Nov 13

Fear of Kubin is the end of wisdom

Written by berlinf on Friday, November 13th, 2009 at 4:09 am
Filed under:Analysis, culture, language, Opinion |
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Wolfgang Kubin, Bonn University Professor of Chinese Studies, is a well-known critic of Chinese literature, a critic in every sense of the word. Every time he speaks about Chinese literature, he makes waves among observers of Chinese literature. He was famous for “trashing” Chinese literature, which has at various times being interpreted as trashing of Chinese literature in general, Chinese novels in particular, or novels by the sentimental “beauty writers” to be more exact. Chinese writers probably can 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 in which China was the guest of honor, Kubin was interviewed by Book magazine, and once again, he aimed his cannons at Chinese novelists:

“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 (土包子), or hillbillies, as one calls migrants in China who have left the countryside for the big cities.” (Translation by Bruce Humes of Paper Republic)

Kubin’s shots hit a few targets. For instance, Chinese writers do often lack the discipline in their 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” (浮躁, lack of discipline, rigor, or quiet pursuits), a word being liberally used to characterize all fields in China. It is a phenomenon that few writers and critics would debate.  Indeed, as  writers are in a 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 a better perspective, exchange or experience, which may give credit to the constructive parts of Kubin’s criticism.

Also, Chinese writers may indeed not read in foreign languages as their May the Fourth predecessors do.  Pamuk, a Turkish writer, said he sometimes read 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 can read in foreign languages, it will be easier to cross linguistic borders to find fresher expressions, structures or ideas, a practice that writers like Lu Xun highly advocated in his philosophy to learn from foreign peers(拿来主义)。

In spite of all the positive value of Mr. Kubin’s criticism, Chinese literary circle is less anxious to hear Kubin’s remarks now. In the past, Chinese media gave Kubin attention and Kudos for what he said, as there is much public dissatisfaction with Chinese literature in China. There is more skepticism now, as shown in this recent article from Southern Metro Daily titled Should Chinese Literature Listen to Sinologists?

Kubin claims that Chinese writers are hillbillies partly because he thinks they do not read foreign literature. This is a very dubious comment. Chinese writers do make constant references to foreign writers such as Faulkner, Hemmingway, Kafka etc. Except Han Han (a young writer) who said he just read magazines, I have not found any other Chinese writer who say 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 introduced a far broader range of literature from various countries, at least much more than Chinese literature is being translated in these countries. There are several publishers (such as Yilin, Yiwen) dedicated to translated works, but I do not see this happening in the US.  As far as I know, publishers in America accept a very small number of Chinese works for translation, and of these few, many fit the traditional stereotype of China being a police state tormenting its own citizens. I am not denying the wrongs that were described in such works, but too much of this further distorts perception of China and create barriers between western readers and Chinese realities. It is tough and slow to change the taste and preferences of publishers in other countries.   China may need to take matters into its own hands by giving Chinese publishers more 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.

Now back to the topic that Chinese writers do not read foreign literature.  To put it simply, they do. Chinese writers do not lack exposure, but they do lack skills to learn and internalize. One obvious reason is that it is like a taboo to discuss writing skills.  Chinese value the ability to write as a gift.   Talks about techniques, literary disciplines are dismissed to be harmful and irrelevant.  Lu Xun, for instance, jeered at people reading books about “novel writing techniques” .   Such mentality has reduced writing to be a secretive endeavor guided mainly by inspirations, 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, writing magazines, or interviews such as those in the Paris Review. 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 said that Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem was a shoddy immitation of Jack London’s works, mixed with some Fascism.  So to learn in this way won’t work either.  To learn or not to learn, that is the question. So what can I say?  Boy this man is hard to please.

Also, I do not think Kubin is as well-read or well-informed as his interviewers might have given him credit to. When asked about Han Han, for instance, he just vaguely grouped him with Guo Jingming. Han Han is actually trying hard to become a public intellectual type of figure (in spite of his shrewd avoidance of the label) to 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 could 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 the 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 of Shakepeare in Chinese through Google translation.

Kubin also constantly criticizes Chinese writers as being awkward in their own languages. I do not know about you, but that comes as a little shock to me. Kubin is a German who happened to have chosen Sinology as his field of study. Even with a Chinese wife, he still does not speak Chinese as a native language. What led him to conclude that Chinese writers do not know their languages? I really do not know, but I have a guess. Many sinologists started to learn Chinese by reading Chinese classics. When they start to talk with Chinese writers, they could shock Chinese writers with a few quotations from Chinese classics. Most Chinese writers grow up in modern Chinese, which is severed from the classical Chinese tradition after 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 of their English because I can recite the first 18 lines from Canterbury Tales in pre-modern English while they cannot. Yet I know better to be proud of that. Nor would I lose sleep if a learner of Chinese sometimes say things in Chinese that I do not understand. If this is the case, Kubin is really put Chinese writers unfairly in the light of his sinologist’s experience. It is really comparing apples with oranges.

I am not saying that Chinese writers should not be criticized (well, I do this all the time), but Kubin probably chose the wrong things to talk about in his criticism. Sinologists may not know as much about Chinese literature as we ordinary 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 know anything about the current Nobel Laureate Mrs. Muller?

Some sinologists do not even speak good Chinese, or any Chinese 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 of Chinese literature? That’s some risky business if you ask me. I have hoped that they could help the world to understand the “insular” Chinese literature as I described in an earlier post, 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 much more at greater ease. Unfortunately, they lack the skills to put Chinese literature in global perspectives. Maybe they are the ones who should be able to read and write 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. Yet I will not wait for them to become bedfellows. I would encourage people to read both of their views to put the pieces together.

