Selected Modern Chinese Essays: On the Futility of Literary Criticism

◎ Ji Xianlin

In the latest issue of the Literary Review, several articles on Redology have attracted my attention. Some of the authors are introspective as well as critical; some try to find a way out of their academic predicament; some sigh with regret that Redology is faced with a crisis; and so on and so forth. The discussion is quite animated. The arguments set forth in the articles are very interesting and enlightening. Nevertheless, a strange question has occurred to me: Is this kind of Redology of any use at all? It is of course useful to the Redologists themselves as well as to those engaged in the study of literary theory at universities and research institutes. But, to my mind, it is of little use to readers of A Dream of Red Mansions at large.

Ever since the publication of this novel some 200 years ago, hundreds of millions of people have read its Chinese original or its translations in various languages. Of these innumerable people, how many have read the novel by starting with a perusal of the critics’ articles and allowing themselves to be led by the nose by the critics as to how to read the novel? Next to none. All literary works, especially a monumental one like A Dream of Red Mansions, are extremely rich in content and involve diverse social strata — to such an extent that they virtually resemble a mountain of treasure or a labyrinth. And the readers are even more complicated, differing from each other in family background, social experience, nationality, country, cultural tradition, psychological condition, age, sex, profession, hobby, etc., etc. The list could go on endlessly, so I wouldn’t mind stopping here. They will each appreciate a certain aspect of the novel according to their own individuality. They may feel inspired and enlightened, and hence love it, or they may feel hurt, and hence loathe it. In short, the reactions vary. To them, the Redologists seem to be sages and men of virtue residing in the “Illusory Land of Great Void” and having nothing whatsoever to do with them. They just read on and on, caring not what the Redologists may say.

Therefore, I reiterate, literary criticism is useless.

It is useless not only to readers, but also to writers. Looking up the literary history of each and every country, I dare say that none of the world’s great literary figures ever did their writing in line with the theory of literary critics.

On the other hand, however, does it follow that the research done by literary critics is totally meaningless? No, that is not true either. In accordance with their own capacity for literary appreciation and the different historical trends, the views they put forward for mutual discussion, study, inspiration and improvement are also something creative and conducive to the development of literary theory. Only they should be under no illusion about their theories exerting powerful influence on the readership or writers. That is the way for each to have a role of his own to play and for peace to reign under heaven.

What I’ve said above is only skin-deep, of kindergarten level. But so far none else have ventured to be equally candid. Therefore, let me be reconciled to being saddled with the epithet of “originator of a bad practice”.