Leo Ou-fan Lee on Kafka in China Attractive Absurdity

Illustration: Xiong Liang
Illustration: Xiong Liang | Photo: © The Writers Publishing House (作家出版社)

Though the connection of his works with China is rarely examined, Franz Kafka has been a great influence on Chinese modern literature, finds Leo Ou-fan Lee.

Since when have Chinese literary scholars been doing research on Franz Kafka?

I’d say since the 1960s, when they – or we, as I was part of the literary group – discovered him in Taiwan through English translation of his short stories. Two – A Country Doctor and The Judgment were featured in the inaugural issue of the journal Modern Literature (现代文学), that my fellow classmates who have later become famous writers themselves in the Foreign Languages and Literature Department founded in 1960. The journal has now become a literary legend. On Mainland China, his discovery was relatively late, in the early 1980s with the literary “thaw” in the post-Mao years, when some of his works were translated in the journals of the Foreign Literature Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences such as World Literature (世界文学) by scholars who also introduced other modernistic works. And a new generation of Chinese avant-garde writers immediately picked him up.

What was it that drove the interest of those scholars?

In the few scholarly introductions I have read, the portrait of Kafka is standard, that is, as an innovative writer of European modernism – not much about his own background. But for the generation of Chinese writers who emerged in the post-Mao era, Kafka’s impact was immense: writers like Yu Hua (余华), for instance, treated Kafka’s fantastic world as real, and his portrait of a huge nameless bureaucracy that persecutes Joseph K. is a vague or not so vague reminder of the government in China during the Cultural Revolution. Yan Lianke (阎连科) follows in their footsteps. By the way, there is now a complete Chinese translation of the works of Franz Kafka translated directly from the German, without the mediation of English translation.

And what fascinates personally you about Kafka’s works?

What interests me most in Kafka, is his succinct writing style and the ways with which he constructs a fictional world that combines fantasy with realism. I am now beginning to learn German at the Goethe-Institut, from the very basic level. It is a distant goal to read Kafka in his original German. Besides that, as we all know, he is a true master, indeed a founding father, of European modernism. He has become part of the world’s “invisible” treasure!

What do Chinese students learn today about Kafka?

I am afraid that my students today are learning very little about Kafka. As far as I know, Kafka is not taught in general education courses or even literary surveys – only in advanced seminars for graduate courses. Recently I taught one on “Modern Classics” in which Kafka is prominently featured together with Cervantes, Poe, Borges, and Lu Xun (鲁迅), among others. But even my seminar is an exception, not the general rule or requirement. What draws younger people – writers and theater people in particular – to Kafka in Hong Kong, from my observation, is the absurdity of situation in which his characters find themselves, something that bears a certain “serendipitous” resemblance to present-day Hong Kong. A performance of the Hong Kong Alice Theatre Group’s Seven Boxes Possessed of Kafka has demonstrated that the family conflict and the congested living quarters become two obvious factors that have united the characters in The Metamorphosis and their Hong Kong impersonators. I was surprised by the full-house turnout. That goes to show that Kafka, contrary to my bleak forecast, has become a big name in Hong Kong literary circles.

Kafka and China: what kind of relationship was that?

As far as I know, except for some scholars, nobody has ever talked about the connection of Kafka and China. Strange as it may seem, Kafka’s famous piece The Great Wall of China does not seem to arise much curiosity among Chinese readers. If there is ever a relationship in academic terms, Kafka is considered part of modern German literature, although he is not as well studied as Brecht. But more broadly I’d say it’s the common fate confronting all humanity that unites Kafka with all nations of the present world, China included. Kafka’s fiction “embodies” the “universal” literary values of alienation, loneliness, absurdity, et cetera. While Kafka himself knew a great deal about China through his readings, the contemporary Chinese readers know him – especially in recent decades – not in the classroom as for instance in Germany but chiefly through chance encounters and the advocacy of Milan Kundera, whose works are very popular in China. Kundera has reclaimed Kafka as a Czech and Middle European writer. That’s why I was first drawn to Czech culture and visited Prague as early as the 1980s – in order to find Kafka in Prague. But that’s another story.

This year the Chinese novelist Yan Lianke receives the Kafka Award. Why do you think the jury chose him?

Of course I could only guess. First, it’s the translation of Yan’s works into English, and perhaps Czech. The comic absurdity of Yan’s fictional world is almost an exact mirror of Kafka’s world, but moved to China. Secondly, I think there is a certain relationship established between Chinese dissident writers – though Yan does not claim to be one – and Czech writers and critics since the time of Vaclav Havel. In my view, only two Chinese writers deserve the Kafka prize: Yan Lianke and Yu Hua.