Foreign media, which depend on people like Kubin, can be more clueless about Chinese literature. They get stuck with just 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” (土包子) when it comes to Chinese literature. They do not know the more potential writers 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 US (I do not know about Europe) are narrowly focused on anti-government or narcissistic types. These cause more-of-the-same books to be translated, such as books generally labeled as “scar literature”. What goes 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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38 Responses to “Fear of Kubin is the end of wisdom”

  1. DJ Says:


    Nice work. I enjoyed your trashing criticism of Kubin, and particularly this line: reading him to understand Chinese literature is like reading a sonnet of Shakepeare in Chinese through Google translation. 🙂

    It’s interesting to read your understanding of some sinologists’ work and knowledge. That certainly gives a hint of explanation for a fiasco experienced by the Max Planck Society last year, which I wrote about here.

  2. Wukailong Says:

    ” In translating Chinese literature, publishers in the US (I do not know about Europe) are narrowly focused on anti-government or narcissistic types.”

    I think Europe is mainly the same way. I don’t know about anti-government writers, but the Swedish translation of Wei Wei’s “Shanghai Baby” was quite popular for a while. I think there is still too little translation of Chinese books.

  3. Wukailong Says:

    Wei Hui, not Wei Wei.

  4. dewang Says:

    Hi Berlin,
    Interesting article. My view is that sinologists are going to be absolutely mediocre until citizens in their respective countries feel like there are more than the anti-government and narcissistic materials they can benefit from. Obviously more enlightened citizens like Wukailong exists as we see on this blog, but until their numbers grow (or rather, until China grows much more economically), most sinologists are gonna be pretty lame like Kubin.

    Hi DJ,
    haha, I wondered if the Chinese characters Max Planck used came off a pamphlet in one of their employee’s drawers – I can only imagine where that horny scientist might have visited during one of his trips.

  5. Uln Says:

    Hi Berlinf, another great article about literature, thanks I am learning a lot. Just a couple of comments:

    – I am a bit dissapointed lately with Han Han, have you seen his last book? It definitely feels 浮躁 like hell (thanks for the expression BTW), sometimes it feels like this guy only cares about his race, I have news recently from a friend working at Mengya, it looks like his HHs magazine project has been dropped as well, I think he couldnt get the permits (hardly surprising).

    – Frankly speaking I dont think the opinions of that sinologist are of great value.. There are loads of examples of World class writers who couldnt read in other languages than their own, and that rarely read literature (even in trasnlation) from all the cultures. I am not sayng this is not important, I completely agree woth the 拿来 theory of Luxun, applied to China or to any other place. But simply I do NOT think this is the main reason for the problems of Chinese literature.

    -Sometimes I just have the feeling that Chinese literature does not become better simply because people do not cherish it. by this I mean, all the Chinese with talent for writing are thinking on how to translate this into material earnings (buy a race car), instead of growing long beards and becoming bohemians devoted to their art. In my opinion this has to do with the low respect for IP and for creators in Chinese society, and the relatively high respect for businessmen. This is certainly good for the economy, but not for art/literature.

    – Regarding the sinlogues speaking English in convention: I am not at all surprised. Even the best linguists often suck at speaking Chinese unless they have lived in China for a few years. You cannot speak Chinese thinking of characters, you need to learn the spoken language in parallel, and this is almost impossible to do only by mastering the (non-phonetic) writing. People like Kubin can be trusted about many things regarding Chinese culture, for sure, but in my opinion NEVER in what constitutes a good piece of literature. It is writersm not sinologists, that can only know this.

  6. berlinf Says:

    ULN, I really appreciate the perception that “all the Chinese with talent for writing are thinking on how to translate this into material earnings (buy a race car), instead of growing long beards and becoming bohemians devoted to their art.” Kubin touches on this too. I mostly disagree with his generalizations about them not reading foreign literature or not knowing their own language. I don’t think such criticism helps Chinese writers.

  7. Tung Says:

    i have the misfortune (the only misfortune i can think of, really) that i understand german. that means i bump into herr kubin’s writings, interviews or articles from time to time in german newspapers.

  8. Berlin Says:

    Tung, what does he say? The same kind of stuff as shown in the interview with Book?

  9. heiheianan Says:

    The tenor of Chinese writings translated into English is changing, slowly. Liao Yiwu’s last work, The Corpse Walker, is popular here in the U.S. It is popular both with the literati and common folk, and as one who is very familiar with the phenomena of literature that reads like the tales that oral historians gather, I find it a pleasant departure from what some term the more typical fare. Most importantly, it is not a political screed in any way, and does more to humanize and add color to China than most of the other modern works I have read.

    That said, the Chinese government jailed him for several years and wouldn’t let him go to the recent bookfair, where he surely would have been highly received; policies like this don’t lend themselves to authors going abroad and getting fawned over at book signings, being interviewed on NPR, etc. Here is a man who is author to the first translated work to appear in the Paris Review (!!!), and he can’t even get permission to leave. That is classic “shooting yourself in the foot”.

