Babbitt's impact in China: the case of Liang Shiqiu.

Author:Bai, Liping
Position:Irving Babbitt

Liang Shiqiu (1903-1987), one of Irving Babbitt's Chinese students at Harvard, was an important critic, litterateur, lexicographer and translator in twentieth-century China. Liang was chairman of the English departments at Peking University and Peking Normal University before going to Taiwan in 1949, where he taught at Taiwan Normal University until his retirement in 1966. He first came to national attention in China for his extended literary debate--the famous "war of words"--with Lu Xun, who was everywhere regarded as China's leading leftist or "proletarian" writer of the 1930s. Decades later, Liang's reputation would attain new heights when, having been invited to join a committee of prominent scholars who were jointly to produce the first translation of Shakespeare's complete works into Chinese, he somehow managed to finish the gargantuan task all by himself.

This article will discuss Babbitt's influence on Liang Shiqiu and the ways the latter actively advocated the ideas of Babbitt's New Humanism through his writings and translations. In particular, I intend to demonstrate that Babbitt had a decisive influence on Liang's literary and social thought, which in turn profoundly affected his selection of Western literary works for translation into Chinese, together with his critical commentary on those works. Finally, I shall argue that the influence of Babbitt and his intellectual ally Paul Elmer More played a crucial role in Liang's literary battle with Lu Xun, which is ranked among the most notable intellectual events of twentieth-century Chinese history.

That Babbitt is the thinker who had the most significant influence upon Liang's worldview would be hard to dispute. When Liang was a student at Tsing Hua (sometimes transcribed as Xinghua) College (1915-1923), he was a romantic young man who was very interested in romantic writers, particularly Oscar Wilde. Liang considered Wilde "a great figure in every aspect." (1) Liang also maintained a good relationship with the Creation Society ("chuang zao she"), the ideas of which were largely inspired by romanticism. On the day he left for America, the people who saw him off were Creation Society members. (2) Liang's writings during that phase of his life also show his positive opinion of romantic literature. In February 1925, (3) he published an article in the Chinese Students' Monthly entitled "The Chinese 'New Poetry,'" (4) in which he praised Guo Moruo, then the leading romantic poet in China, and in which he described novelty as an important quality of poetry. (5) When he arrived in America, Liang first studied at the University of Colorado, where he wrote an article, "Baron and Romanticism," (6) in which he lauded Rousseau as "the pioneer of the French Revolution" and "the ancestor of the romantic movement in the whole of Europe." The mission of Rousseau, Liang declared, was to "get rid of the fetters on the human spirit and to help people acquire the freedom to develop themselves without restraint." (7) He also praised Byron, saying that his ideas represented "universal human liberal thought" and that his poems symbolized "the holiest earth-shaking outcry of humankind." Liang added that no romantic poet could surpass Byron in poetic self-expression and that, in spirit, Byron was "equal to Goethe." (8)

But great changes occurred after Liang took Babbitt's course on "Literary Criticism after the Sixteenth Century." Liang decided to take the course not because he admired the renowned teacher but because he intended to challenge him. At first Liang found Babbitt's opinions hard to accept as they were completely different from his own, but after reading Babbitt's books and attending his lectures Liang's opinions changed dramatically. "From an extreme romanticist," he later would recall, "I changed to a stance which is more or less close to classicism." (9) This change of viewpoint is reflected in Liang's writings of that period. In a course paper entitled "Oscar Wilde and his Romanticism," (10) he appraised Wilde, who had previously been his favorite writer, from a new perspective. He maintained that Wilde pursued "absolute independence of the arts," in which the latter not only were isolated from the ordinary audience, but were also divorced from "universal and common human nature." (11) It took Liang about half a year to finish this paper, which, as he later reported, received Babbitt's "rather favorable comments." (12) This essay on Wilde clearly indicates that Liang had divorced himself from romanticism. Even more illustrative of Liang's change of position concerning the role of literature and culture is "The Romantic Tendency of Modern Chinese Literature," (13) in which Liang applied key insights of Babbitt's to an analysis of the prevalent direction of early twentieth-century Chinese literature. Expressing views that are plainly traceable to Babbitt, Liang took sharp issue with certain romantic tendencies that had come to the fore in China as part of the "New Literature Movement," among them an impressionism that called for a "return to nature" and an uncritical extolling of foreignness and originality for their own sake. In what would become one of his most persistent themes, Liang stressed that, rather than self-indulgence, great literature should express what he termed "universal human nature."

