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Searching for Light and Salt in Chinese Literature: Interview with Bao Zhaohui

Searching for Light and Salt in Chinese Literature: Interview with Bao Zhaohui

The poster for The poster for "Yage Prize for Christian Literature & Arts"(Duke University)
ByXu Songzan February 24, 2020
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The editor's note: Bao Zhaohui, Ph.D. and Associate Professor of Literature of Nanjing University, specializes in aesthetics and literary theory from the Paleolithic era to the Han Dynasty (220A.D.), Zhuangzi studies, theological aesthetics and poetics. He was the former editor-in-chief of Chinese Aesthetics and is now the executive deputy editor of Literature and Images. In 2019, he published Light and Salt in Chinese Literature Collections (five volumes).

Interviewer: Xu Songzan, young writer, obtained master's degree from Taiwan University of Political Science, "Ma Yuan Visiting Scholar" at Taiwan Theological Seminary, and the columnist for ThePaper.cn.

Original cause of the interview: on December 1, 2019, Duke University Theological Arts Center (DITA) launched the Yage Prize for Christian Literature & Arts with a period of six months for works bidding. The Prize attracts the world's original Christian Literature in Chinese, music and artistic creations. Bao Zhaohui was invited to be one of the judges of the literature section (https://sites.duke.edu/dita/yageprize/).

Below is a transcript of Xu's interview with, Bao Zhaohui, the judge of the Yage Prize:

I. Starting from "Light and Salt in Chinese Literature Collections"

Xu Songzan: Recently, Light and Salt in Chinese Literature Collections was published and acclaimed as "the first set of Christian Literature in Chinese collection", with contents from the Tang Dynasty's Nestorianism to various contemporary local Christian literary works, attracting the attention of many Christians. Why would you initially come up with the idea of editing a collection as such?

Bao Zhaohui: I compiled this collection of books out of a few wishes of mine. One of them was that when I was teaching "Christianity and Chinese Literature" at my university, I found that there was a lack anthologies of Chinese Christian works for my students to read. That was why I had the intention of compiling such a collection, hoping that afterwards, my students do not have to spend a lot of time all over the place collecting relevant information for their studies. The lack of an anthology of Christian works can be traced back to the Qing Dynasty after the occurrence of etiquette controversy in which the official and mainstream culture were sensitive to and neglecting of Christianity. During the era of the Republic of China, a scholar, Chen Yuan, wanted to study Christianity and found that there were not many works of Christianity collected in the Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature. It was mainly because of a total ban ordered on Christianity during the Yongzheng times (an era named after a king who reigned from 1678 to 1735), and 'Christianity' became a sensitive term across the country. Therefore, Chen Yuan lamented that China had classic collections of Taoism and Buddhism but not Christianity. My second wish was to correct the attitudes of Chinese Christians' emphases on doctrines while overlooking Christian literature and arts since the times of early missionaries to China. Another wish was for non-Christians to realize that Chinese Christian literature has become an integral part of the history of Chinese literature and culture, and that many famous Chinese people have been involved in Christian literature.

Xu Songzan: This set of books has an outstanding feature in that it highlights a presentation of believers' literary works on their religion. In it, you even absorbed hymns by Watchman Nee (a famous Chinese evangelist in modern history). This may be rather novel to many readers. Why is that?

Bao Zhaohui: Because the core of Christian literature is literature created by believers, most of the writers in the collections are Christians, and the literary works of believers in the past did not receive sufficient attention, which seriously affected the academic community's recognition of Chinese Christians' religious literature. This series of books can make up for this deficiency. As for the inclusion of hymns by Watchman Nee, it was not because Nee was the author of all the collected hymns. Determining whether it will be defined as a hymn, including those created by Nee, relies first of all on whether it meets literature standards and secondly, on its religious property. The three collected hymns by Nee do a good job on sensing "human existence" and on sensibly poetic and lyrical qualities. One of Nee's hymns, Since Your Departure from Us in Bethany, mentions the loneliness and drifting of men; I believe that loneliness and drifting of men could generate a consensus among present day readers. The hymn If You Didn't Crush Olives to Crumbs adopted a lot of figurative metaphoric techniques shown in its lyrics; for example, the correlations between olives crushed into crumbs and olive oil, between pressed grapes and wine, and spikenard plant into nard and fragrance, indicate one's growth resulting from suffering, hurting and being carved in faith.

