New Books in East Asian Studies: interview with Michael Gibbs Hill

What do “Rip van Winkle,” Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Aesop’s Fables have in common? All of them were translated into Chinese by Lin Shu (Lin Qinnan, 1852-1924), a major force in the literary culture of late Qing and early Republican China. In Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture (Oxford University Press, 2013), Michael Gibbs Hill charts the rise and precipitous fall of Lin’s career in an exploration of the making of the modern intellectual in China. Completing over 180 translations of Western literary works into classical Chinese while not knowing a single foreign language, Lin built a “factory of writing” dependent on the mental labor of 20 assistants trained in a range of foreign languages. Hill examines the texture of some of the translations produced by this network, offering a model for the close reading of translations both as literary sources and as sources of conflict over competing visions of intellectual, political, and national authority. Lin was ultimately caught in the crosshairs of prominent scholars and activists arguing over the relative roles of classical and vernacular language within a national project, but not before using his writing as a space to work out ideas about the roles of race, slavery, filial piety, and ethics in the transforming society of modern China. It’s a fascinating story about what it has meant in the past, and what it might mean in the future, to render ideas across linguistic realms.

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