    Another part of it is not a problem of the American publishing house but of demand – publishers meet demand much more than they create it in most instances. You know, Chinese authors and the literary and cultural influence that China should have had on America in the past three decades was largely left to disaffected, very assimilated, and/or disillusioned Chinese immigrants; slice of life writing might not be the forte of these often academic people. When Latin American writers and poets like Isabel Allende, Garcia-Marquez, Vargas Llosa, etc were building up a following and then being translated, China was, ummm… It will take time to overcome the wasted years. As much as Chinese people may really, rally dislike it, the most iconic image of China in the past three decades has been Tank Man and Tiannamen Square, and don’t think for a minute that the image this creates of China don’t play into the marketing of literature.

    Then too, translation pays crap, lets be honest.

    Just my 2 cents.

  10. berlinf Says:

    Heiheianan, I agree that publishers need to meet market demands, but as you said, they can create such demands too, through such works as Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker. Glad that changes are taking place bit by bit.

  11. Xujun Says:

    Berlinf, your criticism of Kubin’s baseless generalization makes good sense. He apparently does not know what he’s talking about. In February of last year, Kubin had an interview with Oriental Outlook, in which he said he had been too busy to read Chinese books. (So where did he get his opinions about them from?) He was also dismissive of the Chinese classic “Three Kingdoms.” Whatever problems the Chinese literature has, I wouldn’t give much credence to Kubin’s opinions. He seems to have lost touch now.

  12. jdmartinsen Says:

    @Xujun: Kubin said that he was too busy to read everything; he relies on recommendations from his friends and colleagues. So although he’s probably limited by their tastes, he’s not basing his opinions on nothing at all. (He is too busy to watch movies, however.)

    Kubin’s been saying the same thing to the Chinese media for years now. He keeps getting interviewed because he gets people’s dander up and sells papers, but whatever point he had was made long ago, and he really ought to be ignored until he has something new to say. No need to keep rehashing the same arguments.

  13. Stinky Says:

    The sad fact is that Kubin isn’t too far from the truth when he describes contemporary Chinese fiction as “mediocre.” Simply put, modern and contemporary Chinese fiction competes poorly against its U.S. and Western European counterparts. In all fairness, there are a few very good writers here in China, but they are best viewed as exceptions to the rule and not as representatives of general excellence. In fact, the Chinese are still so far behind the West in the “race” to produce great works as to no longer be considered a threat to place, much less to win. A terrible shame really. China was once a truly great and refined civilization that held its own in the field of literature. Sadly, however, that is no longer the case, as much Chinese talent has been squandered. One need only revisit Mao’s 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” (在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话) to understand the origins of the current state of affairs. While U.S. and Western European artists were busy producing art, Chinese “cultural workers” were busy producing 样板戏. The deficit that emerged then still exists. The Chinese will have to run long and hard to catch up with the West, something that is difficult to imagine given the enormity of the gap and the relatively unfree conditions which Chinese writers, artists, and scholars still face today.

    All this talk of America’s “failure” to translate more Chinese works reminds me of Horace Engdahl’s patently ignorant comment in 2008 that no U.S. writer was fit to win the Nobel because, as Engdahl claimed, “American’s don’t translate enough. They don’t participate in the big dialogue of literature. Their ignorance is restraining.” (Engdahl’s comment was particularly ironic considering that he’s from a culturally homogeneous northern European country with a population less than than of New York city.) It may, in fact, be the case that the average Chinese reads more translated works than the average American. Might it not also be the case that few Chinese novels are translated into English because few Chinese novels are worth the effort? (Hint: the answer is a big, fat “yes”) After all, there certainly seems to be no dearth of translated fiction from Spanish, French or German language authors.

    @berlinf: “Some sinologists do not even speak good Chinese, or any Chinese 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.”

    It’s true that many American scholars of China do not speak Chinese well. On the other hand, I know many American scholars who read Chinese nearly as well as I do (I was born and raised in HK, and I have an M.A. from PKU.). And when it comes to premodern Chinese (i.e., 文言文), I know many professors in America who read much better than I do. For example, my wife’s advisor, a well-known professor at Harvard named Stephen Owen, has been writing on the subject of Tang poetry for the better part of 40 years. As anyone who has worked with Prof. Owen understands, he reads both modern and premodern Chinese quite well. In fact, as my wife would say, he reads and understands Tang poetry much better than she ever will. Nevertheless, on trips to China he is frequently asked by Chinese audiences whether he really understands Tang poetry – this in spite of the fact that much of his scholarship has been translated into Chinese and is widely available for sale. Such questions arise because: 1) he is not Chinese, and 2) his spoken Chinese is crap. The fact that Prof. Owen’s spoken Chinese is crap does not prevent him from engaging with Chinese scholars. In academic circles, the written word is far, far more important than the spoken word. Who cares about the international conference at People’s University? Books and journals are what matter most.

  14. DJ Says:


    Just curious, re: [Prof. Owen’s] spoken Chinese is crap, does it mean he would have difficulty with 平仄 issues while reading Tang poems?

    Regarding sinologists and their mastering of Chinese, I think Berlinf’s point is that just because one is a sinologist does not mean he/she would be automatically qualified to be a critic of Chinese literature, and the fact that many sinologists lack sufficient Chinese language skills underscores this point further.

  15. berlinf Says:

    @Stinky, I am not debating here that Chinese literature is deeply problematic, I am examining Kubin’s flawed explanation of the phenomenon. I wrote a post earlier why Chinese writers cannot get the Nobel, or more simply, why Chinese contemporary literature is crap. But Kubin is not being very helpful in his explanations. Well, why should he?

