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Virgil (or His Absence) in China and the Viability of Western Classics in Non-Western Context

Jinyu Liu

Apart from a fleeting show of interest in Virgil in 1930 in connection with the Two-Thousandth Anniversary of his birth, Virgil has never incurred any serious scholarly or popular attention in China until the end of the twentieth century. First attempted in 1930, the Chinese translation of the complete Aeneid did not appear until 1984. The complete Chinese translation of Eclogues was first published in 1957, while no attempt has been made to translate Georgics into Chinese yet. The sporadic and limited introduction of Virgil and his works in China is in sharp contrast not only to Virgil’s literary fame and enduring influence in the West throughout the centuries but  also  to  the  general  popularity  of  the  Homeric  Epics  in  China,  which  were translated into Chinese numerous times since early twentieth century to this day.

What factors, then, might have hindered Virgil, who was proclaimed as “Father of the West” (Theodor Haecker) and “classic of all Europe” (T. S. Eliot), to gain some stature in China in the periods of intense Westernization? To what extent can the failure of Virgil to thrive on the Chinese soil be attributed to the lack of appeal of the many transcending values/themes, or varieties of universalism, that the Western scholars and readers saw in Virgil to the Chinese intellectuals? Since nation building and the destiny of Empire are among the salient themes in Virgil’s Aeneid, why were his works not appropriated more aggressively for discourses concerning imperialism and/or national identities in the colonial or semi-colonial society that was China from 1840-1949? Stepping out of the Euro-centric approaches to Virgil, this paper uses Virgil in China as a case study to tap into the broader issues of the viability of Western classics in a non-Western context, and the criteria or principles that have guided the selection of Graeco-Roman materials to translate into Chinese.

Session/Panel Title

Classics and Reaction: Modern China Confronts the Ancient West

Session/Paper Number

36.3

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