Printer Friendly

The Futures of Comparative Literature Envisioned by Chinese Comparatists.

In her 1993 book, Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction, Susan Bassenett writes "Today, Comparative Literature in one sense is dead" (47), and she further states, "Comparative Literature as a discipline has had its day. Cross-cultural work in women's studies, in post-colonial theory, in cultural studies has changed the face of literary studies generally. We should look upon translation studies as the principal discipline from now on, with Comparative Literature as a valued but subsidiary subject area" (161). What she signals is the identity crisis of Comparative Literature at the turn of the century. Admittedly, the legitimacy of this discipline has been questioned incessantly ever since its birth. In the early twentieth century, when Comparative Literature was still in its infancy, Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce challenged the credibility of Comparative Literature as a specific field of knowledge in that comparison is but a research method that can be applied into any subject. In 1959, in his paper "The Crisis of Comparative Literature", Rene Wellek attacked the French School for its reliance on "historical relativism" and "factualism" (282) that put comparative literature on the edge of a crisis. Yet, Susan Bassnett's provocative statement reverberated globally among comparatists and joined by Gayatri Chakravoty Spivak, who published the book in 2003 entitled Death of a Discipline, in the hope that it "will be read as the last gasp of a dying discipline" (xii). In the same year, Haun Saussy submitted an essay entitled "Exquisite Cadavers Stitched from Fresh Nightmares" to American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), alluding to the crisis inherent in the history and tradition of the discipline.

The horn of death blown from the traditional bastion of Comparative Literature quickly caused repercussions across the academic field of Comparative Literature in China, where the discipline had just revived in the late 1970s and early 1980s, marked by two milestones, the publication of Zhongshu Qian's masterpiece [phrase omitted] (Guan Zhui Bian) in 1979 and the founding of the Chinese Comparative Literature Association in 1985. Since then, Comparative Literature has been flourishing in China, with 9,269 papers published from 1980 to 2000, 1,129 books from 1978 to 2005, 81 textbooks by the end of 2008; 26 universities offering PHD programs and 94 universities offering 94 postgraduate programs (Sun, "The Revival" 2). However, Chinese comparatists were not immune to the crisis and felt the same concerns and anxiety about the future of the discipline, as according to the search results from CNKI, China's leading academic resources aggregator, 1,116 papers have been published in Chinese journals in regards to the Comparative Literature crisis.

In their view, the crisis that Comparative Literature confronts can be attributed to two causes. Firstly, it has an obscure and ambiguous disciplinary boundary with an unidentified and unclear object of study. Comparative Literature shows the variation of its scope and boundaries in its major three stages of development. The first stage is the French school that features influence study and positivism confining the study strictly to the history of international literary relations. The second stage is the American School "with its emphasis on studies of analogy and interdisciplinary research" (Cao, "The Variation Theory" xix). The third stage is the recent trend that saw the shifts and turns in the object of study from literature and literariness to theory study, translation, culture and media study. Literature has lost its appeal to comparatists. Instead, they turn to study gender, race, queer theory, mass culture and media studies. Meanwhile, on the one hand, theories such as post-structuralism, western Marxism and post-colonialism have been proposed and produced by scholars and researchers among schools and departments of Comparative Literature and are applied to other disciplines of the Humanities. Literature, on the other hand, is ignored and marginalized. The scope of comparison is also at a constant change and evolving, extending from cross-nation, cross-language, cross-culture, cross-discipline to cross-civilization. In one word, many scholars believe that it is the uncertainty and unlimited expansion of scope and object of study that has lead to the crisis of Comparative Literature.

