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Qin Shihuang understood the importance of books -- he had them burned and the scholars buried!

Why anyone interested in China should be reading Chinese literature

Credentials are constantly undergoing a Spanish Inquisition. SAT’s, graduate school, the Western literary canon, gap years, travel, the nuclear family, and internships are all subject to the flux and flow of fashionable doubt. When I meet a student of China (that is, a non-Chinese person seeking to understand Chinese language and culture), and he says that he is in the middle of reading a Chinese novel, I tend to give him serious credit — a practical gold star of approval. For who can doubt that the non-Chinese student of China is anything less than completely serious about his studies if he reads, of all things, literature?

It seems like a no-brainer: if you want to be a China scholar, you read books written by Chinese authors. Essentially, it is just that simple. After all, could any non-Brit ever claim to be a scholar of English studies if she had never read a page of Shakespeare? Never heard of Chaucer or JK Rowling? One can imagine the bemused smirk she would receive from a British acquaintance once he realizes that she harbors, at best, a fleeting interest in English culture.

And yet Chinese literature among expats and China-watchers is largely relegated to elitism, to the current and future Chinese PhD’s. Like reading in America — and surely many other cultures — reading is a leisurely pursuit for scholars, not a uniquely human experience (and even if it is, who cares? So is Youtube and Facebook).

Without getting into why reading is so totally awesome in general, I will explain why reading Chinese literature (novels, poetry, even blogs) is an opportunity for China-watchers that is criminal to miss.

Unlike in American culture [and many others], Chinese still respect reading. When I’ve talked with Chinese friends and acquaintances about Chinese books, the responses are generally interesting. They tend to blow right past the banal “Your Chinese is so good!” and go right into the discussion of the author himself. “Yes, Lu Xun writes beautifully, have you his Diary of a Madman?” — “Gu Cheng is crazy! But in high school we all memorized his one poem about seeing through the darkness. You know, the one about the Cultural Revolution?” — “Bei Dao was definitely politically motivated, it’s undeniable!”

Granted, most of the responses are tainted by Chinese-style interpretation: ancient texts are admirable but bring up memories of primary school tests; political dissident writers are “troublesome,” but ultimately interesting to anyone with a “troublesome” inclinations (in my opinion, the most interesting people to speak with). I’ve received the memorable response, “We weren’t allowed to read Hu Shi in primary school because he was ‘too Western,’ but if you say he’s so good, I’ll take a look.”

And yet China’s didactic form of education has simultaneously instilled in Chinese students an awe for literary giants. In a culture in which critical thinking is tragically absent, teachers have imparted one positive message: that literature has been an essential element of Chinese history.

Many will argue that Chinese youth these days aren’t interested in literature, that they are too consumed with internet memes and brand-name cars to see the value in a book.

I concur.

Professors and writers who went to Chinese college in the 80s have told me how the studs on campus just had to write a poem to get the girls swooning; today, writing a poem would be considered passe, childish, or simply useless — a relic of bygone days when it was acceptable to hope for a democratic China (pre-Tiananmen), or very-bygone days in which the ability to write poetry was the essential prerequisite for a government position. Indeed, literature and politics entwine the caduceus that has pointed China through its historical progression for as long as records show — 5,000 years, I’ve heard.

Discussing Chinese literature is the easiest, most succinct way of answering every laowai-directed question. It cuts past the inferior yardsticks of “how long has this person lived in China?”, “were they a Chinese major?”, “are they dating a Chinese person?” and instead replies: my Chinese is quite good, and not only is it good, but I can appreciate and enjoy the language for something besides a tool for winning game shows. It shows that I see something of great value in Chinese language and culture — something so valuable that I am willing to undertake the tedious job of reading a novel [or short story, poem, blog], which has no tangible results, no HSK score, no presence in an interview, no slot on the resume, no friendship waiting to be formed. It is moreover a highly personal success as well as a gateway to all of the above. And if you need all your successes to be measurable and airable, and therefore do not take stock in reading literature, then I suggest a moment of psychoanalytic reflection (or Prozac).

Books offer an unbridled, uncensored view of a Chinese world. It is complete exposure of the language (as well as a cast of characters) to you and you alone, to be consumed and understood at your own speed. A book will never tell you that “You can never understand China, you foreigner;” a book will make very clear to you how good your Chinese is, and furthermore give you the opportunity to improve. It will show you how well you understand Chinese culture, and then enhance your understanding. It will never, ever tell you no, and it will never tell you that your cultural differences are “certainly too great to overcome.”

There is a lot of really good Chinese literature. Millennia of it from which to choose. If the old stuff’s too hard, start with writers from the 80s. Or start with popular blogs. Start somewhere in which you won’t pull a muscle. Strengthen until you can climb a mountain. And then you can tell everyone else down below how great the view is from up top. Because really, it’s breathtaking.

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This entry was published on July 4, 2012 at 7:48 pm. It’s filed under China, Laowai and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

8 thoughts on “Why anyone interested in China should be reading Chinese literature

  1. And not just anyone interested in China, but anyone interested in literature in general should read Chinese literature! Especially agree w last reason: Because there’s so much good stuff!

  2. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  3. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the statement, “Unlike American Culture (and many others) Chinese still respect reading,” without a little more context. Although many Chinese people may say that they respect reading, and are most likely sincere, while living in China I was always struck by how many homes of well-educated, affluent Chinese families lacked a bookshelf, let alone any books other than old textbooks, in their homes. And I’m not even talking about the lesser-educated rural classes here. Library cards? Can’t say I know too many Chinese people who use those either.

    Much of China’s respect for literature and the literati comes from a historical stratification system which was based on mastery of literature. For most of the Imperial Era, China had the rather unique distinction of being one of the only civilizations in which a true rags-to-riches life story was possible. By receiving a high enough score on the Imperial Exam (an exhaustive brain dump of Chinese literature and philosophy), a rural peasant could become a high-ranking Mandarin in the courts of Beijing. This was easier said than done, as most Mandarins came from previously wealthy and powerful families, and certain degrees of graft and nepotism existed which served to favor the upper classes. But one major effect of this system which was abandoned just before the fall of the Qing Dynasty, was the equation of a mastery of literature with virtue.

    Granted it has now been over 100 years since the last Imperial Exam was given, the legacy of the system still has influence over Chinese society. Chinese still respect reading when broached in conversation, but this doesn’t mean that they actually do it. And outside of the classics, many of which are only read because of requirements as students, my own highly unscientific, hyper-generalized, informal observations, lead me to believe that a true culture of reading in China is actually quite lacking.

    As for your general point about the value of reading Chinese literature. Agree 100%.

  4. I think by and large you make an excellent point and I wholeheartedly agree.. but, your sentence ‘Books offer an unbridled, uncensored view of a Chinese world’ had to be an unfortunate oversight on your part. I’m referring of course to the word ‘uncensored’.

    Even some of the major Chinese classics were censored at various points in history, I will admit however, they called that ‘editing’.

    Good post.

    • Hi, on the use of the word censored: I am in part being provocative, but moreover referring to a book not being for foreigners, or 对外. People’s narratives can change depending on who they are talking to; Chinese books are different from 对外汉语 books because one is censored in a certain way for foreigners. Though you are completely right all the same.

  5. Martin on said:

    I agree with article and am so annoyed at laiwai saying there is no good culture in china!

    Would be great if you guys could compose a list, especially as not all of us speak/read Chinese.

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