    It is well acknowledged that Americans do not translate a lot of foreign works (not just Chinese as you claimed) into English, because “American readers yawn at foreign fiction” (http://www.transcript-review.org/en/issue/transcript-8–brittany–northern-catalonia-/america-yawns-at-foreign-fiction). In China it is rather fashionable for people to talk about foreign authors. If you visit Douban.com and surf there for a while, you will see what I mean. In America Nora Roberts get more attention than Spanish, German, Swedish and Chinese translations all combined. In China it is the opposite: local authors get mostly rotten eggs and tomatoes maybe. Chinese publishers fight for the next big book to be imported. Some are willing to pay a million to get the copyright, which could tickle foreign authors to death.

    I am not criticizing sinologists’ crappy spoken Chinese per se. I just have doubts about the validity of their claims about Chinese writers being poor at Chinese. I offered a possible explanation that maybe they know some premodern Chinese while these writers don’t. I know of quite a number of American friends who read and write in traditional Chinese (because they studied Chinese earlier in Taiwan or Hong Kong), while I don’t write in traditional, unsimplified Chinese. Yet when it comes to translations, they still consult me because I spend more time reading and writing in Chinese that makes sense to the readers they try to target. I have a better sense of the language than they do. There is still difference between an acquired language and a native tongue, I suppose? Professor Owen (the husband of Tian Xiaofei?) may know all about Tang Dynasty poetry, and he may write perfect classical Chinese or scholarly books about such topics, but this is his game, governed by rules that do not always overlap with rules in the writers’ game.

  16. berlinf Says:

    Here is an article about Murakami’s copyright of 1Q84 sold to a Chinese publisher at One Million Dollars (US Dollars) that I was talking about in my last comment (http://www.wowa.cn/Article/84165.html).

    It is really obvious that Kubin was wrong to accuse Chinese authors of not reading foreign literature. I wonder why people didn’t point this out earlier.

  17. Stinky Says:

    @DJ: Stephen Owen’s spoken Chinese – both modern and premodern – is quite poor. While he may not be able to pronounce Tang poetry as well as some, he certainly understands the finer points of Tang prosody as well as anyone on earth – this includes such basic rules such as those governing the use of 平 and 仄. (Hell, even I understand 平 and 仄, and I study Chinese history.) As far as Tang era pronunciation goes, few educated Chinese can reproduce it accuratedly (though they try). I audited a couple of Prof. Owen’s seminars over the years and was occasionally asked, because I am originally from HK and speak Cantonese, to read aloud certain poems. This is because Cantonese is a much older form of Chinese than modern Mandarin and is pronounced somewhat similarly to Tang period Chinese. (Cantonese, for example, still preserves the entering tone (入声).) Then again, no one is completely sure what Tang era pronunciation was like – historical linguists have worked hard to reconstruct it, but significant mysteries remain. Texts such as the 切韻 (a rhyming dictionary first published during the late Sui) are a big help, but it’s safe to say that no living Chinese speaker can reproduce the same language that Du Fu, Li Bai, and Li Shangyin spoke. The Chinese should give Stephen Owen a break. He is a prodigious intellect. His head is simply chock full of interesting ideas about premodern Chinese (i.e., not just Tang) literature and literary culture. In the end, the fact that he speaks Chinese with difficulty is neither here nor there. If it’s easier, just imagine that he’s mute.

    @berlinf: You quote Wolfgang Kubin as saying:

    ““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 (土包子), or hillbillies, as one calls migrants in China who have left the countryside for the big cities.”

    With all due respect to you and everyone else, I agree with Herr Kubin completely. Aside from a couple of my professors at PKU (where I studied modern and contemporary Chinese literature), I am acquainted with few well-known Chinese writers. However, the one that I do know – i.e., Yu Hua – I know very well. This past spring (or winter, I forget), Yu Hua came to Harvard to promote the publication of the English edition of 兄弟 (“Brothers”) and my wife and I had lunch with him (my wife has known him for nearly 20 years). In addition to the usual catching up, we also spoke about the general state of literary affairs in the People’s Republic. I can assure you that Yu Hua’s opinion of Chinese writers and literature is not substantially different from Prof. Kubin’s. (Truthfully, I believe that Yu Hua is himself a case in point. He was much better, I think, earlier in his career than he is now. I imagine that he might very well agree with me.)

    As I said before, perhaps the U.S. translates so few Chinese works because so few are worth the effort. A reasonable corollary to this might be – perhaps the Chinese read so many foreign works because Chinese works are poor by comparison. China has no Philip Roth. It has no Updike or Delillo either. For that matter, China has no Stephen King. Contrary to Horace Engdahl’s assertion, Americans read American writers because American writers are great. And when they get tired of American writers, they read English speaking writers from other countries – e.g., Rushdie, Naipaul, Byatt, McEwan, and Atwood. The list goes on, and on, and on.

    @berlinf: You also say this: “I just have doubts about the validity of their claims about Chinese writers being poor at Chinese.”

    In response, I would say that you are perhaps guilty of extrapolation. Prof. Kubin is just one scholar working in Germany. I know many scholars in America who are quite devoted to their subject and who have written on the subject of Chinese literature with enviable sensitivity and real depth of knowledge. In fact, Chinese critics have much to learn from such people. Many may speak Chinese only poorly, and their work may be written in English (it is America after all), but the quality of their ideas should be admired. Stephen Owen is just one example.

    @berlinf: “Professor Owen (the husband of Tian Xiaofei?)”

