Chinese formalism

Last week, I attended the Russian formalism centenary conference in Moscow (, a fantastic event that highlighted the enthusiasm still generated by the formalists. Of the many interesting papers I got to hear, one in particular caught my attention: Zhou Qi-Chao’s presentation of the reception of Russian formalism in China.

My dear colleague Tomáš Glanc had already told me of a growing Chinese interest in Russian formalism or, indeed, in the whole tradition of 20th century European literary theory. Tomáš was invited to Beijing a few months ago to discuss the translation of some of Roman Jakobson’s work into Chinese and what he discovered there was a very active, even vibrant group of researchers enthusiastically investigating the above-mentionned intellectual legacies. As such, Zhou Qi-Chao’s presentation was thus not entirely a revelation for me, but I did take from it a much keener sense of the massive dimension of the Chinese interest in Russian formalism. Having rediscovered the now canonical texts of the French structuralists (Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, et alia), the Chinese have in recent years turned their attention back to the traditions from which the French post-war thinkers emerged, i.e. Vladimir Propp and the Russian formalists. Instead of limiting their interest to the rather small amount of texts available in English, French or German, however, the Chinese have focussed on the original Russian, Czech and Polish texts and begun a large-scale plan of translation. From what I understood when talking to Zhou Qi-Chao, it also seems that an effort towards a historical reconstitution of the development of literary theory and a correction of the usually neglected role of the Slavic sources in that context is under way in China. In other words, a process very similar to the one sdvig press is hoping to encourage in Europe is already happening apace in China. Exciting stuff!


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