In the field of Chinese literature, the pioneering scholarship of Professor Jaroslav Průšek has received wide recognition. His painstaking research into the origins, genres, and social and historical milieu of Chinese vernacular literature has long been taken by students of traditional Chinese literature as a point of departure in their own work. Some years ago, a fairly comprehensive volume, which includes most of Průšek’s important scholarly papers on literature of the traditional periods, appeared under the title of Chinese History and Literature (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1970). However, his contributions in the field of modern Chinese literature, published mostly in European journals and in book-length monographs, were never collected. This volume of selected papers by Professor Průšek, spanning more than a decade (1957-1969), is designed to fill in such an obvious gap and to provide students (especially in the United States and other non-European countries) who may not otherwise have easy access to European scholarly journals with a representative sampling of his seminal works. Professor Prušek has been kind enough to leave the choice of these papers entirely in my hands, and I alone bear the responsibility for any deficiencies in the final selection and format. The innumerable merits in the content of these papers belong, of course, to Professor Průšek,
The selection of these papers has been determined by three kinds of concerns: their scholarly quality and originality, their representativeness of Průšek’s general approach to modern Chinese literature, and their suitability as basic reading and teaching material in the classroom. While my assessment of the individual merits of Průšek’s papers may not be entirely sound due to my own limitations, I have chosen those papers which have exerted significant impact on myself and on my students. I would have liked to include more had I not been pressed by a practical concern to make this volume widely available to scholars and students at a cost they can afford. I have also left out, with great reluctance, some important papers written in other European languages. Whatever its faults of omission, I am nevertheless convinced that the present collection provides sufficient evidence for the kind of broad sweep combined with detailed analysis which is so characteristic of Průšek’s work. In these papers we can also find a number of recurring themes which, in my judgment, are central to an understanding of Průšek’s thinking on modern Chinese literature.
One of the paramount themes in Průšek’s treatment of modern Chinese literature is the close connection between the New Literature and China’s classical tradition. As one of the very few European sinologists who feel equally at home in traditional and modern Chinese culture, Professor Průšek perceives with great insight the complex reverberations from a long history of China’s literary past on the formation of modern literature. He is most impressed by the variety, spontaneity, artistic inventiveness, and increasing dynamism of traditional Chinese popular and folk literature (hence his extensive research in the subject). But at the same time he has not neglected to take note of the so-called literati culture its moral weight, its precision of language, its finesse and sophistication of expression. This bifurcation of traditions seems to recall Hu Shih’s verdict concerning the gradual ossification of the latter and the increasing vitality of the former, thus affirming the vernacular strains since Sung times as the main living tradition of Chinese literature. Unlike most May Fourth leaders, including Hu Shih, Průšek emphatically points out that the lyrical side of literati culture, as manifested in particular in classical poetry, has also left an enduring legacy in shaping the literary sensibilities of May Fourth writers.
This “lyrical” tradition, which tends to focus on the subjective feelings of the writer and on an artistic evocation—of mood, color, or imagery—has persisted in the works of many modern Chinese writers—Lu Hsün and Yü Ta-fu are but two prime examples. This lyrical sensibility is by no means the exclusive prerogative of the literati. Though Průšek has not gone deeply into the Ming phenomenon of the literati novel—that is, the vernacular novel as used by highly educated scholar-intellectuals who for one reason or another had chosen this “popular” form as medium to convey their artistic vision—it can be inferred that this elitist “appropriation” of a popular genre may have been one of the factors contributing to what Průšek considers to be the gradual blending of genres, which in turn signifies the merger of literati and popular strains in the past three or four millennia. The growing popularity of the diary, the personal note (pi-chi) or essay (hsiao-p’in wen), as well as the novel (hsiao-shuo) from the late Ming to the late Ch’ing, in Průšek’s view, indicates that the earlier barriers between poetry and prose, and between the moralistic, elitist “great tradition” on the one hand and the more carefree, fanciful popular tradition on the other, were breaking down. By late Ch’ing times, there was, according to Průšek, a noticeable tendency toward subjectivism and individualism, as evidenced in such works as Shen Fu’s Fu-sheng liu ehi (Six chapters from a floating world), Liu O’s Lao Ts’an yu-chi (The travels of Lao Ts’an), Wu Wo-yao’s Erh-shih nien mu-tu chih kuai hsien-chuang (Strange things witnessed during the past twenty years) and others. Thus the late Ch’ing period can be singled out, as Průšek did some twenty years ago, as the crucial transitional era between traditional and modern literature in China.
