112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Articulating “Literature” in the Chinese Context

Carlos Yu-Kai Lin, University of Southern California

This paper examines how does the ancient Chinese term, wenxue, which derives from Confucian classics, becomes the modern concept of literature that denotes a universal literary value and a global literary system.


When we talk about literature nowadays, we often assume it as an internally-understood and universally-translatable concept.  One always expects to find its corresponding term or concept in another language no matter how it differs from the Western, or to be more specific, English-speaking context.  The modern concept of literature is therefore above all characterized by its implication of universal translatability and its presumption of a global literary system that accommodates and regulates myriads of literary traditions that lie outside the realm of our known languages.  While such an imagination can be more easily sustained and facilitated in the European context since most European languages share the same Latin root[1], the way in which a universal concept of literature is articulated in the Chinese context requires not only a historical but rhetorical analysis, precisely because the modern Chinese term for literature—wenxue—was an ancient term derived from Confucian classics and did not bear the same meanings of the concept of literature nowadays.  The term, wenxue, was first used in Confucius’s Analects when he comments on two of his disciples’ literary acquirement: “Wenxue.  Ziyou, Zixia.”  In the writings of other Confucian scholars in later time, wenxue was used to denote “knowledge” in general.  For example, Xunzi argues in Dalüe (The great compendium) that “Man to wenxue is like chiseling and polishing to jade.  It is written in Book of Song, ‘as knife and file make smooth the bone, so jade is wrought by chisel and stone.’  This is knowledge.”  During the Han dynasty, the semantics of wenxue was further divided into wen (writings) and xue(learning), or wenzhang (articles) and wenxue (academic learning).  Yet it can still be suggested that the term wenxue is generally understood as scholarship at the time (Zeng and Ke, 2-6).  These historical-semantic differences between wenxue as an ancient Chinese term and literature as a universal concept in the modern context suggests that the study of the rise of the former into the latter is really a question of conceptual history, which, in this case, is a series of encounters between the European and Chinese cultures.  In this paper, I only aim to provide a general survey of the encounters from an economic, cultural, and political perspective to offer a preliminary answer to the question of how a universal and contemporaneous consciousness is built into the discourses on wenxue in the Chinese-speaking context.

[1] For example, the Latin word for literature is literatura, which originates from another Latin word, littera, which means “letters.”  This shared heritage of the classical Latin language explains why the terms for literature in most European languages are similar to each other.  It is littérature in French, literatur in German, literatura in Spanish, and letteratura in Italian.

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