Xu Songzan: How did your literature research set off? Who or what in particular inspired your studying and belief?

Bao Zhaohui: Since I began to study in the Department of Chinese of Zhejiang Normal University in 1991 till 2001 when I received my Ph.D. in Literature from the Department of Chinese of Nanjing University, the decade's degree program were all literature related. I began to learn about my faith in 1998 when I came to Nanjing University to study for my Ph.D. degree. At that time, my tutor also accepted a Malaysian Chinese student who was a Christian and was the first to tell me about the gospel. By then, I was 26 and already had had a set of my own established "views" of everything, thinking the guy's teachings were too untrue. Later, in writing my doctoral thesis on Zhuangzi's aesthetics, I was not only deeply moved by Zhuangzi's nihilistic consciousness, but also confused by his application of aesthetics rather than religion in facing this fundamental life problem. I therefore decided to experience how religion might overcome this nihilistic life and get me through. I took part in bible studies and slowly gained a deeper understanding and experiences of the faith combined with what the international student had told me, and so later came to believe in the Lord. Later on, I also learned more about theology and so decided to open an interdisciplinary course in my university, namely, "Christianity and Chinese Literature."

II. "The Christian literature in Chinese" and the Chinese church

Xu Songzan: For a long time, the Chinese Church has attached great importance to doctrines but does not think Christian literature and art are very important, and some churches even have anti-intellectual tendencies, believing intellectuality is not "spiritual" enough. What do you think of this phenomenon?

Bao Zhaohui: The Chinese Church attaching great importance to doctrines and neglecting Christian literature and art is a historical tradition that dates back to the struggle between fundamentalists and liberals during the era of the Republic of China. Fundamentalists emphasize reverence, pursuit of holiness, salvation of the soul, and show contempt for knowledge and understanding, and uninterested in society and culture, believing this is a fallen world not worth the time to understand. Neither do they have the ability and professional knowledge to engage in dialogues with society and culture. On the other hand, liberals are interested in society and culture with a positive attitude for integration into societal and cultural dialogues, but they do not attach enough importance to the uniqueness and highness of Christ in their faith. So the strives and characteristics of the two groups were clearly inherited from those of the 19th century Western struggle. But present day Chinese Christians should be like the evangelicals that emerged in the West in the 20th century, to break through the historical framework of this obviously narrow dualism. Actually, godliness is not incompatible with knowledge and learning, and there is no problem with emphasizing Christ's uniqueness and transcendence and having a professional dialogue with other cultures and religions with an open and equal mind. It is precisely because fundamentalists have given up on proactively testifying in cultures and in all fields that it has largely led to the desertification of Christian culture today.

Xu Songzan: What do you perceive of the relationship between reading literature and a Christian's personal belief? How about the relationship between literary ministry and Church ministry?

Bao Zhaohui: Literature, particularly good and excellent works, can improve a person's "feelings" for life and raise higher the expectation for a better life. Good literature reading can expand imagination and cultivate compassion. Whether it is enhancing one's feelings, expanding imagination, or cultivating compassion, in fact, good literature is shaping a person's ability to strengthen relations with others. It helps us to use our "hearts" to feel others and the world, the "heart" to feel God's love - to weep with those who weep rather than only relying on the brain to live with the cold doctrines and concepts to analyze the world and others. Reading Christian religious literature is actually a kind of personal pastoral care and spiritual meditation. Was the Bible not written in many styles? Didn't Paul teach and care for the believers through letters? Especially in the absence of a pastor, one's life and belief can be improved by reading good Christian religious literature, such as the biographies of well-known believers.

There are many aspects of Church ministry, but the Church's core ministry is the teaching and pastoral care centered on giving sermons of the Holy Way, and the missionary work centered on evangelism. Literary ministry is non-core among many of the ministerial aspects of a church. It is not what every church must do, but should be done according to the feelings, gifts received, and the burden of seeing the need for that church and its followers.

Xu Songzan: Concerning "Christian Literature in Chinese ", how does it develop by referring to Western Christian literature? What are some of the valuable experiences?

Bao Zhaohui: Western Christian literature has a history of several thousands of years. Western Christian culture is also one of the backbones of Western culture. There are some great Christian works, such as Augustine's Confessions, Dante's God's Song, Dostoevsky's Karamazov Brothers, and Andersen's fairy tales.