While Průšek devotes considerable attention to analyzing late Ch’ing fiction (treated in several papers of this collection), he has not given this literature undue praise in terms of artistic significance. With the possible exception of Lao Ts’an yu-chi, he finds most of the late Ch’ing novels lacking in the sophisticated technique needed to represent reality. In this regard, he considers modern Chinese fiction from 1917 to 1937 to be far superior. The example he cites again and again is the fictional oeuvre of Mao Tun, who aspires to and in some degree achieves what Průšek calls the “epic” quality in his works.
The term “epic,” used by Průšek more often as adjective than noun to cover a broader spectrum of literary genres than poetry, is posed in contrast to the term “lyrical” as, the other central artistic approach to reality. If the stories of Yü Ta-fu and Lu Hsün are in some ways reminiscent of poetry in their lyricism, Mao Tun’s novels are “epic” in the sense that they are conceived as massive, objective panoramas of life and society. Průšek traces this “epic” orientation to the tradition of nineteenth-century European realistic fiction, but he also goes into great detail in qualifying Mao Tun’s indebtedness to European theories of realism and naturalism. While Mao Tun professes to be a naturalistic writer, he does not, in Průšek’s analysis, concern himself, as Zola did, with “a slice of life” by concentrating on the individual fate of his characters. Thus in a curious way Mao Tun may be said to have inherited—or revitalized—the Chinese “epic” tradition of fictional writing which invariably presents a broad social canvas in which no individual protagonist stands out. Mao Tun’s fictional world is one in which social, economic, political as well as personal forces are inextricably intertwined. As a Marxist, however, he is assuredly more preoccupied with the socioeconomic forces and their attendant class configurations as the overarching themes in most of his fiction. But even in this most “epic” of all modern Chinese writers, we can also find, as Průšek has pointed out, certain subjective concerns: the characters’ personal emotions are not deemphasized; rather, they become vivid, often tortured, expressions of the interplay with larger historical forces. It is this dialectical combination of the objective and the subjective, the “epic” and the “lyrical,” that gives the mainstream of modern Chinese literature its major hallmark. While Průšek might have been temperamentally attracted to the lyrical strain, he is intellectually committed to both.
In delineating these two “subtraditions” in modern Chinese literature, Průšek also seeks to establish their possible “correspondences” with European literature. As mentioned earlier, he finds in the epic works of Mao Tun certain implications of nineteenth-century European realism. In the realm of the lyrical, however, Průšek presents the daring thesis that May Fourth literature exhibited some tendencies which are very akin to modern lyrical strains in European literature produced between the two World Wars. He further argues that, given the lyrical heritage of classical Chinese poetry, it is by no means accidental that the prose poetry of Lu Hsün, for instance, shows amazing similarities to the symbolist poetry of Baudelaire (though Lu Hsün may not have read Baudelaire extensively). In his analysis of the stories of Lu Hsün and Yü Ta-fu, he asserts in a similar vein that the two writers’ preoccupation with constructing evocative, lyrical tableaux at the expense of plot and the narrative line are likewise characteristic of European fiction of roughly the same period.
