In this interview with our featured scholar, Yue Daiyun, conducted by Ji Jin 季进, Yue articulates her vision of a “third stage” of comparative literature studies, one marked by a new globalized multiculturalism centered on the ideas of mutual recognition, affirmation, and complementarity free of imperial cultural hegemonies. Yue vigorously and compellingly points to a new type of intercultural training for Chinese intellectuals: Those who are trained in Western literary theory and methods yet remain grounded in uniquely Chinese cultural discourses will be best equipped to “resurrect comparative literature” within a radically polycentric world.
Ji Jin: Hello, Dr. Yue! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. As the rise of comparative literature was due to the limits imposed on literary studies by subject areas, language, culture, and so on, literary research today has come a long way and is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary in many ways—from a widening of scope to theoretical integration. In such an academic environment, what is the position and value of comparative literature as a field of study? Also, how is it related to cross-cultural dialogues?
Yue Daiyun: I’m delighted to have this opportunity for a chat. If by “limits” you refer to the differences between subject areas, languages, and cultures, these will exist for a long time. No matter how integrated they become, we must strive to preserve an enduring environment of cultural diversity and difference; this is, in fact, an important task for cross-cultural study. With regard to the worldwide assimilation that has been unavoidably brought on by economic and technological globalization, what culture actually requires is global diversification. Since the second half of the twentieth century, people have been pursuing a globalization in which diverse cultures coexist, rather than one of monocultural supremacy. Achieving this is certainly not easy. The recent murder case in Norway has shocked us with the realization that far-right powers are still very much on the rampage—despising human equality, trampling on multiculturalism, and maintaining mental colonization. In Europe, many countries cannot do without the labor provided by large amounts of immigrants, but are unable to treat their cultures equally. Because of this there have been repeated outbursts of violence, some of which have been quite intense. The ideal of peaceful cultural coexistence between ethnic groups is still difficult to attain. The true value of comparative literature is in cross-cultural literary research, the goal of which is to promote common understanding and the improvement of people’s mentalities through the mutual recognition, affirmation, and complementarity provided by literary studies. The end result will be cooperation between different ethnic cultures and global multicultural coexistence. Comparative literature has a historic mission and a great responsibility to reconstruct people’s spiritual world, rebuild their civilization, and shape their future. All humans must inevitably face some common problems, and in each different culture there are valuable resources for solving these, which will be fully revealed through particular methods and viewpoints. While emphasizing the special worth of each ethnicity’s culture, people can also seek beneficial global values through communication and dialogue between different cultures, and use these values to solve humanity’s common problems. This is the basis of multicultural coexistence.
JJ: In the past few years, foreign scholars have had numerous discussions on the “death of the discipline.” As a noted researcher in comparative literature, what is your opinion on this? If we adopt your standpoint of cross-cultural dialogue in an environment of diversity and coexistence, perhaps it should not be the “death of the discipline,” but rather its resurrection?
The true value of comparative literature is in cross-cultural literary research, the goal of which is to promote common understanding and the improvement of people’s mentalities through the mutual recognition, affirmation, and complementarity provided by literary studies.
YD: At the end of last century, a popular view was that comparative literature was “dying,” but there has been a great change over the past few years. The previous emphasis on the “death of the discipline” came entirely from the way that the face of literary studies had been completely altered by cross-cultural research in the areas of women’s studies, postcolonial theory, cultural studies, and so forth. Because of this, some people believed that comparative literature would no longer exist in its original sense. For example, Gayatri C. Spivak and others have argued that “globalization forces people to accept common values and an omnipresent exchange system; the advocacy of a single meaning by colonial authority will promote a pattern where comparative literature is soon unable to develop.”1 Today, many scholars of comparative literature have altered their views. Spivak and Susan Bassnett have changed their minds a great deal. Reflections on Comparative Literature in the Twenty-First Century raises many discussions and questions worthy of consideration, with Bassnett and Spivak seemingly engaging in a dispute. Spivak believes that the new style of comparative literature needs to “abolish and destroy” the “misappropriations” that powerful culture has made from newly independent cultures; in a nutshell, it needs to “transcend Western culture and society and place itself anew within a universal context.” Bassnett, on the other hand, thinks that the influence of Western culture and traditions still inescapably pervades modern people’s writing and consciousness, and that the European classics cannot be “abolished and destroyed”; rather, the basic issue that comparative literature must address is “focusing on the function and position of classical and foundational literature outside Europe and North America.” She criticizes Spivak’s approach for being too “political,” but says that the “core problem [faced by comparative literature] is both political and aesthetic.” From the standpoint of Chinese comparative literature, we oppose the oppression and misappropriation by a powerful culture of newly independent ones, as well as any “abolition and destruction” aimed at European traditions and classics. We believe that the disappearance of any type of culture or literature would be a loss to humanity. What we must do is promote dialogue between the European tradition and classics, which have had a long-standing influence on global civilization, and the newly arisen independent cultures. The mutual recognition, balance, and interaction that this dialogue produces will not result in assimilation or incorporation, but rather will develop the unique qualities of the two cultures to new heights, creating a rich, globalized multiculturalism that brings out the best of both worlds. This will be a new stage in the development of comparative literature—the third stage, which we hope will bring about a resurrection of the discipline.
