Wolfgang Kubin, Bonn University Professor of Chinese Studies, is a well-known critic of Chinese literature, a critic in every sense of the word. Every time he speaks about Chinese literature, he makes waves among observers of Chinese literature. He was famous for “trashing” Chinese literature, which has at various times being interpreted as trashing of Chinese literature in general, Chinese novels in particular, or novels by the sentimental “beauty writers” to be more exact. Chinese writers probably can also claim that Kubin is trash, but they have not done so. That shows a humility that contrasts sharply with Kubin’s elitist and dismissive criticism.
Shortly after the Frankfurt Book Fair in which China was the guest of honor, Kubin was interviewed by Book magazine, and once again, he aimed his cannons at Chinese novelists:
“The [Chinese] novel, [in contrast with Chinese poetry] enjoys a high profile internationally, but is of rather mediocre quality. This opinion is largely shared among my colleagues. But what my Chinese counterparts say—in private—is even more extreme. In most of their eyes, the contemporary version of the [Chinese] novelist is an utter ignoramus: he has no literary culture, no mastery of his language, doesn’t know a word of English, and hasn’t the slightest knowledge of foreign literature. According to them, on the world stage Chinese novelists are tubaozi (土包子), or hillbillies, as one calls migrants in China who have left the countryside for the big cities.” (Translation by Bruce Humes of Paper Republic)
Kubin’s shots hit a few targets. For instance, Chinese writers do often lack the discipline in their composition. They probably write at 500 miles an hour, resulting in inconsistencies, factual errors, impossible characters or stupid plots. Among Chinese this is called “fuzao” (浮躁, lack of discipline, rigor, or quiet pursuits), a word being liberally used to characterize all fields in China. It is a phenomenon that few writers and critics would debate. Indeed, as writers are in a hurry to get their works or names out there in a winner-take-all environment, they may lack the patience to create something grander and better. Some other shortcomings are not related to attitude, but to skill or experience. There are honest mistakes which the writers cannot see, for lack of a better perspective, exchange or experience, which may give credit to the constructive parts of Kubin’s criticism.
Also, Chinese writers may indeed not read in foreign languages as their May the Fourth predecessors do. Pamuk, a Turkish writer, said he sometimes read a foreign novel in its original side by side with the Turkish translation. Such practices often result in richer and better language. If Chinese writers can read in foreign languages, it will be easier to cross linguistic borders to find fresher expressions, structures or ideas, a practice that writers like Lu Xun highly advocated in his philosophy to learn from foreign peers(拿来主义)。
In spite of all the positive value of Mr. Kubin’s criticism, Chinese literary circle is less anxious to hear Kubin’s remarks now. In the past, Chinese media gave Kubin attention and Kudos for what he said, as there is much public dissatisfaction with Chinese literature in China. There is more skepticism now, as shown in this recent article from Southern Metro Daily titled Should Chinese Literature Listen to Sinologists?
Kubin claims that Chinese writers are hillbillies partly because he thinks they do not read foreign literature. This is a very dubious comment. Chinese writers do make constant references to foreign writers such as Faulkner, Hemmingway, Kafka etc. Except Han Han (a young writer) who said he just read magazines, I have not found any other Chinese writer who say he or she does not read foreign literature. I doubt that German writers make ready reference to Chinese writers such as Tie Ning, Wang Meng, or Mo Yan. China has introduced a far broader range of literature from various countries, at least much more than Chinese literature is being translated in these countries. There are several publishers (such as Yilin, Yiwen) dedicated to translated works, but I do not see this happening in the US. As far as I know, publishers in America accept a very small number of Chinese works for translation, and of these few, many fit the traditional stereotype of China being a police state tormenting its own citizens. I am not denying the wrongs that were described in such works, but too much of this further distorts perception of China and create barriers between western readers and Chinese realities. It is tough and slow to change the taste and preferences of publishers in other countries. China may need to take matters into its own hands by giving Chinese publishers more resources to translate Chinese works into English, probably with the help of translators who are native speakers of the target language. It is a bad strategy to wait for publishers in the target markets to change their preferences. But this should be another topic altogether.
Now back to the topic that Chinese writers do not read foreign literature. To put it simply, they do. Chinese writers do not lack exposure, but they do lack skills to learn and internalize. One obvious reason is that it is like a taboo to discuss writing skills. Chinese value the ability to write as a gift. Talks about techniques, literary disciplines are dismissed to be harmful and irrelevant. Lu Xun, for instance, jeered at people reading books about “novel writing techniques” . Such mentality has reduced writing to be a secretive endeavor guided mainly by inspirations, the exact nature and process of which is rarely discussed. There isn’t a dialogue there. There should be. Chinese writers do not exchange ideas and experiences as much as western writers do, through workshops, writing magazines, or interviews such as those in the Paris Review. Due to the lack of such mutual learning, they may be able to go only skin deep when trying to learn from foreign literature, without using it to nourish their writing in a deeper way. Kubin said that Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem was a shoddy immitation of Jack London’s works, mixed with some Fascism. So to learn in this way won’t work either. To learn or not to learn, that is the question. So what can I say? Boy this man is hard to please.
