Chinese Studies in the Age of Globalization:
Culture and Literature
We have now really entered a new century, as well as a new millennium. Scholars both in the West and the East are trying to describe from different perspectives the characteristics of the present age. To some people, it is an age of the "post-industrial", or "postmodern"; to others, it might be called "cyber" time, or an age of "information economy"; to still others, it might be characterized by "global capitalization", etc. In my view, it is certainly appropriate to call the present time an age of globalization of which scholars have already offered various descriptions, even in the Chinese context.[i][ii] [Wang and Xue 1998] In such an age, intellectuals, writers, critics and literary and cultural scholars cannot but take pains to conceive or picture the future orientation of culture and its elite form, literature. Since I am a Chinese intellectual and scholar dealing with literature and culture studies, what I am concerned most about is the new orientation of Chinese studies in its broad sense, or more specifically, of culture and literature, in such an age known as that of globalization.
Literature Confronted with the Challenge of Popular Culture
It is true that literature in the age of globalization is confronted with various challenges which even threaten the survival of literature as a canonical product of elite culture. Even before the end of the 19th century, in speaking of literature of the turn of the century, we cannot but think of the term fin de siècle, for literature of the fin de siècle always reminds us of the decadent literary trends in the last turn of the century. It sometimes even discourages people who love literature and who are very much worried about whether literature will come to an end in the future. It is therefore not surprising for people to raise such a question: will literature of the new turn of the century or in the new millennium be like what it used be at the end of the 19th century? Obviously, history never repeats itself although it does sometimes repeat itself in an allegorical way, mostly in literary works. If the answer is in the negative, then what will the future orientation of literature be as it is now suffering from severe challenges raised by popular culture and even consumer culture? Now the 20th century has become a past event, so what we are concerned more about should be the future orientation of literature. As for this, I cannot help reflecting on the status quo of Chinese literature in the turn of the century. Then I will offer my own expectation of the orientation in Chinese literature in the 21st century if not for the whole period of the new millennium.
First, I would like to observe the current Chinese cultural and literary situation in the age of globalization. In the past few years, especially since the international postmodernism debate swept China in the latter part of the 1980s, the rise of popular culture has upset more and more intellectuals and scholars of canonical literature in current China. We can easily notice a conspicuous phenomenon in Chinese cultural and intellectual life, especially after China's entering into the socialist market economy at the beginning of the 1990s. Postmodernism of "Chinese characteristics" has been transformed from the once dominant avant-garde intellectual rebel against traditional realist and modernist literary conventions to the challenge raised by popular culture against elite culture and literature. The increasingly shrinking literary market is filled with various books of "petites histoires" rather than those of "master narratives". And in the face of cultural globalization, literature is challenged by the so-called "internet literature". Serious writers can hardly find a similar sphere of functioning as they did in the New Period (Xin shiqi) when writing for life's sake or for art's sake dominated writers' writing consciousness. But it was not long after that the dominance shifted from art's for life's sake or for art's sake to art's for market's sake. To this, Chinese intellectuals and men of letters respond or react in different ways and even argue among themselves, because many of them are not fully prepared for such a sudden change in their work and life. Some of them simply view it as a sort of negative escape from political and social responsibility, which is characterized by undermining the incomplete project of Chinese modernity since the May 4th period in 1919 which marked the beginning of new Chinese culture and literature. They are obviously not satisfied with the drastic changes in Chinese literary traditions caused by the May 4th Movement. So they want to reverse the verdict of that movement. But that is apparently impossible, for China now has opened itself wider to the outside world and has been practicing economic reform in a more and more market-oriented direction, and cultural and literary trends are almost progressing in the same way with those in the West.
But to others it is not necessarily a bad thing for the rise of popular culture. They take a different attitude toward this phenomenon, looking upon it as a remarkable beginning for intellectuals to seek a new public sphere in a long-territorialized political and cultural domain, and for writers to depend on their own creative products rather than upon the support by the government. They enthusiastically welcome the coming of this cultural plurality onto China's cultural and literary scene, for they will be able to write in a comparatively free cultural atmosphere, experimenting with various kinds of writing styles and narrative techniques. So they are still optimistic about the future of literature in the new millennium. Then, we are still faced with the question: will there really be a bright future for literature in the new millennium as it is now still confronted with various challenges?
