Liu Zaifu: Selected Critical Essays review

MCLC and MCLC Resource Center are pleased to announce publication of Carlos Rojas’s review of Liu Zaifu: Selected Critical Essays, edited by Howard Y. F. Choy and Liu Jianmei. The review appears below and at its online home: My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, MCLC literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk A. Denton, MCLC

Liu Zaifu: Selected Critical Essays

By Liu Zaifu
Edited by Howard Y. F. Choy and Liu Jianmei

Reviewed by Carlos Rojas
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2021)

Liu Zaifu, Liu Zaifu: Selected Critical Essays. Edited by Howard Y. F. CHOY and LIU Jianmei. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2021. xxii + 375 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-44911-4 (hardback) ISBN: 978-90-04-44912-1 (e-book).

Liu Zaifu was born in 1941, one year before Erich Auerbach began working on what would become his magnum opus, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.[1] The dates of the latter work’s composition—May 1942-April 1945—were significant enough that Auerbach saw fit to have them printed on the verso of the book’s title page. Not only did the composition period of Mimesis closely coincide with World War II, the work was also written in Istanbul, Turkey, where Auerbach had been forced to relocate in 1935, after being dismissed from his academic post in Marburg, Germany as a result of Nazi policies.[2]

Although Auerbach adjusted quickly to his new post in Istanbul, the new setting was nevertheless far from ideal. For instance, Auerbach observes in the epilogue to Mimesis that

the book was written during the war and at Istanbul, where the libraries are not well equipped for European studies. International communications were impeded; I had to dispense with almost all periodicals, with almost all the more recent investigations, and in some cases with reliable critical editions of my texts. (2003: 557)

At the same time, however, Auerbach also notes that there is a way in which these same restrictions and impediments may have also been enabling:

The lack of technical literature and periodicals may also serve to explain that my book has no notes. Aside from the texts, I quote comparatively little, and that little it was easy to include in the body of the book. On the other hand it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing. (ibid)

Auerbach suggests, accordingly, that it was the unusual constraints under which he was having to work (in exile from Nazi Germany, with limited access to relevant scholarly resources) that became one of the enabling conditions for his landmark project. Moreover, it was precisely from his position at Europe’s outer margins (Istanbul straddles the Bosporus Strait, which forms part of the continental boundary between Europe and Asia) that he was able to compose one of the twentieth century’s most influential analyses of the European literary tradition.

In June 1989, just over half a century after Auerbach fled Germany, Liu Zaifu fled China in the aftermath of the government’s June Fourth crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Although Liu was not directly involved with the protests, many of the protesters took inspiration from his earlier writings, and consequently the government treated him as one of the instigators. Liu exited China via Hong Kong and ultimately arrived in the United States, where he was initially based at the University of Chicago before relocating to the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Although Auerbach’s and Liu’s positions are not exactly parallel, they do have many suggestive similarities. Both were literature scholars who were forced into exile for political reasons when they were in their forties, and who continued to pursue high-profile research projects while in exile. Like Auerbach, Liu was already prominently positioned before leaving China, being the Director of Literature at China’s National Academy of Social Sciences, and after arriving in the US he has remained one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the global Chinese diaspora.

Liu Zaifu turns eighty this year, and several other significant Chinese-language publications either by or about him have recently been released, including Liu’s five-volume memoir, Five Autobiographical Accounts (五史自傳);[3] a collective festschrift honoring Liu alongside Leo Ou-fan Lee and the late C. T. Hsia, titled Three Directions of Contemporary Humanities: C. T. Hsia, Leo Ou-fan Lee, Liu Zaifu (當代人文的三個方向: 夏志清, 李歐梵, 劉再復; 2020, edited by David Der-wei Wang, Ji Jin, and Liu Jianmei),[4] and an individual festschrift titled The Pure-Heart Son of Literature (文學赤子; 2021, also edited by Wang, Ji, and Liu).[5]

While the preceding volumes and collections are all in Chinese, Selected Critical Essays (2021) features English translations of thirteen essays from throughout Liu’s career. The essays are grouped into three parts: “Literary History,” “Cultural Criticism and Literary Theory,” and “Modern and Contemporary Chinese Writers.”

The three essays in Part 1 were all published after 1989, beginning with “Literary History as Paradox,” which Liu Zaifu completed in June of 1990, less than a year after leaving China, and then published in October 1990, in the inaugural issue of the influential Hong Kong journal Twenty-First Century (二十一世紀), which was founded shortly after the June Fourth crackdown to provide overseas Chinese intellectuals like Liu Zaifu with a public forum.

