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Professor Cai Zongqi

Lee Wing Tat Chair Professor of Chinese Literature

Professor Cai Zongqi

Overcoming the barriers of time

It has been a long-held ambition of Professor Cai Zong-qi, Lingnan’s Lee Wing Tat Chair Professor of Chinese Literature and Director of the Centre for Humanities Research, to promote a richer dialogue between the Western and Chinese literary traditions.

“When I first went to America, I was a little bit shocked at the ignorance I found about China, especially when compared to how much the Chinese knew about the Western world,” Professor Cai recalls. He has seen a shift, however, over the last two or three decades. “I think Chinese scholars still know a lot more about Western literature than the other way around - even though this is changing.”

Historical roots

“The Western literary tradition began with epics and with drama, and gradually poetry and fiction were introduced,” he notes. “But Chinese literature does not have a tradition of epics, and the dominance of short lyric poetry lasted throughout the entire imperial period and is still alive today.”

Many classical Chinese poems originated as folk songs or narrative tales about the founding father of the Zhou dynasty. Later they came to be used by diplomats and courtiers to convey messages in the form of an indirect expression of the state’s intent. “Poetry composition became a criterion for selection for promotion to high government office during the Tang dynasty, from around 600 to 900 AD, and many subsequent dynasties.”

But it wasn’t only the high and the mighty who valued the form. Ordinary people also used poetry to express their thoughts and ideas, and this practice has persisted in what has been an uninterrupted tradition up to the present day.

Crossing cultural boundaries

The dialogue between Chinese and Western literature really began in the early 20th century, Professor Cai explains. Ezra Pound’s fascination with Chinese poetry informed his ‘manifesto’ for modernist poetry, which became a must read for those interested in the rise of contemporary poetry and provided impetus to literary innovation in the West. The resultant ideas were, in turn, recycled back to China, where they stimulated developments such as a new school of poetry.

With his work in the field of Pre-Modern Chinese Literature, Professor Cai has made a significant contribution to this cross-cultural dialogue. The Hong Kong Government’s Research Grants Council made him an Awardee of the Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme 2015/16, and he has authored numerous books and articles on Chinese poetry, Chinese literary criticism, comparative poetics, and Western literature.

Guiding PhD students

Professor Cai’s PhD students are working in the field of poetry and poetry criticism and he takes an opened-minded approach to their choices. “I ask them to explore the topic that interests them most, and allows them to use their talents to the utmost. I’m not the type to ask the students to follow in my footsteps.”

He does, however, expect them to approach a topic in a way that is uniquely their own, either through the uncovering of new material or through new insights into the known material. “This is something I really emphasize: the originality of the research. This is the core value of research, without which it becomes meaningless.”

PhD students are able to draw on Professor Cai’s deep well of experience throughout their time in the Research Postgraduate Programme. He is able to offer them guidance on whether a particular topic is a workable choice, on their critical approach to it, and on the reading it will require. He can also advise them on their writing, to ensure it is clear, logical and coherent, and respects the conventions of contemporary academia.

Literature’s insights

Knowledge of the Chinese literary tradition can help people in other countries understand the cultural values that shape thinking within China, Professor Cai suggests.

“Currently there is a lot of hysteria around the idea of a Chinese threat and about China’s militarization.” However, he adds, there has never been much glorification of imperial conquest in, say, traditional poetry. The Chinese dynasties were primarily focused on maintaining control of the population within their own country, and the poems about the border wall, for example, are nearly always laments about the hardships faced or expressions of longing for home and peace.