Introduction: Writerly Self-Knowledge, or When Authors Confess

By Alexa Huang

Book reviews put books on our radar screen. Through judicious summaries and reviews of new fictions and scholarly studies, we gain insight into a vast field of knowledge to which we may otherwise be denied access due to all kinds of limitations, including our linguistic repertoire, the limited time we have in our life, channels of distribution, and even censorship. Over the past three years, Chinese Literature Today has introduced numerous translated works of Chinese literature and scholarly books in both English and Chinese to English readers through book reviews.

However, the writing of book reviews is often a thankless task in an underappreciated genre. Readers may appreciate a sneak peek into an exciting new book, but more often than not the only person who would read the review closely and cross check its references with the book in question is the book’s author. The author does not usually have any opportunity to elaborate on his or her writing process. When an author is invited to talk about the new book in interviews, the focus is usually on the ideas of the book rather than the process of writing it.

CLT is pleased to launch a new feature in this issue that will enhance the book review section and heighten our appreciation and understanding of the works that appear within these covers. What does it entail to become an author in the fullest sense of the word? How does an author construct a study of literature or build worlds in which imagination flies? These are the questions we shall examine. We will invite authors to reflect upon their own writing processes: how they found inspiration, why and how they revised what they wrote, what the book means to them.

It is a privilege to know how others know themselves, because self-knowledge is an integral part of one’s worldview and ability to understand others. While book reviews are common in journals and other outlets, they rarely give readers access to the authors’ writing processes. In contrast to imaginative literature, the audio-visual medium of film and the increasingly popular new technologies for viewing it have provided—for better or for worse—far more editorialized behind the scenes access to directorial, dramaturgical, and performative decisions and processes. Though popular with viewers, these heavily editorialized “special features,” commentary, or footage that accompany feature films or press interviews with authors can sometimes guide the author and audience along a pre-determined trajectory. This new section of CLT stands in stark contrast to such tactics, inviting authors to examine their own writing processes and promoting candid reflections on the unique challenges and rewards of writing.

In this issue, I have invited Sabina Knight to discuss the extraordinary story behind her new book, Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction. She takes us through what motivated her in the first place, how she proposed the project to Oxford University Press, who her imagined readers are, and the big questions she and her book posed and the answers she found along the way. Enjoy!—Alexa Huang


Writing Chinese Literary History: A Tweet for Sore Eyes

By Sabina Knight

Chinese Iterature: A Very Short Introduction

We write literary history for high stakes. Our methods may influence evolving understandings of our subject: what counts as “literature,” who owns it, how it functions, and how it may—or may not—pass on to new audiences. Because concerns about attracting new constituencies dovetail with fears about the survival of literature as a discipline and about the future of the humanities in higher education, I’ve been contemplating the conundrum of writing for diverse readerships. Through a little case study—my tiny trade book just published last year—I’ll thus address questions about literary boundaries, including historical and national boundaries, and about interpretive frameworks.

The desire to have an audience motivated me to write a short trade book on Chinese literature (from antiquity to the present) for a prominent series. Although I feared that doing so would require uncomfortable intellectual compromises, a trade book offered the prospect of reaching a large number of readers who might go on to read more. For the VSI series, as Oxford University Press calls its Very Short Introductions Series, has sold over five million copies. Available in university and general bookstores, the series is aimed at a general lay audience, including scholars in other fields but also undergraduates.

When I proposed Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford’s series, I tackled head-on the challenges of writing literary history. The series has a strict limit of 35,000 words per volume. Could I circumscribe Chinese literature in 35,000 words? Somehow. Could I do so without reinforcing essentializing binaries, or Sinocentric or Eurocentric perspectives? Maybe. Yet, worried as I was about the biases of Western frameworks, might I need to balance their faults against their helpfulness for drawing in readers? How could I do justice to so many historical developments, aesthetic genealogies, and thematic trajectories? And what of the many subcultures that have contributed to Chinese literatures, both within and beyond China’s shifting geographic boundaries? Colleagues might welcome an economical text, or lambast my attempt to encompass a vast tradition in a tiny tweet.

