The Making of Chinese-Sinophone
Literatures as World Literature

Edited by Kuei-fen Chiu and Yingjin Zhang

Reviewed by Dylan Suher

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2022)

Kuei-fen Chiu and Yingjin Zhang, eds., The Making of Chinese-Sinophone Literatures as World Literature. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2022. xi + 249 pp. ISBN 9789888528721.

Listing just a few of the texts analyzed in the 11 chapters of Kuei-fen Chiu and Yingjin Zhang’s The Making of Chinese-Sinophone Literatures as World Literature is a good demonstration of this edited volume’s ambition:

  • A translation by Mao Dun 茅盾 of the Nicaraguan writer Rubén Dario’s story “El velo de la reina Mab” (The veil of Queen Mab);
  • a Taiwanese picturebook about a half-crocodile, half-duck creature’s identity crisis;
  • translations of pseudo-haiku by the poet Chen Li 陳黎 into subway posters, “poetry walls,” and dance pieces.

The editors and nine other contributors to this volume show an admirable lack of complacency in exploring the intersection between Chinese-Sinophone literatures and world literature. But despite the thoughtfulness of the essays collected here, I nevertheless retain some doubts about the volume’s overall framework.

Kuei-fen Chiu and Yingjin Zhang’s introduction, “Chinese-Sinophone Literatures as World Literature” is dedicated to explaining the somewhat unwieldy conceptual contraption of the title. At its core is “world literature”; Chiu and Zhang favor David Damrosch’s definition of world literature as encompassing works that are “actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture”[1] while acknowledging that even this effort to open up the category does not do away with the structures of publishing, scholarship, and prestige that favor a Eurocentric canon. Chiu and Zhang use the term “Chinese-Sinophone Literatures” as a way to “distance our position from a preoccupation with ‘China/center/major vs. non-China/periphery/minor debates” (8), charting a course between lumping all literature written in Chinese together and a Sinophone framework that excludes mainland literature and non-Chinese-speaking readers. Chinese-Sinophone literatures, the editors posit, are actively made into world literature as “the work travels beyond national boundaries and gains a new life in world literary space” (11, original emphasis). Chiu and Zhang emphasize a world literature defined not only by texts, but also by the translators and publishers who bring those texts across borders, by the genres used to package those texts for new audiences, and by the technologies and media used to disseminate these texts globally.

The first of the volume’s four parts, “Conceptualization and Methods,” asks how the concept of world literature might be expanded to incorporate Chinese-Sinophone literatures. In “Chinese Literature, Translation, and World Literature,” Zhang Longxi argues that world literature offers more space for Chinese literature than a translation-skeptic comparative literature. In Zhang’s view, the key to introducing Chinese literature to the “canon of world literature” (29) is high-quality literary translation that avoids a “‘foreignizing’ pidgin English” that “only consigns it to an exotic Oriental heterotopia” (37). To give an example of the harm foreignizing can do, Zhang relates the story of a manuscript reviewer who was skeptical of his translations because they read too fluidly in English. A galling anecdote, to be sure, but is the proper conclusion to draw that we need fewer foreignizing translations or simply fewer racist manuscript reviewers? Yingjin Zhang’s chapter, “Locations of China in World Literature and World Cinema,” contrasts the wariness within world literature debates of globalization’s capital-driven homogenization against the comfort within cinema studies with a “global cinema” that incorporates consciousness of “local” positions. Zhang’s argument reminded me, however, of Jason McGrath’s analysis of Jia Zhangke’s 賈樟柯 films in the context of an international art house aesthetic, or Markus Nornes’s work on how film translation practices tend to obscure their own complexities—“global cinema,” too, runs up against this problem of homogenization.[2] In “Comparison as Relation: From World History to World Literature,” Shu-mei Shih draws on new methods within global history to propose a methodology she terms “relational comparison.” This approach shifts our conceptualizing of world literature away from concern with “inclusiveness or qualification”—Shih explicitly critiques Damrosch’s focus on those texts privileged enough to be translated—and toward a praxis of “excavating and activating the historically specific set of relationalities across time and space.” Through this praxis, Shih seeks to uncover the manifold topics that appear when we consider “the infinite web of world relations within which the text is caught” (63–64). As proof of method, Shih undertakes a brief “relational study” of Chang Kuei-hsing’s 張貴興 Monkey Cup (猴杯), Faulkner’s works, and the Jamaican author Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda, revealing the shared themes and stylistic approaches of the “plantation arc” formed by these works (64). I find Shih’s approach promising to the point of threatening “world literature” with obsolescence.