Secondly, there is a controversy on the methodology of Comparative Literature. Jean-Marie Guyard said, "Comparative Literature is not comparison of literatures. It is in fact a scientific method Misunderstood ... It is vain to try to make a clear definition of its feature" (La Litterature 5). Comparative Literature was born at a time when comparative reasoning prevailed as a trend of thought in the nineteenth century and when disciplines that shared the same title such as Comparative Anatomy, Comparative Religion and Comparative Linguistics were just beginning. The rationality of Comparative Literature was questioned from its nascence. The well-known Italian scholar Croce was one of the critics. He held that comparison is but a simple and universal method and cannot be regarded as the foundation of a discipline. There are scholars who still believe today that Comparative Literature is not qualified to be recognized as an independent subject and has no unique methodology. Those who acknowledge comparison as the method of the discipline would wonder whether there are other methods besides comparison. In addition, the method of comparison itself, if used inappropriately, is also questioned and criticized. The most criticized approach is unidirectional illustrative study and the comparative pattern of "X+Y". Illustrative study was analyzed by Taiwanese scholar Tianhong Gu in his essay "Chinese Comparative Literature: A Simple Exploration of Its Categories, Methods, as well as Mentality", with an intention to "illustrate Chinese literature as well as existing literary and arts theories by the systematical Western literary criticism" (see Cao, 220). The problem of this unidirectional illustrative study is that it neglects the heterogeneity between two cultures and treats Western theories as universal theories that can be applied in different contexts, backgrounds and cultures. One-directional illustrative study will lead to "one-way fluid trend of culture" and "cultural hegemony of the West" (Cao, 221). The simplified comparison pattern of "X+Y" such as the comparison between William Wordsworth and Yuanming Tao, a recluse poet of the Chinese Six Dynasties period, is the reduced, simplified, superficial comparison that fails to see both poets coming from two heterogeneous cultures and civilizations and were subject to different aesthetic values and literary theories and their poems were products of their respective times and cultures and were subject to different poetic styles, genres and aesthetics. Conclusions and findings made from "X+Y" comparison are too often arbitrary and farfetched and can give rise to an infinite sea of possibilities, which may not be counted as a scientific approach. These and other criticism has instigated a crisis in the discipline.

In response to the disciplinary crisis, Chinese comparatists have fallen into four broad camps. The first camp advocates restoring the study of international literary relations of the French school, and specifically, to the paradigm and basic orientation of it. Comparatists in this club follows the logic that since the current crisis of Comparative Literature stems from generalization and constant expansion that blurs the disciplinary boundary and incorporates cultural studies into Comparative Literature studies, the way out is to separate cultural studies from Comparative Literature and retreat from interdisciplinary study to transnational literary influence study. Hua Zhong writes in the paper "[phrase omitted]" ("Personal Perspective on Comparative Literature Crisis and Its Way Out"), "we have reason to believe that there is perhaps only one way out for its release from the crisis and predicament and remold the dignity and image: to return to and transcend the French school" ("[phrase omitted]" [86]). He further maps out the future of the discipline. Firstly, he suggested a return to the research paradigm and orientation of the French school based on cross-lingual, cross-national international literary relations. Secondly, transcending nationalism and European centralism existing in the French school to adhering to the doctrine of value neutrality, and making the studies of Comparative Literature open and non-discriminatory, with an emphasis on the correlation between literature works from different nations. Thirdly, transcending the triviality and fragmentary of the empirical research methods employed by the French school that reduce Comparative Literature study to communication, biography and "international trade" of literature and giving consideration to both factualism and aesthetic values. Fourthly, he claims that the study should transcend the confines of historical facts by the French school, and find heterogeneity and homogeneity of literature across languages and nationalities as well as common rules and theories governing literature, to construct world literature and general literature (86).

