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Zhang Hui and his literary thinking

Author  :       Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-05-06

On March 14, a press conference and seminar for the release of The Imperial Exile: Poetry and War in the Southern Ming Dynasty was held in Beijing. The posthumous work of the young scholar Zhang Hui, the book is a comparative study of literature from the Southern Ming Dynasty, a loyalist movement in Southern China after the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. Zhang attempts to access the personal lives of each scholar he examines, exploring why they decided to resist, how they resisted, and the circumstances they faced in resisting. His vivid account details the tough choices these scholars made, conveying the incredible spirit it took to “know action was futile but still to act”.

This seminar was hosted by China Social Sciences Press. At the seminar, experts and scholars from CASS, Peking University, Renmin University of China, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Nanjing University and Hong Kong Baptist University recalled Zhang Hui’s short but fruitful life and his pursuits in literary scholarship.

Zhang distinguished himself as a precocious scholar even when he was still at university, writing and publishing A Chronicle of Mr. Long Yusheng to significant acclaim from senior scholars within the field. His short, 10-year academic career, was diligent and prolific. After completing A Chronicle, he published a number of works in succession and complied a substantial amount of classical literature. Building off his academic training, his work was a realization of his aspirations and passions.

Zhang adored literature. As a close friend recalls, he fell in love with literature and classical poems while in high school. During his senior year, he became fascinated with the history of the Southern Ming Dynasty, pouring through many books on the period. His early, close reading of The History of the Southern Ming Dynasty, An Outline of the Southern Ming Dynasty, A Memoir in the Year of Yongli and Annotations to Former Emperors’ Memoirs, “broadened his academic vision and laid a strong foundation, which was a key to his later success,” said Liu Yuejin, secretary of the Party Committee of the Institute of Literature at CASS and editor-in-chief of Literary Heritage.

Zhang also loved contemplation, reflection and deep analysis, a proclivity delicately embodied in The Imperial Exile: Poetry and Wars in the Southern Ming Dynasty. To complete the volume, he sorted through an extensive body of Southern Ming poetry, copying innumerable poems, highlighting key phrases within them and adding commentary or textual annotations.

During the six years he studied with Zhang Hui at Nanjing University, Bian Dongbo, associate professor of the School of Liberal Arts at Nanjing University, witnessed Zhang’s academic journey and ambitions. Bian elaborated: “When I read the final manuscript for The Imperial Exile: Poetry and Wars in the Southern Ming Dynasty , I could tell that Zhang Hui had been writing swiftly into the dead of the night, just like he would do in college 10 years ago.”

“If a scholar could follow in his footsteps, holding such strong faith in and passion for academics, he or she would gradually grow toward a truly admirable level of erudition after accumulating knowledge and experience over a long time period. Unfortunately, although God endowed him with incredible talent, he didn’t endow Zhang with health. So Zhang’s immense academic abilities cannot be fully developed,” Jiang Yin, research fellow of the Institute of Literature at CASS and deputy editor-in-chief of Literary Review, reflected sordidly.

Zhang Hui contemplated many deeper questions about the nature of knowledge. What is the ultimate significance of knowledge? Does knowledge need to manifest in direct relation to the present era? Does it inevitably become watered down to a utilitarian level? In the preface of The Imperial Exile: Poetry and Wars in the Southern Ming Dynasty, he gives a response based on his ruminations: “The most important meaning of knowledge should surpass the reality and the era. If we just emphasize the practical meaning of knowledge and give undue stress to the sense of urgency of our current era, we will undoubtedly weaken or altogether eliminate the transcendent quality of knowledge while we are in the process of pursuing it. For instance, Gu Jiegang once said in the Preface to Discernment of Ancient History: ‘There is no doubt that knowledge can be applied, but its application is only a natural result, not the objective with which it is created and studied.’”

“His thought was very admirable. I completely agreed with Zhang Hui’s ideas on the significance of studying classical literature—that scholars should reflect on the era and reality from a deeper level of research on pure knowledge,” said Liao Kebin, a professor of Peking University. Liao commented that Zhang thought very earnestly to come to such profound conclusions and judgments.

However Zhang also wrestled with balancing dedication to purity and professional expertise with attention to the present reality in the course of doing practical research. “But he could maintain a scholar’s personal integrity at all times, and he had tremendous charisma,” said Zuo Dongling, a professor at Capital Normal University.




  Translated by Zhang Mengying

  Revised by Charles Horne

Editor: Du Mei

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