    Yes, that’s the one. Both are impressive scholars, though Prof. Tian still has a way to go before she achieves the kind of lofty perch that Prof. Owen inhabits.

  18. DJ Says:


    Re: This is because Cantonese is a much older form of Chinese than modern Mandarin and is pronounced somewhat similarly to Tang period Chinese.

    I have heard this claim some years ago and wondered if it was true. I guess it would take someone equally proficient at Cantonese and Mandarin to make a judgment on whether there is a consistent qualitative difference while reading Tang poems using either dialects. Do you personally perceive the difference, or know someone that does?

    As for 切韻, I actually bought such a book more than twenty years ago when I was in a period of fascination of classic poems. (My preference was on the Song dynasty works.) I barely read it in the end. It’s true that it is a rhyming dictionary. But most dictionaries are fun to read and learn something from. Such a rhyming dictionary, is decidedly not.

  19. Stinky Says:

    @DJ: The pronunciation and tonal structure of Cantonese is much closer to Tang period Chinese than most (all?) other Chinese dialects. Many Tang poems still rhyme when recited in Cantonese, but fail to rhyme when recited in Mandarin. This wasn’t something I learned from Professor Stephen Owen. In fact, my classmates and I learned this as children when learning Tang poetry in HK. My understanding is that only a very few Tang poems still rhyme when recited in Mandarin – one of the more obvious examples of this is 李白’s famous poem 床前明月光…

    The 切韻 is not exactly my cup of tea either. I much prefer the 佩文韵府 – a Qing period rhyming dictionary of literary allusions compiled during the reign of Kangxi. It’s much more fun to peruse than the 切韻. I’ve met a number of people over the years who are interested in historical linguistics and phonology – they’re a bit strange.

  20. berlinf Says:

    Stinky, I am not going to debate with you how good Professor Owen is. I might indeed be guilty of extrapolation a little, but mainly I am concerned about Kubin who has more influence in China. Professor Owen’s focus is not in contemporary Chinese literature and for that matter, he is not sought after for advice, maybe unfortunately.

    You don’t need to emphasize how bad Chinese literature is. The point is: can we do something about it? With your exposure to the greatness in America, is there some constructive feedback that you could provide to them rather than keeping it to journals published for small circles? I hope you will, with the knowledge and insights you have. I am doing this on a small scale, by writing for Chinese media in the very spirit of this blog: many small fools who don’t believe in the status quo can work together to move mountains.

    That being said, I also want to point out that one should also look at what makes good literature. I am recently reading an award-winning American novel and I think it is some pretentious crap. I am doubting whether it is my judgement that is at issue, so I asked several other American readers who are college professors (not in literature though) and they thought the same. And here is what one of my professors told me: “I, too, wonder why some books receive so much praise when I find no merit in them. I used to worry about it and wonder if I were missing something. Now I have decided I am old enough and have read enough that my opinion is valid even when it differs from that of the experts. ”

    I recently also interviewed a lady who wrote a dissertation on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (dismissed by critics as childish work not worth including in real American literature), and she said exactly the same thing. She said for years, critics try to keep the book off college book shelves because it does not fit into their modernist or postmodernist pigeonholes, but they never succeeded. In Chinese we call that cutting the toes to fit the shoe. She also told me that critics are mostly wealthy people who lose touch with lives from the ordinary. They have disdain for the underdogs (you see that from Kubin’s remarks about tubaozi), unless they are depicted in a condescending one, showing their superiority in the lofty standards they are perched on. I wonder if that still holds true, because I am not very close to the critics’ circles.

  21. heiheianan Says:


    Do you think the scarcity of Chinese fiction has much to do with the huge focus on manufacturing and business in and with China? As a westerner, I definitely think that we often tend to see China as a commercial entity, either in fear, awe, or the oft-cited “1.3 billion customers”. Even thinking about China related blogs, so many are consulting, QC, or marketing blogs or blogs like the very popular China Law Blog, or just impressive (for non-Chinese) anecdotes about the scope of enterprise in China.

    Stinky said:

    “Might it not also be the case that few Chinese novels are translated into English because few Chinese novels are worth the effort? (Hint: the answer is a big, fat “yes”) After all, there certainly seems to be no dearth of translated fiction from Spanish, French or German language authors.”

    That is crude and wrong. Besides the fact that the U.S. shares a long border with Mexico, we also take our literary and philosophical cues from Europe. Until several decades ago, many of the people we consider literary giants have some strong connection to Europe. It is not as if the U.S. fields an army of translators capable in all languages, and they just pick and choose from baskets full of world languages.

    Most Americans have no little to no familiarity with Russian literature, especially considering how many notable works there are in Russian; would you say that Russian writers aren’t worth the effort?

    We will ignore the effects of the literary canon and it’s overwhelming narrow focus for now, kay???

    Your criticism of Chinese writers aside, you might ask yourself if you seem to be a bit gleeful in your sweeping, dismissive condemnations. May I ask why?

  22. Berlin Says:


    Maybe we could borrow JFK’s words here: Do not ask how bad Chinese literature is, ask what we can do to create a better ecology.

    This involves two separate approaches: improve Chinese literature (less censoring from government and better discipline from writers) + improve world perception of Chinese literature (increase exposure through more and better translation, finer distinction among writers to encourage the more promising ones instead of sweeping denial of everybody and everything.)

    I’ll continue to write on the topic in the future.