Hua Meng also believes Comparative Literature is in essence the study of "cultural intercourse in terms of literature" ("What" 53) ("[phrase omitted]" [53]) and as long as cross-cultural communication exists, Comparative Literature has no reason to disappear. She quoted Xianlin Ji, who wrote in the essay "Comparative Literature and Cultural Exchange" that "Comparative Literature belongs to the category of cultural communication ... Ever since the advent of human society, people from different nationalities and regions have been constantly engaging in cultural exchanges ... Comparative Literature is the study of cultural exchange in terms of literature" (Meng 53) ("[phrase omitted]" [53]). Since Comparative Literature is the product of cultural intercourse among nations, the study of international literary relations represents the most original and fundamental domain of the discipline and maintains the identity and nature of it. Following this reasoning, she naturally concluded that a return to the study of international literary relations is the solution to the crisis and "international literary relations was, is and should be the most essential and important research field in Comparative Literature as a discipline" ("[phrase omitted][51]). Similarly, she also readjusts and reforms the approaches of international literary relations: international literary relations focuses on cross-culture and cross-language phenomenon and facts as a production of exchanges. Based on positive and factual methods, it studies the causes, evolution process, consequences, effects and its consequent literary and cultural issues. Such study is based on influence and acceptance of an empirical approach, complimented by analogy and interdisciplinary approach.

The second camp is represented by Tianzhen Xie, who agrees with, to some extent with Susan Bassnett's idea of "translation studies as the principal discipline" (Comparative 61), and believes that the translation turn is the mainstream trend for the development of comparative literature in China.

Xie's opinion is based on the following two points. Firstly, translation studies itself has experienced a shift from the traditional studies that deals with the technical aspect of translation to a linguistic and then to a cultural perspective. In the 1950s, Eugene A. Nida, Peter Newmark and J.C. Catford, who represent the linguistic school of translation studies, began to study translation from the linguistic approach. In the 1970s, James S. Holmes, Itamar Even-Zohar, Gideon Toury, shifted their attention to the cultural aspects that focus on issues such as "'why a translator translates in this way' instead of 'how to translate' and 'why a translator chooses to translate the works of this author in this country instead of works of that author from that country'" ("On the Translation" 44) ('[phrase omitted] [44]). In the 1980s, the representatives of the cultural school of translation studies are Andre Lefevere and Susan Bassnett. Andre Lefevere developed the theory of translation as a form of rewriting and put forward the triad theory of 'ideology', 'patronage' and 'poetics' in his book Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. Susan Bassnett, together with Andre Lefevere, pioneered the "cultural turn" of translation studies. In her essay "The Translation Turn in Cultural Studies", she writes: "We call this shift emphasis 'the cultural turn' in translation studies, and suggested that a study of the process of translation combined with the praxis of translating could offer a way of understanding how complex manipulative textual processes take place" (Bassnett, 123).

Secondly, comparative literature has also undergone a cultural turn. After the end of the World War II, Western academia saw an upsurge of theories, from semiotics, deconstruction, to postcolonialization, post-modernization, new historicism and among others. Whereafter, research subjects have been extended beyond written text to visual images. Xie concluded:
   In summary, due to the context of globalization on which the
   academic studies are based, international comparative literature
   study has undergone the popularity of theories in the 1970s, the
   prevalence of postmodernism and the reflection and reconstruction
   of traditional literary canons in the 1980s, and the extension of
   the research subjects beyond written books to film, TV and
   animation, for example. The focus has shifted from studies on
   literary relations seeking rapports de fait, to a stage of what
   Spivak called 'cultural pluralism and culture study', thus
   presenting a tendency of comparative literature study different
   from the traditions or 'the father generation' ("On the
   Translation" 47).

   [phrase omitted]

Based on this background, Xie put forward three new trends for the future development of comparative literature after the cultural turn. The first trend is to apply contemporary cultural theories to literature and culture studies. One of the examples he cited was the interpretation of the Chinese classic Journey to the West as initiation rite of non-literate people, as seen from literary anthropology. "As issues such as geographical politics, civilization conflicts and natural ecology are incorporated into research," he writes, "the subject of study will be further deviated from literature itself" (48).

The second trend is the expansion of research interest from written works to films and movies, cartoons and animation. The third trend is translation study. He holds that the translation turn is in the closest relationship with comparative literature studies. But he takes a more cautious attitude. He writes: "I am not in full agreement with Susan Bassnett's claim that the path of comparative literature only leads to translation studies or even completely replaced by translation studies. I believe they are complementary, mutually reinforcing and enriching." However, he believes that the translation turn will bring a new opportunity and a promising perspective for Chinese comparative literature (48).

