Getting Ideas about World Literature in China

August 5, 2016 – 12:00 am
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A number of seminal figures come to mind when one considers the formative moments of world literature: Goethe, Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz, Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett, and sometimes Engels and Marx, if only to give global capitalism its due. On a more contemporary scale, Franco Moretti, Pascale Casanova, and David Damrosch offer models for a new world literary history and system, steadily moving beyond their predecessors. Given this constellation of dialogues, it is hard to imagine that the names John Albert Macy, John Drinkwater, Richard Green Moulton, William Lee Richardson, Jesse M. Owen, and Caleb Thomas Winchester would carry much discursive weight. Even less expected would be the important textbook value they served for the likes of Zheng Zhenduo, Zhou Zuoren, Yu Dafu, and other intellectuals and writers in China in the 1920s and 1930s who were trying to invent a modern national literary history, on the one hand, and to gain authority over a literature of the world, on the other.

These mostly unfamiliar literary scholars would not be strung together if not for their convergence on one issue: how and where does one get the idea of "world literature" outside of its presumed discursive lineage? To provide an answer via East Asia, one trajectory might be to polarize Western and non-Western conceptions of world literature by filling a "China" gap in an intended global literary history. Another approach would be to show the inevitable defeat of world literature in competition with national literatures by exposing world literature's still provincial interests, despite the fact that it has cast its net wide. Yet neither would say very much about how world literature is less about literary texts than about how the idea of a globalized literature caught on, a speculative process of worlding that is equally powerful in its ideational as well as material contents.


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