Wolfgang Kubin on Contemporary Chinese Literature

(Deutsche Welle via Priest Liu)

[in translation]

Bonn University Professor of Chinese Studies Wolfgang Kubin is one of the most renowned Sinologists in Germany, especially on the presentation and study of contemporary Chinese literature.  In this DW interview, he expressed his views on the Chinese Writers Association, the problems in contemporary Chinese literature, the problems of Chinese writers and how they can step onto the world stage, and also about certain specific writers and works.

DW: In the recent Writers Association meeting in Beijing, Tie Ning was elected chairperson.  This is the third chairperson in the history of the Writers Association after Mao Dun and Ba Jin.  I understand that you were in China at the time.  What are your views?

Kubin: I was in China at the time, but I don't know much about this event.  In any case, it can be said that all of the Chinese writers that I know hold the Writers Association in contempt.  For us Sinologists, it is a matter of indifference if there is a new chairperson for the Writers Association.

DW:  Can it be said that the new Writers Association president does not need to the most famous and respected person in the manner of Mao Dun and Ba Jin?

Kubin: This Writers Association serves no purpose whatsoever.  You can ask all the writers in mainland China and none of them will voluntarily talk about the Writers Association.  Nobody.  Not a single person.  If one is a genuine Chinese writer, he will not join this Writers Association.  If he became a great writer only after joining, then something is wrong with him.  Generally speaking, good writers cannot possibly be associated with the Writers Association.

DW: I understand you wrote a report recently about the problem of existence of Chinese literature in the 21st century.  Can you summarize the contents of this report?  That is to say, tell us about the problems that exist for Chinese literature over the past few years.

Kubin: I can only mention certain existing problems that I feel exists in 20th century Chinese literature.  If we divide Chinese writers into those before or after 1949, we will find out that writers before 1949 were pretty good with foreign languages -- Eileen Chang, Lin Yu-tang, Hu Shi, they can all write in foreign languages.  Some of the authors (such as Lu Xun) can handle two foreign languages without any problems.  After 1949, you basically cannot find a Chinese writer who can speak a foreign language.  Therefore, he cannot use another language system to examine his own work.  Also, he cannot read the works written in foreign languages.  He can only read foreign works translated into English.  Therefore, Chinese writers have very poor understanding of foreign literature.  Many of the pre-1949 writers believe that when they learn foreign languages, they will enrich their own writing.  But if you ask a contemporary Chinese writer why he won't learn a foreign language, he will say that a foreign language can only ruin his mother tongue.  I guess this is why there are no great writers after 1949 and why these writers do not compare to the pre-1949 writers.  This is where the problem lies.  This is a very important issue.

DW: Do you think that this is the sole problem, or the main problem?

Kubin.  This is the biggest problem.  When Chinese writers go overseas, they have to rely on the Sinologists because they can't even speak a word of foreign language.  They rely on us completely.  Their works need us to translate them from Chinese.

DW: You must have some understanding about certain recent works from China in recent years, such as <Wolf Totem>.

Kubin: <Wolf Totem> is fascism according to us Germans.  That book causes China to lose face.

DW: There are also the works of other authors such as the "pretty girl writers" like Mian Mian and Wei Hui.

Kubin:  You must be joking.  That is not literature.  That is trash.

DW: Do you think that there is any more decent Chinese literature in recent years?

Kubin: There is some in Chinese poetry.  There are some good, even excellent, writers of Chinese poetry, such as Ouyang Jianghe, Sichuan, Zhai Yongming and others.  There are many others.  That is for sure.

DW: China is talking about "Poetry is dead."  Why do you think?

Kubin: How can poetry be dead?  Even if China is dead, then poetry will be dead in China but it will continue to "live on" in Germany.  If a Chinese poet comes to Germany and we organize a reading, there will be at least 50 people, 100 people in attendance.  We will certain publish their collected poems.  Contemporary Chinese writers have published many poetry books in German.  Chinese literature will not die in Germany.

DW: How does contemporary Chinese poetry compare to the 1980's with people like Bei Dao and Yang Lian?

