Reading C. T. Hsia Reading Chinese Fiction
A Confession and an Appreciation

By Michael S. Duke

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
Hamlet, 1.2.187

It is a genuine honor to be invited to say a few words regarding Professor Hsia.1 Unlike most scholars who have written tributes to him, I never had the good fortune to be Professor Hsia’s student. The technical academic material I’ve been privileged to learn from him came from reading and knowing him and his works. My remarks on this occasion are decidedly personal.

The first time I read the first edition of Professor Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, published in 1961, was in Berkeley in 1965, the year after I and around eight hundred of my fellow students were arrested by Governor Edmond G. Brown, Sr., for sitting in at the administration building as part of the Free Speech Movement. At the age of twenty-four, a typically naive campus radical, pro-Marxist, pro-Fidel Castro, pro-Mao Zedong leftist with next to no literary background and no artistic taste who really believed that the purpose of all literature should be to écrasé l’infame, I was appalled at all of the terrible things “this guy Hsia” said about Lu Xun 魯迅, Mao Dun 茅盾, Communist fiction, and, the unkindest cut of all, Ding Ling 丁玲. The next year, I asked—or, rather, I confronted—one of my Chinese professors and asked him: Why? How? How could Hsia write such stuff? He more or less told me that Professor Hsia was under great pressure when he wrote the book and besides he had a certain temperament that had to come through. My professor did not directly defend Professor Hsia, and he probably thought I would not or could not understand anyway, especially not Professor Hsia’s celebrated defense of D. H. Lawrence’s profound maxim to the imaginative writer: “Lose no time with ideals; serve the Holy Ghost; never serve mankind.”

C. T. Hsia wrote:

In the searching light of this remark, the generally mediocre level of modern Chinese literature is surely due to its preoccupation with ideals, its distracting and overinsistent concern with mankind.

Most critics of this remark, including Jaroslav Průšek, quote this passage out of context, leaving off the rest of the paragraph and making Professor Hsia out to be insensitive to the historical background of modern Chinese fiction. This is a grave injustice, as can be seen if we finish the quotation.

In view of the cultural milieu of the modern Chinese writer, this was perhaps as it should be: until social justice, scientific and technological competence, and a measure of national strength were achieved, he had little choice but to serve his ideals . . .

It can be said categorically that, with two or three exceptions, no modern Chinese writer possessed enough compelling genius and imagination to carve his own path in defiance of the Zeitgeist; but the writers of talent and integrity, while espousing those ideals, also serve in their fashion, often reluctantly and in spite of themselves, the Holy Ghost. The work of these writers does not evince great imaginative power or technical brilliance; the intrusive presence of utilitarian ideals precludes the disinterested search for excellence; but it does have the quality of honesty, disturbing and illuminating enough in its depiction of the contemporary Chinese scene to deserve the attention of posterity.2

“The disinterested search for excellence”: masters of contemporary radical chic as well as serious professors of comparative literature, cultural criticism, and the human sciences would have a field day with that phrase, a phrase that dares to privilege one kind of narrative over another, that dares to foreground excellence, that dares to recuperate literature as something other than history or sociology or journalism. Any real writer, I think, would immediately understand and agree with the phrase, but it took me another ten years and several more readings of C. T.’s History before I understood it. It was, of course, a big help to learn Chinese and to come to know many other ethnic Chinese scholars in the field.

Meanwhile, Professor Hsia was never chic like a chameleon, fashionably protean, or engaged in stretching Chinese fiction to fit the procrustean bed of the latest literary-critical theory from Prague, Budapest, Berlin, or Paris. He went on simply remaining C. T. Hsia: better read in Chinese and Western fiction than any of his detractors (He once joked seriously that “Wo kan de buhao de shu bi tamen kan de suoyou de shu hai duo!” 的我看不好的書比他們看的所有的書還多 [“I’ve read more bad books than all of the books they have read put together!”]), and continuing to read and write books and articles that are fundamental for every serious student of Chinese fiction.