JJ: Through the hard work of several generations of researchers, Chinese comparative literature has gained widely noted results. Compared to the development in the international field, in which areas do you think Chinese comparative literature has made its primary breakthroughs? Which areas represent the contributions and specialties of scholars in Chinese comparative literature?
YD: Since the beginning of this century, Chinese comparative literature has indeed attained prominent results. Putting it simply, these have been in the following areas: first, the development of comparative poetics, which since the beginning of the postmodern era has made outstanding theoretical and aesthetic findings regarding universality, commonality, and global characteristics in proto-creative poetics, national poetics, and ethnic poetics while at the same time observing the contrasting, unique, and ethnic qualities of the different types of poetry—all of which have eventually joined to form a diverse and fluid field of global poetic studies. Second, the new fields of literary anthropology and comparative ethnic literature have become highly important points of growth in Chinese comparative literary research. Third, there has been a renewal of the concept of literary translation, which is no longer seen merely as changing words and letters, but rather as the transmission and reshaping of cultural ideas. Fourth, there is research into overseas Chinese literature, focusing on its different global locations and contexts, as well as how it conflicts and mingles with local cultures. Fifth, there is interdisciplinary research involving literature and religious and film studies; this is a significant intersection between comparative literature and comparative cultural studies. Apart from these topics, there is also overseas sinology, environmental criticism, and so on. I believe that these areas are the major breakthroughs of Chinese comparative literature, and that they represent Chinese scholars’ contribution to the development of the international discipline.
The mutual recognition, balance, and interaction that this dialogue produces will not result in assimilation or incorporation, but rather will develop the unique qualities of the two cultures to new heights, creating a rich, globalized multiculturalism that brings out the best of both worlds. This will be a new stage in the development of comparative literature – the third stage, which we hope will bring about a resurrection of the discipline.
JJ: On the basis of these results, haven’t you proposed that Chinese comparative literature could lead the way in the third stage of the discipline’s global development? Could you explain this in a little more detail?
YD: That’s right; the accomplishments of Chinese comparative literature have given us self-confidence in this prospect. From its origins at the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1980s, comparative literature rapidly developed into one of the most open and pioneering fields in China. Around the 1990s, the world plunged deeper into the era of globalization and the disadvantages of a unilateral global consciousness became stark and clear as the world demanded a new type of globalization based on multiculturalism. This demand greatly stimulated the development of comparative literature, causing it to pass its first and second stages of development—centered on French and American comparative literature, respectively—and finally enter the third stage, which is centered on the ideas of mutual recognition, affirmation, and complementarity in the multicultural system of literary studies. As to Chinese comparative literature becoming an active leader in the third stage of the discipline’s global progress, this is firstly because China is a developing country and continues to oppose imperial cultural hegemony, consistently putting every effort into the advancement of multiculturalism. Second, China has a long cultural history, and has had far-reaching cultural exchange with India, Japan, Persia, and European nations, which provided an abundant wellspring of material for literary research in a diverse cultural context. Third, Chinese people have diligently studied foreign cultures over the past hundred years, so that their understanding of foreign countries has been generally greater than foreigners’ understanding of China. This gave Chinese comparative literature a head start in culturally diverse research. Fourth, the Chinese discipline has taken the value of “unity but not uniformity” as the essence of modern comparative literature, embracing the entire range of findings and schools in the field. It’s fair to say that no national body of scholars can match China’s in terms of the way they have enthusiastically studied and borrowed from comparative literary studies in other countries. Chinese comparative literature has a strong historical foundation and yet is on the cutting edge of the field’s global development. Having broken through the Western-centric confines of the French and American traditions, it may guide comparative literature into a wholly new third stage of development, from different viewpoints and in different areas.
