Professor TAKAHASHI, Bunji 《Chinese Literature》
Interviewers, organizers: Yutaka Kubo (junior, Chinese literature major), Mikiko Shima (junior, Chinese literature major), Eitaro Tanaka (junior, comparative literature major)
Finding Chinese Literature
Shima: Professor, how did you end up working in research?
Takahashi: I never considered starting a normal career and getting a normal job. In our day, you know, the focus on being cultured still remained. I thought that education and knowledge would be helpful in my life, and continuing to acquire those things was all I thought about.
What led me to the School of Letters was, during a supplementary lesson in high school, my chemistry teacher who said, “I assume since you are all attending this supplementary lesson, you will choose chemistry when you take your exams.” That was how he first greeted us, and for some reason hearing that made my blood run cold. I was thinking, “That’s not why I’m here” (laughs).
Just as I lost the motivation to attend those supplementary lessons, I grew fond of one of my teachers who didn’t speak like that; that teacher happened to be a Japanese instructor. That was one of the reasons I came to the School of Letters, but not the most important reason. Well, I guess similar coincidences kept happening.
Kubo: Well then, what made you consider Chinese literature?
Takahashi: Even now I’m yet not sure. Still, there was one interest I had in high school. In class, the Japanese teacher I mentioned before showed me some tanka she had written herself. That inspired me, and I tried my hand at writing tanka and poetry in English. When I came across Chinese poetry I thought I would give that a try too, but I had no idea whether my grammar was correct, and I felt I wouldn’t be able to write Chinese poetry without studying Chinese first. It certainly stuck in my memory, but I had no particular plans to study Chinese literature when I got to college.
Tanaka: So, it wasn’t related to a specific literary work?
Takahashi: No, it had nothing to do with a specific work.
Dreams for the Future
Takahashi: You know, I’ve never felt that I was actually working in “Chinese literature.” I feel like I work in “Chinese studies.”
Tanaka: Do you mean that you deal with the culture as a whole?
Takahashi: No, I mean that the name “Chinese literature” doesn’t fit. At universities today, literature is a kind of “regional research” that includes many types of literature such as French literature, German literature, and Italian literature; Chinese literature is one of those types. However, maybe the name “Chinese studies” says that, rather than doing literary research on a specific narrow region, we are doing classical studies research on all of Asia. Similar to Greek and Roman culture in Europe, Chinese culture and its various classical works have always been regarded as influential in determining the position of other regions in Asia. In Japan we learned those things in the form of Classical Chinese, and the same was true in Korea, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. Because of that, researching the literature of China means researching the classical works of Asia as a whole at the same time.
Also, as demonstrated by the fact that one Chinese history book Records of the Three Kingdoms contains “An Account of the Wa,” it wasn’t as if Chinese classical works only discussed China. If that hadn’t been the case, we would know almost nothing about the histories of Central Asia or Southeast Asia. That is why texts written in Chinese are also incredibly meaningful as sources of information. For instance, we know that the English name for Japan (as opposed to the native word, “Nihon”) comes from Chinese. The word “Vietnam” also has Chinese origins. The same is true of the word “Korea.” In short, there is a so-called “cultural zone of Chinese characters,” and classical Chinese works are extremely meaningful as we think about all sorts of things in the world. My colleagues and I unravel the significance of that meaning. We also think about what kind of characteristics and variations texts written in Chinese have. People tend to reject things like that as “Sinocentrism,” however.
Because of that aversion, some people are even of the opinion that Chinese literature is now losing value in both classical studies and regional research. In other words, people in classical studies dislike Chinese literature and try to push it off to the side, but when talk turns to establishing the subject as regional research, China just can’t fit inside such a narrow framework. Ultimately, the lack of success on both fronts has brought Chinese literature research to where it is now. One dream of mine is to rebuild the subject properly and get people to love Chinese studies again as a kind of classical studies.
Tanaka: How ambitious!
Takahashi: Yes, it is ambitious (laughs).
To People Pursuing Chinese Literature
Tanaka: Professor, what kind of people would you like to come to the Chinese literature research room?
Takahashi: I think any kind of person is fine. What I would most like to tell high school students and undergraduates in the School of Letters is not to think of acquiring knowledge as trivia, but to think of it as the foundation upon which humanity and society rest. I want them to feel intellectually stimulated in some form or another. I’d like students to make that a habit, or rather, build on that to develop a variety of ideas. That applies not only to Chinese studies, but to all of education.
I think working in the School of Letters is more important and more fun than people think. Within the school, Chinese literature can offer just as much of that intellectual stimulation to anyone as any other field.
The Joys of Research
Shima: I am sure you often make trips to China for research; during those trips, what areas have left an impression on you?
Takahashi: A lot of them have. I like Shanxi province. It’s similar to Shiga prefecture in Japan. A defining characteristic of Shiga prefecture was its position as a transportation hub using water transport on Lake Biwa.
Tanaka: Azuchi Castle is there as well.
Takahashi: Right. That’s why, at the time, it was extremely prosperous. Later, however, railroads were built and the area gradually lost significance as a transportation hub. That is exactly why so many things built during the prosperous times remain as cultural treasures. Shanxi is exactly the same. In the days when Chang’an and Kaifeng were capitals, it was an important transportation route. Although 80 percent of China’s extant cultural treasures are in Shanxi, it is because the province was stagnating. As other regions developed, they demolished things to build new ones, but Shanxi was left behind. That’s why it’s incredibly rural now. It has become China’s poorest province, but there are many cultural treasures there and I’ve explored Shanxi from one end to the other. I’m confident that I’m one of the few people in the world who has seen those Chinese cultural treasures.
Kubo: Among those cultural treasures, which ones in particular impressed you?
Takahashi: Well, there is one called Yongle Palace... (pulls a large book off the shelf).
Tanaka: Are those wall paintings?
Takahashi: Yes. Yongle Palace is a Taoist temple built during the Yuan dynasty and the walls in various buildings are covered in wall paintings. They really are magnificent. Not only are they exceptional in an artistic sense, the paintings also have a variety of meanings that are culturally and historically related to literature. People probably explained the paintings to each other (※art explication). Explaining paintings in front of an audience developed into storytelling.
Tanka: Professor, did you feel intellectually stimulated standing in front of those wall paintings?
Takahashi: Ah, well...it was incredibly stimulating (laughs). To continue our earlier discussion, these wall paintings have connections to the rest of the world. These kind of performing arts probably entered China from Central Asia. They also came into Japan.
Tanaka: Performing arts at temples?
Takahashi: Yes, like explaining paintings. If you go to Shiga prefecture, there are some very similar wall paintings—somewhere in the Koto Sanzan, I think—and there are painting explication texts that go with them. That is incontrovertible evidence that these unassuming paintings have connections to the rest of the world. That’s why, centered on things like that, I would like to completely reposition the significance of China.
How Japanese Research on Chinese Literature is Judged
Kubo: How is Japanese research on Chinese literature judged within China itself?
Takahashi: Speaking specifically of Chinese literature, there are some areas where Japan cannot compete with China, which is examining its own culture. However, when it comes to Chinese studies as a kind of classical studies like we discussed earlier, I think Japan is at the top, worldwide. That includes not only literature, but a variety of history and philosophy. That is not only my opinion; to a certain extent it is recognized all over the world.
Shima: Give us a final message for students!
Takahashi: I said this before, but the School of Letters is a fascinating department filled with much more intellectual stimulation than you would think. Also, Chinese classical studies is not only the study of China.
Shima, Kubo, and Tanaka: Thank you for your time!