This intriguing thesis, though argued with analytical brilliance (see the article “A Confrontation of Traditional Oriental Literature with Modern European Literature”), seems nevertheless unconvincing. The avant-gardist ethos which infused European art and literature since Baudelaire stems, in my judgment, from an entirely different set of artistic presuppositions and is therefore qualitatively at variance with the May Fourth ethos, despite many formal similarities in their literary products. From the perspective of literary history, a more significant phenomenon which awaits detailed exploration is the “modernistic” experimentation in modern Chinese poetry of the 1930s and 1940s—the works of Li Chin-fa, Tai Wang-shu, and Pien Chih-lin and the statements printed in the influential journal Hsien-tai (Les contemporaines), for example—and the subsequent blossoming of modernistic writing in Taiwan poetry and fiction of the 1960s. Here the European influence is more direct and relevant, and the correspondences (as well as differences) may yield more fruitful “leads” for comparative studies. Despite these minor reservations, it is revealing that Půšsek should have deemed it necessary to make a strong case for modern Chinese literature in the light of Western literary developments. May we take this to be a testimony to Průšek’s own modern sensibilities, nourished as he was by the likes of Joyce, Mann, Eliot, Hesse, and Picasso? Or could we surmise that, perhaps unconsciously, he feels the need to defend the artistic merits of this new and fledgling literature out of a deep sense of love for Chinese culture and the Chinese people? (Průšek is in a position to count Mao Tun, Cheng Chen-to, and Ch’ien Hsing-ts’un as his former personal friends.)
In a sense all scholars of modern Chinese literature outside of China are faced with the same problem: how to make this very “Chinese” body of literature comprehensible to non-Chinese readers? Against typical Western standards of literary criticism, this literature can be found deficient in many aspects. It is, therefore, fascinating to follow the scholarly exchange of views between Professor Průšek and Professor C. T. Hsia, the leading authority of modern Chinese literature in the United States. Průšek’s critical review of Hsia’s book, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, and Hsia’s lengthy reply have demonstrated not only differences of methodology and approach but also varying standards of literary judgment. It is also intriguing to note that Hsia, a Chinese scholar with an impressive grasp of Western critical canons, is more harsh in his judgment of the general quality of modern Chinese literature, whereas Průšek, a European scholar, is more sympathetic to Chinese writers and more positive about their achievements. Their differences in the “scientific” approach are derived, to some extent, also from their divergent conceptions of the proper functions of the literary historian. Following the great tradition of F. R. Leavis, Professor Hsia considers it an inherent duty of any literary historian to discover and evaluate the major literary works of any period. Professor Průšek, on the other hand, tends to seek a broader understanding by placing the literary texts in the social and historical contexts of the period in which they were written. Their respective analyses of Lu Hsün’s stories provide a most instructive case in point. And it is from the scintillating insights emerging from these two opposing approaches that a student of modern Chinese literature gets his first rewarding lesson on how to analyze a literary text.
The debate between these two eminent scholars took place in the pages of T’oung Pao between 1961 and 1963. Since that time, the study of modern Chinese literature in the West has made considerable strides as a result of several academic conferences and publications. The volume which emerged from the Dedham Conference of 1974, Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), bears in its front matter a brief but fitting dedication: “To Jaroslav Průšek, whose work made this book possible.” I am tempted to add that Průšek’s work has, together with Hsia’s, performed a task of more monumental consequence: he has not only pioneered in the establishment of the scholarly discipline of modern Chinese literature studies but also, in several decades of dedicated service to the cause of modern Chinese literature through teaching and writing, has inspired an increasing number of young scholars to follow in his footsteps and discover new exciting terrains in this not yet fully developed field. It is hoped that Průšek’s followers and friendly opponents will find in these papers a wealth of insight and information which may provide a source of renewed faith in their own chosen profession.
Leo Ou-fan Lee
July 26, 1979
Just as this book was going to press, I was deeply grieved to learn of the death of Professor Průšek, in Prague, in April 1980. It is my hope that this volume will serve as a commemoration of his decades of teaching and scholarship.