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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020


Edited By Marc Maufort

Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Eugene Eoyang. East-West Symbioses: The Reconciliation of Opposites. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2019. Pp. 224. ISBN: 9781527525016. (Gang Zhou)

Eugene Eoyang. East-West Symbioses: The Reconciliation of Opposites. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2019. Pp. 224. ISBN: 9781527525016.

Gang Zhou

Louisiana State University

East-West Symbioses: The Reconciliation of Opposites is a collection of 17 essays penned by a veteran comparatist, Eugene Eoyang. Over the past three decades, Eoyang has written extensively on the encounters between “East” and “West,” on comparative literature, translation studies and world literature. Two things about this book immediately caught my attention. Once again, Eugene Eoyang has placed his unique mark on what he chooses to write about and how he does it. After reading Eoyang’s first monograph, The Transparent Eye: Reflections on Translation, Chinese Literature and Comparative Poetics, a friend of his said to him, “It’s very you.” I would say the same about this book. In addition, this latest book embodies a way of reading that is simultaneously “close” enough to acquire as much intimate knowledge as possible and “distant” enough to establish objectivity. As someone who has lived, personally and professionally, between two worlds, Eugene Eoyang is the ideal reader. He reads as both native and foreigner, as insider and as outsider. His insights challenge the status quo and make us aware of the cultural biases and pseudo-universalist assumptions that we often take for granted.

East-West Symbioses is divided into four parts, each consisting of several chapters. Part One (Chapters One, Two and Three) discusses paradigms that inform our understanding of cross-cultural encounters. In Chapter One, Eugene Eoyang charts a progression through three stages: “Cultural,” “Intercultural” and “Intracultural.” In the “Cultural” stage, he examines the nationalistic perspective that considers each ←199 | 200→country monolithic, a view according to which each country has one unique culture. In contrast, an “intercultural” perspective recognizes that any culture is made up of disparate elements, some of which are “foreign.” By “Intracultural,” Eoyang has in mind Heidegger’s sense of heimat (homeland) not only in one’s own country but also in the World. Eoyang mentions two of the most prolific translators of Chinese in the early twentieth century: Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley. Both were intracultural pioneers, “because they tried to incorporate what was alien and strange into their own sensibilities – to create a nativized, anglicized China!” (18).

Chapter Two targets some cultural assumptions which, by their prevalence and near-ubiquity, become universalist presumptions, which Eugene Eoyang terms ethnotopes. For instance, “west” when used to designate occidental cultures, is an ethnotope, since only in the “West” – and specifically Europe – is Asia due east. For someone in the Americas, Asia is, of course, due west. The use of the term “the west” to designate Europe stems from a European perspective, not an Asian one, not even an American one (26).

Chapter Three discusses the Chinese phrase maodun and its dubious English translation as “contradiction.” Maodun alludes to the Han Feizi story, which couples the “invincible spear” with the “impenetrable shield.” In its strictest logical sense, this identifies a contradiction, and hence the impossibility of this pair to co-exist. But the problem of translating maodun as “contradiction” is that in some contexts maodun as a Chinese concept does mean “the unity of opposites,” or the co-existence of a seemingly impossible pair.

Part Two (Chapters Four through Nine) offers case studies involving some sort of cross-cultural misreading. Chapter Four examines contemporary chinoiserie and its “fanciful interpretations of Chinese styles” (39). It discusses the novels and texts that exploit the strangeness of the other, not its approachability. Their uses of stereotypical western images of China, like mah-jong, bound feet, joss sticks and inkstones, quaint poet-recluses, give the mainstream reading public its longed for representation of China, as opposed to what is really happening there. Chapter Five focuses on François Cheng’s translation of classical Chinese poetry into French. Through a close reading of Cheng’s translation of Wang Wei, Du Fu, Du Mu and Liu Zongyuan’s poems, Eoyang points out that Cheng, as a translator, often proceeds at the expense of the original when faced with compromises. His instinct is not so much to Sinicize ←200 | 201→French as to Francophonize Chinese. His China was not a real country but an imaginary Cathay constructed out of a French sensibility (62).