The third camp believes comparative literature is to give way to world literature. The most dominant proponent of this view is Ning Wang. In his paper "The Death and Rebirth of Comparative Literature" he writes: "we have talked about the issue of the crisis of comparative literature for many years and now we have a tentative conclusion on it in the era of globalization: an increasingly closed, rigid and conventional comparative literature is destined to die. In the context of globalization, a new comparative literature characterized by cross-culture, cross-civilization and cross-discipline is about to be born". ([phrase omitted] [14]).

He made his "tentative decision" based on two aspects: the identity of comparative literature and the relationship between comparative literature and world literature. In terms of identity, comparative literature means something different in different countries, for example, in the UK, comparative literature and translation studies may be set up under the same research center. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, comparative literature is offered in the department of foreign languages while in Mainland China in the department of Chinese. In some universities in the U.S., the comparative literature department is incorporated into the English department, while in some others the comparative literature department remains autonomous (114). In regard to the relation between comparative literature and world literature, he believes comparative literature, in its early stage, was world literature and today when comparative literature is in its advanced stage, it should be also world literature (115). He illustrated this point in detail in another paper entitled "The Crisis of Comparative Literature and the Flourishing of World Literature". In his view, world literature was the embodiment of the literature and culture of a new world market in the nineteenth century. Goethe and Marx pointed out respectively in 1827 and 1848 that comparative literature in its early stage was world literature. When in the era of globalization in the Twenty-first century, the national/state borders become blurred, the national literature was hindered, and supranationalism and cosmopolitanism was ascending. A reflection of this context and trend in literature is the flourishing of world literature. Therefore, comparative literature in its advanced stage and in this era of globalization should be world literature again (26). Then it is reasonable for him to conclude that the old comparative literature is to die and to be reborn in the form of world literature.

Among the responses to and reflections on the crisis, the most ambitious approach is calling for breaking through the theoretical framework of Western Comparative Literature and taking an independent path in China. Yuehong Chen wrote that "'cultural consciousness' and subject identity are still absent in academic studies in today's China, so that we measure our disciplinary conceptions by the scale of the West and consider the problem of the others as our own, the paradigm of the others our own, and the standard of the others our own. Therefore, our crisis is not originated from our own studies, but from the trends of western Comparative Literature and literary fields, from reports of the annual meetings of ICLA and ACLA, and even from research trends of international sinology circle. So where are we once the Western academia announces 'the death of a discipline'?" ("Return" 31) ("[phrase omitted]" [31]). Among the many who view the crisis that breeds opportunity for Comparative Literature in China, Shunqing Cao is undoubtedly the pioneer. He wrote in his 2009 paper "The False Prediction and the Outdated Prescription" to respond to Susan Bassnett's 2006 paper "Reflections on Comparative Literature in the Twenty-First Century" that "The false prediction and the false theory are admitted by the theorist herself. We cannot help wondering why Chinese theorists are always lead by this type of false theory. I believe the substance of the issue is whether we need our own theories and take an independent path of academic innovation." ("[phrase omitted]" [23]). He continued: "Comparative Literature in China, from its outset, is faced with different issues from French and American schools. Chinese Comparative Literature is based in the context of cultural conflicts between China and the West ... Although we can employ influences study and parallel study, we often find the gap between the two approaches and the practice of Comparative Literature in China. Therefore, Chinese comparative literature is bound to embark on a road of independent academic innovation." ("[phrase omitted]" [23]).

