Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin: What Makes for “Good Literature” and “Good Language”?

Controversial German Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin was recently in Shenzhen where he spoke at some length on three subjects: What makes for “good literature” (好的文学)? “Good language” (好的语言)? And if a Chinese author writes in a foreign tongue, what sorts of changes occur?   On August 10, China Reading Weekly (中华读书报) published What is Good Chinese Literature (什么是好的中国文学)?, a record of his talk at the He Xiangning Art Museum (何香凝美术馆) which, the article notes, has not been proofed by Kubin. But I assume that he spoke in Chinese and that this represents a fairly accurate transcript.

Over the next few days I’ll translate a few excerpts. Here’s one on so-called popular writers:

Not a few Chinese writers have been very successful in Germany. How can we define this success? That’s a rather thorny issue. I’m talking aboutWolfgang Kubin novelists here, not poets. For example, books by Hong Ying (虹影), Ha Jin (哈金), Mian Mian (棉 棉) and Wei Hui (卫慧) are selling quite well in Germany. Each one of them can publish several tens of thousands of books with each earning $2 to $5 per copy, so after they’ve published a book in Germany, they make a fortune.

Readers of  Hong Ying, Ha Jin, Mian Mian and Wei Hui are quite numerous, but the works of this bunch belongs to the popular literature category. It’s basically not conceivable that professors or writers would read their works, and Germany’s most important newspapers wouldn’t publish reviews of their books. So their works seemingly don’t exist in the German literary world, and can exist only among the common people and general readers. Personally, I feel that Hong Ying and Ha Jin have no future whatsoever, and their works will be quickly forgotten.

Regarding Chinese novelists and their knowledge of foreign tongues:

In the past I’ve said that contemporary Chinese authors don’t generally know a foreign language, and aren’t willing to study them.  Some people mock me and say, ‘did Du Fu study foreign languages? Did Cao Xueqin know any? Don’t you agree that their works are classics’? I agree that they are classics, but I’m not talking about classical literature; I’m talking about modern and contemporary literature, and that’s a big difference. Lu Xün said that foreign languages helped him innovate his Chinese. We don’t just improve our grasp of our mother language via foreign languages, we also learn a different way of thinking through them. 

On Hong Kong Chinese:

I am Leung Ping-Kwan’s [梁秉钧] translator. We first met in 1985, and since 1988 I’ve translated his works. At the time I felt his Chinese was rather verbose. But he is a real thinker, and I can translate his works into very good German. I don’t necessarily translate his lingo, I basically translate his ideas. He used to hear me  scrutinizing and critiquing his Chinese, and he was a bit unhappy, but now he’s used to it. He has a very interesting argument. He says: you always read my Chinese from Beijing’s point of view. This is wrong. You should read it from a Cantonese or Hong Kong point of view. I spent some time in Hong Kong and studied Cantonese on my own, but I dropped it later because the grammar and pronunciation of Cantonese differ from Mandarin. The language Leung Ping-kwan uses does not necessarily satisfy my linguistic and aestetic standards.  

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