Fear of Kubin is the End of Wisdom

By Berlin Fang

Wolfgang Kubin, Bonn University Professor of Chinese Studies, is a critic in every sense of the word. Every time he speaks about Chinese literature, he makes waves among observers. He has become famous for “trashing” Chinese literature in general, Chinese novels in particular, and even more narrowly novels by the sentimental “beauty writers.” Chinese writers probably could also claim that Kubin is trash, but they have not done so. That shows a humility that contrasts sharply with Kubin’s elitist and dismissive criticism.

Shortly after the Frankfurt Book Fair, at which China was the guest of honor, Kubin was interviewed by Book magazine, and once again, he aimed his cannons at Chinese novelists (Translation by Bruce Humes of Paper Republic):

The [Chinese] novel, [in contrast with Chinese poetry] enjoys a high profile internationally, but is of rather mediocre quality. This opinion is largely shared among my colleagues. But what my Chinese counterparts say—in private—is even more extreme. In most of their eyes, the contemporary version of the [Chinese] novelist is an utter ignoramus: he has no literary culture, no mastery of his language, doesn’t know a word of English, and hasn’t the slightest knowledge of foreign literature. According to them, on the world stage Chinese novelists are tubaozi, or hillbillies, as one calls migrants in China who have left the countryside for the big cities.

Kubin’s shots hit a few targets. For instance, Chinese writers do often lack discipline in composition. They probably write at 500 miles an hour, resulting in inconsistencies, factual errors, impossible characters or stupid plots. Among Chinese this is called “fuzao” (lack of discipline, rigor, or quiet pursuits), a word liberally used to characterize all fields in China. It is a phenomenon that few writers and critics would debate. Indeed, as writers hurry to get their works or names out there in a winner-take-all environment, they may lack the patience to create something grander and better. Some other shortcomings are not related to attitude, but to skill or experience. There are honest mistakes, which the writers cannot see, for lack of better perspective or experience; perhaps there are constructive aspects to Kubin’s criticism.

Also, Chinese writers may indeed not read in foreign languages as their May the Fourth predecessors do. Orhan Pamuk has said he sometimes reads a foreign novel in its original side by side with the Turkish translation. Such practices often result in richer and better language. If Chinese writers read in foreign languages, it will be easier to cross linguistic borders and find fresher expressions, structures, and ideas, a practice that the writer Lu Xun highly advocated in his philosophy—to learn from foreign peers (“拿来主义”).

In spite of the constructive aspects of Mr. Kubin’s criticism, Chinese literary circles are less anxious to hear his remarks now. In the past, the Chinese media gave Kubin attention and kudos for what he said, as there is much public dissatisfaction with Chinese literature in China. But this has given way to skepticism, as shown in this recent article from Southern Metro Dailytitled “Should Chinese Literature Listen to Sinologists?”

Kubin claims that Chinese writers are hillbillies partly because they don’t read foreign literature. This is a comment of dubious value. Chinese writers make constant references to foreign writers such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Kafka etc. Other than Han Han, a young writer who has said he just reads magazines, I have not found any other Chinese writer who says he or she does not read foreign literature. I doubt that German writers make ready reference to Chinese writers such as Tie Ning, Wang Meng, or Mo Yan. China has been introduced to a broad range of literature from various countries, at least a broader range than is being translated from Chinese into these other languages. There are several publishers (such as Yilin, Yiwen) dedicated to translated works, something I do not see happening as much in the U.S.. As far as I know, publishers in America accept a very small number of Chinese works for translation, and of these few, many merely further the traditional stereotype of China as a police state tormenting its own citizens. I am not denying the wrongs that are described in such works, but too much of this further distorts perceptions of China and creates barriers between Western readers and Chinese realities.

It is tough and slow to change the tastes and preferences of publishers in other countries. China may need to take matters into its own hands and Chinese publishers the resources to translate Chinese works into English, probably with the help of translators who are native speakers of the target language. It is a bad strategy to wait for publishers in the target markets to change their preferences. But this should be another topic altogether.

Chinese writers do not lack exposure to foreign literature, but there is limited access to learning skills.. One obvious reason is that it is taboo to discuss craft. Chinese value the gift of writing, and often believe the discussion of craft is irrelevant. Lu Xun, for instance, jeered at people reading books about “novel writing techniques.” Such a mentality has reduced writing to a secretive endeavor guided mainly by inspiration, the exact nature and process of which is rarely discussed. There isn’t a dialogue there. There should be. Chinese writers do not exchange ideas and experiences as much as Western writers do, through workshops and literary journals. Due to the lack of such mutual learning, they may be able to go only skin deep when trying to learn from foreign literature, without using it to nourish their writing in a deeper way. Kubin called Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem a shoddy imitation of Jack London’s works, mixed with some Fascism.

