Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Hollis Robbins on the Chinese study of American literature

Hollis Robbins, Dancing with Chains, BLARB: Blog//LA Review of Books, April 3, 2018:
But we are in their gaze. And as Wesleyan president Michael Roth noted a few months ago, Chinese students are asking better and more interesting questions than we are about academia and academic subjects. Free from the invisible social constraints of academic norms — the trends and fashions of academic study — young Chinese scholars are writing with wild abandon about Sidney Sheldon, slave narratives, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Mitchell, “Chick Lit,” and Michael Chabon. I met a scholar studying Neil Simon and Toni Morrison, a combination for which I can’t imagine a supportive dissertation committee here.

Systematic Chinese study of American literature is nearly 50 years old. Since 1978, Chinese textbooks on American literature have presented to students works by Stowe, Mailer, and Doctorow, as explicitly critical of capitalism and sympathetic to the oppressed. Two of the first American works of fiction translated into Chinese were Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Hemingway’s “The Killers” for reasons that are obvious. More recent studies feature Stephen King, Philip Roth, and zombie movies as critiques of American culture and politics. And while English language essays by Chinese scholars sometimes feature jarring word choices (a recent essay on The Great Gatsby describes Fitzgerald as attending “a noble school for the wealthy kids”), such choices are rarely actually wrong.

The Chinese scholars I met know their literary theory*, too, and think about theory and culture in refreshingly relevant ways. During a lecture to film students at Nanjing University, a grad student, drawing on Foucault and Levi-Strauss, asked about the scholarship on class politics in Quentin Tarantino’s films. I heard a talk at Zheijiang Gongshang University on Mikhail Bakhtin’s applicability to the African American call-and-response tradition. A young professor who just finished a book about orphans as “freethinkers” in Mary Shelley’s novels, asked about theories of orphans in African American literature. At Dianzi University last summer I met a student writing on the resonance of Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim to a culture in which so many people have no siblings. At a foreign language high school lecture on American Westerns, after I ended with a clip from Red Planet, a student asked if today’s Americans would ever see themselves as Native Americans after a Martian invasion and whether anyone had written on the subject. I laughed and said I didn’t think so.

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