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Literature

By Way Of Comparison: Literature In Chinese

The word for literature in Chinese (wenxue) is an ancient term revived for twentieth-and twenty-first-century needs. In a Chinese schoolroom or bookstore, wenxue designates a familiar activity: the reading of poetry, plays, and novels augmented by criticism and the study of some historical and philosophical works for pleasure and instruction. The properties of wenxue map precisely onto those of European literature. This is not a coincidence or an astonishing parallel between diverse cultures but rather a case of influence, the contagion of modernity: the categories of thought that have framed the institutions of literature in the West since about 1800 also contributed toward reforming and refounding modern East Asian cultures.

Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) described two of his students as wenxue. Wen means "writing," "documents," or "culture" in an extended sense, including customs and ritual; xue means "learning." Hence Confucius has always been understood as saying that the strong point of these two disciples was in documentary knowledge, as opposed to others who specialized in policy or argumentation. Wenxue has been used as a metonym for scholars or schoolmasters as well as for the activities they engage in, primarily the preservation, interpretation, and transmission of written records. The vast and meticulously administered empire of China had a constant need for such literate men. Periodic examinations held at local, provincial, and imperial levels qualified and requalified candidates for office. The subjects covered in these examinations varied from reign to reign, but policy essays and poetic composition were prominent during most of the fifteen hundred–year history of the examination system.

It was not until the seventeenth century that wenxue began to be used, but only rarely, as a catchall term for polite or imaginative letters, as opposed to other kinds of writing. It seems that the impetus for the specialization of the term was given by foreign missionaries who wrote, both in the reports they sent home and in their Chinese evangelical texts, that the Chinese Empire was unique in selecting its high officials on the basis of literary attainment. From an internal Chinese point of view, the world of letters was multifarious, including every kind of verbal artistry and application, but not divided into the subspecies of verbal art and instrumental communication. That distinction came to be canonical for external reasons.

In the late nineteenth century, as the Meiji Restoration set Japan on a course of determined centralization and westernization, new Japanese educational institutions redistributed the many fields of letters to include foreign languages but to exclude most practical or scientific subjects. The term adopted for the faculty of humanities was bungaku—the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for wenxue. Within the humanities, bungaku specifically referred to literary disciplines, as distinguished from philosophical or historical studies. On the Asian mainland, as the Qing dynasty gave way to the People's Republic of China in 1911 the original Chinese term made a triumphal return—probably on the lips of Chinese revolutionaries who had studied in Japan—as an object of knowledge, a species of publication, a career path, and a division of learning. The definition and reform of this emergent field was a particular concern of the intellectuals associated with the May Fourth (1919) Movement, whose vision of a "Chinese Renaissance" implied a democratic political order, a scientific epistemology, and a national literature written in the vernacular. The imperial order of letters, in which elegance of expression was—without explicit differentiation—a resource to be wielded in the exercise of power as well as a social mark of distinction and a private amusement, had vanished. As in Europe, the new divisions of learning heralded a new society populated by a new kind of person.

Haun Saussy

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