JJ: In terms of literary production there is what has been dubbed “sinophone literature,” which attempts to encompass the literature of the Chinese diaspora. With this in view, shouldn’t Chinese comparative literature have a similar term, perhaps a “sinophone discourse,” in order to integrate overseas Chinese research into the overall achievements of Chinese-language comparative literature? This strategy would certainly have a strong impact on the leadership role Chinese comparative literature plays in the third stage in the development of comparative literature worldwide.
YD: I think that if some past frameworks are broken down, and the concept of a common body of literature is used to conduct research in contemporary comparative and world literature, then we may have some new points of view. The idea of a common body of literature overlaps with postcolonial discourses’ emphasis on localized literatures, but is not entirely the same. It is not limited by language, locality, time, or ethnicity. For example, overseas Chinese authors who write in a second language such as Amy Tan (in English) and Francois Cheng (in French), along with authors who write in their mother tongue such as Ezra Pound in Italian2 and Amy Lowell in English, all use Chinese culture as a major imaginative topic in their works. They form a common body of literature in which each work is different from the rest and has its own characteristics. The same concept of a common body of literature can be used to examine the literatures of different ethnic minorities in China, as their relationship is also based on unity but not uniformity. I think the question of which country or people these common literatures belong to is unimportant; they belong to all of humanity. This is an entirely new field and an important area of growth for comparative literature that is worthy of further research.
JJ: In the modern era of globalization, it is inevitable that Chinese literature will go abroad and become part of world literature, but going abroad does not necessarily lead to acceptance; it is not difficult to find examples where the cultural exchange has failed. In your opinion, how should we handle the difference between taking one’s culture abroad and facilitating effective cultural exchange?
YD: Cultural exchange is a bilateral process. In the past there were three forms of contact between different cultures: the first is conquest, as with the European subjugation of Native Americans; the second is plunder, as with the French in Dunhuang; and the third is the search for novelty, as with most collectors; but none of these amount to true cultural exchange. Today, the powerful cultures of Europe and America still harbor something of an attitude of conquest and occupation toward weaker cultures, frequently adopting strong indoctrination tactics that eventually lead to violent conflicts. We must avoid repeating Euro-American failures. First, we have to allow others to feel that our culture can provide them with another way of thinking and help solve the problems they face. For example, Europe has lately made frequent references to the Chinese traditional ideal of government under Heaven, the Chinese union of reason and emotion, and so forth, which differ from Europe’s imperial system and its excessive emphasis on technology and rationality. Second, this type of exchange is a long-lasting process, like the spread of Buddhism through China and that of Greek and Hebrew cultures in Western Europe. It requires gradual osmosis and absorption, as it is a process of cultural change and development, and spectacular results in the short term cannot be expected. Third, my basic opinion is that culture should be kept relatively free from politics and economics. If the so-called soft power is continually emphasized in any kind of cultural contact, it might lead to the expansion or even the invasion of culture, not true cultural exchange.
A cultural self-awareness must not merely understand and grasp these roots of culture; it is even more important to interpret one’s cultural history according to modern knowledge and requirements, to generate new meanings, and to find out what contributions one’s cultural history can make toward future developments of the world.
JJ: Your words give us important food for thought. The type of cultural dialogue you advocate may first require a cultural self-awareness. Only when that exists will it be possible to respect others and their differences; only when we have a widespread cultural self-awareness will we be able to promote a new civilization of multicultural coexistence. What kind of Chinese cultural self-awareness do you think is necessary in order to truly encourage sino-foreign cultural understanding?