Kubin: That is hard to compare.  But I think that the poets from both the 1980's and 1990's are excellent.  They have their own visions, they have their own language, etc.  Personally, I obviously like Bei Dao and that group of people.  But I am older and I should consider the younger readers.  Those younger readers are likely to prefer the 1990's poets such as Wang Jiaxin, Ouyang Jianghe, Zhai Yongming and so on.

DW: The Chinese Writers Association has a project now to select 100 Chinese works and translate them into foreign languages so that Chinese literature can go out into the world.  What do you think about this plan?  Is it meaningful?

Kubin: This may mean something in the United States, but it is meaningless in Germany.  Basically, we have already translated the Chinese literary works into German.  All Chinese writers of any era already has German editions of their works.  We do not need that help.  But it is a problem in the United States where the need exists because they have done fewer translations.

DW: China has been developing economically very rapidly.  Some people say that China will surpass the United States economically in the next 30 or 40 years.  The United States got prosperous in the last century.  But we know that they prospered not only economically, but also in literature, cinema, popular music and so on.  They had a tremendous impact on the world.  Do you believe that China will also develop rapidly in literature to match its economic standing?

Kubin:  That depends on the Chinese people themselves.  The people who despise Chinese culture and Chinese literature are not us foreigners, but the Chinese people themselves.  The problem is with China itself.  The Chinese people do not assign any important position to their own culture and literature.

DW: How are we supposed to understand this?  Why do you say that the Chinese people do not assign any importance to their literature?

Kubin: Let me give you a very simple example.  Last year, I published in Germany a history of 20th century Chinese literature.  When the Chinese intellectuals who are all my friends (including the writers) heard that I was writing such a history, they said, "Don't write it.  There is nothing good.  It is all trash."

DW: That is to say, they despise themselves.  Or perhaps one should say that they despise each other.

Kubin: Yes, you are very correct.  They despise each other.

DW: When Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize, the reaction from China was more negative than positive.  Is that what happened?  Do you feel that China will get another Nobel Prize in Literature?

Kubin: The Nobel Prize in Literature is secondary.  You have to write poorly in order to win.  If you write well, you will never win it.  Therefore the Nobel Prize in Literature is also trash.

DW: If you have to say a few words to Chinese writers, what will you say?

Kubin: They should learn to master their mother tongue well.  Most Chinese writers have poor mastery of Chinese.  Also, they should learn first on how to write.  The problem there is tremendous for Chinese writers.  But their basic problem is that their awareness is poor and their vistas are limited.  It seems as if they live in a small room and they are afraid to open their eyes to look at the world.  Therefore, China does not have its own voice, at least in terms of literature.  There are writers everywhere in Germany, they represent Germany and they speak for the German people.  Therefore we have a voice for Germany.  But where is the voice for China?  None.  It does not exist.  The Chinese writers are gutless.  Basically, they have no guts.

DW: That is to say, there is no such person like Lu Xun.

Kubin: Yes, you are very correct.  Lu Xun was representative.  But can show me such a Chinese writer today?  There isn't any.

DW: Does this have anything to do with the environment inside China?  That is to say, the ideological control.

Kubin: Possibly.  But you cannot keep saying that the conditions do not allow you.  I feel that a Chinese writer should not keep saying that historical conditions do not allow him to do this or that.  I consider that to be a joke.  In order for a writer to become a genuine writer, he should not consider what difficulties he might encounter.  He should speak out just like Lin Yu-tang and Lu Xun did back then.

DW: From the 20th century to the 21st century, which Chinese writers would you consider to be great?

Kubin:  This is premature to say.  You have to wait at least 50 years later and then you look back to see which (if any) are great.  Lu Xun is definitely great.  There are others before 1949.  There are definitely none from 1949 to now.

DW: Bei Dao and Gao Xingjian are not?

Kubin: Gao Xingjian?  Don't joke about this.  Bei Dao could be considered great, because he is courageous.  But you should not forget that he is only 50 years old.

(Chongqing Morning News via Phoenix TV)  Famous Germany Sinologist shellacked Chinese literature as trash (德国知名汉学家炮轰中国当代文学是垃圾). By Feng Weining.  December 11, 2006.

