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Edward Mansfield Gunn on modern and contemporary Chinese literature

Author  :  ZHANG QINGFANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-12-17

 

Edward Mansfield Gunn is an American Sinologist and Professor Emeritus at Cornell University. His research focused largely on modern and contemporary Chinese literature. His book-length publications include Unwelcome Muse: Chinese Literature in Shanghai and Peking, 1937–1945 (1980), Rewriting Chinese: Style and Innovation in Twentieth-Century Chinese Prose (1991), and Rendering the Regional: Local Language in Contemporary Chinese Media (2006). Photo: Zhang Qingfang

Edward Mansfield Gunn is an American scholar who initiated the study of Chinese literature written under Japanese military occupation, including literature from the cultural centers of Shanghai and Peking, during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. As a postgraduate student in the 1970s, Gunn began to read and study modern (1919–1949) and contemporary (1949–present) Chinese literature. He has a deep understanding of China through modern and contemporary Chinese literature.

Zhang Qingfang: What impresses you most about modern and contemporary Chinese literature? 

Edward Mansfield Gunn: Modern and contemporary Chinese literature should not be seen as a whole. Each literary piece has its own characteristics, such as how it portrays the subject matter that readers are familiar or unfamiliar with. From this point of view, it may be difficult for foreign readers to find the unique charm of modern Chinese literature. However, many contemporary Chinese literary works are quite popular in the West.

I have read the books written by Eileen Chang (1920–1995), Ch'ien Chung-shu (1910–1998), Shi Tuo (1910–1988), and Yang Jiang (1911–2016). These books and other writers' novels have significantly affected me. 

Zhang: When pursuing your doctorate at Columbia University, what inspired your doctoral dissertation on Chinese literature in Peking and Shanghai between 1937 and 1945?

Gunn: As narrated in my essay, US Scholarship on Modern Chinese Literature (2012), my study of Chinese literature in Peking and Shanghai between 1937 and 1945 developed with the advice and encouragement of Professor C. T. Hsia, my PhD mentor. My study began with research on specific writers and their works, such as the writer Chou Tso-jen. Professor Hsia also recommended the works from Eileen Chang, Ch'ien Chung-shu, Shi Tuo, and other writers to me. In the preface to the Chinese translation of his book A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, Professor Hsia wrote that the literary works and journals published in the area under Kuomintang rule, during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, which he had read at Columbia University, were much fewer than the Chinese works published during the 1920s and 1930s……He planned to write a book about the history of Chinese fiction during the war period. This book would include chapters focusing on the Chinese writers who were worthy of attention, such as Wu Tsu-hsiang (1908–1994), Hsiao Chün (1907–1988), Hsiao Hung (1911–1942), and Lu Ling (1923–1994). However, Professor Hsia didn’t finish his plan before he passed away in 2014. To some extent, Unwelcome Muse is designed to fill this gap in the research of Chinese wartime literature. 

Zhang: Here is a quotation from the preface to Unwelcome Muse: Chinese Literature in Shanghai and Peking, 1937–1945: "The basic task of this book is to offer an outline of the literary history of wartime Shanghai and Peking, and its ultimate purpose is to focus critical attention on the works of greatest literary merit." Why did you use the "greatest literary merit" as your standard for criticism?

Gunn: Only the exploration of literary merit could break away from the binds of time. In A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, Professor Hsia wrote: "the literary historian's first task is always the discovery and appraisal of excellence." I'm deeply influenced by his words and totally agree with him. In Unwelcome Muse, I don't judge those writers and their works from a political perspective, not because I don't take a political stand or because I ignored those writers' political leanings, but for the reason that I prefer to delve into the inner world of the writers in wartime Shanghai and Peking through their works and their emotional preferences. I am concerned with a critical appreciation, which aims at fitting wartime literature of literary merit into the mainstream of modern Chinese literary history and criticism. 

Zhang: Eileen Chang and Ch'ien Chung-shu win great admiration in A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. Your perception of anti-romantic literary attributes is quite unique. How did you get this idea? Why do you believe that the works of Eileen Chang, Ch'ien Chung-shu, and Yang Jiang are anti-romantic?

Gunn: The reason I speak about "romanticism" and "anti-romanticism" in my book Unwelcome Muse, is due to the influence of a book written by Leo Ou-fan Lee, The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers (1973). The conception of "anti-romanticism" is directly derived from the "romanticism" mentioned in Lee's book. Two distinct strains of "romanticism," as analyzed by Lee, are the dynamic and heroic, represented by Prometheus, and the passive-sentimental, represented by the hero of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. These two strains could be found in the works of seven prominent Chinese writers: Lin Shu, Su Man-shu, Hsü Chih-mo, Yu Ta-fu, Kuo Mo-jo, Chiang Kuang-tz'u, and Hsiao Chün. 

European romanticism had a strong influence on new literary trends that emerged in 1920s China. However, romanticism started to decline after the war broke out. Anti-romanticism began to grow in wartime literature and gradually took the place of romanticism.

When reading the wartime Chinese literary works, such as the prose anthology Liuyan (The Gossip) and the short-story collection Chuanqi (The Legend) by Eileen Chang, the novel Weicheng (Fortress Besieged) by Ch'ien Chung-shu, and the stage play Fengxu (Windswept Blossoms) by Yang Jiang, I can feel a movement against romanticism. I give a precise account of anti-romanticism in Unwelcome Muse—that in their works, there were no ideal conceptions, nor heroes, revolution, or love. Their works give way to disillusion, the exposure of fraud, and a compromise with reality. For example, anti-romanticism in Eileen Chang's works could be found in the protagonists' ruthlessness and immoral desires as part of the cruelty of the real world. The world in Ch’ien Chung-shu’s novel is also not idealized. 

I summarized the distinctive traits of wartime anti-romantic writers in Japan-occupied regions in my book. When compared with post–World War I British writers, Chinese anti-romantic writers in wartime China were not disillusioned, but they had no illusions. This is noticeably distinct from the perspectives of post–World War I British writers. In your articles, you also observed that writers like Eileen Chang, Ch'ien Chung-shu, and Yang Jiang expressed anti-romantic views through their novels or plays. These writers were characterized by traits such as skepticism about individualism, a non-idealized way of life, a rational and pragmatic view of marriage and love, and an ironic and cynical attitude toward romanticism; these are the basic elements of anti-romanticism.

Today, however, when my thoughts return to the notion of anti-romanticism, I find that my previous analysis was just scratching the surface—I didn't dig deeper, and I didn't define it precisely as a literary trend. It's a pity. Perhaps I'm not good enough at research. Perhaps the research actuality and milieu of modern and contemporary Chinese literature in the 1980s Western world restricted me from thinking further. 

 

Zhang Qingfang is a Distinguished Professor from the Literature College of Hebei Normal University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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