Blurb: Educated at Peking, Friedrich-Alexander, and Yale universities, Huiwen Helen Zhang examines macro-scale phenomena through micro-level “transreading,” a method she developed in publications including Kulturtransfer über Epochen und Kontinente (Gruyter 2012), “Mu Dan’s Poetry as a History of Modern China” (Oxford 2018), “Transreading ‘Wish, to Become Indian’ in Light of Kafka’s Dao” (Orbis 2021), and “Hauge’s Cathay” (CLEAR 2023). Zhang continues to transread pivotal moments in cross-cultural history in her current book projects: Transreading: A Common Language for Cultural Critique, Kafka’s Dao: The Patience Game, and The Nordic Mode of Transreading.
My Transreading Method
Through my education and research in China, Germany, America, Denmark, and Norway, I have broadened my horizons by reevaluating the intellectual, aesthetic, and existential decisions of authors in distinct languages and traditions. My scholarly, pedagogical, and outreach endeavors require meticulous investigation into the mental, historical, and creative contexts of the authors, which, when combined with precise attention to original texts, illuminates the most complex layers of meaning possible. This new approach I term “transreading.”
Transreading integrates four interdependent activities: lento or slow-close reading, which sharpens our attention to linguistic and argumentative nuances; poetic translation, which compels us to consider both the content of a message and the deliberate delivery that reinforces it; cultural hermeneutics, which grounds individual works in a complex panoramic context; and creative writing, which hones our skill to condense all these examinations for a new audience. The interweaving of these activities is essential to understanding the cosmopolitan figures who inform our world through their foundational yet often cryptic works. As an inherently multilingual, multicultural, and interdisciplinary method, transreading not only solves textual and palimpsestic puzzles, but also decodes contextual and cultural enigmas. It facilitates cross-cultural dialogue even with unfamiliar cultures and assists comparative scholars in traversing literature, philosophy, and intellectual history from unconventional perspectives.
My Complementary Fields
My two primary fields—the reception of Western literature and philosophy in modern China and the reception of Chinese literature and philosophy in the modern West—are distinct yet coherent; they run in opposite directions but echo, enhance, and enrich one another.
In Field I, my published book and articles have, as pioneering works in these sub-fields, revealed how original and influential Chinese writers’ reception of the Western legacy was motivated by their revision of modern Chinese literature as world literature, their mission to aid the Chinese people in a life-or-death struggle for the nation’s survival, and their desire to transform the Chinese mindset for a cosmopolitan future. Moreover, my scholarship has demonstrated how modern China’s reception of the Western legacy has helped re-shape the legacy itself.
In Field II, my published articles and book projects have shown, often for the first time, how idiosyncratic and impactful Western writers’ reception of the Chinese legacy was driven by their reevaluation of Western literary and philosophical traditions, their critique of modernity and modernism, and their wish not only to revitalize their own heritage but also to craft a worldwide discourse. The newest publications of the Chinese translations of my scholarship testify to its global impact on a wider audience.
Portrettintervju juni 2022:
Slik talte de norske taoistene Olav H. Hauge og Jan Erik Vold: Amund Børdahl og Jørgen Sejersted i samtale med Helen Zhang om filosofi og poesi (jan 2023)
Transreading Chinese Literature as World Literature (paneldebatt, mai 2022)
Dao—‘the strongest ferment for the newer European literature’ (paneldeatt, nov 2021)
Created and taught over thirty courses in comparative literature, philosophy, religion, history, politics, cinema, popular culture, social media, creative writing, and journalism:
1. Modernity and Its Discontents: Scandinavia—Germany—Japan—China [Spring 2020, Spring 2019, Spring 2018, Spring 2017, Fall 2015, Fall 2014]
2. Transreading for Creative Writing [Fall 2020]
3. Tradition and Revolution [Fall 2020, Fall 2017]
4. Critical Thinking and Language Innovation [Spring 2020, Spring 2018]
5. Critique via Social Media [Spring 2020, Spring 2017]
6. Modern Europe Transreads China: Alternative Solutions for 20th-Century Issues [Fall 2019]
7. Contemplative Cinema [Fall 2019, Spring 2016]
8. Kafka and Daoist Philosophy [Summer 2019]
9. Poet—Warrior—Philosopher [Spring 2019]
10. Critique via Popular Music [Spring 2019]
11. Transreading across Genres [Fall 2018]
12. Anatomy of “Breaking News” [Fall 2018]
13. Voicing Sentiments [Spring 2018]
14. Transreading Literature as History [Fall 2017]
15. Philosophy in Literature [Spring 2017]
16. Transreading Prose Poetry [Spring 2016]
17. Cross-cultural Microblogging [Fall 2015, Spring 2015]
18. Modern Poetry and Prose [Fall 2015, Spring 2015, Fall 2014]
19. Untimely Meditations: A Chinese Perspective [Spring 2014]
20. Global Cinema: The Chinese Contribution [Spring 2014]
21. The Dilemma of Modernity: Kierkegaard to Kafka [Fall 2013]
22. Concealment and Revelation: Transreading Lu Xun [Spring 2013]
23. The Wanderer in Hong Kong Cinema [Fall 2012]
24. Modernization and Its Discontents: China—Germany—Scandinavia [Fall 2012]
25. Chinese Microblogging [Fall 2014, Fall 2013, Spring 2012]
26. Authentic Beauty: Chinese Perspectives (1979-present) [Spring 2012]
27. Modernization and Its Discontents: Lu Xun—Nietzsche—Georg Brandes [Fall 2011]
28. Act it out—Chinese through Theatre [Fall 2011]
29. Authentic Beauty: Chinese Perspectives (1917-1978) [Fall 2013, Fall 2012, Fall 2011]
30. The Treasure of Sorrow: China’s Lost Generation [Spring 2011]
31. Blessed in Translation [Spring 2011]
32. Four Faces of the Wanderer: An Exploration of Modern Chinese Literature [Fall 2010]
33. Nietzsche’s Superman and Daoist Philosophy [Spring 2009]
- (2022). Upon the Eagle-Mound: Hauge’s Cathay. Chinese Literature Essays Articles Reviews (CLEAR). 121-128.
