Paths Toward Modernity: Conference to Mark the Centenary of Jaroslav Průšek


Edited by Olga Lomová

Studia Orientalia Pragensia XXVI
Charles University in Prague
Paperback. (15,5 x 23,0 cm), 422 pages
Prague: Karolinum Press, 2008. € 28,00
ISBN-13: 978-80-246-1519-6 (9788024615196)
ISBN-10: 80-246-1519-3 (8024615193)

Vertrieb: CHINA Buchservice / Bestellen

Introduction (Olga Lomová)

The Conception of Chinese Lyricism: Průšek’s Reading of Chinese Literary Tradition
(K. K. Leonard Chan)

The Literati City

The Artisanal Body of Gu Erniang (ca. 1662 – ca. 1724; fl. 1700–1724), A Female Inkstone Carver
(Dorothy Ko)

Bidding Farewell to Late Ming Nanjing: Literary Accounts of Politics, Pleasure and Disruption
Li Hsiao-t’i

Shengse xihu: “shengyin” yu Hangzhou wenxue jingwei de chuangzao聲色西湖:「聲音」與杭州文學景味的創造
(Hu Siao-chen 胡曉真)

The Concept of Chinese Polygamy
(Keith McMahon)

Changing Conceptions

Do all Paths Lead to Modernity? The Kangxi Emperor (1662–1722) and the Sciences
(Catherine Jami)

The Hónglóu mèng 紅樓夢 and its Sequels: Paths towards and away from Modernity
(Halvor Eifring)

WanQing cishu sheye zhong de “wenxue”: yi huangren de bianzuan huodong wei zhongxin 晚清辞书视野中的“文学”:以黄人的编纂活动为中心
(Chen Pingyuan 陈平原)

The Appropriation of Tragedies in Meiji Japan and Late Qing China
(Natascha Gentz)

At the Threshold of the Pantheon of Religions: Confucianism and the Emerging Religious Discourse at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
(Hsi-yuan Chen)

Wu Mengban: A Pioneering Chinese Feminist
(Xia Xiaohong)

At the Threshold of Modernity

What’s in a Date? – May Fourth in Modern Chinese Literary History
(Michel Hockx)

Jin Tianhe and the Suzhou Tradition of Witnessing
(Kang-i Sun Chang)

The Silence of the Lanes: Traditional Examination Culture and the Emergence of Modern Chinese Literature
(Rui Magone)

Luxun wenxue shijie zhong de “gui” yu “xiangxia chaoyue” 鲁迅文学世界中的“鬼”与“向下超越”
(Wang Hui 汪晖)

Post-May Fourth Decadence in Chinese Literature: A Phenomenon of Modernity
(Marián Gálik)

Narrative Strategies in Modern Chinese Essay Writing: An Analysis of Essays by Feng Zikai and Lu Li
(Dušan Andrš)

Program of the Conference

The present volume is a selection of papers prepared for the conference held in Prague in October 2006 to commemorate the centenary of the foremost Czech sinologist Jaroslav Průšek. Průšek (1906–1980) was a scholar who belonged to the generation of universal sinologists in the best sense of such a designation. His research and pedagogical work included both history and literature, pre-modern China as well as China in the 20th century; and in case of need he would also write an informative article about Chinese language or art. He was the first professional sinologist in the former Czechoslovakia, who due to his organizational efforts and skills in 1945 created the first chair of East Asian History at Charles University, thus starting sinology in Czechoslovakia as a full-fledged university programme shortly after the Second World War. Internationally, he became well known mainly through his contributions to research in two topics within the wider field of sinology: the study of medieval popular literature and the study of modern literature. It was his contribution to the latter field which provided the framework for the conference aimed at honouring him. Průšek’s writings on modern Chinese literature were acknowledged as path breaking by a number of scholars in the field in the second half of the 20th century, eventually leading to the designation of the “Czech” (Goldman 1977) or “Prague” (Lee 1980) school of sinology. Jaroslav Průšek, who was a personal friend of several important figures of the Chinese “literary revolution” (Průšek 2004), helped to introduce to the West the canonical view of May Fourth as the beginning of the “new literature” rising to its glory through the radical rejection of domestic tradition and the adoption of Western models. In this respect he laid a foundation for the concept of May Fourth in the studies of modern Chinese literature in the West, which helped to shape the basic outlines of the field and nourished further research. Yet it is a concept in some respects also misleading and worth challenging, which has been happening in recent critical reexaminations. A polemical exploration into this aspect of Jaroslav Průšek’s scholarship, opening up new perspectives on the topic of May Fourth is contained in the essay by Michael Hockx in this volume, and to some extent also by Rui Magone.

