A Humble Scholar

By Joseph S. M. Lau 紹銘

Translated by Austin Woerner

C.T. Hsia
C. T. Hsia (center) at dinner with Joseph Lau and his wife, Yu-Shan Lau (on left), and Howard Goldblatt (on right), 1991. Photo courtesy of Howard Goldblatt.


On December 29 in New York City, C. T. Hsia passed away at the age of ninety-two. Hsia was a prolific writer well known in both China and the West, and an obituary of him would not be complete without thorough treatment of his work. Yet Hsia was a colorful character who led a colorful life, and in adding a personal angle to the discussion I am blessedly free of the trouble of not knowing where to begin.

In the early 1960s I oversaw the translation of Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction into Chinese, and afterwards I kept up a regular correspondence with Hsia, sometimes on work-related matters, sometimes just keeping in touch. Over the years I wrote a number of articles about his work embellished with personal details, and now that he has left us, it feels fitting to elucidate Hsia’s views of literature while drawing on my own knowledge of the man.

A History of Modern Chinese Fiction first appeared in 1961, published by Yale University Press. Had the Chinese edition not made its way to Taiwan and Hong Kong and become known throughout the sinophone world, Eileen Chang 張愛玲 might never have attained her present fame. Likewise, Sheng Congwen 沈從文 and Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書—to whose literary achievements Hsia devoted several chapters of the book—owe their late-in-life resurgence to Hsia’s stamp of approval.

Eileen Chang made her authorial debut in Shanghai in the 1930s and ’40s, but at first her works were labeled as romances in the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies style, a popular genre of pastime fiction with no serious value. At the time the only critic to recognize Chang’s worth was the renowned translator Fu Lei 傅雷; in an essay titled “On Eileen Chang’s Fiction” that he wrote under the pseudonym Xun Yu 迅雨, he praised her short story “The Golden Cangue” (“Jin suo ji” 金鎖記) as “one of our most exquisite literary fruits.” The characters in the story, Fu wrote, “speak with their gestures, and gesture with their speech, and even when there is no speech or motion at all, the waves of feeling do not abate.”

Fu Lei’s regard for Chang was based entirely on the artistry of her works, and was not colored by ideological considerations. As a Shanghai native, Hsia surely knew about Chang’s marriage to Hu Lancheng 胡蘭成 during the Japanese puppet regime. Should Chang be considered a traitor because of this? Hsia was silent on the subject, focusing instead on the extraordinary achievement of her works, and began his discussion of Chang by declaring, in the unmistakable tone of F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition, that she is “the best and most important writer in Chinese today.”

Some saw Hsia’s judgment as arbitrary, and his viewpoint sparked a heated controversy that continues to this day. Of course, Hsia was just one voice among many, and we are all free to embrace or reject his opinions as we see fit. When the Chinese edition of A History of Modern Chinese Fiction came out in 1979, Hsia prefaced it with a long introduction underscoring his own faith in the importance of the work of the literary critic and literary historian, which is, as he put it, “the discovery and appraisal of excellence, an aim to which I remain unswervingly devoted.”

Hsia spent the greater part of his career as a professor of Chinese, but he was initially educated as a scholar of Western literature. After graduating from the English department of the University of Shanghai, he taught English at Peking University, then received a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Yale, where he completed a PhD in literature. In those days, graduate students in the humanities at American universities were expected to pass exams in several foreign languages, and Hsia chose Latin and German as two of his. Thanks to his natural gifts and to his years of diligent, self-directed study, which gave him a firm grounding in languages and literary history, Hsia breezed through his studies at Yale, completing his doctorate in only three-and-a-half years.

It is easy to see why a Chinese scholar so thoroughly versed in the Western tradition would, when compelled by his profession to reexamine his own country’s literary legacy, notice many ways in which it was lacking. When Hsia began rereading modern Chinese novels in 1952, he found the fiction that came out of the May Fourth Era to be, for the most part, blunt and unsophisticated. Not only were the novelists’ techniques childish, their scrutiny of human affairs lacked depth, offering no deeper insights into the human psyche. Hsia believed the superficiality of modern Chinese fiction could be traced to a lack of interest in, and a lack of recognition of, the notion of original sin, or any other religious explanation for the problem of evil.

