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Opera Lover

In response to:

Mao and the Writers from the October 23, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Tsi-an Hsia’s The Gate of Darkness [NYR, October 23], Mr. Martin Bernal says of its author that “when he was at the university in the 1930s, whenever other students went on strike in protest against Kuomintang oppression or Japanese aggression he would spend the day watching traditional opera.” I wonder how Mr. Bernal could write so knowledgeably about my late brother’s student days since by his own admission his only source of information is the “Draft of the Preface” included in my introduction to the book. The only passage in that preface that can be construed as autobiographical goes as follows (The Gate of Darkness, p. xx):

As I propose to write the history of the leftist literary movement in China, I have no personal experience to relate. I have never had an affair with any kind of Marxist movement. Since no smoldering cinders are burning in my heart, I do not find in me the necessity to repudiate an old love. The kind of study I make is biographical and historical, but not autobiographical. I got my materials only from research, that is, from reading in the library; nothing in my book is personal, except my observations and remarks. I have not had a chance to interview the dramatis personae, some of whom are still alive. Unfortunately there has not been in China a Stephen Spender, an Arthur Koestler, a George Orwell who could return to tell the story about a journey to the left. Hu Feng, Ting Ling, or Feng Hsüeh-feng might have been the ideal person to write a spiritual autobiography of the leftist writer in China, but they have been made silent. My book may supply this want. Where I fail in intimacy, I hope the reader will find compensation in my detachment and, perhaps, my scholarship.

In this passage my brother states clearly that he was not himself involved in the leftist literary movement nor was he able to interview some of its dramatis personae who are still alive. But since none of the Chinese counterparts of Spender, Koestler, or Orwell has left us a spiritual autobiography, he feels that to reconstruct the lives of some of these authors solely through research fills a definite want. So far as I am aware, Mr. Bernal has found no quarrel with the research, but he would seem to want to disqualify my brother from his task by his gratuitous allegation that he would watch traditional opera “whenever other students went on strike.” Where did Mr. Bernal come across this piece of information, and who has ruled that a scholar’s mature work should be judged by reference to what he did or failed to do in his college days?

Mr. Bernal acknowledges his own “linguistic limitations” as a student of modern Chinese literature, and yet when confronted with a piece of work which, among its other virtues, has amply redressed, to use Mr. Bernal’s words, “the failure of modern Chinese to develop firm criteria of style” in their study of modern authors, he has tried to be consistently malicious and superior in order, I suppose, to underscore his own political enlightenment. He maintains that no one could be “more antipathetic” to leftist writers than my late brother, but anyone reading The Gate of Darkness with an open mind should be struck on the contrary by the author’s profound sympathy for all the leftist writers exploited and victimized by the Communist Party. I believe Mr. Bernal’s review has done a gross disservice to the readers of NYR, many of whom, I would suppose, have read Tsi-an Hsia’s study of Chinese Communism in story form entitled “The Jesuit’s Tale” (Partisan Review, Fall 1955) and would otherwise want to read his fascinating account of the leftist literary movement in China.

C.T. Hsia

Professor of Chinese

Columbia University

Martin Bernal replies:

At no point did I write that my only source of information on Mr. Hsia’s life was his “Draft of the Preface.” I heard the anecdote about his watching traditional opera from Mr. Hsia Tsi-an himself while we were coming back from an opera in San Francisco sometime in 1963. I did not judge his scholarship from it, but I do maintain that it tells one something interesting and not altogether antipathetic about Mr. Hsia Tsi-an and his attitude toward politics and art. I am afraid that by their very nature, reviews make the critic appear to be superior. I am aware of this, and try to combat it, but if Professor Hsia says that I failed, I failed. However, I strongly deny the charge of malice. Although I profoundly disagreed with Mr. Hsia’s politics, I liked and respected him for his warmth, intelligence, and wit. I had hoped that some of these feelings would have been made clear when I referred to his “tragic death” or wrote that “Mr. Hsia loved complexity, subtlety, and paradox”! I am sorry that I was not explicit enough.

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