Everybody knows the frustration of having to explain a joke. Teaching the literature of one’s country to foreign students is something like explaining jokes for a living. This has been my living for the past few months, as resident “Foreign Expert” in the English department of a teachers’ college in North China.
My course is actually called “Intensive Reading” — extracts from well-known or “progressive” writers from Swift onwards. The course textbooks for the junior classes are pretty awful, reams of stuff by Engels and obscure American negroes. The advanced texts are much better, though still politically loaded. My fourth year students construe passages from people like Wilde (“paved the way for Bernard Shaw”), Hardy, Hazlitt and Somerset Maugham (who “exposed the barbarism and ugliness of bourgeois society” — well, I suppose he did, after a fashion). Almost every writer of any consequence turns out to have been “progressive” in one way or another, though a disappointing number of modern writers, while aware of the barbarism etc. of bourgeois society, have been too blind to see that the way forward lies through socialism — that is, abolition of private property and the erection of an oriental-style dictatorship — and so have fallen into despair. Thus Of Human Bondage is “shrouded in an atmosphere of pessimism and defeatism”, Gissing’s novels are “penetrated with a sense of frustration and defeat” (they got that right), Galsworthy’s works “have a touch of fatalism and defeatism”, and so on.
The Eng. Lit. course proper is taught by a doughty young Chinese lady, of great industry and perseverance, who is much admired by the students. Her textbook is A Short History of English Literature, by someone called Liu Bingshan. Mr Liu shows his colours right away, in the preface. “Efforts have been made to apply the basic views of Marxism,” he declares. He’s not kidding. Engels is quoted four times in the first five pages. On page 17 Stalin is quoted. The relevance of the opinions of German businessmen and Russian despots to the study of English Literature is nowhere explained.
Mr Liu’s book is full of odd gaps and imbalances. Shelley (Paul Foot will be pleased to know) gets terrific coverage — ten full pages. Burns is another favourite, probably because he’s the only British writer of any prominence who could fairly be described as a peasant. Burns has even entered indirectly into the consciousness of those Chinese who don’t study English; one of my enduring memories of China will be the sound of “Auld Lang Syne” played on Hawaiian guitar, broadcast over the college PA system about 30 times a week. Mr Liu gives Burns eight pages; Wordsworth, by contrast, gets only three, and Tennyson isn’t mentioned at all. Tennyson seems to be something of an unperson, in fact. I did spot a dismal translation of “Break, Break, Break” in a Chinese magazine some weeks ago (Chong-ji, chong-ji, chong-ji …), but otherwise the great laureate is well-nigh invisible. What do they have against him? Seeking enlightenment, I went to the standard modern Chinese encyclopedia.
“Dingnisheng (Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892). English Poet. Born into a clerical family. All his poems beautify capitalist society and bourgeois morality and ethics. His works one-sidedly promote lyricism and become merely ornate …”
So much for the man who has more entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations than any other writer except Shakespeare. Incidentally, the reader who thinks that Dingnisheng is a bit approximate for “Tennyson” might care to note that Mrs Thatcher’s surname comes through in standard Chinese transcription as Saqieer, whilst Edward Heath is known to his many admirers in Peking as Aidehua Xisi.
Shakespeare (Shasibiya) himself is too big to ignore. Besides, Marx liked him, so the Chinese critics have gone to great pains to prove that he was “progressive.” The line taken here is that Shakespeare opposed feudalism from the point of view of the embryonic bourgeoisie. According to Marx, capitalism is a progressive force in a feudal period, just as socialism is progressive in a capitalist period. So everything’s all right, and Shakespeare is progressive after all, despite his sucking up to the Court.
This kind of exegesis is all in a day’s work for Chinese scholars. China has been a centralized dictatorship since at least the third century BC, so that the Humanities have been under political control for most of the nation’s history. Just as Marx liked Shakespeare, so Confucius was constantly praising the Book of Odes, an ancient collection of folk-songs and poems. The scholar-bureaucrats of Confucian China therefore saw it as their duty to provide “correct” interpretations of all the odes. The results were often ludicrous. For example, a song of thwarted love would be shown to be “really” the complaint of a worthy minister unjustly dismissed by his sovereign. For any scholar with this kind of tradition behind him, it’s a piece of cake to show that the victory of Prince Hal over Hotspur in Henry IV is “really” meant to show the rising bourgeoisie vanquishing the old feudal aristocracy. The exercise isn’t altogether empty, either. It is possible to read Shakespeare for insights into 16th-century social conflicts, just as one might attend a performance of The Magic Flutein the hope of picking up some tips about Freemasonry. Still, most of us would think that was rather missing the point.
Times are changing, though. While reports of the death of Chinese communism are greatly exaggerated, the last few years have seen a genuine thaw and some surprising names have been turning up in the newer college textbooks. The other day I found myself looking at George Orwell’s “Marrakech” in a reader for university students. In a potted biography at the end of the essay, the compiler remarks that Orwell’s last two novels “vilify socialist society”. In China — where, until recently, political enemies were routinely referred to as dogs, snakes, turtles and skeletons — this is very mild. Most of this latest generation of textbooks have been written or co-written by foreign teachers at Chinese universities. Such people are recruited mainly from the unemployable lumpen-intelligentsia of Britain and America, so that their commentaries lean heavily to the left, with much whingeing about “imperialism” and so forth. Still, it’s a great advance on Mr Liu and his quotations from Stalin. Young Chinese students whose English is good enough can now read short selections from Norman Mailer, D. H. Lawrence, and even — God help them — Philip Roth.
These innovations haven’t yet entered the formal curriculum here. This week’s lesson in Intensive Reading for the third year: Engels’s speech at the graveside of Karl Marx. “And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers, from the mines of Siberia to California”. Chance to say something about irony there, perhaps.