Of the five essays in Part 2, two were first published in 1988 and 1989, on the eve of the June Fourth crackdown, including one, “On the Stylistic Revolution of Literary Criticism in the 1980s,” which was first published in the March 1989 issue of the Chinese journal Literary Review (文學評論), just weeks before students began assembling in Tiananmen Square immediately following the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15.

Finally, all five essays in Part 3 were published after 1989, with the earliest, “Lu Xun and Chinese/Foreign Culture,” having first appeared in a 1990 volume that Liu Zaifu co-authored with Lin Gang 林崗, and the latest, “A Comparative Study of Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan,” having been first presented in oral form at a conference in Hong Kong in 2013 and published the following year.

Drawing on Liu Zaifu’s own self-description, Liu Jianmei (who is Liu Zaifu’s daughter) and Howard Choy, in their introduction to the volume, note that although in general terms Liu Zaifu’s intellectual career can be divided into three stages—that of a “Chinese scholar,” an “exile,” and a “cosmopolitan”—the year 1989 nevertheless marked a critical turning point in his career: “While attempting to name his historical experience, he acutely notes that his spiritual propensities before and after his exile are implicitly opposite: one is to move forward, paying attention to the modern (xiandai 現代) and courageously participating in social reform, the other is to move backward, returning to the classical (gudian 古典) and a childlike heart, withdrawing from the hustle and bustle of political struggle” (2). The result is a fascinating glimpse of Liu’s intellectual trajectory, including both his exploration of what China might become, as well as his extensive efforts to reexamine what China has already been.

From an editorial perspective, the selection of essays and the quality of the translations are very good, and both the volume’s preface (authored by David Der-wei Wang) and introduction (authored by the volume’s co-editors) are excellent. The translators and editors have included in-line Chinese characters for all proper names, titles of texts, and some specialized terminology, and have also added bibliographic footnotes where needed. Each chapter opens with an abstract and list of keywords—which is conventional for articles appearing in Chinese-language journals, but which is more unusual for an English-language collection of essays.

One of the volume’s editorial quirks is that although all the chapters include footnotes with a combination of bibliographic information and explanatory notes, in most cases there is no specification of whether the notes were present in the original article or have been added by the translators or editors. The only exception is the first chapter, in which twenty-one of the twenty-five footnotes carry a notation indicating that they were added by the translator.[6] Moreover, while some of these notes include basic bibliographic references or useful supplementary information, a surprisingly large number focus on minor textual irregularities in the original article (including missing characters, miswritten characters, and slight inaccuracies in citations from other works).[7]

None of the other translators makes a similar attempt to highlight these sorts of minor errors in the original text, and it seems particularly odd here—given that the essay in question was composed in June of 1990, less than a year after Liu Zaifu fled China and at what one can only assume must have been one of the most tumultuous periods in his life. On the other hand, one benefit of this unusual emphasis on the translator’s role in correcting seemingly minor infelicities in the original text is that it underscores the extraordinarily challenging circumstances under which the original essay (and, indeed, Liu Zaifu’s entire post-1989 literary project) was composed. Like Auerbach, however, Liu Zaifu was able to surmount these challenges and generate an impressive body of work that significantly enhances our appreciation of Chinese literature and thought. The present volume offers English-language readers a small sampling of this formidable body of work.

Carlos Rojas
Duke University


[1] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, tr. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). The original German language version of the work was first published in 1946, in Switzerland; Trask’s English translation first appeared in 1953.

[2] Jan N Bremmer, “Erich Auerbach and His Mimesis,” Poetics Today 20, no. 1 (1999): 3–10.

[3] Published by Hong Kong’s Sanlian Press, the five volumes of the memoir include A History of My Writings (我的寫作史; 2017), A History of My Soul (我的心靈史; 2019), A History of My Thought (我的思想史; 2020), A History of My Mistakes (我的錯誤史; 2020), and A History of My Hard Work (我的拼搏史; forthcoming).

[4] David Der-wei Wang 王德威, Ji Jin 季進, Liu Jianmei 劉劍梅, eds., Three Directions of Contemporary Humanities: C. T. Hsia, Leo Ou-fan Lee, Liu Zaifu (當代人文的三個方向: 夏志清,李歐梵, 劉再復) (Hong Kong: Sanlian shudian, 2020).

[5] David Der-wei Wang, Ji Jin, and Liu Jianmei, eds., The Pure-Heart Son of Literature (文學赤子) (Hong Kong: Sanlian shudian, 2021).

[6] Actually, two of the chapter’s remaining four footnotes were also added by the translator, though they are not designated as such—the original article had six footnotes in all, but the translator added additional explanations to four of those six, and then marked them as having been added to the English-language version of the article.

[7] In the volume’s “Postscript,” the translator of this chapter, Howard Choy, also devotes more than two full pages to a detailed discussion of the effort he put into translating the chapter and looking up the missing references.

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