It is true that the prevalence of popular culture as a challenge against elite culture and literature is not merely a Chinese occurrence, but a universally prevailing phenomenon in a world of global capital in the face of globalization. Obviously, the so-called cultural globalization is closely related to the sweeping of postmodernism in the world, especially in the form of popular culture. As we know, postmodernism usually points to these two poles: the avant-garde intellectual rebel against the established order and convention and the popular and consumer culture as a challenge against elite culture and literature. These two trends were once juxtaposed in a parallel way in the West. But the Chinese case is somewhat different from what has happened in the Western context. As a matter of fact, the rise of popular culture and literature in China is nothing but a historical trend beyond anyone's expectation and resistance in such a transitional period, in which the dominant literary code has changed from the code of the New Period to that of the Post-New Period (Hou xin shiqi). It is also marked with various symptoms of the post-industrial society although China is by and large far from being postmodern with its progress of modernization in its vast areas. Even so, we are still confronted with such a pluralistically oriented literary situation: the avant-garde experimentation with narrative device and technique is still going on although in a more limited sphere; the new realist fiction is closer to the taste of contemporary readers appealing to the real life proper rather than a selected and typified form of the realities; popular literature is expanding its market but its value of the aesthetic cannot last for long; film production and TV industry and other means of mass media are posing severe challenges against canonical literature on the one hand, but on the other, they are actually helping to popularize canonical literature so that it could have more of an audience in the future. So we can say for certain that the more science and technology keep advancing, the more the people who desire the enjoyment of the aesthetic, especially from literary works. Actually, literature can never come to an end even in the present age of globalization as long as there are people to write and read.
In the face of this phenomenon unfavourable to the development of literature, literary scholars and critics are naturally, on the one hand, very much worried about the future of elite literature, and on the other, try to think up some strategy to get literary creation in the contemporary era out of its present crisis. In my opinion, we should notice the fact that the rise of popular culture is a global phenomenon and inevitable cultural logic not only in late capitalism but also in some developing Third World countries which are more or less marked with various symptoms of global capitalization. The current cultural and literary situation characterized by elite literature being challenged by popular culture is such a case, not only in China but in other parts of the world, too. So it is not curious that some men of letters who possess a strong sense of elitism are now and then worried about the future of literature as we have come into the new century. And it is indeed high time that we predict the future of literature, its function and development in the 21st century as well as in the new millennium.
To the question of whether literature could still survive in the face of the challenge of popular culture, my answer is always optimistic, even in the present age of globalization. I believe that literature will still exist and never be degraded as long as there are people to read and enjoy it, for what is expressed in literary representation cannot be represented by other means of artistic expression although the domain of literary creation is becoming narrower and narrower.[iii] Just as Harold Bloom, perhaps the last defender of canonical literature at the moment, has insightfully pointed out:
All literary tradition has been necessarily elitist, in every period, if not because
the Scene of Instruction always depends upon a primal choosing and a being
chosen which is what 'elite' means. [The survival of literature is just like the
relationship between teacher and student.] No teacher, however impartial he
or she attempts to be, can avoid choosing among students, or being chosen by
them, for this is the very nature of teaching. Literary teaching is precisely like
literature itself; no strong writer can choose his precursors until first he is chosen
by them, and no strong student can fail to be chosen by his teacher.