An anonymous reviewer confirmed my worst fears in responding to a draft of the full manuscript, saying:

There is no real equivalent to this work, which probably speaks to the impossibility of such a project; imagine if you will an Oxford introduction to literature of the West that covers everything from Aeschylus to Abelard to Jonathan Franzen in a scant few thousand words, except of course that in bulk much more was written in Chinese before the nineteenth century than in all Western languages added together.

I quote this reviewer to concede that my project required braving the impossible. It required me to fall short in countless ways. Yet the book turned out to be an unexpected labor of love, and, for all its inadequacies, it may play a small role in raising Chinese literature out of the ghetto of relative obscurity among Western readers.


A Field of Readerships

In writing my first monograph, The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (of which Harvard printed around 700 copies), I worried less about writing for an audience beyond literary scholars.[1] But a $10 trade book with a first print run of 5,000 copies has to be readable to that number, and marketable. My primary responsibility was to attract an audience, and my editor admonished me to keep the book readable as I responded to the reviewers’ concerns.
Yet even if I gave up pleasing specialists, I wanted to avoid offending them. Thus rather than aim my text entirely at a novice reader or at some imagined mid-brow reader, I wrote the book for four different readerships at once: undergraduates, educated lay readers, scholars in other fields, and specialists.

Keeping these four readers in mind required a layering of explanations, caveats, reflexivity, and comparative and interdisciplinary reflections. Cautioned by my decades studying critical theory, I hesitated before every word choice and analytic framework. Had I been writing a book aimed primarily at scholars, I might have foregrounded scholarly debates. Was it my responsibility to represent a canon, to consider competing canons, or to expand on existing canons? How might I show sensitivity to feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, and other critical perspectives without forcing Chinese literature into Eurocentric paradigms?

Yet such questions were unlikely to draw in a lay audience. Nor was the thoroughness my professional scruples might mandate. Nonetheless, despite the obvious folly of my efforts, for every chapter I laboriously drafted an encyclopedia-like airless tome before scrapping half of what I’d written in favor of close readings of fewer texts, larger themes, and a guiding storyline. I announced that story in the preface:

This book tells the story of Chinese literature, from antiquity to the present, in terms of the central role literary culture has played in supporting social and political concerns. Taking literary culture as a collective effort to navigate the flow of experience, the book approaches Chinese literature as a vast river of dynamic human passions, especially moral and sensual passions, and of aesthetic practices for cultivating and regulating those passions.[2]

The traditional river metaphor helped me forsake coverage in favor of dominant directions, as well as crosscurrents and undercurrents. The image of a river offered an object I knew I could never harness but a subjective vision of which I could share. That vision helped me maintain faith that a very short introduction could empower readers to enter and engage an important tradition’s conversations about big questions: “What does it mean to be human? How might benevolent people convey the Way, express feelings, tell stories, entertain and influence one another, and develop a humane society?”[3]

As I endeavored to navigate an existing social structure of distinct audiences, what Pierre Bourdieu calls the literary field, I came to appreciate the power of different actors within that field.[4] I couldn’t discount the authority of literary scholars, but neither could I sacrifice what a lay reader would apprehend as readability. Although lay readers might lack the critic’s cultural capital, they still wield economic power and cultural influence through consumption (not to mention their anonymous reviews on sites such as New respect for the importance of a lay audience catalyzed my reexamination of my own literary boundaries and interpretive frameworks.


Literary Boundaries

A book entitled Chinese Literature might seem to announce a clearly bounded subject—until one begins to fathom the diverse expectations my distinct readerships would bring. And in addition to what different readers would bring, I had to reconcile ways different cultural traditions have approached the subject, not only competing Western models, but evolving Chinese suppositions about literary boundaries, about what counts as Chinese, about what counts as literature, and about how to divide up a discussion thereof.