Also, I do not think Kubin is as well read or well informed as his interviewers might believe. When asked about Han Han, for instance, he vaguely grouped him with Guo Jingming. Han Han is actually trying hard to become a public intellectual (in spite of his shrewd avoidance of the label) and distance himself from the self-centered Guo, except he lacks the depth and vision to really become one. If Kubin’s interview is translated into Chinese, he would piss off Guo Jingming and Han Han at the same time, as neither wants to be associated with the other. Nobody expects Kubin to know everything about Chinese culture, but he does not have to jump to conclusions. This hurts his credibility as a critic. Due to Kubin’s own lack of rigor in such criticism, reading him to understand Chinese literature is like reading a sonnet by Shakepeare in Chinese through Google translation.

Kubin also constantly criticizes Chinese writers as being awkward in their own languages. This comes as a shock to me. Kubin is a German who has chosen Sinology as his field of study. Even with a Chinese wife, he still does not speak Chinese as a native language. What has led him to conclude that Chinese writers do not know their languages? I can only guess. Many Sinologists started to learn Chinese by reading Chinese classics. They shock Chinese writers with a few quotes from ancient literature. Most Chinese writers grow up in modern Chinese, which is severed from the classical Chinese tradition after the May the Fourth Movement drove classical Chinese out of ordinary use. If this is the reason Kubin criticizes Chinese writers’ mastery of Chinese, it would be like me criticizing American writers for their English because I can recite the first eighteen lines from The Canterbury Talesin Middle English while they cannot. Yet I know better than to be proud of that. Nor would I lose sleep if a student of Chinese sometimes says things in Chinese that I do not understand. If this is Kubin’s case, then he is putting Chinese writers unfairly in the light of his experience as a Sinologist. He is comparing apples with oranges.

I am not saying that Chinese writers should not be criticized (I do this all the time), but Kubin has chosen the wrong things to talk about in his criticism. Sinologists may not know as much about Chinese literature as we ordinary Chinese observers do, in much the same way that Chinese critics do not know as much about American, British or German literature as their own readers do. Before 2009, who among us knew anything of the current Nobel Laureate Herta Müller?

Some Sinologists do not even speak Chinese well, or at all. In the past few years, the People’s University (also known as the Renmin University) has held several International Conferences of Chinese Studies (or “Sinology”). Guess what? The language being spoken there by most Sinologists is English, as many Sinologists are not capable of speaking academic Chinese. Some Sinologists may happen to be fluent in Chinese, but they are first and foremost scholars who study China or Chinese literature mainly by reading scholarly works, many of which are written in English or other Western languages. They can spend their entire academic career without talking to any real Chinese. So how can one expect to rely on them to be well informed about Chinese literature? That’s some risky business if you ask me. I have hoped that they could help the world understand the “insular” Chinese literature, but after reading more of their views, I gave up.

In theory, the most credible critics of Chinese literature should be the homegrown critics who can read in Chinese at greater ease. Unfortunately, they lack the skills to put Chinese literature in a global perspective. Maybe they are the ones who should be reading and writing in English, not the writers. They are not given much attention, and partly because of this, they cannot provide useful feedback to writers or guidance for the public, while folks like Kubin get all the attention. In other words, between China-bashing Sinologists and Chinese-speaking critics, barkers do not bite, biters do not bark. Maybe they should work together to provide a better view of the Chinese literary landscape. But I wouldn’t wait for them to become bedfellows. I would encourage people to read from both and put the pieces together.

Foreign media outlets, which depend on people like Kubin, can be more clueless about Chinese literature than their Chinese counterparts. They get stuck on a few individuals who are pop icons rather than writers. Guo Jinming and Han Han, for instance, are constantly mentioned, featured, and praised in magazines and radio shows in Western media, which shows that such media are really “Tubaozi” (hillibillies) when it comes to Chinese literature. They do not know the writers with greater potential, such as Han Dong, Duo Duo, Bi Feiyu. They do not know of people who can speak more powerfully to Chinese hearts, heads, and souls. In translating Chinese literature, publishers in the U.S. (I do not know about Europe) are narrowly focused on anti-government or narcissistic types. this causes more of the same kinds of books to be translated, such as those generally labeled “scar literature” [also known as “literature of the wounded,” a movement that emerged in the 1970s that depicted the sufferings of cadres and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution]. What gets on Kubin’s radar may be rubbish to begin with. Chinese writers have a long way to go in their journey to the West.


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