Bringing “cultural diplomacy” to the classics | MIT News


People often put national boundaries around written words. If you read French poetry or Victorian novels, it is tempting to understand these texts as they certainly relate to the history and culture of France or England. Still, it often helps to have a broader perspective on literary production.

Consider that China for centuries provided a common language for the literary elite in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Until the 19th century, writers in East Asia were producing their works, especially in classical Chinese, an ancient script where each character denotes a word, not a sound.

Then, with the global wave of modern nationalism, many of these antiquities became marginalized in the public sphere. But in recent years, that trend has begun to change, according to Wiebke Denecke, a professor in the MIT literature program and a specialist in pre-modern East Asia. More scholars are diving into ancient works written in classical Chinese.

“With the rehabilitation of literary Chinese, a whole field has emerged, a paradigm shift in Japanese studies. [among others] now,” says Denecke.

Of course, this paradigm shift will continue if Deecke has anything to do with it. His work analyzes these ancient periods of East Asian history – largely from 1200 BC to 1200 AD – and is highly comparative in nature. Denecke has published two books, published many scholarly articles, edited numerous volumes, and worked diligently as editor to transform the classical literature of East Asia into an anthology, making it more accessible to many readers.

“My mission in many ways is that at some point, perhaps throughout my life, I hope that when people say, ‘Oh, this person is a classicist,’ they won’t think of Homer or Ovid, but might think of Confucius. They will think of ‘The Tale of Genji’, the masterpiece of Japanese literature, or they might think of people like him. [Korean poet] Kim Si-seup,” Denecke says.

Denecke was previously a faculty member at Boston University and before that at Barnard College/Columbia University and joined MIT full-time in 2021. He brings to the Institute a clear goal of conveying scientific projects that fit MIT’s global perspective and its international, historical perspective to the Institute’s students and the general public.

“I came to MIT because it’s a very different place in the humanities,” Denecke says.

Mastering “Master Literature”

As an undergraduate student, Denecke entered the University of Göttingen in his hometown of Germany and began studying medicine. But a long trip to China and Japan as a medical student helped him learn Chinese and Japanese and provided an impetus for change. Already interested in East Asia, Denecke has now made it the center of his work.

Denecke also earned a master’s degree from Göttingen in many disciplines, including sinology, Japanese studies, philosophy, and medical history, and then decided to pursue his doctorate in East Asian Languages ​​and Civilizations from Harvard University in 2004. . Subsequently, Denecke served two years as a Mellon Fellow at Columbia University’s Humanities Association before taking up his first faculty position at Barnard.

Denecke has been an extremely prolific scientist. His first book, “The Dynamics of Master’s Literature: From the Early Chinese Way to Confucius to Han Feizi,” published by Harvard University Press, examines a rich body of Chinese texts from the 5th to 2nd centuries AD, presenting the position of many scholars on the subject. he regarded these works as “philosophy” in a familiar Western sense. Instead, Denecke thinks these writings are better placed in a tradition of Chinese “master literature” centered around the wisdom of a single figure – the term is now widely used.

“It’s a form of literature … political philosophy and ethics, the good life, how to lead well or withdraw from it for thoughtful living,” Denecke says. “But in many ways, [it is] very different, [and] centered around a charismatic figure of a kind master.”

He also adds: “Since Plato, there has been a real centuries-old struggle between philosophers and poets in the Greco-Roman and European tradition. Not so in China… As early Confucius said, you have to read poetry, it’s the only way to get along in life. These old masters have ‘philosophical’ texts containing poetry.”

Denecke followed soon after with his 2014 book “The Classical World Literatures: Sino-Japanese and Greco-Roman Comparisons” published by Oxford University Press. This comparative study examines a striking convergence in the intellectual history of the East and the West: both Japanese and Roman literatures developed in the shadow of an older “reference culture”, namely Chinese for Japanese writers and Greek for writers in the Roman world. This in many ways colors the content of Japanese and Roman texts.

However, despite some parallels between Japanese and Roman cultural production, there are also many differences. For starters: Rome conquered Greece in 146 BC, while Japan similarly never had control over China.

“That’s when you started making a distinction between political power, [of] young Romans and cultural power,” says Denecke. “Because the great Greeks and Romans still had this inferiority complex, and you had this amazing phenomenon. [in] That you had Greek slaves teaching the Roman elite. Now, in the case of China and Japan, that never happened.”

New ‘literature for all’ library

Beyond her own research, Denecke invests heavily in organizing primary text collections. He was the East Asian editor of “The Norton Anthology of World Literature” and editor of “The Norton Anthology of Western Literature”.

Denecke is also the general series editor for the new series. Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature, published by Oxford University Press, and founded by a gift from Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang. The series is similar to the Chinese literature version of the Loeb Classical Library, the Harvard University Press series that has been offering Greek and Roman texts in pocket-size editions for over a century.

Denecke works extensively on the Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature and collaborates with translators to create a home style that renders texts in a manner that is both scholarly and highly readable for a general audience.

“Accessibility, the idea that this is actually literature for everyone in the world, and that it’s enjoyable, that’s important,” Denecke says.

humanities centered

One benefit of Denecke’s work is that it brings together scholars from countries with sometimes cold relations, which he calls “cultural diplomacy” created by academia. He and a Japanese colleague gathered together dozens of scholars from Japan, Korea, and China to co-write the first history of East Asian literatures; this is a taut string action considering the tensions in the area.

Bringing people together is very much on Denecke’s radar at MIT. With colleagues at MIT, other institutions in the Boston area, and collaborators around the world, Denecke currently leads a Comparative Global Humanities Initiative at MIT and seeks to establish a center that will enable scholars, students, experts, and the public to produce historical studies. depth and global coverage of socially relevant issues and issues. A first conference, “Enough Worlds and Time: Towards Comparative Global Humanities” It took place in November of 2021.

Denecke says this initiative will be a “catalyst for deeply collaborative forms of creation in the humanities” with an international, interdisciplinary orientation. Including historically oriented projects in the center’s activities is particularly important to Denecke, who also calls himself a “human memory activist”, at a time when nationalist movements often distort or erase history in the service of creating positive political narratives.

At a time when many global crises demand a better understanding of our societies, and humanities funding is dwindling in many places, Denecke said it is a worthy ideal to contribute to MIT’s strengths in humanistic knowledge and the humanities in our age, particularly social justice.

“To create more equal societies today, we need to create more equality for other places and other histories and learn from all the riches and lessons they have to offer,” says Denecke.

Denecke adds: “The human sciences are more important than ever.”

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