While still a student at Tsing Hua College--which was more susceptible to foreign influences than most Chinese universities of that era--Liang participated in the famous May Fourth Movement of 1919. As part of that movement, various Western political and literary ideas poured into China. Those ideas took a tremendous toll on traditional Confucian thinking, which was then considered by many Chinese intellectuals to be the root source of their nation's backwardness. After Liang arrived at Harvard, however, he undertook a dispassionate investigation of traditional Chinese ways, many of which were highly esteemed by Babbitt. Liang would later write of his American professor, "Babbitt does not sermonize, he does not have dogmas, but only sticks to one attitude--that of sanity and dignity." (14) This stance became Liang's and, largely through him, that of the Crescent Moon Society, which he helped to establish. "The Attitude of Crescent Moon," (15)--according to the preface of the first issue of the society's journal, also called Crescent Moon--would consist of two principles: "sanity and dignity." Liang credited a colleague, Xu Zhimo, with the actual writing of the preface and attributed the ideas expressed therein to the society's collective membership. "When starting a publication," he subsequently explained, "a preface is needed as a matter of course. We discussed the matter several times--each expressed his opinion freely--and finally came up with several tenets. Zhimo wrote the preface and, when finished, it was read by every member. This is how the article which calls for 'sanity and dignity' came into being." (16) Still, in all probability, the central principle was put forward by Liang, as he was the only disciple of Babbitt to participate in those discussions.

Liang later said of Babbitt, "I have been greatly influenced by him. He led me to the road of harmony and prudence." (17) He saw Babbitt as providing a response to problems in his own country. Serious spiritual and social crises beset the Western world before and during the First World War. Babbitt held that, in order to alleviate those crises, people must find remedies from history and tradition. He believed that there is a duality of good and evil in all men and women and that only through the cultivation of an "inner check," a quality of will that restrains desire and impulse, can human beings elevate themselves and society at large. China, if anything, was beset by even graver crises, and with its intellectuals looking primarily to the West for solutions, it was not surprising, given Babbitt's prominence in Western discussions of literature and criticism, that some, including Liang, would discern in Babbitt's writings a potential path of prudence and reason for their beleaguered country.

Among the particular ways in which Babbitt influenced Liang was changing his reading habits. Previously, while studying at Tsing Hua College, Liang had read widely but unselectively, devoting his attention for the most part to whatever new books, whether original works or translations, happened to come his way and strike his fancy. (18) Later he came to realize that reading should be guided in large part by discriminating judgment and purpose. "When I was young," Liang explains, "I lacked reading experience. At first, I read without a guiding principle, and read randomly according to my interest, but later I gradually realized that this was mistaken." (19) One result was that Liang gave more effort to reading classical works. (20) Not only Liang's reading habits but also the nature of his own writing was influenced by Babbitt. At Tsing Hua, for example, Liang wrote poems and short stories, e.g., "Bitter Rain and Sad Wind," that betrayed a strong attachment to sentimental romanticism. After returning to China from America, however, he nearly stopped composing poems and short stories. Moreover, his writing from thence forward conveyed a more balanced and historically accurate view of human nature than was characteristic of his earlier writing.

Babbitt devoted much effort to criticizing Rousseau, viewing him as the precursor of an excessive form of romanticism. After embracing much of Babbitt's thought, Liang not surprisingly began a reassessment of Rousseau, whom he previously had admired greatly. The celebrated intellectual debate between Liang and Lu Xun was sparked by a disagreement concerning Rousseau's famous book on education, Emile.

Wei Zhaoji, the translator who introduced Emile to a Chinese audience, commented that Rousseau's idea of "returning to nature" not only had brought major changes in...

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