[Bloom 1995: 173-174]
The artificial gap between elite literature and popular literature will become more and more obscure along with literary production being more and more market-oriented. Some popular but really excellent works of art good in content and superb in technique will help contemporary canon formation or even reformation. As Richard Hoggart had pointed out years ago when popular culture rose in the post-war period of Britain:
There has been, particularly during the last few decades, a great increase in
the consumption of many kinds of material designed to entertain; there has
been an absolute increase, not simply one proportionate to the increase of
population. Something of this was inevitable, as the technical capacity to
provide entertainment on a large scale and as the money available to the
majority of people for its purchase both increased. An increase is not in itself
necessarily to be developed; there was room for one. But to some extent the
size of the increase appears to have been decided, not so much by the need to
satisfy previously unsatisfied appetites, as by the stronger persuasions of those
who provide the entertainment. [Hoggart 1958: 331]
As a pioneering scholar of Cultural Studies, Hoggart's description many years ago about the cultural and literary situation in Britain has manifested itself in current China. Indeed, elite culture and its literature are confronted with the severe challenge raised by popular culture and literature. But I always hold that popular and fashionable things cannot always be popular. When the fashion is out of touch, those really valuable products will certainly remain in the history of culture and literature, while those of only surface value will sooner or later be erased in the memory of the new generations of readers. Chinese literature in the new millennium will still exist although it will certainly take on a different look: it will not appear as the instrument of enlightenment by few intellectual elites as it used to be, but rather, a means of enjoyment by the broader audience; it will not be so powerful as to push forward socl change and promote economic reform, but rather, come to function in its limited but not so narrow sphere with its beauty and aesthetic taste appealing to a certain people.
Traditional Chinese Learning versus Sinology?
If we say that to be concerned about the future of Chinese literature is still a domestic thing, then we could widen our scope of knowledge as to be concerned about Chinese studies both domestically and overseas. As it is well-known, Chinese studies in other countries have long been called sinology or sinological studies (hanxue) even if the term was more or less considered to be derogatory. On the other hand, domestic scholars call Chinese studies within China as (Chinese) national learning or traditional Chinese learning (guoxue). Over a long period of time, these two trends were apparently opposed to rather than communicating with each other. But in recent years, a dramatic change has occurred. We can easily find a new trend in the interaction of the two orientations of Chinese studies: overseas sinologists focus more on contemporary Chinese studies in an interdisciplinary way, while domestic scholars of national learning try to de-territorialize its narrow domain by frequently communicating with sinologists and even drawing up their research results made by means of Western theory. As scholars of comparative literature and culture, we are now shouldering a new burden: promoting Chinese learning abroad and reconstructing sinology in its traditonal sense.
In the current context of globalization, to explore the dissemination and reception of Chinese culture abroad has become a new research topic attracting the attention from domestic scholars in comparative literature and culture. [Ji and Wang 1999] They are accumulating research materials, writing scholarly works and putting forward new ideas, in an attempt to demonstrate the state of the art of the dissemination, introduction and translation, teaching and research of Chinese culture in the West. Undoubtedly, their effort will fill up the cultural gap caused by the long-standing "Eurocentrism" and then "West-centrism" in international comparative literature and culture studies. We could affirm that Chinese people's knowledge of the West is much more than Western people's knowledge of China, largely due to the inbalance in East-West cultural relations. Just as Ji Xianlin has correctly pointed out in the "Preface" to the series on Chinese Learning in the West:
Chinese people can not only 'grab' things from the West, but also 'send'
things out. In history, this 'sending out' might well be unconscious, but today,
to us, since Western people do not want to take things from China, we could
only send these to them. From a strategic point of view, we could say, it is our
international responsibility we should undertake. In this way, we must introduce
to people of all countries the essence of Chinese national culture so that they
could share it with us. [Ji 1999: 2]
That is to say, on the one hand, we will sum up the occasional encounter between Chinese and Western culture in history and their interaction and possible inspiration to each other, and on the other, we should also intentionally and systematically introduce the excellent research results of Chinese culture made by domestic Chinese scholars to the West so as to fill up the gap between Chinese and Western cultural exchange.
As far as the state of the art of sinology in the West is concerned, we cannot neglect a conspicuous fact in recent years: there are already hundreds of Chinese or Chinese European or Chinese American scholars who either teach in the departments of comparative literature or that of East Asian studies in Euro-American countries. Their wide knowledge of Chinese culture and profound learning in many related disciplines of social sciences and the humanities have undoubtedly changed the essential quality of Western sinology, inserting in it some new methodologies and ideas. It is true that to those conservative domestic scholars, the introduction of Western learning might have "colonized" traditional Chinese learning and obscured the Chinese national and cultural identity, but facing the above fact in Western sinology, how can we say that Western culture has been "colonized"? Anyone might know that in international cultural and academic exchange, any culture, if it is intended to influence other cultures or innovate itself, can not but lose something. That is to say, in introducing its own culture, we should find an effective means by which other nations can receive our culture. This means is undoubtedly language. In my view, it is a historical trend beyond anyone's expectation or resistance for sinology to exchange with traditional Chinese learning, and only in this way, can sinology make greater achievements and be recognized by domestic Chinese scholars. On the other hand, scholars dealing with traditional Chinese learning should respect what Western sinologists have achieved, especially their perseverance in searching the first-hand materials and conscientiously applying new methodologies from new theoretical perspectives to their research objects. Although Chinese culture could no longer be so "pure" in absorbing things from Western learning, it will be a "necessary loss" if Chinese learning should not be known to more people in the world.