  23. Stinky Says:


    I make sweeping generalizations about China and Chinese literature knowing full well how such generalizations sound to you and others. For better or worse, when speaking about a nation, culture, and people as large and diverse as China, sweeping generalizations are necessary. How, for example, does one speak about the field of “contemporary Chinese literature” without generalizing? I’ve conceded that literary talent exists in China. Even so, I will continue to insist that such talent as exists generally fails to measure up to Western standards. Just this morning, I was a bit disappointed to learn that Su Tong won the Man Asian prize for a novel that is patently bad in my estimation. No real surprise here – although Su Tong is not a particularly gifted writer, such prizes are frequently poor indicators of literary talent. Then I asked myself, “If not Su Tong, then who?” I read perhaps 20 new Chinese novels each year (in Chinese), and few strike me as particularly good. (My criticism of Chinese literature has nothing to do with my background. I come from very modest HK stock.) If Su Tong IS the most deserving, what does that say about the state of literary affairs in China?

    With respect to my comments regarding Harvard professor Stephen Owen – my main point was that he is just one example of a certain kind of Western scholar of China who is both immensely talented and deeply committed to his field. There are many others like him. It may trouble you that Western scholars spend a great deal of time reading secondary scholarship written by their English-speaking peers, but it shouldn’t. First, it’s important to participate in the great exchange of ideas. Second, a preference for English language scholarship is understandable given the sorry state of Chinese scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. Simply put – again, generally speaking – Chinese scholars produce subpar work. The most conceptually interesting scholarship in the field of China studies is produced outside of China – primarily in the U.S. – by Western-educated scholars working in Western institutions. I read Chinese as well as anyone, but I much prefer – indeed, I rely upon – English language scholarship produced and published in the West. For every book I read in Chinese, I read 20 in English. The reason? Chinese scholarship, like Chinese literature, simply does not measure up.

    If I had to identify one thing that China is best at, I would say: wasting human capital. And if I was forced to provide an explanation for this waste, I would suggest that it is because China lacks a number of important freedoms. A week or two ago, the head of China’s ministry of education 周济 was sacked. In addition, the famous Chinese rocket scientist 钱学森 recently passed away. The two unrelated events have given rise to much head scratching here in China about the state of Chinese education and the reasons why it produces only mediocre talent (Although 钱学森 was brilliant, he was trained in the U.S. Importantly, he also did most of his formative work there.). Again, I suggest that the answer is freedom. Why is it that the bureaucrats who run Peking University, my alma mater, drive expensive, imported German cars while many full professors earn just RMB 5,000 to 6,000 per month? Why is it that department heads care more about pleasing the various bureaucrats and government minders than in elevating the quality of their departments’ research and teaching? Question: Where is the institutional independence? Answer: It doesn’t exist. Not only does Chinese academia and society lack important freedoms, the Chinese public consciousness is largely unaware that such freedoms are an option and are important for such things as academic discovery (and literary excellence).

    Say what you will about American parochialism, the real problem is with the quality of Chinese literature. If you build it, they will come.

    Recommendation: Forget about “award winning” U.S. novels. After all, Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel for a pathetic/infantile stab at literary greatness (i.e., “The Good Earth”). Likewise, the fact that the novel “Cold Mountain” won awards galore didn’t prevent it from being a cold fish of a book. Instead, try Philip Roth. Read “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Sabbath’s Theatre,” and then ask yourself, “Why don’t the Chinese have anyone as good as Roth?” Then read “Saturday” by Ian McEwan, and ask yourself, “Why no McEwan in China?” Finally, read “On the Natural History of Destruction” and “The Rings of Saturn” by W.G. Sebald, and then look in vain for his equal in China. As I said before, the list goes on and on. With so many excellent choices, all written in their native tongue – and by people of such diverse backgrounds – why should Americans read more Chinese literature? In short, Americans must be given a compelling reason to read more literature in translation.

  24. Wukailong Says:

    @Stinky: What is your opinion about Gao Xingjian, considering that he got the Nobel Prize some years ago?

  25. Stinky Says:

    @Wukailong: I share the opinion of many others who view Gao Xingjian’s Nobel as a mistake. It certainly wasn’t awarded for literary excellence. In all fairness, however, some of his early work showed promise. “Bus Stop,” for example, is very good and still worth reading. “Soul Mountain,” however, was a sorry disappointment. I understand that its English translation, done by the Australian scholar Mabel Lee, is a perfect hack job – i.e., she managed to make a mediocre novel even worse. By the time Gao won the Nobel, most people had completely forgotten that he existed. Sad, but true.

  26. Berlin Says:

    Stinky, thanks for sharing these thoughts. I still don’t believe in “sweeping generalizations about China and Chinese literature” which you think don’t measure up to western literature. Such generalizations rarely helped in intellectual matters. Also, be careful what you say here, for I know that some critics in China are making the argument that Chinese literature should be held at different standards, that it is rightly insular. To be honest with you, I am torn on the issue: how do we strike a balance between this international dialogue of literature while maintaining a unique identity that may make such universal standards irrelevant? I am not so sure of the issue as you are. I have to give you credit for that.

    But I think you are not being helpful in your accusations of Chinese literature. You call this bad and that good as if they are apples, as if you can get a consensus on which one is good and which one is rotten. Standards do vary, and I do not necessarily think yours are the standard answers to the questions on what is good or not, even if I know what your standards are. Whatever they are, they lose validity if they are just theoretical pigeonholes to fit writers in, as what some critic did with post-modernism, post-colonialism and the like. To me that is a ridiculous game to play in the first place.

