By Christopher Lupke
By the time I met C. T. Hsia around 1986, I felt I already knew him, not just knew of him but really knew him. And this was because I had both read his two definitive studies, The Classic Chinese Novel and Modern Chinese Fiction, as well as some other scattered essays, and because I was studying with two other scholars considered to be among his prime disciples: Joseph S. M. Lau and Edward M. Gunn. Lau didn’t actually study with Hsia, though he was a pupil of Hsia’s older and very influential brother, T. A. Hsia, but he worked with him extensively in the 1970s and ’80s. Gunn was obviously a mentee of Hsia, having done his PhD under him at Columbia University in the 1970s. Although not without their own personal nuances, Lau and Gunn both were clearly influenced by Hsia’s unstinting devotion to the text, to close reading, and to the notion that one puts paramount value on the quality of writing and structure in literature. When I entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in 1982 and began working with Joseph Lau, it became immediately apparent to me that texts were to be read with a fine-tooth comb and that we were to judge their quality. It was only several years later that I had fully traced these influences and saw the lineage from the late 1950s, during which T. A. Hsia redirected the focus in Taiwan and laid the groundwork for the emergence of modernism there. C. T. took a somewhat different path from his older brother, coming to the US, obtaining a PhD, and remaining in academia here. The elder Hsia was more willing to entertain the notion of scholarly worth among leftist writers, as indicated in such publications as The Gate of Darkness. He had little appetite for the “historical romanticism,” as I’ve called it, that dominated the scene in Taiwan in the early KMT period. But they agreed on certain very important and fundamental things, such as the superlative quality of Eileen Chang 张爱玲 as a writer, and together the two ensured her a career through the decades during which her writing was banned in the mainland. They also shared a certain moral positivism that was liberal-humanist, if not leftist, and found its antecedent in the work of F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. By the time I first met C. T. Hsia, I was already reading like him, even though that would change to some extent over time, and was already well within his lineage.
I had already heard all the stories about Hsia’s ebullience before I met him, so I was psychologically prepared, but nevertheless, our first meeting, which I still remember clearly, was even more lively than I expected. Ed Gunn had urged me to get together with him when I was down in the city and had phoned ahead. C. T. was expecting me. What I was expecting was an enthusiastic but possibly supercilious scholar, and I was only half right. There can be no dispute about Hsia’s vivaciousness. When I knocked on the door of his office, he came striding out, grabbing my hand and saying, “Oh! You’re Lupke! Yes, I’ve been expecting you. Come in! Come in!” And he pulled me into his office and sat me down. We spoke for hours. We were occasionally interrupted by others, but he would keep saying to the knocks on the door, “Come back, come back!” He probably did two-thirds of the talking, which is not remarkable, but he listened, too. He gave me a lot of important advice: Trust your instincts. If you think something is good literature, don’t be afraid to say so no matter what others say. Try to figure out why. If there’s other work you don’t think is very good, same thing. Don’t listen to others. Don’t be afraid to reject it. Create your own canon of literature.
One of the biggest misapprehensions about C. T. Hsia was that it seemed people thought he was dictating his canon to them, to the field. He always asked me what I was reading. He was always hungry for more. He usually knew of the works before I mentioned them, but he still always asked me. Occasionally, he would say, “Aw, terrible! Terrible!” I guess that meant the stuff I was reading, but he didn’t intend that I should not read it. He would always add, “But that’s okay. Keep reading. Let me know what you’ve got.” He repeatedly told me, “Read everything. You need to read good and bad. You won’t know what’s really good until you’ve read a lot of bad work.” He would emphatically urge me to read as much and as fast as possible while still absorbing it. He used Gunn as a model. “Ed Gunn,” he said, “My god, he reads SO FAST! So fast! I don’t know how he does it. I gave him a stack of books when he was a student and said, ‘Go read these.’ One week later, he came back and said, ‘Done.’ How did he do that? You need to do that. You need to read like that.” He and Howard Goldblatt both gave me the same piece of very valuable advice, which is this: Do not wait until you recognize every Chinese character. Do not wait until after you’ve mastered Chinese to dive in and consume long narrative works. Start now. Don’t stop. Read books cover to cover. Read as much as possible. Your reading skills will take care of themselves along the way.