The analyses of routes of translation in Part II, “Translation Circuits: Intra-Asia, Transpacific, and the Global,” pose fundamental critiques of the Damroschian definition of world literature on which the volume is built. In his chapter “Intra-Asian Reading; or, How Lu Xun Enters into a World Literature,” Satoru Hashimoto argues that the Japanese literary scholar Takeuchi Yoshimi  竹內好 was drawn to the work of Lu Xun 魯迅 not because of its inherent universal literary qualities, but because of the role Lu Xun’s writing played in the world. Takeuchi’s engagement with Lu Xun’s “worldliness” prompted his reflection on both Chinese and Japanese modernity, and in so doing, “generat[ed] a new horizon of textual circulation” that creates a world literature distinct from the world literature premised on “an idea of circulability in general in the name of literature” (85). Andrea Bachner’s chapter “World-Literary Hospitality: China, Latin America, Translation” examines two cases of literary exchange between Latin America and China: Mao Dun’s translation of a story by the Nicaraguan writer Rubén Dario and José Juan Tablada’s 1920 poetry collection Li-Po and Other Poems. In a search for the shared experiences of “weak peoples,” Mao Dun ignored the local context and the Orientalism of Dario’s work; Tablada’s translations were not an effort to connect to China, but instead a mimicry of European Orientalism intended to prove Latin America’s place in the privileged center of world literature. The way these acts of translation were primarily shaped by demands at the point of reception, Bachner argues, reveals the need to shift world literature from a preoccupation with the movement of texts out from a center to a perspective Bachner labels “world-literary hospitality, namely, a focus on the active role of acts of reception, such as selection, translation, interpretation, creation, etc.” (106).

Part III, “Genre Matters: The Novel, Poetry, and Children’s Literature,” demonstrates the wide range of genres that Chinese-Sinophone literatures as world literature encompasses. “The Worlding of Chinese Science Fiction: A Global Genre and Its Negotiations as World Literature,” Mingwei Song’s essay on the new wave of Chinese science fiction as represented by Liu Cixin 劉慈欣, Chen Qiufan 陳楸帆, and Han Song 韓松, has been placed by the editors in Part II, but it seems more focused on the “genre matters” of Part III. Song documents how this globally oriented genre serves as the scene of ironic “homecomings” (135)—an articulation of China’s position and the meaning of the “homeland” in an increasingly interconnected world. Although efforts to expand the scope of Chinese world literature are laudable, the volume would be incomplete without Wendy Larson’s analysis of the Nobel Prize winning heavyweights of the global Chinese canon, “Space, Place, and Distance: Gao Xingjian, Mo Yan, and the Novel in World Literature.” Larson notes that these two writers manage to succeed in a world literature dominated by the European novel and its narrow standards of “psychological development in characters, spatial and temporal relationships, lyrical sensibilities, voice, plot, and narrative strategies” (146)—although, I found myself asking, are these standards really unique to the European novel? Larson argues that the two writers’ paths to success on this skewed playing field are diametrically opposed. While Gao Xingjian’s 高行健 entry into world literature is achieved through “creativity within a modernist style that is globally recognized” (150), a style that rejects the local in favor of “abstracted space” (147), Mo Yan 莫言 “insists on the immersion of the reader into the locale of his stories” (152), offering “local color” (156) for the global marketplace.

In “Mimesis and Contemporary Chinese Poetry: A Distributed View on World Literature” (another essay that could have been placed in Part IV, because its concerns with media fit the theme of that section), Tong King Lee uses the challenges posed by the translation of Chen Li’s concrete poems and the adaptation of Chen’s work into a host of other media to explore a “world literature beyond translation” (164). Lee reconceptualizes literature as “an infinite series of momentary constellations of memes (semiotic resources) put together in particular moments of time and space; and as assemblages, literature is deterritorializable (memes can scatter) and reterritorializable (memes can combine with other memes to partake of different repertoires)” (166–167). I do not know that Lee’s argument requires this formidable terminological arsenal, but he does make a convincing case that world literature must consider technologies of circulation beyond translation from one written language to another. Andrea Mei-Ying Wu’s chapter “Taiwanese Picturebooks and Children’s Literature as World Literature” uses the transnational and transmedial transformations of the Taiwanese children’s picture book Guji Guji (咕嘰咕嘰) to situate “children’s literature—a genre often relegated to the margins—at [world literature’s] core” (186). I appreciate Wu’s attention to the role of such concrete institutions of reception as the American Library Association and the two publishing houses that put out two subtly different English versions of Guji Guji. I am always suspect, however, of the type of broad generalizing that leads Wu to contrast a “Chinese text [that] tends to emphasize the familial bond” and a translation saddled with “a common Western narrative convention where individualism is accentuated” (189–190).

