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History

Professor Zhang uses transreading to translate Mu Dan’s poetry into China’s History

Wellspring Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature Helen Zhang recently published an article for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History, titled: “Mu Dan’s Poetry as a History of Modern China.” She used her transreading method in her research, which she also uses in the classroom. Zhang shares insights on her article and transreading. 

Who is Mu Dan?

Mu Dan’s life (1918–1977) coincided with modern China’s transformation. Mu Dan was an expeditionary force soldier, a jungle war survivor, and a patriot who traded opportunities in the United States for an uncertain future in the newly founded People’s Republic of China. He was also a “counterrevolutionary” and a forced laborer who spent the last third of his life translating English and Russian literature.

But above all, Mu Dan is a poet.

How has transreading changed the way you read Mu Dan’s work?

Transreading has altered how I approach Mu Dan’s work in two major ways:

  • First, translating Mu Dan’s poetry into English has enabled me to recognize the nuances that I, as a Chinese native speaker, would otherwise have overlooked. I could not take anything for granted, but had to ponder each twist, paradox, palimpsestic trace, and historical allusion embedded in his work.
  • Second, creative writing has enabled me to overcome the limitations of language as Mu Dan did. As a critical and original thinker, Mu Dan often felt the disparity between what his mother tongue allowed him to express and what he desired to express. He found the solution in language innovation, which I emulated in my transreading.

What exactly is transreading?

Zhang with four honors students who are well-versed in transreading.

Transreading is an interdisciplinary theory that I have developed to explore how history, literature, philosophy and art generate and reshape one another. It encompasses four simultaneous and interdependent activities—lento reading, literary translation, creative writing and cultural hermeneutics. These practices are instrumental to understanding the cosmopolitan figures in modern intellectual history that continue to inform our world with works that are often cryptic, but foundational.

How did you come up with this method?

As a comparatist in literature and philosophy, as well as an educator of young scholars who will lead future cross-cultural conversations, I am committed to developing an approach that makes cosmopolitan figures—such as Mu Dan—not only accessible to a broader audience but also comprehensible and inspirational.

Has his poetry helped shape transreading?

Until I started my project on Mu Dan, I had been transreading mostly across cultures, genres, media and two disciplines—literature and philosophy. Mu Dan’s poetry inspired me to transread poetry as history. Thus, I titled my Oxford article “Mu Dan’s Poetry as a History of Modern China.”

What do you mean by transreading poetry as history?

By transreading poetry as history, I mean exploring poetry as a source for historical studies. For instance, I selected 22 poems by Mu Dan as a history of China beginning with the climax of the New Culture Movement (1919) through the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1976). These poems weave a thread of themes illuminating the tortured path of a nation and an individual. At the same time, they span a spectrum of sentiments ranging from those of ordinary people to those of extraordinary intellectuals.

This conceptual framework demonstrates how modern China’s history informs, provokes, and shapes a poet whose life span coincides with it and, at the same time, how poetry can be and is being read as history itself. Thus, transreading allows more than just new access to the historical events that mold a poet and his poetry. Reading poetry as history uncovers lost sentiments, struggles, observations, and critiques that advance our understanding of modern China.

Why is it important for TU students to learn the transreading method?

TU students will be initiators of transcultural dialogues tomorrow. Transreading equips them with integrated skills to lead future intellectual exchanges and contribute to the positive development of our world.

Hear from students about transreading and the Chinese Studies program.