The next time I read a book by Professor Hsia was in 1970, after the most violent phase of the Cultural Revolution had run its course and you had to be purblind not to see that something was terribly wrong in Mao’s China (even Franz Schurman and Frederick Wakeman could see it). But the Vietnam War still raged, and Nixon and Kissinger and Cambodia kept us campus radicals busy. But I turned thirty that year and my deconstructive urge began to fail even as Derrida’s work was being translated into English and Chinese. Nevertheless, when I read The Classic Chinese Novel, despite being greatly, and perhaps unexpectedly, impressed with Professor Hsia’s feminist avant la lettre reading of Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin) and even more moved by his Freudian plus common sense interpretation of Honglou meng 紅樓夢 (Dream of the Red Chamber), a certain residual leftist sympathy caused me to balk at the blatantly anti- Communist part of his reading of Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin): in Hsia’s narrative, the band of haohan 好漢 (“merry men”), who we all were taught stole from the rich and gave to the poor, turned out to be nothing better than a gang of communist-mafia marauders who in fact pillaged and stole from the poor and gave to themselves, betrayed their fellows, and disemboweled pregnant women. A few years earlier, I had written an honors essay at Berkeley in which I compared Sung Jiang with Robin Hood, favorably for the most part but execrating his capitulationism, and praised Li Kui by comparing him favorably with Emiliano Zapata (Viva Zapata was a cult movie in Berkeley throughout the ’60s). It took me another half-dozen years to once again acknowledge the correctness and the wisdom of Professor Hsia’s vision of traditional Chinese fiction. It helped that Mao died and the CCP began also to acknowledge its “mistakes”: Deng Xiaoping once said that “Mao was seventy percent good, thirty percent bad,” which became a well-known admission that Mao’s policies included mistakes.

After spending two years in Taiwan, where Joseph S. M. Lau rescued me from oblivion, and after teaching classical Chinese poetry for the last time as a visiting professor in Madison, especially after daily intellectual debates with my wife, Josephine Chiu-Duke, I ceased to be a genuine radical; my understanding of what might really help the Chinese masses had changed greatly with the post-Mao revelations of things that C. T. Hsia had often said about the Chinese Communist Party. Thus, after writing my first piece on post-Mao fiction, “The Sense of Humanity in Bai Hua’s Bitter Love,” I sent it to Professor Hsia and asked him for his opinion. I had read an article by Joseph Lau about Professor Hsia’s generous willingness to help younger scholars. His response went far beyond my expectations. His letter of September 26, 1981, began, “Even though I don’t know you personally, I had read some of your reviews and your . . . translation of Lao She’s story before your letter arrived.” He went on to say that he had written a “glowing review” endorsing my project (what became Blooming and Contending, though I did not receive a grant at the time). The letter concluded in what I later came to appreciate as typical Hsia style: “Though we haven’t yet met, I feel drawn to you as a like-minded scholar . . . Best wishes for your continuing success as a scholar concerned with humane values.”

I sought his help again in November, and Professor Hsia wrote back on December 20, that after writing “some 80 Xmas cards in the last 2 days,” he had written “a strong reference” supporting a job application in classical poetry. He wrote: “I have not had time to read thru yr Lu You book, but had no reservations what[e]ver in writing a strong ref. for you.” I didn’t get the job, though.

I received one more letter from Professor Hsia before we met. On March 20, 1982, he reported that he had written several more letters on my behalf; this time the letters went to his students who had now become professors, he wrote, and “they may listen to me and give you the job.” They didn’t. By this time anyone less than Professor Hsia might be beginning to regard Michael Duke as a fu-buqi de Ah Dou 扶不起的阿斗 (“An unhelpable Ah Dou [the incompetent son of a Three Kingdoms emperor]”), but he remained steadfast in his support; he even looked forward to meeting me. He had to be curious, and he wrote: “After praising you in so many letters, it will be a great pleasure finally seeing you in person at the St. John’s Conference.”

