Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Silent Traveller

One unexpected outcome of my studies of Chinese English, or English education in China, or whatever, has been  another interest I've developed as a sidebar: English-language literature of Republican China. I realize this sounds really hoity-toity and specialized, and it kind of is. I do not in any way consider myself a "sinologist" -- I think of my interest in China as something similar to my newfound interest in Vancouver Canucks hockey: when you live in a place, it becomes part of you. Anyway.

I'm talking about the period roughly between 1912 and 1949, after the last Chinese emperor and before the communist revolution. I hardly know anything of the political or social history of this period, but what I like about it is the literature written in English -- probably the first, really -- that it produced.

My first encounter was with Gu Hongming's 1915 book The Spirit of the Chinese People, which a colleague in Shaoxing lent me. Here's what I wrote after reading it:

Gu Hongming was a Malaysian Chinese born in Penang who went to England for an education, became a polyglot (speaking English, Malay, French, German, and Chinese), and eventually moved to China where he became a kind of apologist for Chinese civilization and especially religion (which he believes Confucianism is). This book, written around the time of the first world war, is, as far as I know, his only surviving legacy. It's hard to buy his premises by today's standards, since he he completely essentializes people based on nationality (especially, of course, the Chinese -- he says they are a people with adult intellect and child-like hearts). There are some delightful passages -- most of the latter half of the book actually -- in which he excoriates western academics who he sees as total posers when it comes to knowing about China ... but unfortunately Gu rarely gives a convincing reason why we should believe him more than anybody else.
The greatest writer of this time is probably Lin Yutang, a prolific author in English whose books My Country and My People and The Importance of Living were bestsellers in the U.S. in the 1930s. (He wrote dozens of other books.)

My latest discovery is Chiang Yee, who wrote a series of travelogues of his time in England  (not unlike Charles Dickens' travel diaries) in the 1930s and 40s. (He also wrote about other countries into the 1970s.) I picked up his book The Silent Traveller in London on sale at the Regent College bookstore yesterday. I'm looking forward to reading it.

I'd welcome any other information about authors from this period.

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