China and Germany : a study of images and influences of China in German literature

Read, Malcolm

September 1977

Thesis or dissertation

© 1977 Malcolm Read. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

[Introduction]: Whilst the theme of the influence of one culture upon another has always been regarded as a legitimate subject of literary study, that of the image of one culture reflected within the literature of another culture has not. M-F. Guyard appears to have been the first critic to draw attention to the significance of this aspect of comparative literature. However, his claim that this constituted a serious aspect of literary research was not widely accepted. Critics, most notably R. Wellek, dismissed the subject as trivial:
"One cannot be convinced by recent attempts ... to widen the scope of comparative literature in order to include a study of national illusions, of fixed ideas which nations have of each other."
Wellek considered such a widening of the scope of comparative literature as 'dissolving literary scholarship into social psychology and cultural history'. These remarks, made in 1958, reflect the then fashionable New Criticism. The conviction that literary study should be divorced from all reality that exists beyond the bounds of the literature studied has been superceded in more recent times by a wider view of the function of literary criticism. With this has emerged a greater readiness to regard such comparative themes as a valuable contribution to literary research.

The themes of images and influences are in fact complementary aspects of the same area of study, since it is through influences that an image emerges. A negative image is the result of negative influence on either an individual author or a particular culture.

The study of the image of another culture and the influence of that culture is a parallel to the study of the reception, within anyone culture, of older traditions of that same culture. The latter is regarded as a valid subject of literary research, therefore the same must be true of the former.

The particular theme of Oriental influences in German literature has received little critical attention. Studies have been made of the image and influences of India and Indian thought in German literature, but China has been neglected almost entirely. There are exceptions: Hermann Hesse, the most obvious example of the assimilation of Chinese thought, has been the subject of two detailed studies. Adrian Hsia's Hermann Hesse und China considers the whole of Hesse's life and work, and documents the latter's interest in Chinese literature and philosophy, whilst Ursula Chi's Die Weisheit Chinas undrDas Glasperlenspiel, demonstrates the application of Chinese thought in Hesse's writings. The existence of these two studies precludes Hesse from the present work, since it is not now possible to make any further contribution to this aspect of the problem. However, these two studies do not consider other authors, and do not place Hesse in the wider context of Sino-German literary relations. The present study does not, therefore, duplicate anything contained within these works but, rather,indicates that Hesse is not the exceptional figure that these isolated enquiries would appear to make him.

Apart from these two works on Hesse, one can refer only to Rose's introductory article and investigations of individual authors, and to Chuan Chen's Die chinesische schone Literatur im deutschen Schrifttum of 1933. The latter is a study of translations of Chinese literature. It does not discuss works that are based upon Chinese motifs and only briefly examines German works that are adapted from Chinese originals. M. Davidson's uncompleted bibliography is of only limited value and contains many inaccuracies. More recently, Brecht has been the subject of a
number of investigations that fall within the scope of the present thesis, as indicated in my discussion of his work. The fact that a single study has appeared dealing with Brecht's adaptation of twelve Chinese poems serves to indicate the neglect that earlier adaptors of Chinese poetry have suffered.

The present study is intended to make a contribution to the investigation of the image of China by examining the role of Chinese themes in German literature. In doing so, it attempts to document the frequency of such themes and to explain their popularity whilst also considering the influence of China, and Chinese literature and thought on German authors. The main part of this study deals with twentieth-century German literature written before the end of 1945, the latest work being Brecht's Der kaukasische Kreidekreis. It is felt that 1945 is a significant point at which to halt the present study since post-war German literature, whilst possessing such obvious examples of Chinese influences as Hermann Kasack's Die Stadt hinter dem Strom of 1947, would require a separate approach. In order, however, to give an historical perspective to the literature of the twentieth century and to highlight the peculiarities of the modern response to China, a chapter is included surveying the historical development of the image of China in German literature and thought from earliest times to the end of the nineteenth century. Whilst a number of brief individual studies of various aspects of the historical image of China do exist, no single work covers the overall development. It is felt, therefore, that this chapter constitutes a necessary part of the present investigation.

It is the intention of this study to isolate the features of the German literary response to China by examining works that use Chinese originals as a source, works that are adapted from or styled on Chinese sources, works set in China, works of a literary nature that discuss China, and works that, in the broadest sense, exhibit Chinese influences. The authors examined are not intended to be an exhaustive catalogue but, rather, representative of the various aspects discussed. Thus, in each case, the more popular authors are dealt with in detail, whilst works by other authors are included to demonstrate the popularity of such themes.

The present work is not intended as a sinological study and does not attempt to criticise the accuracy of the work of sinologists. The majority of the texts discussed are free adaptations or imaginative creations. Where the accuracy of works is discussed, it is their accuracy to the source used by any particular author. However, where obvious discrepancies arise between a source used by a German author and a more accurate European translation of the original, this is pointed out. The discussion is not intended as a philological investigation of the works in question, but as a general literary enquiry into the use of certain themes and motifs. Nevertheless, the frequent distortion of original works presented in free German form does require comment, which is validated by reference to the work of recognised sinologists.

Since a certain section of the discussion turns around the influence of Taoism, and since this philosophy is, by its very nature, elusive, obscure and barely distinguishable from other forms of religious mysticism and philosophical Idealism, an excursus is added which uses philosophical or pseudo-philosophical discussions and free adaptations of Taoist writings to support the thesis of the popularity and influence of Taoism in the twentieth century. Again, this is not intended as a sinological investigation, but as an attempt to ascertain the significance that Taoist thought gained during the period studied.

The themes of influence and image merge within the various works discussed. These influences range from the poetic, through the religio-philosophical to the overtly political. No strict division between these various images and influences is attempted except where they fall into one clear category. The conclusion does, however, attempt to distinguish between these three categories, which often co-exist in the work of individual authors.

Much of the literature discussed is of a trivial nature and belongs to the often neglected area of popular literature. Discussion of such works is necessary, since they constitute a large part of the material by which images and influences are communicated within cultural groups. Whilst one may be critical of the quality of these works, the literary critic must not ignore the existence of such literature which can help to qualify the cultural climate in which more valuable objects of literary interest are produced.

Since it cannot be expected that the reader is familiar with the works that are discussed, it is often necessary to give a brief indication of the contents of these works in order to illustrate certain aspects of style and tone which typify the author's attitude towards China. Similarly, though the present author does not wish to burden his reader with facts on Chinese history and philosophy, certain details are indispensable for an understanding of particular works, and are included accordingly.

Department of German, The University of Hull
Ethos identifier
Qualification level
Qualification name
16 MB
QR Code