To begin, I had to decide what would constitute “literature” for my book. Since a more restricted concept of literature developed in China only in the late nineteenth century, I decided to honor traditional Chinese understandings of literature, history, and thought as parts of a whole. That whole was named wen 文, the peaceful counterpart to the military realm: wu 武. Although wenxue 文學, “the study of writing,” later become the Chinese term for literature, the term wen refers etymologically to a pattern. Closer to the idea of the liberal arts, wen was the root of the civil practice that would sustain a tension-ridden yet resilient civilization as it repeatedly broke down and reunited as a polity.

But how could I encompass history and philosophy as well as poetry, storytelling, drama, and the novel? How could I organize the material? What lens could help me navigate pragmatic decisions about how to apportion discussion of historical context? Rather than trace a straight chronology, I divided my discussion into five chapters. The first lays some foundations, largely philosophical, focusing on the power of writing (wen), its uses and purposes. After a second chapter on poetry and poetics, a third presents classical narrative, from early histories through jottings, records of the strange, and the rise of consciously crafted fiction (classical “tales of the marvelous”), all the way to the pinnacle of classical-language tales, Pu Songling’s 蒲松齡 (1640–1715) Strange Stories from a Leisure Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋志異, 1766).

These first three chapters covered the writings esteemed in early Chinese literary thought. In organizing them, I carefully considered the influential fourth-century Chinese division of texts into the four categories of classics, history, philosophy, and belles lettres. Yet as much as I wanted to look toward such Chinese conceptions of the literary field, I chose to combine that lens with a Western one. So chapter one put together classics and philosophy. Chapter two featured poetry and poetics from the belles lettres category, and chapter three used the concept of narrative to combine history and prose writings not concerning poetry. My fourth chapter addressed vernacular fiction and drama—literature that didn’t merit inclusion among the traditionally esteemed categories but which rose within the context of early modern material and social transformations (to which I’ll return shortly).

In my fifth chapter, I introduced literature as it was newly reconceived in the context of Sino-European contacts, from the Opium Wars (which began in 1839) to contemporary Chinese literature in diaspora. This chapter most obviously stretched the geographical and linguistic boundaries of Chinese literature, but the book also highlights earlier border crossings in China’s literary traditions, from the central place of Buddhist themes and forms to melodies from Central Asia. Despite my book’s title, I sought to avoid reinforcing what Sheldon Pollock calls “the naturalization of the nation state” so often implicit in literary histories.[5]

Some of my most perplexing decisions concerned the usefulness of historical periods, as well as where to draw their boundaries. How and when might a term such as “early modern” become helpful? Some historians see China’s Song dynasty (960–1279) as the world’s earliest “early modern” society. Without using the term “early modern” in reference to the Song, I did underscore the reasons one would: the growth of cities, a money economy, technological changes, the proliferation of specialized occupations, and the spread of literacy among a burgeoning middle class. This context was crucial for presenting the rise of a written vernacular in popular fiction, drama, and songs, even though most serious writings continued to use the elite literary language (and would until the twentieth century). Yet I reserved the loaded term “early modern” until describing the Ming dynasty, when “the literati’s status as a distinct class became more pronounced as accelerating economic growth led to a further separation of governmental, economic, and cultural spheres characteristic of early modern societies.”[6]


Frameworks of Interpretation

The different readerships for my book would not only hold varying preconceptions about what constitutes literature, but also bring disparate assumptions about how to interpret literature. In reading for the book, I grew more sensitive to ways distinct genres of literary history participate in processes of canonization and theorization that are indebted to previous models. I also felt more troubled about ways these models often reinforce the power of specific groups, political orientations, and conservative norms. Yet as I thought about how to introduce my most beloved texts to a lay audience, I became painfully aware of the extent to which reading requires frameworks of interpretation.

