By Christopher G. Rea
When I was accepted into Columbia’s PhD program in modern Chinese literature in the spring of 2002, I was working as a bank regulator in San Francisco. Having studied the Chinese language as an undergraduate but taken few literature courses, I asked my soon-to-be advisor, David Der-wei Wang, what I should read before I showed up in New York. He recommended one book: C. T. Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction.
That fall, Professor Hsia occasionally appeared at department events. His presence was electric. Senior faculty would stand aside with bemused grins, accustomed to the spectacle of C. T. working the room. He greeted all comers effusively, propelled by his own patter, cracking nonstop jokes and flirting with the female students. My first reaction was delight and cognitive dissonance. How could a man who wrote such lucid prose be so manic? “Everyone likes me because I’m so funny!” he would announce (and he was right—he was a ham). But future encounters, public and private, persuaded me that the dizzying cascade of thought and speech was no mere act; it was somehow hardwired in his personality.
For almost two years, I lived on West 112th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, a block away from the Hsias’ apartment on 113th. On occasion fellow graduate students and I joined informal dinners with C. T. and Della, as well as Professor Pei-yi Wu 吳百益 (also a neighbor), with whom I took directed readings in classical Chinese literature. Our regular haunt, Columbia Cottage on the corner of 111th and Amsterdam, had passable Chinese food, but what I remember is the undrinkable wine, which Professor Hsia extolled because it was free.
Banquets for department guests were often held at Empire Szechuan on Broadway at West 100th, and when Professor Hsia was present the proprietor would insist on serving seafood delicacies. I remember one rainy evening the grad student contingent included a vegetarian. The evening went something like this: Elaborate dish arrives. C. T. Hsia: “Wow! This looks delicious—everyone dig in! Oh, wait, Andy, you’re a vegetarian; you can’t eat this. Why don’t you eat fish? Just try it! Eat! What’s the matter with you vegetarians? We should order you a vegetable dish.” After the banquet, we all bundled up and stepped out into the rain. “Professor Hsia,” I remarked, “in that hat and raincoat you look like a fisherman.” “Fisherman? I’ve never hurt a living thing in my life!”
To spend time with C. T. Hsia was to accept the contradictions of a man obsessed with great books and terrible wine. His unprompted and uncensored rants about marginalized social groups, so at odds with the humanist drive of his History, could be unsettling. Everyone who encountered C. T. had a story about him, and not all of them were flattering. In my experience, he was excellent company—entertaining, unpredictable, and eminently approachable. I still remember visiting him during his first convalescence at the Jewish Hospital and finding him in the hallway animatedly chatting up patients and caregivers.
Yet, for me, C. T. Hsia provided more than just good cheer. Through him I discovered Qian Zhongshu’s 錢鍾書 complex and fascinating novel Weicheng 圍城 (Fortress Besieged), which stoked my curiosity about the comedic strains in Chinese literary and cultural history. The Hsia canon has resonated in my teaching, no more so than this semester at the University of British Columbia when forty undergraduates signed up for my course on Qian Zhongshu and Eileen Chang 張愛玲. Above all, I live with his maxim that “the literary historian’s first task is always the discovery and appraisal of excellence”—a reminder that the critic, like the novelist, should aim to create works of lasting value.
Christopher Rea is associate professor of Chinese at the University of British Columbia. He is editor of Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia Univ. Press, 2011), coeditor of The Business of Culture (Univ. of British Columbia Press, 2014), and author of The Age of Irreverence (Univ. of California Press, 2015).
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1