Faculty Author Q&A: Martin Kern on "Performance and Interpretation: Studies in Early Chinese Poetics”

April 4, 2023

Martin Kern is the Joanna and Greg ’84 P13 P18 Zeluck Professor in Asian Studies.  His latest book is the first of two volumes of his collected essays in newly revised Chinese translations. The volume includes his principal studies on early Chinese poetry and poetics as well as reflections on methodological and ethical questions in the study of ancient China and on the place of Sinology within comparative studies.


How did you get the idea for this project?

The idea for this book goes back many years. While virtually all my writings get translated quickly into Chinese, the translations inevitably include certain misunderstandings. My English isn't always easy to translate into Chinese, and I use and develop theoretical concepts that don't have a clear counterpart in Chinese. Moreover, my Chinese translations are scattered across many journals and book chapters that cannot easily be tracked by Chinese colleagues and students. Thus, the present book not only brings a particular set of my essays together, it also presents them all in meticulously revised or entirely new translations, thanks to my friend Guo Xi'an 郭西安, associate professor at Fudan University, who is my most insightful reader and who has spent untold hours on getting every sentence of these Chinese essays right, often in close discussion with me. The result is a book of 550 pages with fourteen of my essays on poetry and poetics, chronologically arranged, that date from 1996 through 2022. I want my readers to follow my trajectory over this quarter century and see how certain ideas, methodologies, and hermeneutic procedures have remained fairly consistent over time, but also how they have kept evolving further with every new publication.


How has your project developed or changed throughout the research and writing process?

Initially, around fifteen years ago, I had planned a single volume of my collected essays; but then I just kept writing essay after essay, and they no longer fit within just one book. Thus, we made the decision to have at least two volumes: the present one on poetry and poetics, crossing all genres and major texts of ancient Chinese poetry, and the next one on prose, ancient Chinese writing practices, and the origins and early development of the textual tradition. Furthermore, the present volume closes with two essays that have received particular attention—and generated productive public controversy—in China because they address fundamental methodological issues in the study of early China. The first of these is "Beyond Nativism: Reflections on Methodology and Ethics in the Study of Early China" which was first published in the national intellectual Chinese journal Xueshu yuekan 學術月刊 [Academic Monthly, Shanghai] in 2017; the English version was not published until 2020. The second essay, so far published only in Chinese in the same journal in 2021, is titled "The Challenges of Early China Studies and Comparative Antiquity: A Dialog between Sinology and Comparative Literature" and offers a lengthy conversation with Professor Guo. Finally, the book is framed by my preface and Professor Guo's very substantial postface that is an intellectual tour de force in its own right, mapping out the presence and possible future of a truly global, truly participatory sinological discourse.


What questions for future investigation has the project sparked?

Looking back at the trajectory represented in these collected essays, I can see that my work—which is always deeply philological in nature—has become increasingly comparative and increasingly radical in its questioning of even the most basic categories in the study of ancient Chinese texts. What is a text, and how are its limits defined? What is authorship in early China? How can we grapple with the materiality and sociology of text, textual transmission, reception, and performance? What did it mean to "know" a text in ancient China, or to "read" a text, or to "make" a text? In all of this, I have been moving more and more away from traditional ideas about texts as discrete, particular things and artifacts; I now think of them as instantiations and representations of textual practices, always related to specific communities and occasions, that transcend and frequently dissolve the boundaries between individual texts. This is how I would like to continue and also to inspire new work by others, in particular in China.


Why should people read this book?

As it happens, my work is quite controversial in Chinese academia. It lays bare certain methodological and programmatic differences between Chinese and foreign scholarship, but also, and increasingly so, such differences within current Chinese scholarship itself. My hope is that colleagues and students in China will read this collection as an explicit and transparent intervention into their own intellectual practices. And once they are done with that, I hope they'll also be well-prepared for the second volume. My audience in China is many times larger than in North America and Europe.