Along with the increasing heightening of China's position, Chinese culture has been more and more attractive to the international community, which finds particular embodiment in the fact that the interest in teaching and research of Chinese culture has been developed by leaps and bounds. We could see such a rapid development in two aspects: first, more and more canonical and contemporary Chinese literary works have been translated into other languages and read by a comparatively large audience, and some of which have even become compulsory readings for those studying Chinese language and culture; secondly, sinology in the West has been playing an important role in introducing and disseminating Chinese culture. These two forces are both necessary, without anyone of which it will be difficult for Chinese culture to be known to the world, especially to the West.
But for a long period of time, some domestic scholars often confused sinology (done by foreign scholars) and traditional Chinese learning (done by domestic scholars), and what is even worse, they even neglect the legitimacy of the existence of sinology and the important role it has been playing for centuries. So, before I put forward my idea of reconstructing sinology in the age of globalization, I would like to make a distinction between the two: Sinology is a unique learning established by those who are not Chinese but who are engaged in the study of the Chinese language and its literature and culture. Its starting point is by no means China proper, nor are the major researchers Chinese people themselves. They only observe China, conceive China and even construct the image of China as an "other" from their own cultural and theoretic perspectives. Therefore, their research results, largely due to the difference in starting points and methodology from domestic Chinese scholars, are naturally different from those made by the latter. But some of their insightful ideas might well inspire domestic scholars. [Hsia 1971] But in contrast, traditional Chinese learning starts from the Chinese nation proper, with its research body being Chinese scholars themselves who observe and study China from within rather than from without. Only when these two orientations interpenetrate and complement each other can Chinese studies in the world be really prosperous in the new century as well as in the new millennium. If we say the former is the necessary process in which Chinese culture could be internationalized or globalized, then the latter will stick to the Chinese nation proper, that is to say, a sort of localization opposed to globalization. We are now delighted to see that the two orientations, after conflicting with each other over years, have a tendency of more or less converging. Although they are still different in methodology and ideology, they can still possibly communicate and complement each other, for one of the important functions of the humanities and social sciences lies in its continuous theoretic construction and reconstruction. So it is high time for us, both Chinese scholars as well as Western sinologists, to reconstruct sinology in the age of globalization.
Reconstructing Sinology in the Age of Globalization
Undoubtedly, we are now in an age of globalization, both economically and culturally, with the latter more complicated. To many intellectuals, the future of the humanities and social sciences is not so bright, nor can they survive in such an age of globalization. As we all know, cultural globalization is undoubtedly a direct consequence of economic globalization. It is characterized by spreading Western, especially American culture, over the world. As a result, world culture is more and more homogenizing itself with the weak cultures' national identities gradually being lost. So it is not surprising that such an attempt is resisted by the other force: cultural localization. As long as the project of cultural globalization is in progress, it should be resisted by the attempt of cultural localization. World culture will develop in the context of the two forces being juxtaposed: now conflicting and now communicating, but finally, coming to dialogue. In this way, we might well expect that in the context of globalization, the new framework of world culture in the 21st century is characterized by different cultures coming to dialogue and merge with one another in some degrees rather than entering a state of "cultural conflict" as expected by Samuel Huntington in 1993. [Huntington 1993: 22-49]