Side by side with the canonical view conforming to the May Fourth ideology, Průšek also opened up a different perspective on the rise of modern Chinese literature, formulating the idea of the indigenous roots of Chinese “modernism” in the writings of Late Ming and Qing literati. As a Marxist, Průšek in his explorations of early Chinese modernity followed the idea of a general and irreversible law of history and emphasised the close interrelation between literature and society, implying in his essays dealing with literature also the idea of the possible development towards modernity in late imperial China within Chinese society at large. Though he himself never ventured into any detailed study of Chinese society in the given period, Průšek suggested that certain trends of development in the socio-economic basis existed in late pre-modern China for developing a society similar to that which evolved after the industrial revolution in the West. This way of thinking is made explicit in the concluding sentence of his first (in the English language) exploration into the domestic beginnings of modern Chinese literature: “These traits [in literature] … testify in their sum the correctness of our assumption that the present great change in Chinese society has its beginnings in the Ming period and is initiated in the main by internal, Chinese forces and its purely Chinese origins. The European invasion only accelerated a process that would have achieved its goal without any such external factor” (Průšek 1980:28; first published in 1957).

Průšek shaped his approach to literary facts through "looking closer into the texture of the works in question" (Průšek 1980: 9) and follows the tradition of structuralism as expressed in the ideas of the Prague Linguistic Circle, where young Průšek also twice presented a talk during the late 1930s and 1940s (Vachek 1999:108,112). Thus in his writings on modernity in Chinese literature, he carefully examined and discussed primarily the issues of language, style, narrative strategies and genre transformation. Reading his essays expounding in this way on the domestic roots of Chinese modernity, one gets the impression that the primary impulse for such a direction of his thought does not come so much from close reading of specific texts, but rather from general theory mastered beforehand. Průšek’s generalizing thinking about literature and society is rooted in a methodology cultivated between Marxism and structuralism, both ways of thinking taking a belief in “general laws” and “objective truth” as their prerequisite. It was within this theoretical framework that Průšek formulated in a persuasive way bold outlines of possible general trends in history and literature, bringing together Chinese and Western traditions as undergoing analogous historical processes. As a result, Průšek was able to present a another look on the origins of modern Chinese literature, different from the May Fourth orthodoxy claiming the true beginning of modern literature to be only around 1919. Such a different look was certainly a result of Průšek’s personal literary taste cultivated by reading Western modernists as well as of extensive reading experience with Qing literature and intimate knowledge of some of the literati writings of the late imperial period gained through his translation work (Pu Songling, Shen Fu, Liu O).

Průšek’s then original concept of the indigenous sprouts of modernity in China and his view of May Fourth literature as only one later phase in the process of modern transformation which had started earlier in late Ming and Qing literati writings was facilitated by his Hegelian believe in the universal laws of history. It was also facilitated by the fact that the very idea of what it means to be “modern” was not yet so much disputed in his time as it is today, 50 years later. Průšek viewed modernity without many doubts, more or less intuitively, through the prism of Western modernist and avantguard writings. He defines modernity in his reading of both Western and Chinese literature by a changing relation between the individual and, in Průšek’s terminology, “feudal” society, resulting in the following qualities: individualism, subjectivism and also certain forms of writing generalized in his terminology as lyricism. In his pioneering article from 1957 (Průšek 1980: 1-28), Průšek examined various new aspects of the late Ming and Qing literati writings, such as the rise of the literati novel, autobiographical writing and diary and certain new trends in poetry, and presented them as an expression of “a new, modern mental complex” (Průšek 1980: 3), or in other words “modern spirit rejecting all illusions” (Průšek 1980:17). Part of this modern spirit in Průšek’s view was also critical inquiry about the reality and rejection of blind adherence to tradition.