Also, I do not think Kubin is as well-read or well-informed as his interviewers might have given him credit to. When asked about Han Han, for instance, he just vaguely grouped him with Guo Jingming. Han Han is actually trying hard to become a public intellectual type of figure (in spite of his shrewd avoidance of the label) to distance himself from the self-centered Guo, except he lacks the depth and vision to really become one. If Kubin’s interview is translated into Chinese, he could piss off Guo Jingming and Han Han at the same time, as neither wants to be associated with the other. Nobody expects Kubin to know everything about the Chinese culture, but he does not have to jump to conclusions. This hurts his credibility as a critic. Due to Kubin’s own lack of rigor in such criticism, reading him to understand Chinese literature is like reading a sonnet of Shakepeare in Chinese through Google translation.
Kubin also constantly criticizes Chinese writers as being awkward in their own languages. I do not know about you, but that comes as a little shock to me. Kubin is a German who happened to have chosen Sinology as his field of study. Even with a Chinese wife, he still does not speak Chinese as a native language. What led him to conclude that Chinese writers do not know their languages? I really do not know, but I have a guess. Many sinologists started to learn Chinese by reading Chinese classics. When they start to talk with Chinese writers, they could shock Chinese writers with a few quotations from Chinese classics. Most Chinese writers grow up in modern Chinese, which is severed from the classical Chinese tradition after May the Fourth Movement drove classical Chinese out of ordinary use. If this is the reason Kubin criticizes Chinese writers’ mastery of Chinese, it would be like me criticizing American writers of their English because I can recite the first 18 lines from Canterbury Tales in pre-modern English while they cannot. Yet I know better to be proud of that. Nor would I lose sleep if a learner of Chinese sometimes say things in Chinese that I do not understand. If this is the case, Kubin is really put Chinese writers unfairly in the light of his sinologist’s experience. It is really comparing apples with oranges.
I am not saying that Chinese writers should not be criticized (well, I do this all the time), but Kubin probably chose the wrong things to talk about in his criticism. Sinologists may not know as much about Chinese literature as we ordinary observers do, in much the same way that Chinese critics do not know as much about American, British or German literature as their own readers do. Before 2009, who among us know anything about the current Nobel Laureate Mrs. Muller?
Some sinologists do not even speak good Chinese, or any Chinese at all. In the past few years, the People’s University (also known as the Renmin University) has held several International Conferences of Chinese Studies (or “Sinology”). Guess what? The language being spoken there by most sinologists is English, as many sinologists are not capable of speaking academic Chinese. Some sinologists may happen to be fluent in Chinese, but they are first and foremost scholars who study China or Chinese literature mainly by reading scholarly works, many of which are written in English or other western languages. They can spend their entire academic career without talking to any real Chinese. So how can one expect to rely on them to be well informed of Chinese literature? That’s some risky business if you ask me. I have hoped that they could help the world to understand the “insular” Chinese literature as I described in an earlier post, but after reading more of their views, I gave up.
In theory, the most credible critics of Chinese literature should be the homegrown critics who can read much more at greater ease. Unfortunately, they lack the skills to put Chinese literature in global perspectives. Maybe they are the ones who should be able to read and write in English, not the writers. They are not given much attention, and partly because of this, they cannot provide useful feedback to writers or guidance for the public, while folks like Kubin get all the attention. In other words, between China-bashing sinologists and Chinese speaking critics, barkers do not bite, biters do not bark. Maybe they should work together to provide a better view of the Chinese literary landscape. Yet I will not wait for them to become bedfellows. I would encourage people to read both of their views to put the pieces together.
Foreign media, which depend on people like Kubin, can be more clueless about Chinese literature. They get stuck with just a few individuals who are pop icons rather than writers. Guo Jinming and Han Han, for instance, are constantly mentioned, featured and praised in magazines and radio shows in western media, which shows that such media are really “Tubaozi” (土包子) when it comes to Chinese literature. They do not know the more potential writers such as Han Dong, Duo Duo, Bi Feiyu. They do not know of people who can speak more powerfully to Chinese hearts, heads and souls. In translating Chinese literature, publishers in the US (I do not know about Europe) are narrowly focused on anti-government or narcissistic types. These cause more-of-the-same books to be translated, such as books generally labeled as “scar literature”. What goes on Kubin’s radar may be rubbish to begin with. Chinese writers have a long way to go in their journey to the west.