This road of independent academic innovation is the construction of the Chinese School. In fact, the notion of Chinese School was initially proposed in late 1970s. In 1976, Taiwanese scholars Huihua Chen and Tianhong Gu published their book [phrase omitted] (Comparative Literature in Taiwan) and in the editor's preface "Chinese School" was clearly stated and defined as the School to study Chinese literature with the employment of modified Western literary theories. Though the conception was later criticized by comparatists in Mainland China for its emphasis on universality of Western theories, it was this term that first discussed and marked the threshold of a Chinese approach. A year later, American scholars John J. Deeney published a paper entitled "Chinese School of Comparative Literature" in which he declared the establishment of the Chinese School and proposed three objectives: to seek and enhance "Chineseness" in Chinese national literature in terms of theoretical construction and practice (140), to propel literary movements of non-Western countries, and to speak for non-Western countries (141-42).

The term was soon accepted by scholars in Mainland China and started to gain currency, though debates on its raison d'etre never ceased. In 1990s, the early Chinese school was criticized for its unidirectional illustrative study and the so-called "X+Y" comparison, an approach characterized by illustrating Chinese literature with Western literary criticism. Jingyao Sun questioned the validity of this approach and remarked in [phrase omitted] (Concise Comparative Literature): "Western literary theory is based on Western literature and culture, and Western and Chinese literature and cultural background are two distinctive systems, therefore, applying Western theory mechanically to Chinese literature and culture is like acting in a Procrustean way, making Chinese comparative literature the footnote of Western culture. "[phrase omitted]" [111]).

However, the controversy never impeded the development of the Chinese School. It was against this backdrop, a great number of Chinese comparatists were devoted to constructing theoretical methods and frameworks based on Chinese literary and scholarship tradition. In 1995, Sunqing Cao published his paper entitled "Chinese School of Comparative Literature: The Essential Features of Its Theory and Tentative Study of Its Methodology", where he proposed that cross-cultural study between the East and the West constitutes the main feature of the Chinese School, an approach that differs from the French School characterized by mutual influence study crossing countries and from the American School featuring analogy study crossing disciplines.

Cao later corrected "cross-cultural study" and replaced it with "cross-civilization study" with an emphasis on the heterogeneity among cultures, a theoretical shift from seeking similarities to seeking heterogeneities. He argued:

Both illustrative study and the method of 'X+Y' are the demonstrations of the mind-set in seeking similarities. They have made the same mistake of ignoring heterogeneity among civilizations, which are essential differences embodied in cultural institutions, knowledge systems, academic rules, as well as discourse patterns. Therefore, Comparative Literature demands not only similarities but also heterogeneity. We have been living in a multicultural and interdependent world, and the trend of diversified cultures is inevitable for every region and country. Therefore, in order to promote cross-civilization communications, we have to admit that all kinds of civilizations are equal and coexistent. Under such a circumstance, neither influence studies advocated by French scholars nor parallel studies advocated by American scholars can explain the more and more complicated issue of diversified cultures. Cross-civilization Comparative Literature studies should treat the heterogeneity among civilizations as the main subject matter. It compares literary phenomena, concepts, as well as theoretic forms from different civilizations circles, which changes the traditional mind-set of seeking similarities. (Cao, 223)

Later, based on the heterogeneity in cross-civilization study, Cao proposed the theory of Variation, and the theoretical framework of the Chinese school has been basically formed.


Works Cited

Bassnett, Susan. "The translation turn in cultural studies." Constructing cultures: Essays on literary translation (1998): 123-140.

Bassnett, Susan. Comparative-literature: a critical introduction. Oxford-UK; Blackwell, 1993.

Cao, Shunqing ([phrase omitted]). "[phrase omitted]" ("Chinese School of Comparative Literature: The Essential Features of Its Theory and Tentative Study of Its Methodology"). [phrase omitted] (Comparative Literature in China) 3 (1995): 18-40.

Cao, Shunqing. The Variation Theory of Comparative Literature. Berlin: Springer, 2013.

Cao, Shunqing ([phrase omitted]), and Lei Wang ([phrase omitted]). "[phrase omitted]" ("The False Prediction and the Outdated Prescription"). [phrase omitted] (Comparative Literature in China) 1 (2009): 21-23.

Chen, Yuehong ([phrase omitted]). "[phrase omitted]" ("Return to One's Own Academic Situation and Problems of Consciousness"). [phrase omitted] (Comparative Literature in China) 1 (2009): 29-32.