It is true that the broad context of globalization is favorable to the innovation of sinology and its merging with traditional Chinese learning. In the past, sinologists usually thought that they grasped the most advanced theory and methodology and therefore, they could offer some new interpretations of old issues in the history of Chinese culture and literature. But domestic scholars believed that they were most "orthodox" or "authoritative" since they were engaged in their own cultural tradition, and furthermore, they grasped the very spirit of Chinese language and culture with lots of first-hand materials in their hands which were obviously trailed by many sinologists who lived far from China, the very center of Chinese studies. But it was not long before the popularization of computer and internet, holding materials is no longer a superiority for those traditional Chinese scholars, so it is necessary for them to draw upon new methodologies and new theories from the West, or more directly, through the intermediary of sinologists. Similarly, globalization has made our planet become smaller and smaller. Sinologists could fly here and there within the "global village" in a dozen hours carrying on direct dialogue in Chinese with traditional Chinese scholars. Through communication and dialogue, they not only exchange views and information, but also deepen their mutual understanding which will certainly be reflected in their research results. In this way, in the context of globalization, reconstructing sinology should first of all overcome the narrow-minded nationalistic views by recognizing the fact that sinology is not a product of Chinese culture proper, but rather, a construction made and a discipline established by Western scholars for different purposes from their own perspectives and through their own understanding. So it is itself a very complicated branch of learning. In contrast, guoxue, or traditional Chinese learning, is a branch of learning established jointly by mainland Chinese and Hong Kong and Taiwan scholars in an attempt to highlight Chinese culture in the world. Its starting point and theoretical perspective are apparently different from those of sinology. Only by recognizing this objective fact can the two schools of scholars have effective dialogue and reconstruct sinology.
The reconstructed or innovated sinology should have a global horizon and a broad mindedness. Sinologists should not only have a wide and profound knowledge of its own discipline, but also have some knowledge of other related disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. It should overcome the long-standing thinking mode of "Eurocentrism" or "West-centrism". In this way, sinologists will be able to establish an equal relation with domestic Chinese scholars rather than just observe China or Chinese culture as an "other" far from the center of world civilization. It should draw upon the most recent research results made by domestic Chinese scholars so as to enrich their teaching and research of Chinese culture rather than indistinctively reject their research results as they did in the past. If it should be achieved, our introducing of Chinese culture abroad will be juxtaposed with sinologists' reception and reconstruction of it. Thus the joint effort made by the two schools of scholars will certainly contribute a great deal to the dissemination, teaching and research of Chinese culture in the world.
Bloom, Harold. 1995. "The Dialectics of Literary Tradition," in Paul Bove ed., Early
Postmodernism: Foundational Essays. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hoggart, Richard. 1958. The Use of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life with Special
Reference to Publications and Entertainments. London: Penguin Books.
Hsia, C.T. 1971. A History of Modern Chinese Fiction: 1917-1957. New Haven: Yale University
Press (rev. edn.). [An important book written by the American sinologist which
has offered many insightful ideas to domestic scholars in their rewriting of
modern Chinese literary history, especially in their transvaluation of Qian
Zhongshu, Shen Congwen and Aileen Chang who used to be undervalued in the
old textbooks about modern Chinese literature.]
Ji, Xianlin and Wang Ning. 1999. Chinese Learning in the West (Dong xue xi jian). Beijing:
Hebei People's Press.[ In this aspect, cf. the book series dited by Ji and Wang.
More and more scholars have been focusing on such a topic in an attempt to
promote Chinese learning in the world, especially in the West.]
Ji, Xianlin. 1999. "Preface" to the series on Chinese Learning in the West. Ibid.
Huntington, Samuel. 1993. "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs, 72. 3 (Summer 1993),
in A Foreign Affairs Reader (1993), 22-49. [When the article was first published, it
aroused great debates among Arabs and Chinese for its radical affirmation.]
i In this aspect, the International Conference on Globalization and the Future of the Humanities held in Beijing on August 17- 20, 1998 offered a good occasion on which scholars from the West and the East got together discussing what globalization has brought about to the humanities and social sciences. Cf. a special issue of essays selected from the conference papers in Social Semiotics, 10. 2 (2000), forthcoming; and the Chinese book Quanqiuhua yu houzhimin piping (Globalization and Postcolonial Criticism), Wang Ning and Xue Xiaoyuan eds., Beijing: Central Compilation and Translation Press, 1998.