Průšek discovers features of modernist subjectivism in the growing interest of the literati since late Ming in the self, seen in the intimate and personal details of some of their writings, including their interest in psychology and frank accounts of one’s life, even wrong-doing and failures. Individualism in his understanding means a critical approach towards traditional dogmas, opposition to corrupt society, “unsentimental, realistic view of … life and society” including the “shadier and uglier facts of existence” (Průšek 1980: 15), and a melancholic, even tragic perception of life. Průšek relates these features in the Ming-Qing Chinese literature to the growing notion of crisis among the educated elite, their pessimism and feeling for “the tragedy of human life” (Průšek 1980: 26). As far as the notion of lyricism as the prevailing way of expression of such supposedly modern perceptions of self and society is concerned, it is the focus of the contribution of Leonard Chan in this volume and we need not go into further detail here.
To be sure, Průšek formulated his hypothesis of the Chinese roots of modernity only in a sweeping manner, which may raise doubts in the reader 50 years later about their validity. He used his broad learning and sharp theoretical mind, equipped with strong methodology, to present a wide variety of examples supporting his idea of literary development in China. However he never went into further detail, providing very few “hard facts” and avoiding any conflicting evidence in his discussion. Thus in a fashion typical for him and perhaps in a slightly provocative manner, he opened up a new perspective on the issue, which remained to be extensively studied by later scholars. Today we can see that Průšek’s concept was perhaps proof above all of his originality and courage to take a new look on established themes, and does not necessarily correspond in every detail to facts and ideas discussed by recent historiographers of late imperial and early modern China. It must be admitted that later extensive research in the literati culture and society in late Ming and Qing, as well as in other aspects of Chinese tradition, puts some of Průšek’s generalizations into question and reveal many problematic claims in his argument and his interpretation of some of the facts. We also should not forget the changing perspectives, discourses and paradigms in recent study of world history and literature in general, which put to question some of the methodological groundings Průšek had once taken for granted. However, the very fact that nowadays the idea of possible Chinese modernity before westernization does not seem daring any more, proves to Průšek’s scholarly intuition.

The scholars, who gathered in Prague to honour Jaroslav Průšek by discussing some of the issues he himself was interested in during his lifetime, could build their argument on the results of decades of researches into the tradition and transformation of Chinese society and Chinese literature from late Ming through the 20th century. Despite such an accumulation of knowledge, they were in a more difficult position than Průšek was when writing his articles on early Chinese modernity, as the very idea of modernity has become a much disputed and fuzzy issue in scholarship far beyond sinology. The scholars present in Prague held different views on their understanding of this key term; however during the discussions it was clear that they could share the basic concepts of Western modernity as perceived by Průšek as their point of reference, even if for no other purpose than to uncover its relativity and insufficiency. Some of these scholars have in the recent past taken part in a larger multidisciplinary project on the cultural and literary transformation between late Ming and early Republican China, where they elaborated on similar issues in greater detail and have already published some results of their work (see Wang and Shang 2005).

The participants of the conference confronted three relevant areas of interest: I. Late Ming and Qing literati culture, including city life in South China, II. Western import and Chinese appropriation of knowledge, scientific thought, religion and concepts of literature, and III. a new look at modern Chinese literature going beyond the canonical view of the May Fourth. Unlike Průšek who in his pioneering articles concentrated on the intrinsic aspects of literature, the participants to the conference took a variety of ways how to address the question of Chinese-born modernity, ranging from city history and history of sensibilities, study of material culture, gender and feminist studies, history of science and of religion, as well as comparative literature studies and narrative theory. Interest in various aspects of society prevailed, even in cases when literary writings were used as a primary source and as the main focus of the research.

Seventeen essays included in this volume can tackle only a limited scope of questions opened by Průšek’s early remarks on the domestic roots of Chinese modernity. [1] The introductory essay by Leonard Chan examines in some detail Průšek’s own ideas about modern literature in China. The remaining essays introduce the explorations into different aspects of Chinese culture and literature across the three centuries between Ming and early Republican period. They are arranged both chronologically and topically.