Should I articulate such frameworks in the book? Or might it be better to demonstrate them more implicitly through close reading? I opted to lead with close readings, the longest of which takes up four pages (including a box with a word-for-word rendering and my translation of an eight-line poem by Du Fu 杜甫 [712–770]). But I moved back and forth between close reading and efforts to offer glimpses of what Franco Moretti has called “distant reading.”[7] Moretti critiques literary scholars’ allegiance to close reading in favor of attending to larger processes and structures that shape literary production, the vast majority of which canons of masterworks tend to exclude.[8]

To the extent that I could place individual writers, movements, and the rise and fall of genres within a larger landscape of dynamic historical processes, I reasoned, I could also honor traditional Chinese literary theories that emphasize such processes. Yet because those theories often attributed to cultural developments a life of their own, I wanted to tell my story of Chinese literature as “a story of its service to specific interests.”[9]

In focusing on how literature functions, I sought to present Chinese literature as a set of social practices that, as John Treat explains of literature more generally, both actively synthesizes “the contradictions of lived reality,” and reproduces the social relations that produce such contradictions.[10] Although in a different register, I introduce such ideas early in the book:

More than merely a mirror of an already existing world or of ideal forms, literature was understood to be a tangible means by which the world comes to be. . . . so writing played a key role in passing on the natural and moral Way (Dao 道).[11]

Crafted writing thus promoted faith in an ordered and moral universe. The power of this ideal, later captured in the proverbial “Texts serve to convey the Way,” explains the central role accorded written texts and the scholars who commented on them.[12]

Yet as I sought to discern certain logics in the social practices that have produced Chinese literature, I also sought to convey a sense of alternatives. As a literary historian, could I resist conflating reportage, emplotment, and endorsement? Not surprisingly, my initial attempts to organize each chapter often presented the greatest obstacles to conveying the pluralism I sought. It took countless new starts to craft a framework for each chapter that would enable me to move back and forth between close and distant reading, as well as between Sinocentric and European perspectives. For example, after drafting a first chapter (on “Foundations”) that surveyed Chinese dynasties and philosophical schools, I jettisoned a singularly chronological approach. Instead I began with short sections that focused on “Conveying the Way,” on the literati, and on the classics. The final five sections mapped the major currents of Chinese literature as overlapping paths for approaching the Way: the Way of change, the Way of benevolence, the Way of learning, the Way of nature, and the Way of feeling.

For my second chapter on poetry and poetics, I drafted multiple outlines (mostly based on genres and themes) before giving up in despair and writing an opening inspired by an art historian colleague’s urging to include paintings with calligraphy.

In “Reed Bank and Fishing Boat” (“Lutan diaoting tu” 蘆灘釣艇圖), Wu Zhen’s 吳鎮 (1280-1354) poem occupies more space than the fisherman subject, albeit less than the bank of reeds that frames the water on which both float. As the calligraphy, the painting, and the poem’s meaning form an integrated whole, the hand scroll serves as a microcosm of the larger natural world and its inherent patterns.

Fading sunlight lingers on red leaves west of town.
First traces of moon reveal yellow reeds upon the shore.
Feathering his oar, to return once more,
He hangs up his pole, the fish for now ignored.

Reflecting on the play of light and shadow, the fisherman sees beyond his labor, and the reader may sense in the fisherman’s respite-taking a range of emotions, from serenity through acceptance, to unease and even brooding, and then maybe back again. For the fisherman could also symbolize the unemployed scholar, a particularly poignant theme among disenfranchised literati under the Mongols’ Yuan dynasty. Like the waves on the water or the reeds in the wind, this fluctuation of feeling catalyzes the work’s emotional power. Often called “silent poems,” paintings could convey feelings not easily put into words; calligraphy was thought to be a window on personality; and poems were charged with evoking nature’s manifold mysteries in all their emotional and historical resonance.[13]

Writing this opening helped me choose an unconventional organizing principle for the chapter. Rather than arrange the chapter chronologically, thematically, or in terms of great genres, writers, or schools, I chose eight of the many Chinese poetic modes: the solid world, transcendence, decorous and elegant, melancholy and regret, separation and rusticity, drifting above it all, moved by the times, and heroic abandon.

