By Leo Ou-fan Lee 李欧梵
Translated by Austin Woerner
Iwasn’t shocked by the news of C. T. Hsia’s death; I just bid him a silent farewell, wishing him a smooth, painless passage into the next world.1 “Master Hsia,” as students of my generation knew him, was a venerable presence in the Chinese literary world, and I’m sure there will be numerous essays written in his memory. But I know the old Master would frown down from the heavens at this profusion of rote obituaries, so I feel that it’s my duty to memorialize him as I know he would prefer, beginning with my own personal interactions with him.
The last time I saw C. T. Hsia was four or five years ago, on a business trip back to the States. I was passing through New York with my wife, Li Ziyu 李子玉, and she suggested we pay him a visit. At first I didn’t want to disturb him because he was quite advanced in years, but it was too rare an opportunity to pass up, so I made plans to meet him several afternoons from then. We arrived punctually, and the Master himself greeted us at the door; his wife, Della Wang, was away on a trip to mainland China. The moment he laid eyes on Ziyu he exclaimed, bewilderingly, “Natasha!” Only after we stepped inside and Master Hsia began regaling me with his thoughts on Russian novels did I put two and two together and realize that my wife had reminded him of the heroine of War and Peace.
Anyone who’d spent time with the Master knew that his manner could be blunt in the extreme. Whether he was among old friends or new acquaintances, he was utterly lacking in self-consciousness, always saying exactly what was on his mind. Some said that old age had exacerbated his childlike candor, and he had a reputation for coming on to young women, which this exchange with my wife bore out. My wife wasn’t offended, though, just took him to be an incorrigible old flirt. As I was young enough to be his student, his presence always made me bashful, and that day was no exception. In an attempt to cover my own awkwardness, I supplicated him for advice. Ever since graduate school I’d been infatuated with Russian literature and Russian intellectual history, and thus it wasn’t hard to get a conversation going. Professor Hsia said that he’d been rereading the Russian classics with great admiration—no other literary tradition, China’s included, could compare with Russia in terms of novels, he said, the only possible exception being George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which reached up almost to the level of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I confessed that I’d never read Middlemarch, and Professor Hsia burst out impatiently: “Read it, then! What are you waiting for? It’s amazing! Even Della has read it, because I insisted!”
The first thing I did when I got back to Hong Kong was to buy a paperback copy of the book. The ponderous tome still sits on my shelf, unread. But I did read the new English translation of War and Peace and found it deeply affecting.
Joining the Main Current of World Literature
As I think back on this conversation, I think I finally understand the Master’s point of view. For decades Hsia maintained his unwavering position on the value of literature: the best books, he believed, are those that plumb the meaning of life and the most basic moral values, creating a nuanced picture of good and evil. This requires not only literary skill but courage on the part of the author. Hsia believed that nineteenth century Russian novels had far greater depth than modern Chinese ones, and that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky simply couldn’t be beat. “Chekhov, too!” I piped up boldly. Master Hsia declined to comment.
What about Lu Xun 魯迅? Or Eileen Chang 張愛玲, whom Hsia esteemed—did her writing possess this kind of depth? Others have done a thorough job dissecting Hsia’s opinion of these authors, so I won’t add my own voice to the hubbub. But there’s one thing I’d like to point out. In his famous and penetrating essay “Obsession with China,” which my friend Liu Shaoming 劉紹銘 translated into Chinese as “Xiandai Zhongguo Wenxue Ganshi Youguo de Jingshen” 現代中國文學感時憂國的精神, Hsia very precisely captures the particular mindset of modern Chinese authors that, naturally, their works reflect; most scholars and devotees of modern Chinese literature would agree that Hsia’s article hit the nail on the head. But I feel that Hsia’s critical vision went even farther than that. Though he praised many late Qing and May Fourth Era writers, he was keen to point out the differences between them and modern Western authors. “The long-cherished ideal of Chinese patriots is the same ideal pursued by modern Western civilization,” Hsia writes, “but the representative works of Western literature reject their civilization’s accomplishments as worthless, depicting the spiritual emptiness of the individual and attacking modern society from the standpoint of modern literature.”2 In his article Hsia makes reference to the theories laid out in Lionel Trilling’s essay “On the Modern Element in Modern Literature.” To rephrase Hsia’s point in the terms of current Western theory, modern Western authors use literary techniques to critique modernity, giving voice to our collective disappointment and disillusionment. Modern Chinese authors, however, labor under a historically imposed limitation in that they restrict their critiques to the dark side of Chinese society, not human society in general. “If Chinese writers had the perspicacity, and the courage, to transmute the sufferings of China into a metaphor for the condition of modern Man,” Hsia writes, “then— perhaps—China might occupy a seat at the table of mainstream modern literature.”3
To publish such an earnest assessment of the state of modern Chinese letters took its own kind of courage, for it was certain to draw fire from nationalistic Chinese who would see such a view as unpatriotic or politically biased. And indeed, most criticisms of his seminal book A History of Modern Chinese Fiction have taken the Chinese position, paying little attention to the numerous Western works that he cites by way of comparison.