There have been periods of Christian literature blossoming in respectively the early Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China and the three decades of contemporary reforms and opening-up, but unfortunately due to external factors and its own inherent shortcomings, the development process of Christian Literature in Chinese is often interrupted. Its blossoms are usually not phenomenal. So far in China, world level Christian writers as mentioned above have not emerged, nor are there any equivalents to Asian writers like Shusaku Endo.

It is not easy to create great Christian works. According to Eliot, "Whether a work is literature or not can only be determined by the standards of literature, but the 'greatness' of the works cannot be determined by the standards of literature alone." That is to say Christian writers first of all are to improve their literature cultivation and to read a large amount of world literature masterpieces rather than being confined to spiritual books. Faith is by no means an excuse or reason for the writer to have reduced writing difficulty in literature itself. Christian literature, according to Eliot, is only a kind of "sub-literature", a specific category of literature, so Christian writers must first improve their literature cultivation so that their works can grasp their readers by the quality of professionalism.

Xu Songzan: Since 1949, because of long-standing religious isolation and control in mainland China, many intellectuals and writers have had difficulty approaching Christianity, and now concerning the emergence of these Christian writers and poets, what are the differences in their works or what surprises you?

Bao Zhaohui: Contemporary Christian writers and poets have made a breakthrough in their works, at least compared to those in the period of the Republic of China or earlier in history. They are more influenced by modern literary ideas. They can show their uniqueness in writing and demonstrate diversified writing skills. As to processing contents and subject matters, they do not need to be as much as their predecessors who imitated or stayed loyal to certain Biblical scenes. They can give full play to their creativity and imagination without having to dwell on specific details or worry about whether the scene matches the specific content of the Bible. They can reconstruct a virtual world and can have a subtle description and unique observation of the real world. Even if the work as a whole does not involve content and vocabulary pertaining to Christianity, as long as it contains some Christian spirituality and values, in that sense, it can be considered as Christian literature.

III. The expectation of the "Yage Prize"

Xu Songzan: I see that the purpose of the "Yage Prize" is to "encourage Chinese literature writers worldwide, to start from their own unique national identity and experience, absorb and digest the way of Christ and contribute spiritual fruits to the world." What do you think of the purpose of this Prize as a judge? In addition, what is the reason for bringing up the Prize this year?

Bao Zhaohui: During the period of the Republic of China, the Timothy Richard Prize was established under the advocacy and promotion of Timothy Richard for rewarding the creation of Christian literature. In contemporary Hong Kong, there is the "Tang Qing Literature Prize", which mainly rewards literature creation and theological works. The emergence of the Yage Literature Prize is a good thing. As stated in the purpose of the Prize, it is to encourage Chinese literature and artistic writers worldwide to engage in all-round literature and artistic creation. In addition to literature, there are music and visual arts covering almost all art categories. Moreover, Chinese Christian writers do have some materials worthy of writing in terms of national identity and survival experience. American Chinese scholars have studied the tension caused by the identity and construction of Chinese Christians in the aspects of immigrant assimilation, religious conversion, and diaspora. As the Chinese church and the Chinese theological circles do not attach importance to Christian literature and artistic creation, Duke University has set up the "Yage Literature Prize" to encourage and promote the world's Chinese literature and artistic writers to carry out spiritual literature and artistic creation, which is worthy of recognition but is also far-sighted. The expression of literature and art can express the tension of the Chinese meeting the world and present its experience of bridging and updating. Christian literature and art have unique advantages in expressing this kind of encounter and fusion. In addition, this year's Prize was inspired by a sense of the prosperity of Christian literature and artistic creation in recent years.

Xu Songzan: I see that the selection of the Yage Literature Prize is very wide ranging, from traditional literature categories (such as prose, novels) to vocal and instrumental music, as well as visual arts (devices, videos, etc.). What are the reasons for such a large and wide selection?

Bao Zhaohui: Such a large and extensive selection scope mainly takes into account the fact that since the reforms and opening-up, not only have traditional Christian literature categories had achievements, but also Christian arts such as Christian music and visual art have had remarkable achievements. Contemporary China has a group of Christian composers and songwriters as well as a large number of Christian artists. In addition, art and literature as twins are equally important in contemporary China; they are indispensable components to its culture. They profoundly influence the development direction of Chinese contemporary culture, so none of the two should be neglected.

- Translated by Charlie Li 

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