but from there it just grew. The best course for me now seems to be not to stop using the term ‘Chinese literature’ but to use it in a more nuanced and reflected way.

As Ien Ang puts it in her brilliant article “Can One Say No to Chineseness?”: “[A]ny intellectual investment in an object of study -say Chineseness- is not the innocent reflection of a natural reality that is passively awaiting to be discovered; rather the active quest for knowledge actively brings it into being, in the knower’s experience and understanding of the world, slices of reality he or she then calls and classifies as Chinese.”

4 thoughts on “What is Chinese about Chinese Literature?

  1. Interesting! I’ve always struggled to find some nuanced picture myself. Before the fall of the Qing in 1911, I imagined China for the most part having a national identity within the political borders of China. With China entering the modern age and experiencing a “modernity growth spurt,” things just turn hazy.

    After studying China more extensively, even it’s past is discontinuous and have elements that may not fit within our preconception of what “Chineseness” is.

    As a side note, I found it difficult to find academic sources or extensive analysis on Chinese literature. Is there some sort of public journal or website that has this? Thanks!

    • I absolutely agree; the more I learn about China, the more complex, divers and unencirclable (is that a word?) ‘Chineseness’ becomes, including so called ‘ancient’ or ‘original’ Chineseness!

      Good question about journals! We should make a list. Just know I can think of ‘Chinese Literature Today‘ which has Chinese authors in English translation as well as articles. Then there is ‘The China Journal‘ and ‘The Journal of Asian Studies‘ which often include articles about literature. There must be more,if anyone reads this feel free to add!

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