For Hsia, Tang and Song poetry also rang hollow at times. He held that traditional Chinese literature in general suffered from an absence of the kind of religious values that would compel an author to face the problems of human life head-on. Chinese religions, Hsia believed, had nothing to offer except superstition, escapism, or a serene Wang Wei-esque self-indulgence. Hsia wrote that both classical Chinese prose and poetry “are attractive for their stylistic beauty, but do not probe deeper into the basic human questions. Even among the three great Tang poets, Li Bai 李白 has no religious feeling, no concern for the human race, preferring to indulge in ecstatic flights of fancy, while Wang Wei’s 王維 Zen poems exalt the same blithe pursuit of pleasure and suffer from a lack of ambition. Only Du Fu 杜甫 truly wins my heart; his poetry reaches past simple loyalty or patriotism to a true, Confucian humanism.”

Hsia’s public role was as a professor of Chinese literature, but in secret he was a Western literature buff. Pursuing such a hobby in private was no grounds for criticism, as long as Hsia did not expound upon the failings of Chinese literature in scholarly journals. But this is precisely what Hsia did in his 1990 essay “Classical Chinese Literature: Its Reception Today as a Product of Traditional Culture,” which caused some to view him as a turncoat. In theory, Hsia, as a Columbia professor of Chinese, ought to have encouraged students to study Chinese literature. Yet instead he pointed advice-seekers in the direction of the glories of ancient Greece—Hsia wrote that he would “not hesitate to advise any college youth to major in Greek”—or urged them to study the powerful masterworks of nineteenth century Russia. It is no wonder that Chinese scholars of a more nationalistic bent saw his opinions as heretical.

In 1968 Columbia University Press published Hsia’s second monograph, The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. Each of the book’s six chapters treats a different work—Legend of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義), The Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳), Journey to the West (Xiyou ji 西遊記), The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jinping mei 金瓶梅), The Scholars (Rulin waishi 儒林外史), and Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng 红楼梦)—a not-unconventional choice of novels. Of these six books, Hsia most admired Dream of the Red Chamber. But during the following decades, as Hsia’s understanding of Chinese traditional culture and society deepened, his opinion of the novel gradually changed. In brief, Hsia grew to be disappointed with the ending, when Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉 decides to become a monk as a gesture of transcendence. Needless to say, Hsia’s opinion was more or less marked by the influence of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov.

Hsia described the creative pursuits of Chinese literati as “docile imagination,” and regarded the Buddhist mantra that “substance is emptiness, emptiness substance” as a tedious old saw. Baoyu’s decision to become a monk wasn’t an intellectual choice; he was just following in others’ footsteps. In Hsia’s eyes, Dream of the Red Chamber paled in comparison to The Brothers Karamazov when it came to plumbing the depths of the human soul. Thus, in his dedication to the discovery and appraisal of excellence, Hsia opened himself up to accusations of being unpatriotic.

In the vehemence of his opinions, Hsia sometimes surpassed Lu Xun 魯迅, a writer for whom he had little regard. Asked by Beijing Daily News in 1925 to outline a “required reading list for young people,” Lu Xun wrote with typical severity: “Reading Chinese literature puts me in a quiet state of mind; much of it has little bearing on real life. But the literature of foreign countries, with the exception of India, grapples directly with reality, and reading it makes me want to get up and do something . . . Better to consume fewer Chinese books—or none at all—and more foreign literature. Reading fewer Chinese books will have no negative impact upon the reader, except upon those who wish to write. But what today’s youth need is action, not words. When one’s life is at stake, it matters little whether one can produce essays.”

It would break the heart of any Chinese literature apologist to read “Only Chinese People Talk About Chinese Literature,” a 2007 interview with Hsia in Southern Weekly. “When Westerners read a little bit of Chinese literature, they find it fascinating,” Hsia said. “But those who read a lot of it, tire of it quickly. Many people read Arthur Waley’s and Ezra Pound’s translations of classical poetry and said, ‘This is great!’ Now we have more translations, and it doesn’t seem so great. The same thing goes for fiction—everybody loved Journey to the West when Waley translated just a bit of it, but now that we have the whole thing, it’s boring. Chinese people aren’t deterred by its length, but Westerners are, and all the names look the same to them, so they put down the book. That’s why Chinese literature isn’t going to get big. For years people have been hoping that Chinese literature will reach the world, but it turns out the world’s already gotten all they can get out of it. Everybody reads Madame Bovary, but it doesn’t matter whether you’ve read Dream of the Red Chamber. China hasn’t produced a single book that everyone has to read.”

