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The Classical Tradition and the Translation of Latin Poetry in Twentieth-Century China

Bobby Xinyue

Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Warwick (UK)

This paper examines the dissemination, translation, and intellectual impact of Greek and Latin poetry in China in the twentieth century. It uses Ovid as a case study to explore the key factors that have affected the study of Latin poetry in cultures (such as China) which stand outside notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’ that connect the West to a Greco-Roman past.

The first part of the paper considers how Greek and Latin poetry gradually came to be understood as the courier of modern spirit in early twentieth-century China, culminating in a short yet intense period of interest in Ovid’s poetry in the 1930s shown by a group of scholars gathered around the reformed literary journal Xiaoshuo Yuebao (Fiction Monthly, [reformed format] 1921-32). An overview of the history of Greco-Roman classical scholarship in China from the sixteenth-century to the early decades of the twentieth-century will highlight the distinctive features of Chinese philhellenism (Goodman and Grafton 1990; Liu 2015); and demonstrate how Chinese scholarly interests in the Greco-Roman classical tradition in the early-twentieth century was deeply rooted in debates surrounding the country’s Westernization, its past and future, and the place of traditional Confucian texts and value systems in post-imperial China. Saussy (2010) has recently argued that in the 1920s there was a particular enthusiasm for the Greek and Roman classical tradition among a group of Chinese intellectuals associated with the journal Xueheng (The Critical Review, 1922-33), whose work often assimilated Ancient Greek philosophy to Confucianism and used Classical Chinese phraseology and poetic techniques to reassert traditional Chinese values. Building on the work of Saussy, it will be suggested here that, as a response to the Xueheng group, the critics and translators gathered around Fiction Monthly magazine promoted (Europeanized) vernacular as the means for conveying the sentiments of Greco-Roman texts, and repeatedly emphasized the aliveness of Greek and Roman poetry that can be observed in and continues to inhibit Western art, literature and thought.

The second half of the paper takes a closer look at how this notion of Greco-Roman poetry as modernising humanism affected subsequent study of Latin literature in China. The focus here will be on two translations of Ovid: Dai Wangshu’s 1932 edition of the Ars Amatoria, which is the earliest translation of Ovid’s poetry in China, and Yang Zhouhan’s 1984 translation of the Metamorphoses, which presents all fifteen books of Ovid’s epic to Chinese readers for the first time. These two translations, as will be argued here, not only bookend and illuminate the development of Greco-Roman classical scholarship in modern China, but also in many respects encapsulate the values being attributed to the Greek and Roman classical tradition in China over the course of the twentieth century. As both Chinese translators work primarily with French and English translations of Ovid’s poetry (rather than the original Latin), close readings of their texts suggest that their translations strongly engage in the Western scholarly tradition of reading Ovid’s elegiac and epic poetry, and that through this process both Ovid and that tradition are presented as having the potential to vitalize and enrich Chinese intellectual culture. This case study will therefore offer further insights into the role that a reified concept of the Greek and Roman classical tradition played in China’s quest for modernization (cf. Stephens and Vanusia 2010:14), while drawing attention to the significance of Latin poetry in the transmission and integration of the Greco-Roman tradition into Chinese literary and intellectual debate.

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Global Classical Traditions

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