By Jon Eugene von Kowallis
Ifirst had C. T. Hsia as my teacher when I was an undergraduate studying Chinese language and culture at Columbia College in 1973 when I took his lecture course on modern Chinese literature. The next year I took a junior colloquium on the Asian classics, which he co-taught with a young Indianologist. Those were the days shortly after the “troubles” at Columbia, the bombing of Cambodia, and the last of the Vietnam War protests, with new revelations about the Watergate scandal in the press almost daily. I can remember how concerned he was with the state of the nation and the fate of President Nixon, whom he thought was being judged arbitrarily and harshly. I also remember his dismissal of certain writers who had attained near-iconic standing in modern Chinese literature: “Lu Xun 鲁迅 was a dilettante—he spent his afternoons in a Japanese bookstore.” “Lao She 老舍! I’ll tell you about Lao She— Lao She, he was a Manchu!” Or how he joked about Eileen Chang 张爱玲, whom he called “a chronic sufferer from colds,” after she used that as a reason to decline his invitation for dinner once too often.
The Professor Hsia I came to know in my junior colloquium on traditional literature the next year was different, milder and more thoughtful. Here the wit of the subtle literary critic flashed in his eyes when he spoke of Xi you ji 西遊記 (Journey to the West) or Honglou meng 红楼梦 (Dream of the Red Chamber). That was the teacher I prefer to remember. We parted on good terms. I wrote him from Taipei, where I went to improve my language skills, then from Beijing, some years later, where I went as a PhD candidate from Berkeley and fellow of the Committee on Scholarly Relations with the PRC. It was at that point, when I was no longer formally his student, that C. T. gave me his most valuable guidance, helping me define the focus of my research on late-Qing poets of the old schools. It was his letter that spurred me on to write to Qian Zhongshu 钱钟书, whom I later met in person. It was also while I was at Beida that I received a letter from C. T. telling me he was considering a trip to China that summer and asking my advice, as I was his only student in mainland China at the time. I told him China was not without its ideological problems (we were facing the Anti Spiritual Pollution Campaign and the movement to criticize humanism, which, ironically, was being echoed by Jerry Falwell in the US at virtually the same time), but I told him I thought he would be well received.
After he arrived, I met Professor Hsia and his wife in Shanghai at the apartment of his sister and brother-in-law, located in a classic old Shanghai building, then travelled together with them to Hangzhou. The thing that impressed me most about him then was how concerned he was with the ordinary intellectual in China during that trip. He spoke to strangers spontaneously, with humility and thoughtfulness. He appeared energized, curious, and happy. This was also the first time I had spoken with him for extended periods in Mandarin, which he used to dismiss in Chinese literature class as “a made-up language for American college students.” I guessed that both Mandarin and I had finally come of age in his eyes.
Afterward I did not see him again until the spring of 1990 when the first After Orientalism Conference was held at Columbia. I had just finished my PhD dissertation at Berkeley and accepted a position at Williams College. C. T. took me to lunch, cautioning me about the Marxists at the conference and adding that I would have done much better in the job market had I stayed on at Columbia rather than venturing off to Hawaii for my MA and Berkeley for my PhD. Perhaps he was right. But I did what I had done for reasons of my own intellectual curiosity. A year or so later I attended his retirement conference at Columbia, a wonderful event at which I met some of the dynamic new scholars who had studied under C. T. in the interim. Some years after relocating to Australia I spent a sabbatical at Academia Sinica in Taiwan and was able to attend the ceremony in 2008 at which Professor Hsia was made a yuan shi 院士 in absentia. “Finally, C. T.,” I thought, “How I wish you were here!”
Jon Eugene von Kowallis has taught at Berkeley, UCLA, Williams College, Karlova (Prague), Melbourne University, and UNSW. He published The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse and The Subtle Revolution: Poets of the “Old Schools” during Late-Qing and Early Republican China, and heads Chinese Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1