    So far you are just passing judgments without giving reasons for your judgments. But gone are the days when readers listen to critics as if they are prophets, even if they have PKU degrees and friendship with Yuhua and Owen. One has to acknowledge the fact that the army of little Davids are out in the field. Same thing for movies, while Ebert’s “two thumbs up” still has an influence, more and more people go to rotten tomatoes to check other perspectives. By the way, Ebert is strongly against critics using negative comments to define who they are.

    The Good Earth, for instance, is a masterpiece in my opinion. Pearl Buck chose a difficult subject matter and treated it very well, ironically using Chinese traditions of storytelling (I hope that does not disappoint you). I know the critical feedback about it when it was published, but the book came out fine after all these years. Critics tried hard to keep her out of literary histories or book shelves. But what have they achieved all these years? Even today it helps people to gain an in-depth understanding of China in spite of all the changes that have since happened. I don’t know why you say that this is just a try at literature. Then what is literature after all? How many of us know anything about the university wits who used to be calling Shakepeare basically a hack writer?

    The critics and scholars need also reflect on what they do. They too need to participate in the dialogue of literature from different perspectives, instead of becoming increasingly irrelevant while speaking just to each other in small circles of colleagues in peer-reviewed journals or small conferences centered upon a trendy theory.

  27. Steve Says:

    Berlin, thanks for this post. I’m certainly no expert in Chinese literature and have only read the translations, so I’ve enjoyed reading the different opinions of the various bloggers who’ve commented so far.

    My experience with Chinese literature might be a bit different than most. After I met my wife, I figured I’d better learn more about the culture so I read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Dream of the Red Chamber and The Golden Lotus. I enjoyed all four of them while liking the first two more than the second, but they all gave me an insight into Chinese culture. I find there are certain aspects of being “Chinese” that are under the surface and these novels helped me get a better idea of what those were.

    After that, I went to my local bookstore and read a few of the newer books that had appeared. Most of these seemed to be of the “The Cultural Revolution Sure Sucked” variety. They were autobiographical in nature, pretty depressing, somewhat narcissistic and in the end, repetitive. I soon grew bored with them. Then a friend in Shanghai recommended Shanghai Baby to me. I managed to plow through it but my final conclusion was that it was either one of the worst books I had ever read or the translator did a horrible job. And that’s the problem with reading translations, I never knew whether the author or the translation was bad. I’m sure there were times when both applied.

    My Taiwan wife never reads Chinese novels, she reads biographies and non-fiction books. Many of her friends also read a lot of non-fiction. She seems to enjoy books about successful businessmen and women. Is this a general trend or just peculiar to my wife? Authors write what people read; Edgar Allen Poe didn’t write horror stories because he liked that genre but because it was the hot genre at the time. He just wanted to sell books and make money. So I was wondering… what percentage of books sold in China are fiction vs. non-fiction? In the States, fiction far outsells non-fiction.

    I’d think the audience that should really matter to Chinese writers is the Chinese audience. As a foreigner married to a woman from Taiwan, I sometimes wonder how much of the culture I can really pick up. It’s like peeling an onion, always another layer underneath the one you can see. I remember years ago reading the Dao de Jing in college and thinking I understood it, then marrying my wife and soon realizing she WAS the Dao de Jing without even thinking about it. I learned more about the Dao in one month of dating than I had learned in the past. I was seeing Dao rather than just hearing about it. I sometimes wonder how deeply some of these foreign critics can understand aspects of Chinese culture buried inside the story itself that you might instinctively understand on a subconscious level.

    So that’s the attraction of Chinese literature to me as a non-Chinese man, to be able to get insights into the culture along with getting a good story. I don’t think the Chinese authors ought to imitate western authors in terms of writing style; they should develop their own style that works within their language. It might not translate as well, but it would work better among the primary Chinese audience. I don’t want there to be a Chinese Roth, McEwan or Sebold, Roth, McEwan and Sebold are products of their cultures and their writing reflects this. As a non-Chinese person interested in the culture, I want to read something completely different and totally Chinese.

  28. Wukailong Says:

    @Steve: Shanghai Baby is easily one of the worst books out there. I happened to procure a pirated version back in China in 2001, when a man standing by a subway station called out that he had prohibited books. There was a small book about politics, which seemed to specifically criticize the point that the Chinese populace lacks in level of education and character (素质), and Shanghai Baby. The political book was in good shape whereas the novel was one of the worst copies I could possibly have found. Because of the publicity, however, I bought it, and to this day I still regret that I didn’t choose the political book.

    I’ve heard that her reaction to getting the book prohibited was to stage a party with foreign journalists. It’s like everything she does is to cater to a Western audience, which this example shows pretty well:


    Spirituality and sex, banned in China – she won’t have to worry about insufficient retirement funds.

  29. berlinf Says:

    @Steve, I also believe that good writers should be able to tell good stories. China has a pretty good tradition with the 章回体小说 (chapter by chapter novels) that seem to go by a different tradition. For instance, as Pear Buck observes, characters appear in a few chapters, and then they leave, never to be seen again in following chapters and this is often called 暂且按下不表 (”…and we’ll say no more about this.”) I remember Buck say: isn’t this exactly what life is like? People enter your life. They participate. They leave. They move on. You move on. Isn’t that how life happens? These may not be the kind of story development techniques other traditions value.