It certainly was a great pleasure for Josephine and me to finally meet the well loved and much maligned Professor C. T. Hsia in person. I remember it as though it were yesterday. We were talking quietly to someone in the middle of the meeting hall, when there was a big rush of wind and a great commotion to our right in the doorway: Professor Hsia was working the room as only he could, laughing and shouting, shaking hands, slapping the men’s backs, and bear-hugging the women. Josephine nudged me in the ribs, “Xia Zhiqing lai le” 夏志清來了 (“Here comes Xia Zhiqing”), she whispered, “Ni yinggai qu xiexie ta” 你應該去謝謝他 (“You should go over and thank him”). Actually, I was already leaning in that direction, but I didn’t know what I would say, what it would be like to meet someone I had misunderstood and maligned so much in an earlier incarnation, but had now come to respect and admire as nonpareil in the field of Chinese fiction studies. I’m still not very good with authority figures, but he made it all too easy. He saw me coming toward him, and as soon as I said my name, he grabbed my outstretched hand with one firm grip and put his other arm around my shoulder like we were long-lost brothers, and he said to everyone and no one at the same time: “Michael Duke, budeliao 不得了 (“fantastic”), Michael Duke, zheige ren zhenshi budeliao 這個人真是不得了 (“This guy is amazing”)!” His enthusiasm for Josephine and me was overwhelming; I’ve never really been budeliao, but I’ve never again been made to feel so budeliao as Professor Hsia did then. And he continued to greet Josephine and me with the same infectious warmth and enthusiasm throughout the next thirty-four years of our friendship.

During those years, we came to appreciate the erudition, the intelligence, the wit, the humanity, and the great, though sometimes not so visible, seriousness of Professor Hsia, both as a scholar and a man. Whether in a conference hall in a German castle or on a twilight walk along the banks of the Danube; whether in Taibei at the dinner table with the Minister of Education or in Toronto in the press of the crowd of ICANASS scholars; whether in his favorite little restaurant across the street from Columbia or in his tiny book-filled living room, we always learned something important and memorable from Professor Hsia. When he gave his valedictory speech at Harvard on May 4, 1990, I was moved to tears from a sense of gain and loss, joy and sorrow, hope for the future and nostalgia for the past. I thought to myself, Professor Hsia is really the last of his kind, someone who has read it all, experienced it all, felt and thought about it all deeply, and knows in his bones what it is all worth—both Chinese literature and life.

Professor Hsia continued to be our friend for the rest of his life and, until most recently, he never failed to write to us in his tiny “fly’s head” script at the end of every year with his comments on the sad shape of not so much the world, but of his beloved movies and contemporary Chinese fiction. The last time we saw him in early spring 2009, he insisted on taking us to that little restaurant, where he ordered wine and we toasted to our hearts’ content. The last time we talked to him, Josephine asked what he thought about Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize; he simply said, “It’s embarrassing.” He never lost his touch.

When we saw him in 2009, he told us that he still tried to take a walk every day and hoped to live to a hundred, but God apparently had a different plan for him. We are going to miss very much those end-of-the-year letters and conversations.

Michael S. Duke is Professor Emeritus of Chinese and Comparative Literature at the Asian Studies Department of the University of British Columbia. He is the author of several books including Blooming and Contending. He has also translated many modern Chinese works of fiction such as Raise the Red Lantern, The Fat Years, and Cho-yun Hsu’s China: A New Cultural History (with Timothy D. Baker, Jr.). His most recent work is a cotranslation, with Josephine Chiu-Duke, of Ge Zhaoguang’s An Intellectual History of China, Vol. I: Knowledge, Thought, and Belief before the Seventh Century CE.

1 This unpublished talk was given at a Columbia University symposium in honor of Professor C. T. Hsia on May 4, 1991. It has been revised for publication here.
2 C. T. Hsia, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, 1917–1957, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1971), 499. Emphasis added.

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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