Chapter Six traces the arduous incorporation of Chinese literature into the most widely used textbook, the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Chinese texts were not included until as recently as 1992. Chapter Seven corrects one of the most famous translations in the 1915 edition of Ezra Pound’s Cathay, Li Bai’s poem “Jewel Stair’s Grievance.” Chapter Eight explores the widespread mistranslations and misunderstandings of some basic Chinese words and concepts in English. For instance, Eoyang astutely points out that the traditional translation of ren as “benevolence” or “virtue” undermines the meaning of ren as a fundamental truth about human beings: that we all derive from two people and that each of our parents derived from two other people, and so on through the generations. The best explanation of ren is John Donne’s: “No man is an island,/ Entire of itself./ Every man is a piece of the continent / A part of the main” (91). Chapter Nine discusses the inadequacy of translating the Chinese word zui as “drunk.” While “drunk” suggests a slobbering lack of control, zui connotes a lack of inhibition, the release of brilliant insights and inspiration.

Part Three (Chapters Ten through Fourteen) contains case studies of creative fusions. Chapter Ten showcases Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel Laureate, whose understanding of the familiar Chinese notion of maodun marks him as a truly intracultural figure. His ability to see opposites reinforcing, rather than contradicting, each other, proves that his sensibility is not just a Mexican one but a world one. Chapter Eleven focuses on Matteo Ricci’s unique work, “On Friendship,” which cites Confucius as well as Cicero, reflecting Taoist / Daoist dialectics as well as Roman stoic philosophy (112). In combining these western sources with versions of Chinese teachings, Ricci establishes a perfect model for East-West symbioses.

While Chapter Twelve discusses a creative translation of Shen Congwen’s short story “Xiaoxiao,” Chapter Thirteen considers three perspectives on chaos: 1) the traditional western perspective, which sees it as rampant disorder that needs to be controlled; 2) the ancient Chinese (and specifically Taoist) perspective, which considers chaos as primordial and natural, something that is neither threatening nor negative; and 3) the contemporary scientific perspective, which detects in chaos a paradigm of non-linear forms yielding patterns of astonishing beauty (133). Chapter Fourteen explores how some American ethnic ←201 | 202→writers trigger the bicultural, if not bilingual, sensitivities of readers. It takes as its example three novels: Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, John Okada’s No-No Boy, and Frank Chin’s Donald Duk, analyzing how these intracultural writers, by using different fictionally mimetic techniques, embody both the strangeness of a minority culture and yet manage to make that strangeness accessible to the majority reader (146).

Part Four (Chapters Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen) clarifies some issues in our understanding of the encounters between “East” and “West.” Chapter Fifteen explores the hidden and subliminal biases that complicate the notion of “Westernization.” For instance, even without the explicit acknowledgement of western superiority, the West assumes priority by imposing its chronology upon world history. The way the world reckons time is decidedly millennial and Christian (160). The chapter calls for a careful examination of these subtle and unrecognized “Westernizations” that skew and constrain our discourse.

Chapter Sixteen draws a contrast between western “Agon” vs. eastern “Ritual.” Where the culture of agon (the Greek term for “assembly associated with contests”) “strives toward the annihilation of the other, the culture of ritual strives for communion with the other. Where one seeks victory by destroying the enemy, the other strives for hegemony by co-optation” (168). The book discusses the underlying premises between these two viewpoints, and the potential misunderstandings that may result in exchanges between individuals representing these opposing perspectives.

Chapter Seventeen concludes with the importance of translation. People often ask “What is lost in translation?” Far more important questions, however, should be: “What would be lost, if nothing were translated?”; “Where, indeed, would we be without translation?” (196). The chapter also emphasizes the role of the translator as both an insider and an outsider: “In the formulation of Kenneth Pike, the insider’s knowledge is ‘emic,’ and involves intuitive recognition; the outsider’s is ‘etic,’ and involves analytical insight. The translator’s challenge is to take the ‘etic’ insights and to create an ‘emic’ experience for the reader who cannot read the original” (193).

In sum, readers of East-West Symbioses derive from this study many thought-provoking observations and insights into misperceptions and cultural biases that we often take for granted. What Eugene Eoyang has accomplished in this book is, in a way, the task of a translator, to ←202 | 203→take the “etic” insights and to create an “emic” experience for anyone who is seeking more than a superficial understanding of cross-cultural encounters.

I would like to end this review by discussing the images printed on the cover of the book. They provide a juxtaposition of two landscape paintings: “Pure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains” by the ancient Chinese painter Xia Gui (1195–1224), and “Weymouth Bay: Bowleaze Cove and Jordon Hill” by the British landscape painter John Constable (1776–1837). As its cover illustrations suggest, Eugene Eoyang’s new work has created a perfect East-West symbiosis.

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