Chronologically speaking, there are in this volume in the first part (The Literati City) two explorations into the city life representations of the Ming-Qing literati devoted to Nanjing (Li Hsiao-t’i) and Hangzhou (Hu Hsiao-chen) based both on literary and historical sources. These sources reveal an array of attitudes, values and lifestyles which if examined against the idea of literati born modernity in pre-modern China suggest various answers, and also pose some new questions not envisioned by Průšek in his time. While the vivid account of the literati life with its refinement, consumerism and pleasure seeking, as well as the awareness of crisis and political decay seem to corroborate Průšek’s hypothesis of the early roots of modernity in late Ming, both authors also demonstrate the traditionalist dimension of the literati culture, as well as the ruptures occurring with the fall of Ming and preventing a simple progression of earlier trends.

A different, and arguably in the future, the most productive perspective on the possible rise of modernity within the traditional literati milieu is taken by Dorothy Ko. She introduces Gu Erniang, a famous early 18th century female ink-stone carver from Suzhou, asking questions about her position in the traditionally male-dominated trade and also reception of art created by female hands among the male literati connoisseurs. Relating her investigation to concepts of “vernacular science” from recent Western critical re-examination of the history of science and progress in Europe, Dorothy Ko formulates yet another perspective on the modernity of the literati culture, as compared to the studies of city life in the Ming-Qing period by Li Hsiao-t’i and Hu Siao-chen. Her research resonates with Průšek’s idea of the domestic roots of modernity in China, yet it goes in a different direction of the pluralistic approach to the very idea of modernity, bringing to our attention the possibility of seeking alternate pathways to modernity globally.

Dorothy Ko’s look at modernity as a pluralistic concept is complementary to Catherine Jami’s discussion of the introduction of Western science to China and the Kangxi emperor’s interest in Western learning, which introduces the second part of this volume (Changing Conceptions). Using both French Jesuit sources and Qing dynasty official sources and following up her earlier research on the topic, Jami demonstrates the political and power-seeking motifs behind the introduction of Western science to the Kangxi Emperor. In conclusion she discusses the problem of “modernity” and its relationship to “science” in general terms, thus opening a new perspective on some of Průšek’s ideas (as well as on Joseph Needham’s diffusionist model), a perspective informed by recent trends in the history of science both in China and in the West.

Keith McMahon explores late Qing narratives of love from the point of view of the dominant models of manhood and womanhood as defined by polygamy (including prostitution). He mentions the first counter-narratives to the dominant polygamous sexuality expressed in the idea of qing and egalitarian love known from some Ming-Qing belles-lettres (Mudan ting, Honglou meng), yet as he proves the 19th century novels show reaffirmation of the more traditionalistic approach. McMahon comes to the conclusion that domestic conservative ideas were solidified during China’s confrontations with the West in the 19th century, rather than developing earlier trends and thus suggesting the possibility of convergence with the western development towards modernity.

Here McMahon touches upon yet another aspect of the relationship between the modernity imported from the West and indigenous traditions. This aspect is complementary to Průšek’s idea of the unavoidable interrelations between the culture imported from the West and the earlier indigenous tradition, though opposite to Průšek’s belief in the progress of history. McMahon reminds us of the fact that the pre-modern models naturally create a matrix, in which later the relationships between genders based on imported Western models may be reshaped and in fact distorted.

Similar scepticism towards the idea of the linear development towards modernity within the Qing literati culture can be seen from Halvor Eifring’s exploration into the reception of Honglou meng in the 19th century, as reflected in the five sequels to this novel printed between 1796 and 1805. Through the comparison of the complexity of Cao Xueqin’s Honglou meng, which to Jaroslav Průšek seemed so close to modern sensibilities, with later trivial and much more traditionalist readings of the novel reminds us that the development since late Ming towards modern sensibility was not as cumulative and directed towards 20th century modernism, as Průšek’s former hypothesis might have suggested.