In my fifth chapter, which focused on modern literature, I found that integrating indispensable political history proved particularly challenging. But I settled on a five-part structure in terms of five pursuits—three traditionally Chinese and two imported from the West (pursuing the nation, humanity, progress, memory, and pleasure)—and then wove the history into my discussions. As with the other chapters, doing so involved some back and forth in terms of chronology, but it allowed a framework that might have resonance for readers. My attention to these five pursuits also recalls my opening concern with different and evolving readerships, and with how texts speak to and construct readerships. My fifth section on “the pursuit of pleasure,” for example, can be read in dialogue with recent essays by anthropologists. Several mention literary works in tracing the growing legitimization of pursuits of personal happiness in contemporary China.[14]

In closing, I’ll mention just three additional elements of literary histories that influence interpretive frameworks: quotations, translation, and the index. Quotations seemed indispensable to me. Despite my editor’s warnings about copyright issues, I wanted to let Chinese texts and critics speak for themselves. And because I’d have to obtain and pay for permission for any translations of poems, I retranslated most of the poems myself, as well as many of the prose quotations. In ways I didn’t foresee, translating these passages myself helped me pull away from the interpretive contexts in which I’d studied Chinese literature to discover new insights. Composing the index also brought some surprising revelations about my interpretive frameworks, and it served to highlight them. If I ever undertake such a project again in this hyper-linked, text- and image-searchable age, I would consider the importance of keywords and iconic images more as I go along.

I began this essay with some rather large questions and ended with some rather small answers. For if writing two books has led me to think hard about the theoretical underpinnings of literary history, the process has also humbled me into accepting the limitations of my own concrete decisions.

Smith College



1 Sabina Knight, The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Asia Center, Harvard Univ. Press, 2006).
2 Sabina Knight, Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), xvi.
3 Knight, Chinese Literature, xvii.
4 Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993).
5 Sheldon Pollock, “Introduction,” in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, ed. Sheldon Pollock (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2003), 11.
6 Knight, Chinese Literature, 75.
7 Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London: Verso, 2005), 1.
8 Ibid., 3–4.
9 Knight, Chinese Literature, xvi.
10 John Whittier Treat, “Modern, Japanese, Literary, History,” Association of Asian Studies Annual Conference, Toronto, March 16, 2012, unpublished conference paper, 7.
11 Knight, Chinese Literature, 4.
12 Ibid., 5.
13 Ibid., 25–26.
14 Arthur Kleinman et al. “Introduction: Remaking the Moral Person in a New China,” in Kleinman et al., Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person, What Anthropology and Psychiatry Tell Us about China Today (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2011), 15–16; Yunxiang Yan, “The Changing Moral Landscape,” in Kleinman et al., Deep China, 45-47; and Everett Yuehong Zhang, “China’s Sexual Revolution,” in Kleinman et al., Deep China, 143.

From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 3 No. 1 & 2

Current Issue
March 2011 Issue

Volume 3, No. 1&2

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Table of Contents




Chinese Poets Writing in English

  • 35 Qiu Xiaolong
  • 38 Yun Wang
  • 40 Wai-lim Yip

Non-Chinese Poets Writing in Chinese

  • 43 Jami Proctor-Xu
  • 45 Denis Mair
  • 48 Afaa Michael Weaver




  • 95 Small Town by Yu Jian



  • Editor's Note
  • Contributors
  • Chinese Literature in Review

ON THE COVER Chinatown Sunset, 2013, by Fong Qi Wei


  • Featured Essay
  • Introduction: Writerly Self-Knowledge, or When Authors Confess, by Alexa Huang
    Writing Chinese Literary History: A Tweet for Sore Eyes by Sabina Knight
  • Sheng Keyi, Northern Girls. Shelly Bryant, tr.
  • Petrus Liu, Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History
  • Ba Jin, Ward Four: A Novel of Wartime China. Haili Kong and Howard Goldblatt, tr.
  • Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature
  • Michael Gibbs Hill, Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture
  • Xi Chuan, A Bend in the Great River: Thoughts in Search of Poetic Possibility
  • Lai Hsiang-yin, Thereafter
  • Yu Jian, On the Long Journey. Tang Xiaodu, ed.
  • Shijiang Li, The Chinese Department
  • Gu Mingdong, Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism

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