[in translation]

[in translation]

Recently, the internationally famous German Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin was interviewed by Deutsche Welle and he surprisingly said: "Contemporary Chinese literature is trash; the Chinese writers despise each other; the Chinese writers are gutless ..." and other shocking words in an attack on Chinese literature.

During the interview, Kubin employed some very strong language.  Concerning the very popular novel <Wolf Totem> by Jiang Rong, this Sinologist gave this opinion: "For us Germans, <Wolf Totem> is fascism.  This book causes the China to lose face."  Concerning the "pretty girl writers" from the end of the last century, Kubin said that "this is not literature -- this is trash."

But Kubin appeared to be kinder towards contemporary Chinese poetry.  He said: "There are some good, even exceptional, writers of Chinese poetry, such as Ouyang Jianghe, Sichuan, Zhai Yongming, and many others."  Kubin was less kind towards other forms of literature.  He said bluntly: "There are writers everywhere in Germany.  They represent Germany, they speak on behalf of the German people and therefore we have the voice of Germany.  Where is the voice of China?  It does not exist.  The Chinese writers are particularly gutless.  Basically, they have no guts.  Lu Xun was very representative.  Is there such a Chinese writer today?  None."

Apart from that, Kubin did not skip the opportunity to talk about the foreign language skills of Chinese writers.  "Chinese writers have very poor understanding of foreign literature.  Previously, many writers think, 'We will learn foreign languages in order to enrich our own writing.'  But you ask a contemporary Chinese writer why he won't learn foreign languages, he will say, 'Foreign languages can only destroy my mother tongue.'"

(Phoenix TV)  December 13, 2006.

[in translation]

Professor Kubin sent an email to the Chinese-language media in Germany: "I have received many letters over this incident as well as requests for interviews.  That Chongqinq newspaper clearly distorted my words.  I definitely said that the words of Mian Mian and such people are trash, but I did not say that concerning the totality of contemporary Chinese literature."

According to a Baidu search, the report from Chongqing Morning News had been re-published by 108 mainland Chinese media as of the afternoon of December 12 (German time), including all the major media such as Xinhua, People's Daily, Phoenix TV, Sina.com, Sohu.com, NetEase.com.  Many Chinese-language media in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States and Singapore also re-published it.

The reaction from netizens was particularly heated.  There were more than 1,000 forum comments at both Sina.com and Sohu.com.  Most netizens supported the viewpoints of Kubin.  Sohu.com ran a public opinion poll, and more than 85% of the netizens voted in favor of the assertion that "contemporary Chinese literature is trash."

The story began early morning on December 11.  First Xinhua and Sina.com re-published the article, and then things got heated up.  At Sina.com, more than 800 comments appeared just over an hour later.  Later on, Sina.com removed the article from its front page, and it cannot be found even on the front page of the news section.  For this reason (and possibly for other reasons), the rate of commentary slowed down.

The background: In late November, Deutsche Welle (Chinese service) published the interview and only some overseas Chinese-media, one mainland Chinese website (Beiguo Net) and some Chinese-language forums re-published it, and it did not seem to have generated any action.

On December 1, Xinhua's Global Online quoted some of the contents, such as Kubin thought that the Chinese writers not knowing foreign languages was the biggest problem.  Later, the People Net and other websites re-published that report.  But because the report title was not that eye-catching, it did not arouse attention.

So why the latest story differ in outcome from the previous stories?  Why did the latest story cause a sensation?  That is because the title ("Famous Germany Sinologist shellacked Chinese literature as trash") had a huge effect, and it is precisely this title that Kubin believes to "distort" what he said.  Furthermore, the Chongqing Morning News deliberately chose the most acerbic comments from Kubin's interview in isolation.

In addition, this story arrived just at the right moment: there has been an ongoing discussion about whether Chinese literature is dead or alive.  So along came this Germany Sinologist who offered assessments such as "trash" and "fascism."

Actually, Kubin used the term "trash" in three places in his interview.  In one place, he was talking about the "pretty girl literature"; in another place, he quoted his Chinese friends who said, 'There is no point for him to write a history of 20th century Chinese literature because 'it is all trash''; in the third place, he said that the Nobel Prize in Literature was "also trash."  For this reason, some readers called him the "old angry young man."

