Campus & Community

Wang trains a literary lens on history

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Scholar examines how literature serves as witness to historical atrocities, political crises

David Der-Wei Wang of the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department is currently interested in modern Chinese history and its interaction with literature and narrative. (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Like the amorphous Chinese monster Taowu, whose 5,000-year history has been marked by shape-shifting and reinventions, Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature David Der-Wei Wang has undergone transformations and permutations throughout his academic career.

Initially trained in Anglo-European literary criticism, Wang is now “the leading figure in the world in the study of modern Chinese literature,” says Conant University Professor Stephen Owen, Wang’s colleague in the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department. And Wang, who joined the department this fall after 15 years at Columbia University, describes his current interest as modern Chinese history and its interaction with literature and narrative.

“Above all, I have a very general wide interest in the cultural dynamics of issues related to Chinese modernities,” says Wang. Despite the role of the ancient Taowu as an organizing theme in his most recent book, Wang’s scope of inquiry focuses on the most recent tumultuous two centuries of China’s history, from the late Qing dynasty through the 20th century. The period is ripe with violence, crises, and major events on which Wang can train a new literary lens. Literature, he says, both reflects China’s history and has shaped it.

“Literature is not a passive mirror reflecting objective realities,” he says. “Literature is part and parcel of that ongoing dynamic.”

History’s monster

The most recent of Wang’s 11 books (eight written in Chinese and three in English), “The Monster That Is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth Century China” (University of California Press, 2004), weaves together the interaction of literature and history to explore eight historical moments from 20th century China – from the Boxer Rebellion through the second Sino-Japanese War, the 1949 Great Divide, and the Cultural Revolution to the fall of Hong Kong. From these historical vantage points, Wang examines “how literature first served as witness to historical atrocities or political crises, and, secondly, how literature was being generated as a result of such historical and political circumstances,” he says.

Layered atop this historical-literary analysis is the legend of Taowu, the monster of the book’s title. A vicious beast with the head of a pig and the teeth of a tiger, Taowu also possessed the visionary capacity to foresee its future challenges and therefore avoid them. Yet Taowu was also ever-changing throughout history.

The monster lent its name to a type of historical writing, Wang says, that promised that by chronicling humanity’s evildoings, one could avoid repeating them. Wang, a self-described pessimist, explores China’s violent events of the 20th century through this interpretation of the monster.

“We hope by reading these events, we don’t repeat the same mistake. We can forestall villainy, evil, beforehand. But the point is that Taowu is such an amorphous creature whose appearance is always undergoing changes, we have no way actually to predict whatever kind of evil will pop up in the next round of human experience,” he says.

Yet Wang believes that looking at history, even if it can’t prevent future evil, is important. “We ought to read history in order to better prepare ourselves to imagine what the evil may be like,” he says. “Nobody can foresee the future, but at least given our capacity of remembering whatever has happened over the past, at least we can be on guard whenever this unthinkable evil will come up.”

Fiction more powerful than fact

Born in Taiwan to Chinese parents who fled their homeland after the 1949 Great Divide, Wang finished college in Taiwan before coming to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to pursue advanced studies in comparative literature. “I truly owe a lot to this country,” he says, noting that his Taiwanese education gave him precious little background in modern Chinese literature or history. He arrived at graduate school with a firm footing in English and European literary traditions but almost no knowledge of what he calls “that very forbidden part of Chinese literature.”

Wang’s appointment at Harvard marks his second time teaching at the University; he taught here for three years in the mid-1980s before launching what he calls a “happy and productive” career at Columbia. His return to Harvard brings accolades from his colleagues. “David Wang has in effect changed the meaning of Chinese ‘modernity’ from the complete adoption of European models in the 1920s to a far more complex negotiation with external forces beginning 80 years earlier in the 19th century,” says Owen.

His scholarship on modern Chinese literature is “unrivalled,” says Professor of Chinese Literature Wai-Yee Li, who adds, “In the Chinese-speaking world he is universally admired not only as a scholar of commanding breadth and depth, but also as someone who can bridge the gap between the literary and scholarly communities because of his own lucid, beautiful prose, as well as his role as discerning and indefatigable commentator on contemporary Chinese fiction.”

Wang’s current projects illustrate the Taowu-like reinvention of his academic nature. One, tentatively titled “Surviving China: Chinese Artists and Intellectuals in Mid-Twentieth Century Crisis,” explores the responses of filmmakers, opera singers, painters, writers, calligraphers, and intellectuals to the 1949 Great Divide.

“This is a moment which probably had the most immediate impact on modern Chinese history. But amazingly, in literary studies, very little has been written about it,” he says, acknowledging that the project is as much a work of history as literary theory.

And he returns to his literary roots with a project that is clearly close to his heart: He is editing an English translation of a classic 19th century courtesan novel, “Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai,” by the major Chinese writer Eileen Chang.

Against the backdrop of modern Chinese history, Wang argues that fiction has a role perhaps more powerful than fact in helping us understand the past. “When history fails to tell us what exactly happened at a certain moment in 20th century China, fiction – or literature in general – is the cultural vehicle that manages to fill the gap,” he says.