Wu and Lee’s contributions, with their attention to translations across media, form a natural segue into the final section of the volume, “Part IV: Literary Lives on Transmedia and the Internet,” which focuses on the media and technologies that make Chinese-Sinophone literatures into world literature. In his chapter “From Writing to Roaming: World Literature and the Literary World of Black and Blue,” Michel Hockx notes the irony that scholars of world literature so often neglect the internet—which after all, as Hockx reminds us, is the World Wide Web—and instead focus on books, as if the debate over world literature were “print culture’s last stand: a desperate global expansion because the national communities of print culture literature are becoming too small to sustain themselves independently” (204). Hockx recounts the activity of the literary community around the magazine Black and Blue (黑籃), which has moved from webforums to e-reader platforms to the mega-platform of WeChat. Black and Blue is a literary community where not just texts but also writers and readers are mobile, enmeshed in a cosmopolitan way of life. Hockx’s study of the effect of the internet on authorship is paired with “World Literature in an Age of Digital Technologies: Digital Archive, Wikipedia, and,” Kuei-fen Chiu’s examination of the way the internet shapes reception. Chiu explores how three internet platforms—Wikipedia, Goodreads, and a digital archive built by National Chung Hsing University—participate in the “literary consecration” (218) of the Taiwanese writer Li Ang (李昂) as an important author of world literature. Chiu’s highlighting of new digital sources for reader response is welcome, as is her experimentation with new methods for analyzing this response, such as the word cloud she generates from Goodreads comments on Li Ang’s The Butcher’s Wife (殺父) (230). But recognition is only one small part of the broader phenomenon of reception, and the investment and engagement that also constitute reception may not be something that can be analyzed quantitatively, at least through the data these platforms generate.

Insofar as we are interested in Chinese-Sinophone literature as world literature, the approaches collected in The Making of Chinese-Sinophone Literatures as World Literature are likely to prove the most productive. This volume is attentive to the practical questions of moving texts across borders, and broad-minded with respect to genres, technologies, and types of readers. Yet, from the moment I encountered the title through the very last page, I could not shake the question: why do we want to make Chinese-Sinophone literature into world literature, anyway? To be honest, this volume feels a little belated. David Damrosch’s What Is World Literature?, cited in nearly every chapter, was published almost twenty years ago in 2003; most of the other theoretical references cluster around 2010.[3] Sometimes such superannuated references are an unavoidable consequence of the deliberate pace of academic publishing, or they speak to the persistence of a theoretical question, but sometimes they are a sign that a discursive moment has passed. What Is World Literature? was published long before COVID-19 put paid to the inevitability of globalization, and even before the Global Financial Crisis ended the dream of the ever-expanding global university. The debates over world literature have been around for so long that the objections I pose below probably feel a little stale.

The mission to make Chinese-Sinophone literature into world literature unfortunately reminds me of such vulgar efforts to build “national culture” as GAPP press releases trumpeting the successful export of some unnecessarily precise number of titles at the Frankfurt Book Fair—never mind whether those titles are poetry or pump-maintenance manuals—or of the continuing symptoms of the interminable “Nobel Fever.” I have never understood why I should be invested in the success of publishers unless I am directly getting a cut, nor have I ever understood why a club of scandal-plagued Swedes should be taken seriously as final arbiters of literary merit. There are people who treat literature like Zhuangzi’s proverbial turtle: a long dead creature whose mere shell is placed on an altar to glorify the state. Like Zhuangzi, I much prefer living literature, the kind that flops its tail in the mud.

But of course, this volume is not intended to impress GAPP, but rather, I assume, our colleagues in comparative literature. If that is the case, I wonder why we are still trying to win those colleagues over in the third decade of the twenty-first century. I (and I do not think I am alone among scholars of my generation) have become awfully tired of being the voice that always says “China, too” at the seminar table, especially when, as Shu-mei Shih demonstrates in this volume, there are ways to study the transnationality of Chinese-Sinophone literature without petitioning for representation in the world republic of letters. Even when done with necessary conscientiousness, studies of world literature tend to shift comparative discussions to questions of prestige, canon, and the “masterwork” that I do not find particularly compelling. So many of the contributions of this volume grow rhizomatically through the gaps of the framework of world literature: Bachner pointing out what is lost with the focus on point of origin; Lee’s call for an expanded understanding of translation; Hockx’s critique of world literature’s bias against non-print media. When a discourse grows out like that, one could choose to expand the existing framework—or one could simply transplant the discourse to an entirely different soil.

