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Chinese comparative literature to integrate semiotics

HUANG WENHU | 2019-11-07
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 
Literary Semiotics authored by Zhao Yiheng is the first monograph in China to systematically employ Western semiotic principles to interpret literary texts. Photo: FILE
Semiotic Thinking in Pre-Qin Philosophy by Zhu Dong shed light on the semiotic thought of Zhou Yi and other schools and probed how some ideas of signification in traditional Chinese philosophy influenced classical poetry. Photo: FILE
 

 

There is broad room for theoretical dialogue between comparative literature and semiotics. In the field of literature and art, the theoretical discourses of comparative poetics and semiotics can complement and interpret each other. As a methodology, semiotics has important application value in the cross-disciplinary research of comparative literature. 
 
As the “Chinese School” of the humanities thrives in the new era, Chinese semiotic studies can hopefully develop into comparative semiotics with both a sense of national distinction and global vision so that it can effectively interact with comparative literature theory. 
 
 
Compatibility 
Comparative poetics is a significant research area in comparative literature. From cross-cultural perspectives, it comparatively examines literary theories of different countries and tries to discover and summarize common laws of human literature. Semiotics regards literature and art as a unique system of signification unique to human society and can be applied extensively in the literary and artistic field. For example, renowned Russian linguist and poet Roman Jakobson held that poetics is part of pansemiotics. 
 
Since the 1990s, many Chinese scholars have attempted to interpret literary texts and phenomena at all times and all over the world using semiotic theories, resembling interpretive approaches in comparative literature. 
 
For instance, Literary Semiotics authored by Zhao Yiheng, a professor of comparative literature from the College of Literature and Journalism at Sichuan University, is the first monograph in China to systematically employ Western semiotic principles to interpret literary texts. Judging from his basic research framework, Zhao was also adopting an interpretative approach. The interpretative approach can be divided into the one-way interpretation of Chinese texts with Western theories and a two-way interpretation between the two sides. 
 
Subject to the influence of modern Western thought such as structuralism, phenomenology and hermeneutics, Chinese semiotic studies have shown a tendency toward interpreting and evaluating the value and significance of Chinese literature by standards of Western literary theories. The Western interpretative approach is advantageous in that it allows self-reflection through another’s lens, but it easily leads to forced interpretation, consciously or unconsciously. 
 
From the angle of comparative poetics, two-way interpretation stresses equal dialog and communication between different literary discourses in a cross-cultural context, rather than leveraging powerful Western discourses to command disadvantaged literary discourses. Therefore, although the introduction of Western semiotic theories has expanded the space of interpretation for Chinese literature, it is still necessary to enhance theoretical interaction between Western semiotics and Chinese semiotic resources from the perspective of two-way interpretation, thus breaking away from the mentality of binary opposition. 
 
Comparative literature features cross-boundary studies between different countries, civilizations and disciplines in a cosmopolitan vision. The cross-boundary nature of these studies is essential in the comprehensive discipline of comparative literature. On the other side, semiotics probes all laws of signification, so it is widely applicable. As a methodology, it crosses different disciplines, specializations and knowledge categories, and thus has great reference value to cross-disciplinary studies of comparative literature. 
 
In practice, the recent four decades have seen a host of academic achievements featuring cross-disciplinary studies with semiotic theory. For example, Ye Shuxian, a senior professor of the humanities and social sciences at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, integrated semiotic theory with an interpretation of the thinking model of mythology in Chinese and Western cultures, initiating a theoretical paradigm for Chinese cultural anthropology. Hu Miaosheng, a professor from Shanghai Theatre Academy, fused Chinese and foreign theatrical theories and Western semiotic principles, attempting to build a system of theatrical semiotics with Chinese characteristics. 
 
In the realm of philosophy, many scholars also tried to interpret semiotic issues in ancient Chinese books using semiotic theories. In his book Semiotic Thinking in Pre-Qin Philosophy, Zhu Dong, a professor from the School of International Cultural Exchange at Lanzhou University, shed light on the semiotic thought of Zhou Yi and other schools and elaborated on the influence of some ideas of signification in traditional Chinese philosophy on classical poetry. Studies of this kind are distinctively cross-boundary. They not only fall into the research category of literary semiotics, but also accord with the characteristics of cross-disciplinary research in comparative literature. 
 