Learning from the New Criticism
Hsia’s background was, after all, as a scholar of Western literature. He studied English literature at Yale under several prominent proponents of the New Criticism, and was a great admirer of F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition, which argued (against the prevailing fashion) that the five greatest modern English novelists were Austin, Eliot, James, Conrad, and Lawrence, and that their work should be elevated to the status of classics. In keeping with this style, Hsia stubbornly maintained his own standards of literary quality. When the original English edition of Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction came out in 1961, a copy found its way onto the shelves of almost every US scholar of modern Chinese literature. When I first read it, I found it biased in places, but I didn’t think this lessened the incisiveness of Hsia’s scholarship. Now, half a century later, the book’s political overtones seem even less important. Times change, and whether a work of literature lasts depends ultimately on its own literary merits. What Hsia argued for was a worldwide perspective on literature—in other words, he wanted to lift authors’ fretting about the fates of nations up out of the limits of a narrowly defined realism and into view of humanity as a whole. Hsia writes that on the surface, modern Chinese fiction seems “concerned with the human condition, but writers from England, America, France, and, sometimes, from Soviet Russia”—here Hsia was referring to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—“are capable of seeing the ills of the nation as a microcosm for the ills of the world.”4
The ills of the postmodern world that we live in today are myriad, yet contemporary Western literature still seems to be lacking in vigor. Like Hsia, I now find myself rereading the classics in search of a kind of spiritual redemption; the fates of nations no longer seem worth fretting about. Inspired by our conversation, I not only reread Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina but Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which influenced me greatly when I first read it, and I began another, darker, novel of his, Demons, also translated as The Possessed, and I even organized a meeting of other interested readers to discuss it.
Should Russian novels be thought of as part of modern Western literature? I imagine the Master would have answered with an emphatic yes, for European writers of that time all read Russian novels (in translation, of course) and vice versa. Even when I read them in English translation, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky seem to me to depict an authentic Russia. Though the fate of their own nation was very much on their minds, they managed to channel Western cultural values into their writing, and sometimes even repudiated them. What their works explore is the crisis of modern civilization in its entirety. This grand tradition has come back to life after half a century of political domination by “Soviet literature,” and some might say that it never really died out. Doctor Zhivago first circulated in underground hand-copied editions in the Soviet Union before it was smuggled to Italy and translated into English—badly at first, which was a pity—but the new 2010 English translation has revealed it to be an immortal work, capable of standing alongside Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
Appreciating the Value of Daily Life
Under Hsia’s influence I doffed the mantle of modern Chinese literature expert and forced myself to step out into the realm of world literature. I was immediately overwhelmed by the number of classic Western works that I should have read but never found the time to read. I’d never even cracked Don Quixote, the original ancestor of the modern European novel. When Hsia was a graduate student at Yale, and even earlier when he studied at the University of Shanghai, he had already read all the Western classics under the tutelage of his brother, Hsia Tsi-an 夏濟安—my own teacher at National Taiwan University—and their correspondence provides early clues to the direction of his intellectual development. My own path as an academic, in particular my research on Lu Xun, was more similar to Hsia Tsi- an’s, but, sadly, the elder Hsia died young and we never had a chance to chat about Russian literature. After his death, his students transferred their allegiance en masse to his younger brother. Marvelously, when I saw C. T. Hsia, we almost never discussed Chinese literature; instead we talked about old movies (Hsia was a film buff and a particular fan of Ernest Lubitsch) or Western literature. I’ll always remember these conversations as a hint from above, a sort of literary karma.
Every Christmas for the past several years Ziyu has sent a card to the Hsia household, and the Master always responded in kind, each time congratulating us again on our marriage. Eventually it dawned on me that Hsia’s cry of “Natasha!” had a deeper subtext that I hadn’t caught that day. He wasn’t, as I’d assumed, praising Ziyu for her Natasha-like purity and innocence, but invoking lessons he’d drawn from the book of which Natasha was the heroine. More than anything, Tolstoy was concerned with the importance of marriage and of family; war, in the form of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, would eventually blow away like a cloud of smoke, but the domestic happiness that Pierre and Natasha found was a lasting thing. Now, as I too enter old age, I’ve come to appreciate the value of daily life even more. It’s a road we all walk, a shared side of our nature, a universal human value. This is why Tolstoy bears rereading. I hope that the Master, wherever he is, will hear this naive confession of mine, and laugh.
Leo Ou-fan Lee is Professor Emeritus of Chinese Literature at Harvard University and Professor of Humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He also taught at UCLA, Chicago, Indiana, and Princeton. Lee has published extensively on modern Chinese literature and cultural studies, as well as Chinese cinema. His works include The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers; Voices from the Iron House: A Study of Lu Xun; and Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1945-29.
1 Originally published in Ming Pao, 1/8/2014.
2 C. T. Hsia, Aiqing, Shehui, Xiaoshuo 愛情. 社會. 小說 (Love, Society, and the Novel) (Taipei: Chun wenxue chubanshe, 1976), 81.
3 Ibid., 83.
4 Ibid., 82.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1