Catherin Jami’s essay is the first one in this volume to tackle systematically the complex issue of cultural contacts and appropriations between China and the West. This issue becomes crucial also to other contributions in the volume, namely those examining the import of new concepts and notions and their transformations in the new cultural context. Among these, Chen Hsi-yuan selected "religion" as a concept alien to pre-twentieth century China (despite its own rich religious tradition). Examining late Qing official discourse on the topic, including the concept oijiao, Confucianism and its relation to other domestic "teachings" as well as Christianity as a Western jiao, Chen Hsi-yuan touches upon the complexity of cultural exchange carried out through misconceptions, adaptations and also self-protection of indigenous traditions against the pressure of the Western powers. It is clear from this presentation how the issue of politics and power struggle becomes prominent in late Qing Chinese discourse about religion, as was the case in the discourse about science at Kangxi’s court as described by Jami. Chen Hsi-yuan also reminds us that in research on such topics it is important to be aware how certain questions, that someone might consider purely from the academic point of view, have become for the Chinese of crucial importance for worldly considerations, and how these considerations may substantially shape also the discourse on the topic of modernity and intercultural communication.

Chen Pingyuan and Natasha Gentz in their studies critically reappraise some of the basic notions and ideas related to literature and imported to China in the early 20th century. Chen Pingyuan concentrates on the notion of wenxue, or “literature” in general, exploring how it was defined in the writings of the late Qing scholar and educator Huang Ren, author of the first History of Chinese literature written in the Chinese language and also author of an encyclopedia introducing Western learning to Chinese audiences. This informative and exhaustive treatment of the topic presents Huang Ren’s efforts within the context of contemporary reforms of education and changes of the paradigm of knowledge. Huang Ren’s example also testifies to the fluidity of imported concepts and the complicated issue of their relationship to the earlier domestic concepts.

Natasha Gentz focuses on the concept of tragedy, traces of which Průšek found in the Ming-Qing literati writings, while the majority of early modern Chinese critics have denied its presence in the Chinese tradition. She explores the complex process in which the originally Western notion was first adapted to the needs of the reform of traditional theatre in Japan, before it traveled to China and underwent further transformations. Her complex view of the appropriation of this concept, believed by some to embody the disparity between Chinese and Western traditions, clarifies a different perception of the idea of tragedy in Western and early modern Chinese literary thought. It also presents a valuable contribution to the more general discussion of the possibility and limits of the importation of alien concepts from different cultural traditions.

This part of the publication is concluded with an account of the tragic fate of one late Qing dynasty woman with modern aspirations who though living in still a largely traditional society, was inspired by Western feminism. Xia Xiaohong collected rare biographical data about Wu Mengban (1883–1902) and presented her thoughts on social reform, thus providing a vivid example of the changing view of love and life within the literati class on the verge of the zeal for modernization. If we position Xia Xiaohong’s more or less anecdotal evidence within the framework of Průšek’s thinking about indigenous modernity, we have to conclude, similarly as Halvor Eifring and Keith McMahon do in their essays, that during the 19th century conservatism and traditionalism seem to solidify and overshadow any previous domestic sprouts of modernity which might have suggested the possibility of parallel developments toward modernity in China and in the West.

The third group of essays critically re-examine the canonical idea of the "new literature" from various angles. Michel Hockx, with references to Průšek’s contribution to the field of modern Chinese literature studies, presents a radical position on the very idea of May Fourth as a key period term in the history of modern Chinese literature. His critical approach to the narrowly defined concept of the May Fourth is in various degrees echoed also in other papers included in this part of the volume.

Kang-i Sun Chang, in an elegant manner without much polemics, yet in the most persuasive way, introduces the so-far understudied literati tradition of the first half of the 20th century, later overshadowed by the narrative of the May Fourth. She presents Jin Tianhe, a poet living in Suzhou and writing in traditional styles during the period of ardent modernization according to Western models. By discussing his art and innovation within the sophisticated literary tradition she demonstrates how in the early 20th century the tradition was still vital. Thus she indirectly, and from different perspective, corroborates both Průšek’s idea of indigenous modernity in China, as well as Hockxs’ rejection of the cliche of purely Western imported modernity, giving concrete examples of the plurality in Chinese literature of the early Republican period.

