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For Qian Gurong, literature is study of humanity

Author  :  Li Dingtong     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-12-11

Qian Gurong (1919- ), formally called Qian Guorong, is a well-known literary theorist in China and a graduate of the Department of Chinese at the “National Central University” in Chongqing in 1942. He has served successively as a lecturer, professor, doctoral supervisor, director of the Institute of Literature at East China Normal University and editor-in-chief of Theoretical Studies in Literature and Art. He has worked on studies and instruction of theories of literature and art and modern Chinese literature. His representative works include On Literature as Human Studies, The Charm of Literature and Leisure Life.


In 20th century literature, Qian Gurong stands out among the greats. An examination of Qian Gurong’s works should start with his On Literature as Human Studies , which had an indelible impact on the literary world.

Qian asserted that the essence of literature is the study of humanity, emphasizing that literature is meant to depict people, and it is written for them in an attempt to have an effect on how they think and feel. So understanding and studying literature requires people to be openhearted and upright. Only a genuine person can feel and enjoy the real beauty.

Qian Gurong is not a mechanical theorist on humanity. His works have always embodied a close attention to life and the complexity of art. He suggests that we go deep into the vicissitudes of people’s lives to explore the shining glory of humanity and brilliance of art.

The defining characteristic of Qian’s On Literature as Human Studies is its refusal to treat people as tools or to simply divide characters into different classes. This work shows attentiveness to human feelings while presenting delicately constructed arguments, further enriching the landscape of literary theory.

I began to systematically read Professor Qian’s works, and I ultimately came across the title Qian Gurong on Literature published by East China Normal University Press. This approximately 400- page work was compiled by Qian’s disciple Yin Guoming and others, who recorded Qian’s reflections on literature at different life stages.

Following his literary journey, the book demonstrated how Qian’s talents and growth are completely embodied in his work. It showed Qian’s sincere faith in literature and firmness in the face of an ever-changing political reality.

In his early works, Qian’s brilliance had already emerged. He showed an ability to utilize flexible, natural and elegant language to capture classical Chinese literature, Western poetics and aesthetical sensibilities. His pursuit of artistry and concern for what is true, good and beautiful are evident as well.

His article On Rhythm is a masterpiece of poetry studies. Throughout the ages, many have analyzed poetry from the perspectives of images and structure, but none can compare to the way Qian delicately dissected the use of rhythm in Chinese and foreign poetry.

Another article by Qian Gurong, Cannot be Without “Me” , stressed that “artistic activities, regardless of whether they are creations or criticisms, cannot exist without a sense of ‘me.’” Only when we combine the current circumstances, then we’ll realize the significance of insisting on “me.”

Professor Qian’s articles on the noted 20th century dramatist Cao Yu, i.e. On Characters of Thunderstorm and Lines in Drama , can best reveal his ability to grasp literary works and interpret humanity. Reading through Professor Qian’s splendid descriptions of Thunderstorm part by part, Cao Yu’s characters seem to come alive.

More importantly, in these articles on Cao Yu’s plays, Qian showed his sympathy toward human emotions without treating people as tools or reducing them to stereotypes, representing the kernel of the 20th century new literature in China promoted by the May Fourth Movement.

It’s not enough to know a wise man by reading his works. Only by getting close can one truly understand and learn from him. I’m very lucky to have visited Qian Gurong several times and each visit had a profound impression on me.

Qian is fond of playing chess. Remembering the first time when I paid a visit to his home, I said that I would like to learn to play chess from him. He only responded to me with 10 words “I like to play chess by hand instead of mouth.” These words reflect not only his love for chess but also his wisdom in personal relations.

He is satisfied with his leisure life and follows the Wei and Jin dynasties scholars’ belief that one should “go beyond the Confucian ethical code but allow nature to run its course.” Qian Gurong’s modest character and love for the country provide a model in the current era, a time when people only seek quick success and instant benefits.


Li Dingtong is from East China Normal University.


Translated by Zhang Mengying

Editor: Yu Hui

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