By David Der-wei Wang 王德威
C. T. Hsia was one of the most inspiring figures in Chinese literary studies. To his colleagues, friends, and students, he was also known for his passionate embrace of life, his encyclopedic knowledge of vintage Hollywood movies, and his irrepressible sense of humor.
A native of Suzhou, Hsia was born in Pudong, Shanghai, in 1921. He received his BA in English Literature from Hujiang University in 1942. After a brief stint of teaching at Peking University in 1946, he came to the United States in 1947, and later enrolled in the English Department at Yale University. His advisors included Frederick A. Pottle and Cleanth Brooks, champions of New Criticism, while the British critic F. R. Leavis remained an equally important source of inspiration. He received his PhD in 1951, with a dissertation on the poetry of George Crabbe. Hsia turned his academic interest to Chinese studies in the next decade. He joined the Columbia faculty in 1961. During his three-decade tenure, he made Columbia one of the strongest institutions in Chinese literature in Western academia.
C. T. Hsia’s reputation and impact were built on two monumental works. In 1961 he published A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, a comprehensive survey of Chinese fiction from the Literary Revolution in 1917 to the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957. Hsia demonstrated throughout the book a critical skill and vision that enabled him to stand alongside his peers in European and American literature, and thereby established modern Chinese literature as an academic discipline in the English-speaking world. The book had been banned in China for many years, but when it was published in 1995 it became an instant classic.
In 1968 Hsia published The Classic Chinese Novel. Through his illuminating reading of six masterpieces of fiction in late imperial China, from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三 國演義) to Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng 紅樓夢), and delightful translations of excerpts from each of them, Hsia introduces Western readers to a narrative tradition whose rhetorical features and world views are distinctively different and yet imaginatively credible.
Hsia also published numerous articles on topics ranging from nineteenth century literati culture and novels (on The Flowers in the Mirror [ Jinghuayuan 鏡花緣]) to modern national discourse and family romance (on the fiction of Tuan-mu Hung-liang 端木蕻良), and from the dialectic of passion and life in the Ming drama (on The Peony Pavilion[Mudanting 牡丹亭]) to the dialectic of passion and death in the early Republican Mandarin Duck and Butterfly fiction (on the Jade Pear Spirit [Yulihun 玉梨魂]). With each article Hsia explored a new entryway to the network of Chinese literary traditions and modernities, and as such he has continuously rewritten the paradigm of Chinese literature he helped establish in the early sixties. These articles were collected and published in 2004 as C. T. Hsia on Chinese Literature.
What Hsia has accomplished has been a fundamental remaking of the canon. One may approach modern Chinese literature today from theoretical positions that Hsia could hardly have anticipated as early as 1961, but one cannot start any new study of Chinese literary modernity without first consulting, challenging, or at least reflecting his opinions. Nevertheless, his magisterial style and critical confidence—even critical bias—have also constantly made him the center of controversy.
Hsia won acclaim for calling attention to the writers once marginalized within socialist discourse, such as Shen Congwen 沈從文 and Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, and particularly for rediscovering the work of Eileen Chang 張愛玲, the most talented woman writer in modern China. Meanwhile, he was criticized for denigrating Lu Xun 魯迅, the founding father of modern Chinese literature, and other leftist writers for their ideological adherence. He adored Western literature, finding kindred spirits in contemporary critics from Lionel Trilling to Philip Rhav and F. R. Leavis. His vehement debate with the Czech sinologist Jaroslav Průšek in 1962 to ’63 over the methodology and ideology of Chinese literary studies marked a crucial moment of literary politics during the Cold War era.
For years Hsia has been faulted for his Eurocentric, anticommunist stance as well as his New Critical criteria. His critics may have overlooked the fact that what really concerned him was not so much political alliance as polemical engagement, regardless of the labelling of the West or the East, or the Right or the Left. He found in literature the venue where humanistic imagination, historical contingency, and the “morality of form” are incessantly contested. Before cosmopolitanism regained currency at the end of the past century, Hsia had already been promoting, and critiquing, the multiple implications of engaging the world.
Of all his critical undertakings, Hsia’s comment on the “obsession with China” has exerted the most powerful influence. As he notes, “there has been no modern Chinese writer consumed with the passion of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, of Conrad or Mann, to probe the illness of modern civilization. But at the same time every important Chinese writer is obsessed with China and spares no pains to depict its squalor and corruption.” At their best, Hsia argues, Chinese writers were compelled to display in their works a high moral integrity rarely found among contemporary Western writers, but the price they pay for such an “obsession with China” is “a certain patriotic provinciality and a naiveté of faith with regard to better conditions elsewhere.”
Hsia’s critique has raised many eyebrows on the part of both nationalist critics as well as multicultural ones, for adopting such a self-defeating posture. Insofar as Hsia criticizes the overall quality of modern Chinese fiction in light of Western models, one wonders if he too entertains an anxiety that is no less symptomatic of an “obsession with China.” Still, Hsia parts company with the writers he criticized in that, where the writers make their “obsession with China” a premise of revolution, Hsia sees in it nothing more than a symptom of involution. Hsia’s critique of an “obsession with China” may bear an uncanny relevance to the ethos of contemporary China, only that the “obsession” now seems to be taking a self-aggrandizing dimension.
The legendary career of C. T. Hsia leads one to reflect on issues in a broader context. It represents a moment when a young Chinese PhD in English, stranded overseas in the midst of crises at home, turned to native literary traditions and pondered the relationships of history and nationality. It encapsulates a realistic decision that many a intellectual must make, having abandoned his native shore for a foreign one, which in turn obliges him to become a spokesman for an indigenous culture while exercising all his worldly sophistication on its behalf. Above all, Hsia’s academic pursuit serves as a testimonial to the fate of intellectuals in an age of diaspora and transculturation, showing how the pain of lived historical experience can alter our perception of literature itself.
David Wang teaches Chinese and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He has taught at National Taiwan University and Columbia University. His most recent books include The Lyrical in Epic Time: Chinese Intellectuals and Artists Through the 1949 Crisis (2014).
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1