How to bring classical Chinese writing to a modern audience

When, as co-founding editor-in-chief, Lingnan University’s Professor Zong-qi Cai helped to launch the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture back in 2014, there were a couple of clear objectives.

One was to publish insightful research articles and essays on pre-modern Chinese works and diverse aspects of the country’s broader literary scene. The other, embracing an international editorial vision, was to promote further exchanges and in-depth collaboration among scholars in China, the United States and other parts of the world.

Both aspects neatly exemplify his own career-long efforts to inspire understanding and appreciation through bringing the wonders of the Chinese literary tradition to a much wider audience.

Over the years, he has done that by publishing English translations of key works by leading Chinese scholars; encouraging interdisciplinary research that opens up new theoretical perspectives; and either co-writing or co-editing an ongoing series of “How to Read …” books to help newer readers catch the historical allusions, cultural references and stylistic devices that are such an integral part of classical Chinese poetry and prose writing.

By building bridges and spreading the word in this way, Cai has established himself as a pre-eminent figure in the field. But along the way, he has also found time to allow his interests to range from comparative literature to aesthetics and philosophy, delving into subjects as varied as early pentasyllabic Chinese poetry, literary criticism, and poetic culture from antiquity to the Tang dynasty.

“I fully realise that we have a finite span of life on Earth and we have to use that time wisely,” says Cai, who is Lingnan’s Lee Wing Tat Chair Professor of Chinese Literature. “So I choose topics that are ‘nodes’ of the tradition and can have an impact. I plan my research so that things link up in an overall scheme. It is not rigid, as I make adjustments, but there is a clear framework and I always plan well ahead of time.”

Those methods took shape after Cai, as one of the first mainland graduates to win an overseas scholarship to study Western and comparative literature in the early 1980s, which led subsequently to a doctorate at Princeton and, in 1991, a professorial position in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. There, his focus shifted to Chinese poetry, with a first monograph on the early mediaeval period, using a balanced combination of macro and micro study. This involved close reading and careful philological examination of the relevant texts, along with extensive analytical reflection on the entire tradition and how it evolved.

“You can see the importance of meaning only if you examine in the light of early and future developments,” says Cai, who currently serves as Director of The Advanced Institute for Global Chinese Studies. “I place things in the context of inter-cultural comparisons, and by looking through the lens of Western tradition I find new issues, angles, perspectives and devise new paradigms.”

In such endeavours, he notes, the key is not to focus on surface to similarities, but to probe what is unique in thinking about literature within a t a given worldview. “One problem, though, is that many books written on Chinese poetics or the poets of a particular period are by scholars talking to scholars. They are not accessible to the general reader. Also, the poetic beauty often gets lost in translation.”

Seeing the need to overcome such barriers, Cai came up with the idea of a guided anthology with a chapter for each major genre. The basic aims were to narrow the gap between literary research and language teaching, between the original and translations, and to alert people to the oral recitation aspect of Chinese poetry, which was often completely ignored.

The first volume was published in 2008 and proved a big success, leading to a series that now also covers prose, drama and literary theory.

“To reach an even broader audience, this year I started a weekly podcast on how to read Chinese poetry,” says Cai who, working with colleagues, has also relaunched the Lingnan Journal of Chinese Studies - well known previously for its cutting-edge scholarship - and founded the Lingnan Chinese Culture Programme to promote interest and greater involvement among the general public.

“Reaction to the podcasts has been very good so far. As we move into the Tang period, I’m sure we will attract even more listeners. And if we can get funding, we will produce a video version as well for YouTube.”