Of course, it is a fact that Kubin did not have a high opinion of contemporary Chinese literature.  He believes that there were no great writers after 1949.  Actually, he said that in the Chinese literature of recent years, there are some very good poetry and excellent poets.  He criticized <Wolf Totem> and the "pretty girl writers," and he does not think much of Gao Xingjian.

Apart from the netizens, the mainstream Chinese media are also commenting.  By comparison, the mainstream articles are more "magnanimous" and "even-keeled."

For example, a column in Guangzhou Daily said: "Superficially, Kubin's 'malicious attacks' through his nonsensical speech against contemporary Chinese literature is intolerable to anyone's sense of national dignity.  Actually, if you read his analysis carefully, it is quite proper.  He is not the type of person to shock people with vitriol, or taking off his clothes ... Kubin's criticisms of the deficiencies of Chinese literature is a good dose of medicine and a wake-up call."

A column in Liberation Daily said: "The climax from the combination of arranging words together and literary creativity is not infinite and boundless.  After so many cycles of historical peaks, it is known to be difficult now in an age in which the expression of emotions and sensations usually involve sight and sound as well.  Is any basis for comparing the environment of such a literature against the customarily admired Lu Xun era that Kubin and others adore?  Nothing!  The difference between the two is that in the market between the buyers and sellers in the cultural field, their fates are determined by their respective historical backgrounds in a hidden and unobvious manner."

Of course, Kubin was not universally applaused by netizens or mainstream media.  There were those who denounced and criticized Kubin.  In the Sohu.com poll, there were still 10% who opposed (or disagreed mostly with) Kubin's views.

(Huasheng Bao)  December 13, 2006.

[in translation]

On December 12, Foshan News wrote: "When Deutsche Welle interviewed Kubin, he was asked what he thought of the 'pretty girl writers' such as Mian Mian and Wei Hui.  Kubin said that their writings "was not literature -- they are trash."  But this is not like saying "contemporary Chinese literature is trash" as reported in the media.  Kubin also said, "There are many good, even excellent, writers of contemporary Chinese poetry."  Obviously, the "pretty girl writers" cannot represent the totality of contemporary Chinese literature, and their works do not represent the major accomplishments of contemporary Chinese literature.  Since there are "excellent writers" of Chinese poetry, then it is not true that "all contemporary Chinese literature is trash."  The article said that Kubin did not categorically negate the achievements of contemporary Chinese literature.  Instead, he only offered observations and views on certain phenomena.

Netizen opinions


- He is right.  Contemporary literature is trash.  If you don't inherit and extend the elegant ancient language, where would you get any literary characteristics?  Such is our contemporary literature.  This is the age of trash for both ancient and contemporary literature.

- Good criticisms.  Literary trash.  All they know is to call each other names all the time, without any producing anything for the world to read  They can't even win a Nobel Prize.


- He should not have said 'contemporary literature.'  He should have said 'most of the recent literature,' especially after the 1980's.  Chinese literature is decaying slowly.

- It is too severe to say Chinese literature is "trash.'  But I agree that there is a sense that it is turning into trash.


- What nonsense!  Foreigners are unqualified to discuss Chinese literature!  Chinese literature is a special form of expression under a special system.  Anyone who advocates "The Death of Literature" fails to understand the present conditions.  It is meaningless to compare the weak points of China with the strong points of foreign nations!  Chinese culture has its own accumulated achievements.  Even if it not satisfactory, it will get better.  This is just a process!

Liao Baoping: Recently, many people are worried about contemporary literature.  We read "plagiarism is a fad," we read "write with your body," we read about "the "plum blossom style," we read about "the writer begging for money in the street," we read about "the Internet writer joining the Writers' Association," we read about "Chinese writers miss out on Nobel Prize," we read about the "fourteen states of death of contemporary Chinese literature," we read that the "21st century has no literary classics" ... and we begin to think that contemporary Chinese literature is dead.  The distortion of what Germany Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin said is just adding more flames to this discussion.