I did that and I gradually developed through the 1980s a knowledge of modern Chinese literature that was quite comprehensive, and extended well beyond my own particular dissertation topic. Following Hsia’s advice, I chose books to read in a non-judgmental way. I made my judgments after having read them. That has worked pretty well over the years. I would relay that advice to any graduate student: Read widely and read outside your own field. Yes, it will slow you down somewhat, but it will give you contextual insight into your own specialization. It’s a habit you can see in top scholars in our field such as Lau, Gunn, and Goldblatt, as well as David Wang, Jeffrey Kinkley, Wendy Larson, and others. Hsia urged me to take afternoons and find a comfortable spot in the library where nobody would disturb me and read whole novels or chunks of novels, which I did and continue to do.
I would visit C. T. Hsia in his office periodically throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whenever I arrived, he would always give a sort of hoot or shout, “Hoo! Hoo! Lupke! Come in! Come in!” He always just called me “Lupke.” He was fascinated by my name, as he had never heard it before and he seemed to love ethnic names. One interesting impression I had of him was his memory. It’s silly that at the time I had thought of him as an elderly scholar, though he was in his late sixties when I first met him. He pulled things out of our past conversations and reminded me of things I had said before that I did not even remember nor thought he had paid much attention to. Then there were the times I ran into him at conferences. There was a conference at Harvard University in the early 1990s near the time when I was finishing up my dissertation. I was purely an audience member and felt somewhat alienated and marginal in that environment. I went to very few conferences as a graduate student; scholars whose work I had read for years were there, calling each other by their first names, engaging in the give and take. I sat silently and timorously in the back row. During the break, I ran into C. T., who grabbed my shoulders and shouted, “Lupke! You’re here.” We chatted a while and then went our own ways, but I still remember the warm feeling it gave me that the doyen of this group of scholars exhibited not one scintilla of condescension toward me.
Over the years, my relationship with C. T. evolved a bit because I developed a very serious interest in the work of his brother, T. A. Hsia. Best-known in modern Chinese studies in the US for his work on leftist writers of the 1930s, T. A. Hsia was actually instrumental in the 1950s in Taiwan as a professor at Taiwan University and as founder and editor of Wenxue Zazhi 文學雜誌 (Literary Review). C. T. always called T. A. “my brother.” He never referred to him by name. I translated some of T. A.’s critical essays, which I still plan to publish, and it was apparent that C. T. was thankful that I paid attention to this overlooked aspect of his older brother’s contribution. T. A. and C. T. had different styles of scholarship, but C. T. held a deep reverence for his older brother. It was clear that the pain of the elder Hsia dying too early in life was something that C. T. bore for the remainder of his own life. C. T. was generally more of a critic, a critical reader, and an analyst of literature than an archival scholar in the sense that T. A. was. But this is just a generalization, because as one digs deeper into C. T.’s work, one can find some interesting scholarly treasures. A number of years ago, I wrote a dictionary entry on Liu E’s 劉鹗 Lao Can Youji 老殘遊記 (Travels of Lao Can). Hsia’s article on it is insightful, as is all his work. But equally impressive is the textual history that he offers at the beginning of that article. Hsia could do that kind of sinological work if and when he wanted.
Much has been made of C. T. Hsia’s concept known as the “obsession with China,” even though his references to it were not actually that many. I have argued elsewhere that he had in fact hit on a phenomenon that affects all non-Western literature. Hsia was interested in Chinese literature and in Western, particularly English, literature. An examination of other non-Western traditions of the modern era, however, indicates the same sort of obsession with national particularity and predicament in which C. T. saw Chinese authors enmeshed. I wryly suggested that there is some affinity between C. T. Hsia’s notion of the “obsession with China” and what Frederic Jameson has termed “national allegory,” one of the most controversial and provocative notions in literary studies of the past twenty-five years. Hsia saw it in Chinese literature about fifty years ago. He certainly identified the universal/particular tension as one of the pivotal dynamics in modern Chinese literature. He was an insightful, penetrating, and painstaking reader of Chinese literature. He was a passionate, generous, and welcoming mentor.
Christopher Lupke is professor of Chinese at Washington State University. His book on Hou Hsiao-hsien is under contract with Cambria Press, and he has edited books on contemporary Chinese poetry and the Chinese notion of ming命 (“allotment,” “destiny,” “command”). He is currently working on filiality in modern Chinese literature and culture.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1