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During the mid-twentieth century, both the Harvard-based academic Achilles Fang and the itinerant novelist-translator Younghill Kang (of, respectively, Chinese and Korean heritage) supported themselves as émigrés to the United States by working as scholars of the East Asian ancient past. They combined their upbringings in the waning days of East Asia’s neo-Confucian educational régime with the formidable training in Latin and Greek they acquired in American universities, resulting in bodies of work filled with offhand comparisons between “Eastern” and “Western” antiquities. Both applied their unusual perspectives to unique projects: Fang took it upon himself to annotate Ezra Pound’s allusions to Chinese literature, and Kang wove his meditations on comparative antiquities into two autobiographical novels.

Fang and Kang were shaped by intellectual currents in both East Asia and the United States that believed in notions we would now likely find objectionable. Both go out of their way to try to abstract racial, national, and ethnic essences from their material (what we would now call cultural essentialism); both believed it was important to account for disparities in timelines of industrial and scientific development, with recourse to the ancient pasts of Europe and East/Southeast Asia. Both also owed their livelihoods in America to their positions in the edifice that Edward Saïd famously diagnosed as “Orientalism”: the scholarly reification of “the East” within a philological apparatus of knowledge production that allowed the exercise of power over that East.

In this brief paper, I combine a reading of Fang’s papers on the work of Pound attempting to explicate allusions to Chinese literature by recourse to the Greek and Roman past with passages from Kang’s novels The Grass Roof and East Goes West that contemplate the relationship of each antiquity to the other, and to Kang’s present. I read the scholarly and literary
works of Fang and Kang as a challenge to the neat binaries drawn in the work of Saïd. What happened when the Orientalists were themselves learned Orientals? These scholars simultaneously accepted the notion of a shared “Orient” defined by a common intellectual and literary heritage, in keeping with the pan-Asianist currents prevalent in their youth; they were themselves orientalized by those around them in the United States; and they orientalized themselves. Orientalism, in their hands, was not clearly (or merely) an oppressive intellectual practice; together with Western classicism, it also provided Fang and Kang with an intellectual apparatus for self-definition. They sought to explain their positions and displacements within the disparate chronologies and vocabularies provided by their twin classical educations in both Sinitic and Greco-Roman traditions. Their work cannot merely be explained as collaboration, compradorism, or victimhood: they were attempting in good faith to make sense of the relevance of their pasts to the upheavals of the world as they experienced it. In this light, I propose, Saïd’s model of Orientalism deserves reconsideration and elaboration.