  30. Wukailong Says:

    @berlinf: The case of 暂且按下不表 reminds me of the tradition of Icelandic sagas (which is what I read to get a better knowledge my ancestral culture) where the author speaks about somebody for some chapters and suddenly says “and now he is out of the saga.” Another favorite is a long description of how important people are seated at a wedding, and the concluding dry remark that “there is no report on how the others were seated.”

  31. berlinf Says:

    @Wukailong. How interesting! We also had “花开两朵, 各表一枝“ to introduce the branching of topics in the middle of narration. These ancient writers just assume it is rather natural that you meander or start in a different direction in the narration. It is a nonlinear narration technique that has developed on its own: it is unfair to apply later rules of plot development. As I said, it was just a different tradition altogether. Chinese literature also places great emphasis on “意境” (the atmosphere, the ambience, etc. I am not exactly sure what is the English word for it) that were conveyed rather implicitly in the language. Much of it is bound to be lost when translated.

  32. Steve Says:

    @ Berlin~ You know, I had never heard those expressions or thought of that style of narrative in such a way, but thinking about it now makes perfect sense. I also realized I very much enjoyed that style of narrative; people come and people go, problems of today disappear and are replaced by new problems, the narrative flows more in one direction rather than being circular (as in Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud”, etc.)

    WKL, I’ve read some of the Norse sagas and also found them to be delightful in a different sort of way. I guess it goes back to my personal observation that I tend to like foreign stories that have their own style of narrative, not imitations (mostly poor ones) of my own culture.

    I believe the lack of quality literature from China is just a phase and in the future it will blossom. Right now people are more interested in making money, increasing their lifestyle and building up the country. When a larger segment of the population is prosperous, then the demand will be there and authors will appear that fill that demand. The Chinese are no different than any other culture so it’s bound to happen.

  33. BMY Says:


    This is another good reading and good learning for me.

    I don’t know how important for Chinese literature to be known by English speaking world. Or is it more important to let English speakers to know than let’s say let Arabic or Hispanic speakers to know.

    Chinese people have more access to English literature than the other way around I think one of the reasons is because Chinese have been learning about every thing from major developed countries in the past 100 years including technology, literature, lifestyle etc. We hardly see literate works from developing countries like India, Arabic,South American countries etc. There must be great works from those countries as well. This is just no much difference than Americans don’t have much access or have no much interesting in Chinese literates.

    Literate is so much integrated in the culture. I think some of 迟莉 ‘s work are great. The characters are so lively, the stories are so vivid. But I would guess if one has no long time life experience with 武汉local culture and slang one would just hardly be able to fell in depth of these work no matter how well the English translation would be. 平凡的世界 is great but how one would feel the greatness from so plain wording without knowing the background and cultural of remote 陕北.

    If I think about that so many Chinese writers are full time sponsored by the state no matter they are writing or not while the writers in the US have to feed themselves before they could make a name. I would think there should be more great Chinese works. I don’t believe capitalism is the cause .

  34. berlinf Says:

    BMY, I believe it is a matter of time. I remember in the early 80s everyone trashed Chinese music and movies as compared with Hong Kong and Taiwan ones. Then in the late 1990s, there is a noticeable decrease of interest in movies made in HK (港产片)。 It is not that those movies have gone down in quality, but there is a better ecology in mainland China for movies that enable better ones to be produced. I have no doubt that a similar thing will happen to Chinese literature. China can be a faster learner that way.

  35. Picky Reader Says:

    Kubin’s harsh generalization of course leaves him vulnerable to finger pointing.
    Sort of like upon hearing: “Fruits are beneficial to our health.”one might safely jump up and yell: “No, there are a list of poisonous fruits out there!”
    But that generalization still reveals the truth, even though with lots of loop holes.
    Kubin is the rare, hence the precious, critic, who has the courage and broad perspective to point out the unhealthy trend prevailing the contemporary Chinese literature.
    矯枉過正–To straighten a warped stick, you have to bend it to the opposite direction harder.
    Much harder, in this case–Chinese contemporary literature, Made in China, is a thick stick.
    And certainly here comes an outburst: “No! You went too far, way passed the straight line.”

  36. 曹冠龍 Says:

    I agree with Berlinf’s assertion that Kubin, whose mother tongue is German (with such a unique deep throat vibration, like that of a grouchy, angry cat–every time I tried, I coughed) can beat any Chinese writer, I mean any, whose first cry was delivered with perfect four tones(or even eight tones, if it happens to be a cantonese baby), and later, no matter how lousy, cheap, crappy his/her novel is, in the language proficiency of the modern, daily Chinese with ever-changing nuances, subtleties, accelerated, exacerbated by the churning, dazzling cultural/economic/political climate.

    However, this fact does not strip this man, equipped with a scary, aggressive first name, off the credibility from his scholarly observation that contemporary Chinese literature, as a whole (same pronunciation as “hole”), regresses from the elegant style, grand quality established by those master writers of “May 4th.”

    A long-faced police man with a dented Ford can write a justified ticket to a shiny, yet reckless BMW, can’t he?

    By the way, the fully-armed highway patrollers here in the USA look really like the Nazi SS officers wearing Wolfgang’s habitual expression I saw online–Sorry, a little bit 意識流。

  37. 曹冠龍 Says:

    Sorry,a typo:
    can beat any Chinese writer
    Should be:
    can‘t beat any Chinese writer

  38. 曹冠龍 Says:

    The stone-faced Wolfgang is a stone, a grinding stone.
    Do not expect a grinding stone being shiny, beautiful;
    Being hard, sharp is his merit.

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