By Charles A. Laughlin
Istarted my PhD in Chinese literature at Columbia University in 1988, three years before C. T. Hsia retired, which means that I took the full three years of PhD coursework under his direction. I had read Hsia’s History and The Classic Chinese Novel in college and was aware of his preeminent stature in the field of modern Chinese literary studies. I had no idea that my timing would coincide right with the end of his teaching career. I took every graduate seminar C. T. Hsia taught from 1988 to 1991: Tang dynasty chuanqi 传奇 short stories, Song dynasty Ci 词 lyrical poetry, late Qing fiction . . . I think there was one on modern Chinese fiction.
C. T. Hsia’s seminars were a lively affair, to a large extent because of Hsia’s own peculiar energy, which kept the pace quick, and because of his propensity to drop politically incorrect bombshells without warning. I remember at the beginning of every semester he would go around the room, touching base with each student (seminars usually had only about six to eight), either to ask his or her name, or to catch up with returning students. This was the occasion for frequent jokes. Names were of special fascination to him—he would make guesses (sometimes accurate) about your ancestry based on your surname and your appearance, and then explore the significance of your given name, musings that would often lead him inexplicably toward what seemed to be his favorite non-academic topic: the Golden Age of Hollywood. If you bore any resemblance to a star from the 1930s through the 1950s, Hsia would certainly let you know, just about every time he saw you, and he would even speculate about your personality based on such resemblances.
Yet just when we began to wonder whether C. T. Hsia took teaching seriously at all, we would be caught by surprise by waves of scholarly erudition. Looking back on it, I think Hsia was probably dismayed at how spotty even the best graduate training in Chinese literature had to be in the United States, due to the linguistic and time constraints of students. I remember Hsia speaking with admiration of one scholar (not a historical one, but a contemporary) who, when he went about studying a certain major literary figure, would as a matter of course read the author’s complete works, even if it comprised twenty volumes. He encouraged us to read entire dynastic histories to really master a period. That being said, one had to be aware of one’s limitations. One day when I had finished my PhD and was preparing to leave Columbia and take up my new teaching position at Yale, I mentioned to Hsia that I had an interest in translating Li Ruzhen’s 李汝珍 novel Jinghua yuan 鏡花緣 (Flowers in the Mirror, c. 1820), which Lin Yutang 林语堂 and his daughter had begun working on some decades before. He looked at me in shock and said something to the effect of, “Don’t be ridiculous! Your Chinese will never be good enough to do that!”
C. T. Hsia was strict, and in ways that often felt arbitrary, but he also would not withhold praise for his students. For better or worse, what he valued in me was my writing ability. For someone who wished to be a brilliant critic or an accomplished scholar, it was not that gratifying to be praised merely for my writing ability, but over the years I have come to value this praise, coming as it did from such an enthusiastic and discriminating reader of English literature. I used to think it mattered a great deal that American students learn about Chinese culture, but I’ve begun to realize that it is much more important for them to learn how to write well, and this realization was in part inspired by C. T. Hsia’s encouragement.
Hsia was an unsystematic mentor who held his students to the strictest standards without really showing us how to meet them; he was a New Critic yet he was passionately alive to the political significance of literature; he championed little-recognized writers who had been marginalized by the revolutionary mainstream while he also gave credit to the literary talent of many of those devoted to the Communist cause. C. T. Hsia’s greatness lay in his ability to encompass and energize these contradictions, compelling his readers and students to react to him. He was confident in his fundamental convictions, but his vision of truth did not come easily. Many of us may not be able to accept his arguments, and some may view his methods and concerns as outdated, but it is difficult to find such a forceful and astonishing and, let’s face it, entertaining presence in the field of Chinese literary studies today, and for that he will be sorely missed.
Charles A. Laughlin is Weedon Chair Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Chinese Reportage: The Aesthetics of Historical Experience and The Literature of Leisure and Chinese Modernity, and his translations have appeared in Another Kind of Nation, Push Open the Window, and Pathlight Magazine.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1