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Modern Uses and Practices of Classical Chinese in China

by Lemardelé Élise - published on

Principal Investigators : Victor Vuilleumier, Florence Zhang

Disciplines Humanities (Literature, Poetry, Philosophy, History of Ideas, History of Language, Translation Studies)

Participants :

Full members

Stéphane Feuillas, Rainier Lanselle

International Collaborators

Nicolas Zufferey (University of Geneva), Yinde Zhang (Paris 3), Georges Bê Duc (University of Picardie), Sandrine Marchand (University of Artois), Joachim Boitout (PhD candidate, EHESS/ENS)

PhD candidate

Anna Maria Cavalletti


This programme is based on the observation made by all scholars working on modern China (in its broadest sense, from the end of the Qing dynasty to today), that, whereas the use of a new form of modernised written language, known as baihua (initiated and developed both by the intellectual and literary milieux and the political and educational authorities), spread and imposed itself after the 1020s, the use of classical or literary Chinese has remained significant and resilient. Classical Chinese was presented as a vector of literary and intellectual modernity before the “victory” of baihua—particularly in translations—and for a time it may also have been seen as embodying a cultural and moral “Renaissance” (see for example the disputes between the advocates of the “Wei Jin style” and those of the Tongcheng school at the end of the Qing dynasty) even before the May Fourth Movement; but after this date also, and even beyond the 1950s, the authors, writers, poets, philosophers, academics and intellectuals, could choose to write in Classical Chinese (or in a more or less reinvented version of it), regardless of their political or ideological opinions: in literary fictions (most notably in the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school), poetry (not only by authors that were opposed to the use of classical Chinese, or members of modern classicising literary clubs, but also by self-professed “modernists” such as Yu Pingbo, Yu Dafu, Guo Moruo, Lu Xun and others), essay writing (particularly in authors from the “right wing” or from the “occupied zones” in the 1930s and 40s), academic research and scholarship (in the sense of xueshu) particularly in “National studies” towards the end of the Qing and today (see for example the case of authors such as Zhang Binglin, Chen Yinke, Tang Yongtong and Qian Zhongshu to cite a few of the more well-known ones), or again philosophy (Xiong Shili for example and the new Confucians, not to mention the thinkers at the end of the Qing period). This observation is of course further complicated by the intricate intra-literary relationship between modern Chinese literature (poetry and sanwen essay writing, as well as fiction) and the corpus, style and aesthetics of classical literature, even today (it is thus essential to take this intertextuality into account when reading the work of an “experimental” author of the 1980s such as Yu Hua, despite his “Westernising” style). Furthermore, literary Chinese is even reappearing in the most contemporary productions of popular literature or para-literature, including web-literature. As for translation, if the translators of the beginning of the 20th century considered Classical Chinese as “the” written language of reference, the use or not of Classical Chinese is a frequent question for translators today, especially when it concerns the translation of older works (Wang Zuoliang for instance translates Francis Bacon in a semi-classical language, in order to create a temporal distance).
This program will examine the different meanings of writing in classical Chinese in the modern period: in what way was it able to take on a modernising function (and for which modernities?), enable assimilation and even counter-modernity as well as be harnessed by a conservative revolution? What does this say about the different roles and position of the author or modern intellectual (can we establish a more private dimension in the works of an author who uses both written languages, modern and classical, in a diary or poem as opposed to a public text?). Are we here dealing with the perpetuation of a long-standing literary practice or does it simply come naturally to authors who have been classically trained? One might also wonder whether, beyond a possible ideological stance, a literary taste, or a marginal or dissenting position within the Chinese literary polysystem (perhaps the case of para-literatures versus the central modern literature?), the use of classical Chinese could also be a required precaution in the Art of Writing (in the Straussian sense). The alien character of Classical Chinese for a modern Chinese reader will also be examined, particularly in the case of translation. The aim is here to address the possible creative or renovating capacity of Classical Chinese, in an era of westernised globalisation, through the following questions: who writes in Classical Chinese, how, why, and with what effect? The project will be concerned with the interconnected fields of Literature, Poetry, Philosophy, the History of Ideas, the History of Language, and Translation Studies. Two distinct forms of writing, or at least two differing writing schemes, are distinguished here, the “modern” and the “classical”, even if there is frequent cross-over in practice: the focus will concern texts written in a language that is unambiguously distinct from baihua. This project will consequently also be an opportunity to question the boundaries of this distinction.
This project continues the research theme initiated by the previous programme “Contemporary Chinese Literature: Literary Practices, Genres and Canons”, but examining it this time from the opposite standpoint.

Scientific output and planed scientific activities
◦ Organisation of workshops, which includes the invitation of colleagues working in Japan.
◦ Symposiums: an international symposium will close the end of the program. These research questions were also addressed by several contributions at the “Guo Moruo and the Creation Society: between China and the West, Tradition and Modernity” international symposium, organised in November 2018 by the UFR LCAO (Paris 7), the CRCAO Guo Moruo International Institute (China/Japan).
◦ Publication of the proceedings, as well as critical translations of classical and modern texts
◦ In view of the project’s wide scope, research on this topic might extend over one or two five-year plans.