 
Study of variations 
In China, the study of variations in comparative literature has flourished in recent years. In the cross-cultural context, literature of different countries will unavoidably vary when transmitted and received overseas. The study of variations maintains that literary variations are not simply misunderstanding or dissimilation. They can be bases for the innovation and integration of different cultures. Variations manifest in the following aspects: 
 
The first are variations in literary images across nations. The field focuses on foreign images from the other’s perspective. For example, Hu Yirong, a research fellow at the Institute of Semiotics and Media Studies at Sichuan University, said that the study of images, or imagology, in comparative literature pays attention to “foreign images” presented by a single medium of language. It doesn’t cover multi-model images constructed by multimedia in the mass media era. Imagology from the view of semiotics is a broad study of images from various modern media landscapes. Therefore, an organic combination of imagology and semiotics will help reveal more covert and complicated semiotic hegemony underlying “transnational images” in the new media age. 
 
Second, translingual variations merit attention. They are linguistic variations, belonging to the research category of translation studies, or translatology. Translatology and semiotics have a natural “genetic relationship,” since semiotics forms the theoretical foundation of linguistics, while translatology zooms in on translation between different languages. The symbol system and dichotomy proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of European semiotics, has exerted a profound influence on translation studies. Hence many important concepts in translatology can be incorporated into the research scope of semiotics. 
 
Third come variations in literary texts. This field explores the reception of literary texts in foreign countries as a part of cross-cultural communication. In recent years, serial studies on the communication, reception and variation of Chinese literature overseas are hot in the Chinese comparative literature community. Relocated in the heterogeneous cultural context, the characters, plots and themes of the original work are usually ripped apart. Sometimes even the mode of communication is radically changed. 
 
For example, the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, namely Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber, have been adapted into films, cartoons and games abroad. Studying such variations entails research in semiotic communication. 
 
The last is about variations in theoretical discourse under cross-cultural and cross-civilizational circumstances. The transmission and reception of semiotics in China has in fact evolved from the dominance of Western semiotics to the construction of a semiotics with Chinese characteristics. Particularly in the past 20 years, semiotics has developed rapidly in China, with research works increasing exponentially. 
 
Regrettably, predominant theoretical frameworks still carry on the discourse system of European semiotic schools led by Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. Chinese scholars have also realized the inappropriateness of blindly following Western semiotics, and they have attempted to break down artificial barriers between Chinese and Western semiotic discourses in regard to thought and speech. 
 
In fact, traditional Chinese culture contains rich semiotic resources, such as the symbol system in the I Ching, the “justification theory” in Confucianism and the “name-reality theory” advocated by Mohism. To go beyond existing Western semiotic discourse models, many scholars have begun trying to build a Chinese semiotic theoretical system. You-zheng Li, former vice president of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, incorporated linguistic, narrative, poetic, stylistic and artistic semantic studies into the research of Chinese literary semiotics. Wang Mingyu, a professor of semiotics at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, divided Chinese semiotic resources into 13 categories, including Chinese characters, Buddhist philosophy, classical literature, anthropology and Marxism. 
 
To sum up, the studies of variations in comparative literature and semiotics have much to communicate and share with each other. The developing Chinese School of comparative literature similarly has much to share. To build an original theoretical system, Chinese semiologists should actively explore a mechanism for developing theory in which heterogeneous Chinese and foreign cultures integrate amid conflict and innovate amid variations. Hence the development of Chinese semiotics should draw upon the global vision of comparative literature and establish a theoretical system of comparative semiotics with both rational discourse and humanistic traditions, with both traditional Chinese semiotic resources and modern Western semiotic theories, and with both local features and inclusiveness and openness. 
 
Huang Wenhu is from the School of Journalism and Communication at Huaqiao University. 
 
edited by CHEN MIRONG