Deeney, John. "[phrase omitted]" ("Chinese School of Comparative Literature"). [phrase omitted] (Development of Disciplinary Theory of Chinese Comparative Literature: Collected Papers by Taiwan and Hong Kong Scholars). Ed. Weiliang Huang ([phrase omitted]) and Shunqing Cao ([phrase omitted]). Beijing: Peking UP, 1998. 13944.

Gu, Tianhong ([phrase omitted]), and Huihua Chen ([phrase omitted]). [phrase omitted] (Comparative Literature in Taiwan). Taipei: East University Book Company, 1985.

Guyard, Marius-Francois. La Litterature Comparee. Paris: PU de France, 1965.

Lefevere, Andre. Translation, rewriting, and the manipulation of literary fame. Taylor & Francis, 1992.

Meng, Hua ([phrase omitted]). "[phrase omitted]" ("'What Can the Heir Adhere to, if the Skin Gone'--The Place and Function of Studies of International Literary Relations). [phrase omitted] (Journal of Peking University (Philosophy and Social Sciences)) 3 (2008): 51-58.

Saussy, Haun. "Exquisite cadavers stitched from fresh nightmares." Comparative literature in an age of globalization (2006): 3-42.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. Columbia UP, 2005.

Sun, Jingyao ([phrase omitted]). [phrase omitted] (Concise Comparative Literature). Beijing: China Youth Press, 1988.

Sun, Jingyao ([phrase omitted]). "[phrase omitted] (1978-2008)-- [phrase omitted]" ("The Revival and Development of Comparative Literature in China (1978-2008): a Report on the Ninth Annual Convention of the Chinese Comparative Literature Association"). [phrase omitted] (Comparative Literature in China) 1 (2009): 1-9.

Wang, Ning ([phrase omitted]). "[phrase omitted]" (The Crisis of Comparative Literature and the Flourishing of World Literature). [phrase omitted] (Comparative Literature in China) 1 (2009): 24-26.

Wang, Ning ([phrase omitted]). "[phrase omitted]" (The "Death" and "Revival" of Comparative Literature as a Discipline). [phrase omitted] (Thinking) 5 (2005): 113-115.

Wellek, Rene. "The Crisis of Comparative Literature." Concepts of Criticism (1963): 282-295.

Xie, Tianzhen ([phrase omitted]). "[phrase omitted]" ("On the Translation Turn in Comparative Literature Studies"). [phrase omitted] (Journal of Peking University [Philosophy and Social Sciences]) 3 (2008): 43-50.

Zhong, Hua. "[phrase omitted]" ("Personal Perspective on Comparative Literature Crisis and Its Way Out"). [phrase omitted] (Journal of Sichuan Normal University) 1 (2007): 82-87.

Sheng Meng

Sichuan University

Author's profile: Sheng Meng ([phrase omitted]) studies culture and media at the College of Literature and Journalism of Sichuan University and also teaches at College of Foreign Languages and Cultures of Chengdu University of Technology. His interests in scholarship include Comparative Literature, cultural and media studies and corpus linguistics. Sheng's publication include: "[phrase omitted]" ("Corpus Linguistics Research Situation and Prospect in China"), Sichuan University of Arts and Science Journal (2012). E-mail:<>

Author's profile: Yue Chen ([phrase omitted]) studies comparative literature and world literature at the College of Literature and Journalism of Sichuan University. Her interests in scholarship include comparative literature, narratology and science fiction studies. Chen's publications include: "[phrase omitted]" ("Narrative Hierarchy of The Abominable Bride"), Shenhua (2017). E-mail: <>

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article.]
COPYRIGHT 2017 Purdue University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Meng, Sheng
Publication:CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Dec 15, 2017
Previous Article:Terminology Translation and the "Rebirth" of Comparative Literature in China.
Next Article:The Significance of the Variation Theory in Cross-Cultural Communication.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters