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Renowned arts theorist Qian Gurong: ‘Literature is a study of man’

CHEN JIANHUA | 2017-08-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Qian Gurong was born in Wujin, Jiangsu Province, in 1919. He is a contemporary theorist of the arts with decades of experience studying and teaching literary theory and Chinese modern literature. He enrolled in the Department of Chinese Literature at National Central University, former Nanjing University, in 1938. After graduation, he began to teach Chinese literature at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 1943. Qian moved to East China Normal University in 1952 and became a professor in 1980. He retired from the university in 2000 at the age of 81. During his academic career, he served as deputy director of Modern Chinese Literature Association and the editor-in-chief of Studies of Artistic Theories. Qian’s major works include On ‘Literature is A Study of Man,’ Charms of Literature and Words on Life.


Born in 1919, Professor Qian Gurong is nearly 100. East China Normal University will hold forums this year inviting domestic and foreign experts as well as Qian’s students to celebrate his academic career. Recently, as one of Qian’s students, I visited the scholar and talked about his close relationship with Russian literature and his insights into it.


Chen Jianhua: In the foreword of my book The China-Russian Literary Relationship in the 20th Century, you wrote 20 years ago: “Russian literature has impacted me beyond the aspect of literature and penetrated into my blood and marrow. It has shaped my way of observing the world.” The words were cited by a major Russian magazine to indicate the unusual relationships between Chinese intellectuals of your era and Russian literature. How did you first become interested in Russian literature?


Qian Gurong: Russian literature played an important role in my youth. I loved to read all the world classics, but it attracted me the most. I can’t remember the first Russian literary work that I read. I enrolled in National Central University in 1938, which had moved from Nanjing to a suburb of Chongqing one year earlier. The campus was tranquil. I missed my parents and my hometown in the beginning, so I decided to read novels to ease my sorrows. I experienced my first contact with foreign novels during college since most of the literary works that I read prior to high school were Chinese classics. Foreign classics opened a whole new world to me and broadened my horizon. The characters and their hobbies as well as the society they lived in were totally different from what I was familiar with. I was fascinated with Turgenev and spent all my spare time reading his works. His tranquil and sad emotions spoke to my feelings of misery and homesickness for my parents and my hometown. However, I considered it to be a bittersweet form of warm sadness that I didn’t want to get rid of.


Chen Jianhua: You mentioned the sadness and depression in Russian works. What do you think of this Russian style of emotion?


Qian Gurong: This form of depression is common in the works of great Russian writers, such as Chekhov, Gogol-Anovskii and Goncharov. In my opinion, it is consistent with the feelings of the Russian people, who have lived under dictatorships for a long time. Chinese people in the feudal dynasties suffered similar hardships in the past, so they find it easy to relate to Russian works and feel a sense of intimacy with them. The sadness and depression in Chinese works tend to emphasize personal feelings and lack extensive sympathy, while Russian writers, in most cases, go beyond individuals and capture the tears and miseries of the ordinary people filled with human spirit. Writing of this kind may be closely related to a national personality that was formed on this piece of vast and bare land.


Chen Jianhua: You put forward the concept of specification to analyze the works of Leo Tolstoy. I’m impressed by your argument about it.


Qian Gurong: It is worth discussing the source of Tolstoy’s charming and artistic creation because it touches upon every aspect of writing. If we consider it to be an issue of artistic expression, the most prominent characteristic of Tolstoy’s writing is specific description, which serves as the bedrock of his greatness. His works attract and touch us with the vivid and detailed description of life. Every reader has its own understanding of how he made it come true. From my perspective, I attribute it to two factors. He emphasizes reality and opposes any distortion or whitewashing. Characters of these works are consistent with the logic of ordinary life, while clear and real scenes create an immersive experience for the readers. Also, Tolstoy’s works are filled with sincerity. He argues that sincerity is the most important facet of artistic appeal, and he applies this principle throughout his writing.


Chen Jianhua: You raised the issue of sincere writing. Is it contradictory to emphasize sincerity and realism at the same time?


Qian Gurong: Tolstoy seems to contradict himself by putting equal emphasis on sincerity and realism, but it is not true. Realism is related to objectivity while sincerity is a matter of subjectivity. Artistic creation is a result of the interaction between objectivity and subjectivity, which are contradictory and complementary at the same time. Moved by life realities, writers will have emotions, such as love or hatred, before starting to write. The life in their works is based on their understanding and thoughts. Objective life realities and subjective emotion integrate with each other. At this point, there is neither 100 percent objective realities nor the sincerity that is isolated from characters in artistic creation. Tolstoy suggested that a good work should be a song that originates within the author’s heart. A writer must follow his or her heart and adopt a sincere attitude toward writing. Only in this way, can he have vigorous passion for exciting works.


Chen Jianhua: You are familiar with Russian artistic critics and the movements within Russian literature. Your 1957 thesis focused on Gorky’s argument that “literature is a study of man.” In the article, you looked at the status quo of Chinese literature to criticize the authoritative theorist Timofeev’s opinion that “descriptions of humanity are tools by which artists reflect upon overall realities.”


Qian Gurong: Timofeev’s opinion was unconditionally accepted by the literary circles of the Soviet Union and so it was in China. However, I found it wrong to say that. According to this argument, humanity is subordinate in literary works. In the process of describing characters, writers pay all attention to the so-called “overall realities.” If writers keep this empty principle in mind, the characters will have no thoughts, emotions nor souls, thus becoming puppets. There were a great number of works that were guided by this principle. The works were “right” and “comprehensive” in terms of reflecting reality, but the characters had no charm at all. The approach to understanding literature is no different from that of other social sciences, which goes against the nature and characteristic of literature. Humanity should be the basis of literature. If not, the life of literature will be killed. Therefore, I think it is necessary to emphasize Gorky’s argument, even in the current circumstances.


Chen Jianhua: When discussing the contradiction between Tolstoy’s writing method and his view of the world, some scholars suggest that Tolstoy’s advanced thoughts dominate his works because of the “victory of the realist mode of creation.” You put forward a different opinion.


Qian Gurong: The statement was popular at that time, but it was wrong. Some scholars mechanically compare it to Engels’ comment on Balzac, arguing that the successes of Balzac and Tolstoy can be attributed to breakthroughs in their creation method. Their overcoming of backward views was considered to be a victory of realistic writing. However, the blunt argument failed to be convincing. In my perspective, the success of literature completely depends on a description of people in which authentic artists never treat people as tools and puppets or impose their own will on these characters.

Attention should be paid to an author’s attitude and commentary on characters. If the author shows no respect to the characters in his work or makes unfair judgement, the power of realist art is absent. Such aspects are more likely to be relevant to aesthetics and humanities. For example, in terms of the lengthy novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s attitude toward Anna shifted from criticism to sympathy and accomplishment. We can see the shift as a victory of realism, but it makes more sense to call it a success of humanities.


Chen Jianhua: Many young scholars and students respect and adore you for your legendary experience, academic achievements and unrestrained attitude. What do you want to say to them?


Qian Gurong: To those students that have affection for literature, I would like to emphasize the idea that humanity is central to literature. It means that literature is created by and for people. In this way, we should learn how to be a true human before conducting literary studies. I used to say to my students that morals should be their primary goal in life. Also, students should continue to read the classics. The world is filled with explosive information while a person’s time and energy is limited, so students should read more domestic and foreign classics, including Russian literature. Reading accumulation will be a treasure throughout their whole life.


Chen Jianhua is director of the Research Center for Foreign Literature and Comparative Literature at East China Normal University.