Of course, maybe our real concern with respect to our colleagues is not the theoretical question of the canon, but the practical question of divvying up the curriculum—and the syllabus, the source book, the survey, academic centers, journals, and tenure track lines.[4] If those practical struggles are our main concern, we should foreground them. It would be productive, and not only in the case of world literature, to openly discuss the political economy of scholarship and bridge the gap between text and world. It is difficult not to notice that the contributors to this volume who are based or partially based outside of North America—that is, at some remove from the power and resources of Anglophone academia—are less dismissive of more traditional notions of world literature. There is something to Yingjin Zhang’s complaint that “critics of world literature have quickly intervened to close the door of world literature to non-Western participation” (53–54) just as China has arrived at the party.

The simplest argument for making Chinese-Sinophone literature into world literature is just that we would like more people to read Chinese-language literature. I find that goal laudable but limited. Many of the contributions to this volume triumphantly mention Goethe’s embrace of a Chinese novel, but none of them quote what Goethe actually took away from this encounter:

“Chinese novel!” said I; “that must look strange enough.”

“Not so much as you might think,” said Goethe; “The Chinese think, act, and feel almost exactly like us; and we soon find that we are perfectly like them, except that all they do is more clear, pure, and decorous, than with us.”[5]

The Chinese—they’re just like us! Or they’re very different than us, in perilously vague ways. It is perhaps a revolutionary insight in the nineteenth century, but a banal tautology in the twenty-first. If contemporary readers pick up literature originally written in Chinese in an effort to understand Chinese culture or to get a taste of some imagined Otherness, I suppose that is better than if they did not read those books at all, but it is well past time to insist that readers (or at the very least, reviewers, publishers, and marketers) move beyond these anthropological reading practices. To be fair, Damrosch and most sophisticated advocates of world literature recognize this need—Damrosch has written that “it is the role of the scholar and teacher of world literature to keep readers alive to cultural difference and to develop illuminating analyses of creative conjunctions of distant works.”[6] I simply believe that this duty on the part of the scholar and teacher is made more difficult by a world literature framework, which implicitly encourages reading texts as representations of cultures instead of reading for the pleasures of the text. Frankly, at the moment, both of these reading cultures—one in which an English-language reader eagerly picks up a work translated from Chinese, and one in which an English-language reader doesn’t exoticize or tokenize that work—are utopian fantasies. But as long as we are striving toward utopia, let me pick the one where someone reads, say, Dung Kai-cheung’s 董啟章 Posthuman Comedy (後人間喜劇) and understands it not as an example of Chinese or Sinophone or Hong Kong literature but as a novel without such national qualifications—one that, like many other contemporary novels, grapples with problems of freedom and place in a digitally mediated world.

It is customary to the point of cliché to conclude a scholarly review with a recommendation for how the book could be used. Here is my recommendation: take this book, and corner one of your colleagues in comparative literature. Demand that the department’s graduate proseminar be restructured roughly along the lines of this volume. No, put Auerbach’s Mimesis down; limit yourself to the texts, theories, and problems discussed in this volume. We will place China and the Sinophone at the center of world literature, all your Western canon and theory be damned! That such a restructuring could be imagined speaks to the ambitions successfully realized by The Making of Chinese-Sinophone Literatures as World Literature. But the reality that such a conversation—much less the restructuring itself—seems impossible speaks to the limits of those ambitions.

Dylan Suher
University of Hong Kong


[1] David Damrosch, What Is World Literature? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 4.

[2] Jason McGrath, “The Independent Cinema of Jia Zhangke: From Postsocialist Realism to a Transnational Aesthetic” in Zhang Zhen, ed., The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 81–115; Abé Mark Nornes, Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[3] For example, the frequently cited bête noire, Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (London: Verso), is from 2013. Another frequently cited work, Pheng Cheah’ What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature, was published in 2016 (Durham: Duke University Press). Cheah’s book essentially gives us the latest terminus post quem for the theoretical framework of the volume. Other theoretical touchstones are far older: Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters was published in 1999 (Paris: Editions du Seuil), and the English translation by M.B. Debevoise was published five years later (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Franco Moretti’s “Conjectures on World Literature” was published in 2000 (New Left Review, no. 1: 54–88).

[4] This attention to the practical is an aspect of Damrosch’s work that his critics often ignore. For a discussion of these practical issues in world literature, see David Damrosch, “An Interview with David Damrosch,” interview by Dylan Suher, Asymptote (January 2015).

[5] J.W. von Goethe and J.P. Eckermann, “Conversations on World Literature (1827),” Tr. John Oxenford, in David Damrosch, Nathalie Melas, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi, eds., The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature: From the European Enlightenment to the Global Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 21.

[6] David Damrosch, “Frames for World Literature,” in Simone Winko, Fotis Jannidis and Gerhard Lauer eds., Grenzen der Literatur: Zu Begriff und Phänomen des Literarischen (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009), 513. I am grateful to Nicholas Kaldis for raising this point.