Rui Magone addresses the issue of the continued traditions from the opposite perspective and in a much more polemical manner. He concentrates on the rupture with tradition created by the “literary revolution”. Contrasting the exalted rhetoric of some of its leading figures directed against the supposedly corrupt and backward examination system, with the historical facts drawn from primary sources, he discloses the ideological, primarily social-reform motivated animosity directed against tradition in the May Fourth literary criticism. At the same time in more general terms he brings forward the importance of continuity for any literary innovation and exemplifies this from comparative perspective using the writings by Franz Kafka on one side and Lu Xun on the other. His reading of Kong Yiji via baguwen and traditional textbooks shows a so-far little explored, yet most fruitful, way to re-read Lu Xun and appreciate his innovation and artistic achievement.

The last three essays bring us to "new literature" itself. Wang Hui, in the tradition of the best of Chinese scholarship, brings forward an innovative interpretation of Lu Xun’s worldview straddling between tradition and modernity, as projected into the ghostly visions in his writings.

Marian Galik continues in his life-long interest – East-West comparative explorations, and collects evidence on “decadent” features in Chinese literature of the 1920s and 1930s. He presents plenty of data in order to show dimensions of modern Chinese literature so far not much studied, thus preparing the field for future considerations of the definitions of decadence, its presence in pre-modern Chinese literature and its relation to modernity both in China and in general.

The volume concludes with an examination of perhaps the most traditional of all the genres in modern Chinese literature – the lyrical essay. Through minute analysis of the narrative techniques employed by two different authors – Feng Zikai and Lu Li – Dušan Andrš follows in the tradition of Průšek’s explorations into literary aspects and individual styles. At the same time he addresses the complex issues of interplays between subjectivity and the objective depiction of reality, between authenticity and fictionality as well as the search for individual voice as parts of the search for modernity in the first half of 20th century China.

Despite the original idea of primarily discussing the possibility of domestic roots of modernism and modernity in China, the conference could not escape the other approach Průšek once held regarding the May Fourth orthodoxy as a Western oriented radical departure from tradition. The authors of individual papers took different perspectives, both as far as the topics of their research and methodological assumptions are concerned, on the issues of indigenous modernity in Chinese society and literature, and its opposite as well as counterpart – the Western impact. The partial answers offered by these essays are complementary in the sense that they show a much more complex and also much less clear picture of the continuity of tradition on the Chinese paths toward modernity than the one we could derive from Průšek’s writings from decades ago. Much still has to be done if we ever want to arrive at a new paradigm of the rise of modernity in China. Hopefully the confrontation of facts, ideas, perspectives and approaches collected in this volume will inspire the readers to further explore some of the issues which once disturbed Jaroslav Průšek, joining in a dialogue, perhaps even a dispute, with him across time and cultures. Through such a dialogue we not only honor a scholar of the past, but also open up our minds to a better understanding of our own position in the sinological discourse constantly created and recreated.

[1] Not all papers included in the volume were presented at the conference – and not all papers presented there are included in this volume. Michel Hockx, though he was among the first participants to send his paper to the organizers, unfortunately could not come to Prague in the end. On the other hand Milena Dolezelova, David Wang, Wolfgang Behr and Alex des Forges withdraw their papers from publication when this volume was being prepared. For the complete list of presentations during the conference see the Appendix.

Works cited

Dolezelova, Milena (ed.) (2006). Jaroslav Průšek Remembered by Students and Friends. Prague: DharmaGaia.
Goldman, Merle (ed.) (1977). Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press.
Průšek, Jaroslav (1970). Studies in Chinese History and Literature. Prague: Academia.
Průšek, Jaroslav (1980). The Lyrical and the Epic: Studies in Modern Chinese Literature, ed. by Leo Ou-fan Lee. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Průšek, Jaroslav (2002). My Sister China. Trans, by Ivan Vomacka, edited by Olga Lomová. Prague: The Karolinum Press.
Vachek, Josef (1999). Prolegomena k dějinám pražské školy jazykovědné. Jino-čany: H&H.
Wang, David Der-wei and Shang Wei (eds.) (2005). Dynastic Crisis and Cultural Innovation: From the Late Ming to the Late Qing and Beyond. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press.
Olga Lomová (Univerzita Karlova)