YD: Cultural self-awareness is firstly having knowledge of one’s own culture, as well as being completely familiar with the important points of one’s history and traditions. These are roots and seeds continually put down by culture, and form the genes by which we decide what things are and what they are not. For instance, widely acknowledged Chinese cultural genes are encapsulated in such phrases as “worship the ancestors and focus on cultivating later generations,” “do not do to others what you would not have them do to you,” and “harmony begets life, sameness leads to distinction.” A cultural self-awareness must not merely understand and grasp these roots of culture; it is even more important to interpret one’s cultural history according to modern knowledge and requirements, to generate new meanings, and to find out what contributions one’s cultural history can make toward future developments of the world. For example, one of the world’s most serious contemporary problems is cultural conflict. The Chinese traditional idea of “unity, but not uniformity” is a very good resource for solving this issue. What Chinese culture has always sought is not conquest over other cultures, but rather multicultural coexistence. The Book of Rites says, “All creatures grow together without harming each other, and walk together without betraying each other.” This spirit of emphasizing harmony and coexistence provides an endless philosophical resource today for building an environment of multicultural accord and for dissolving conflicts. This kind of Chinese cultural self-awareness will certainly promote sino-foreign cultural understanding and create a new civilization of multicultural coexistence.
JJ: This type of cross-cultural dialogue should be an effective means of addressing the world’s various problems, and within it literary dialogues are the easiest to understand and communicate. In its role of cross-cultural literary research, comparative literature will demonstrate more and more of its value.
YD: That’s absolutely right. In the midst of a richly diverse cultural dialogue, literary discourses are the easiest to understand and communicate whether they take place between different cultures, between ancient and modern authors and their works, between author and reader, or between authors themselves. In literature we find many common problems and emotions experienced by humanity, such as life, death, love, desires, and so on. In fact, all great works of literature give their own unique answers to humanity’s shared problems. These answers contain echoes of a people’s entire cultural history, and have in turn been interpreted differently by readers from various time periods and cultural backgrounds. People from different times and cultures can use their interpretations to arrive at a consensus through mutual exchange and understanding. I believe cross-cultural literary research will certainly demonstrate more and more of its value.
JJ: And what are the main difficulties with this cross-cultural dialogue?
YD: The difficulties with cross-cultural dialogue arise in the following areas. The first is the conflict between universality and particularity; some people only emphasize differences and peculiarities, overlooking commonalities and shared links, while others determine universal values based on their own powerful culture and attempt to subjugate the characteristics of minority cultures. This has seriously impacted the development of cultural dialogue. The second difficulty is, in the process of cultural dialogue, how to maintain one’s essence while still accepting beneficial influences. The process of mutual influence and osmosis between two cultures is not a process of uniformity, and its result will not be fusion into a homogeneous alloy, but rather transformation into a new entity with both original and freshly adopted attributes. The third problem is the relationship between Self and Other in the dialogue. If only the differences between us are emphasized, it will often be difficult to attain the goal of understanding and communication. However, if they are not emphasized, mingling and fusion will occur to the point of risking one’s Otherness. This paradox of Self and Other is currently becoming the most significant and yet most challenging area of cross-cultural dialogue. The fourth problem in dialogue between different cultures is that of speech. It is necessary to have language that both parties understand and accept before the problems of coexistence and interaction can be explored; if there is nothing but nonsense, communication will be impossible. In conclusion, humanity must inevitably face global cultural conflict, and if this does not lead to dialogue, it can only produce opposition—even resulting in killing and warfare. Promoting dialogue and resolving conflict is the responsibility of every person today.
JJ: You have argued that for an equal dialogue it is necessary to pay special attention to the problems of mediation and liaison. This is similar to the concept of “Asia as method” or “Japanese perspective” in sociological, historical, and literary studies. In the past we always focused on the interaction and conflict between Chinese and Western culture, establishing “difference” as our basic preconception. The method of making the whole of Asia into an observational framework actually creates the issue of cultural dialogue within a common source of culture. What do you think?
YD: I think that if we look at these problems from the viewpoint of a common body of literature, they may be easier to solve. My focus on “mediation” and “liaison” is primarily based on Michel Foucault’s idea of “heterotopia.” He stresses transformations in “heterogeneous spaces,” such as the transformation of a daily living space into a hospital space or from one type of cultural space into another; the rules of the game, including people’s attitudes, can undergo great changes. This issue is very complicated, so perhaps we can discuss it more later.
