- Zhang Longxi (Author)
Unexpected Affinities: Reading across Cultures. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Roseanna L. Dufault
Longxi’s slim but remarkable volume contains the printed version of four lectures on East-West cultural and literary comparisons delivered at the University of Toronto in 2005. Well-constructed arguments reveal Longxi’s extensive knowledge of Chinese and Western European traditions; plentiful, cogent examples support his thesis that unique and valuable critical insights can emerge through “a truly global vision of human creativity.”
Zhang Longxi’s invitation to participate in the Alexander Lectureship is in itself significant. Founded in 1928, the series has begun in the past decade to reflect greater diversity by inviting more women speakers and by diverging from topics strictly related to English literature. As Professor of Comparative Literature and Translation at City University of Hong Kong, Longxi is the first to address East-West themes.
The first lecture/chapter establishes the validity of East-West cross-cultural studies by refuting outmoded notions of cultural incommensurability, according to which Asian and European literary traditions are considered too diametrically opposed to be compared usefully. Of course, Longxi acknowledges significant divergences, such as the relative lack of religious sentiment in classical Chinese works as compared with medieval Western texts, but he maintains that these are simply variations in degree rather than fundamental differences in kind. Evoking images employed by Northrop Frye (stepping back from a painting) and Wittgenstein (climbing a ladder), Longxi emphasizes the value of establishing a perspective distance to achieve a better understanding of specific literary and artistic works.
In subsequent chapters, Longxi draws on a number of Chinese texts, ranging from the seventh- to the sixteenth-centuries, and compares them to Western works by Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare, among others, as well as various nineteenth-century European and American poets. His research highlights some common metaphors: a pearl representing a tear as well as a poet’s craft; a journey symbolizing life’s twists and turns; the dialectic of opposites, such as medicine and poison, life and death, sin and redemption. Along these lines, Longxi demonstrates that the notion of balance between antithetical qualities, yin and yang, emerges in numerous writings throughout centuries of Chinese tradition. Taking these Eastern texts into account permits a fresh reading of a familiar Western work, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Specifically, Friar Lawrence’s initial soliloquy, in which he reflects on oppositions inherent in medicinal herbs and human nature, is often glossed over by readers and critics. However, background knowledge of Chinese thought leads to a deeper understanding of this passage as essential in articulating a central theme of Shakespeare’s play, that is, the protagonists’ paradoxically tragic and redemptive love.
Concentrating further on notions of return and reversal, Longxi remarks that the Western parable of the prodigal son exists in Buddhism as well. He moves on to examine cross-cultural representations of the imaginary movement of the mind as a spiritual quest in the shape of a circle or sphere. Beginning and ending this section with lines from Emily Dickinson, Longxi cites multiple examples from Plato, Dante, and Milton, to Buddhist teachings on the Wheel of Dharma and Laozi’s Taoist philosophy to emphasize the apparently universal human impulse to reconcile opposites. As Longxi demonstrates, literature, as well as religion and philosophy, teaches us to recognize the pervasive presence of dialectical reversal in our experience of life. Thus, he concludes with an encouragement to pursue knowledge, East-West studies in particular, to edify, enrich and renew the self.
Of particular interest to university level teacher/scholars are Longzi’s frequent appeals to the intellectual pleasure of discovering new insights and surprising coincidences, plus the satisfaction of guiding students to make cross-cultural connections of their own. Although Unexpected Affinities is necessarily limited by the lecture-series format, it nonetheless introduces Chinese authors and texts that may not be familiar to those more accustomed to English and European canons, and it suggests strategies for enhancing courses in comparative literature and philosophy. Longxi’s work provides a useful introduction as well as an incentive to read across cultures and seek out deep connections between and among themes and ideas.
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MLA: Dufault, Roseanna L. East-West Imagination. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 162 - 163)
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