The historian Tong Tekong 唐德剛, a good friend of Hsia’s and a Dream of the Red Chamber connoisseur, was outraged by Hsia’s pronouncements, declaring them “traitorous.” In response he wrote an article titled “Abandoning the Red Chamber: A Reply to C. T. Hsia’s ‘Big-Character Poster,’” published in Taiwan’s China Times. Its eighteen subheadings included “Stop This Insanity,” “Fetishizing Western Culture Does a Disservice to Chinese Authors,” and “Self-Hatred and Foreign Idolatry.”

This spat between two respected academics about the value of Dream of the Red Chamber was over before it began; it was impossible for either of them to win. Tong, who was educated in the United States and wrote in English, was naturally more familiar with classic Western works of history than with Western literature. He might have perused Western novels in his spare time, but for him it was an idle pursuit, in contrast with Hsia, who read them with great diligence and seriousness. The two simply weren’t playing the same ball game. A man of Tong’s passionate, book-loving generation must be forgiven for clutching tight to the belief that Dream of the Red Chamber was food for the soul. What right had that scoundrel Hsia to trample all over his lifelong love?

I titled this essay “a humble scholar” because I was at a loss for a title that could better encapsulate the subject matter. When I visited Hsia in New York in the early ’60s, he took me to his apartment in Columbia staff housing to sit and chat. On later visits he received me in his home, which was only barely bigger than the original quarters in which I met him. Hsia was a teacher by trade, occasionally supplementing his income by writing articles for newspapers and magazines; he was not a man of great means. To call him a “humble scholar” does him justice, I think.

Joseph S. M. Lau was for many years the Chair Professor of Translation at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. A graduate of National Taiwan University, he received his postgraduate education in the United States and also taught at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Hawaii, and the National University of Singapore. Known for his translations and humorous essays, he is coeditor of the Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature and many other anthologies.

From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1

Current Issue
March 2011 Issue

Table of Contents



  • 6 Ring Flower, by Ge Fei
  • 12 Time in Imagery, by Ge Fei
  • 16 The Psychic Split in Chinese Contemporary Literature: Ge Fei and Zhang Ning in Dialogue, by Zhang Ning
  • 24 Song of Liangzhou, by Ge Fei
  • 29 The Myriad Things Retain Their Mystery for Me, by Jing Wendong

SECTION TWO: Selected Works

  • 32 Reminiscing about My Childhood, by Yang Jiang
  • 36 Five Poems, by Yang Jian

Chinese Literature

  • 39 Whether to Write Classical or Modern Poems: A Speech Given at the Gulangyu, Xiamen Poetry Festival, by Lü Yue
  • 44 Writers’ Exchange, by Sun Yu and Zhang Ning

SECTION FOUR: 2013 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature: Yang Mu (Guest Editor: Michelle Yeh)

  • 48 Introduction to the Newman Prize
  • 50 The Newman Prize for Chinese Literature: Nomination Statement for Yang Mu, by Michelle Yeh
  • 54 The Wellsprings of Poetry in Taiwan, by Yang Mu
  • 56 “Imagine a Symbol in a Dream”: Translating Yang Mu, by Andrea Lingenfelter
  • 64 “Language Is Our Religion”: An Interview with Yang Mu, by Zhai Yueqin
  • 69 Selected Poems, by Yang Mu

SECTION FIVE: Special Feature on Chinese Minority Poetry (Guest Editor: Mark Bende)

SECTION SIX: Special Memorial Feature
for C. T. Hsia


  • 3 Editor’s Note
  • 4 Contributors
  • 128 Chinese Literature in Review
  • 156 Pacific Bridge

ON THE COVER Xiao Wu Ji (detail), by
Chen Fei, 2012


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