JJ: In your most recent article, you argue that in this era of abundant diversity and change, many overseas researchers are beginning to seek new avenues in the East, or to position the East as the Other in order to reflect on themselves and to revisit and understand their own cultural resources. Could you elaborate more on this phenomenon?
YD: There is a lot of information on this trend and many examples of it; we can make a few simple reflections on the critique of instrumental rationality. We all know that one of the results of modernization has been the cult of instrumental rationality. In pursuit of efficiency and technological control, whether something makes money and satisfies individuals’ desires for wealth and power has become a universal standard. Rationality, at the beginning of the capitalist era, was the basis from which humanity attained liberation from divine and imperial authority, but it has now regressed to a power that controls and dominates people and alienates them from each other, thus becoming an instrument for ruling over humans and nature. The vast majority of people cannot help being ensnared by technology and material gain. This rationality and an increasingly meticulous method of classification give people an ever narrower field of vision. Western philosophers have already expressed a deep need for an emphasis on the aesthetic realm, the poetic being, and emotional dimensions located outside the bounds of instrumental and technological rationality. Scholars have discovered philosophical resources in Chinese culture from which they can learn; for instance, the renowned sinologist Robert Neville points out in the preface to Thinking through Confucius that one of the major distinctions between Chinese and Western culture is that of “aesthetic order and rational order.” “Even though both Chinese and Western culture recognized these two, in the Western cultural tradition rational order assumed the majority of roles in both private and social life, whereas in Confucian thought it was aesthetic order that did so. The great Confucian philosophers were all ‘aesthetic,’ while not being controlled by superficial standards of rational order according to the Western concept.” Note that “aesthetic order” does not take utility and profit as its only goal, or individual reason as the sole nucleus of thought; rather, it prioritizes the consideration of people’s harmonious coexistence with each other and with nature. Chinese culture, which is mainly composed of the culture of rituals and music, is centered on a human philosophy that accords with both reason and emotion—a cultural ethics of emotional rationality. Chinese aesthetics concentrates on “molding emotion and fashioning character,” which is a process of shaping the consciousness of one’s life. China therefore focuses on concepts such as inner stillness, cultivating character, the relationship between the Way and the material world, and truth and falsehood. It opposes the tendency to materialism, having instead a tradition of cultivating feeling and character. Because of this, there is an extremely significant distinction between emotional rationality and pure reason, and today the former has become a philosophical resource used by some Western scholars to make reflections about themselves.
JJ: This is actually a type of the mutual Otherness between China and the West that you mentioned earlier. With regard to reflection on the self, Eastern culture and Chinese culture should serve as an important resource for the reconstruction of human spiritual life.
YD: That’s right. In the face of the unbalanced development in modern society, people feel that it is necessary to analyze and critique our greed and avarice-centered civilization and to rebuild it in a sustainable form based on quality of life rather than the unlimited accumulation of individual wealth. In the pursuit of reconstructing human spiritual life, many scholars—both sinologists and others—have rediscovered China. Henry Rosemount once pointed out that Asian people have always placed emphasis on humanity’s relationship with nature and on self-adjustment according to environmental requirements. The two greatest spiritual trends at the moment are the individual’s thirst for a higher mission in life within an increasingly materialistic world, and the demand for a common consciousness in a society becoming slowly more alienated and estranged. Chinese culture can provide an important source for both of these. In order to coexist within a world that is ever more closely linked, humanity must continually develop new principles. In this respect, China and Europe can find greater and deeper common ground. Chinese traditional culture can play a greater role in the construction of a new human spiritual awareness, a process in which Eastern and Western cultures can work together by complementing and mingling with each other.
JJ: Thank you, Dr. Yue. Your explanations have truly given us a sense of enlightenment.
Translated by Luo Hui
and Luke Tysoe
1 “由主张单一意义的殖民强权来推动的比较文学的早期模式早已不能发展.” As this is the translation of an interview previously published in Chinese, all quotations are translations from the Chinese interview text.
2 This may be an error on Yue’s part. Ezra Pound spent some time in Italy, but Italian was of course not his mother tongue.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.2