- (2021). Verwirklichung einer vollkommenen Glücksmöglichkeit/A perfect bliss-potential realized: “Wunsch, Indianer zu werden” im Lichte des Dao Kafkas übersetzend gelesen/Transreading “Wish, to Become Indian” in light of Kafka’s Dao. Orbis Litterarum. 101-121.
- (2023). Slik talte de norske taoistene Olav H. Hauge og Jan Erik Vold: Amund Børdahl og Jørgen Sejersted i samtale med Helen Zhang om filosofi og poesi.
- (2022). Transreading the Limits of Knowledge: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.
- (2022). Transreading Chinese Literature as World Literature: Following Li Bo through Judith Gautier, Gustav Mahler, Ezra Pound, and Olav H. Hauge.
- (2022). Olav H. Hauge transleser Laozi: Gammel kinesisk litteraturfilosofi i moderne norsk poesi.
- (2022). Fra ‘Språkgitter’ til ‘skrymthus’: Å krysse grenser med transleserne Paul Celan og Olav H. Hauge.
- (2021). Transreading: A Multilingual Approach to Exploring Literaturphilosophie.
- (2021). Tao – «det sterkaste ferment i nyare europeisk litteratur» Olav H. Hauge transleser Kina, vi transleser Hauge.
- (2021). Hauges Dao.
- (2021). Dikting «kan no va rett og slett hermetisk»: Å translesa Olav H. Hauges «Ved Kinas dør» / Poetry «can be by and large hermetically sealed»: Transreading Olav H. Hauges “By China’s Door”.
- (2021). Dao for Modernity: Europe Transreads China.
- (2023). War and Chinese Culture. 13 sider.
- (2022). Applying Transreading in Teaching Literaturphilosophie: Laozi, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Olav H. Hauge. 25 sider.
Portrettintervju juni 2022:
1. Book project “Kafka’s Dao” and digital project “Kafka’s Zürau Collection”
My sabbatical in the Spring of 2024 will be dedicated to the completion of my book (print), “Kafka’s Dao: The Patience Game,” and the development of my parallel project (digital), “Kafka’s Zürau Collection and Associated Reflections.”
Both Kafka’s interest in China and his Zürau aphorism collection have been extensively researched. However, even the finest works in the field miss a crucial point: how Kafka’s fascination with Laozi led to his Zürau collection—a modern German continuation of the Daodejing. My two projects focus on this point. Using the transreading method and paying particular attention to the far-reaching dialogues between ancient China and modern Europe, my projects will illuminate the promise of “Dao for modernity.”
“Kafka’s Dao: The Patience Game” is divided into 4 chapters: “Kafka’s Riddles,” “Kafka’s China,” “Patience Game,” and “Kafka’s Dao.” I concentrate on Kafka’s Zürau collection, which is comprised of 109 numbered aphorism cards. The modularity of this collection makes each card not only ideal to be mingled with other corresponding cards, but also with Kafka’s parables, journals, and letters. Drawing materials from the innovative Stroemfeld edition of Kafka’s handwritten manuscripts, I have completed 60% of the book.
“Kafka’s Zürau Collection and Associated Reflections,” is related to, yet independent of, “Kafka’s Dao.” They are related, because my own translation of the Zürau collection is being produced to lay the foundation for “Kafka’s Dao.” The digital project stands alone because it bridges a gap: the published translations of the Zürau collection do not adequately consider the Europe/China dialogue on modernity that influenced its creation. A fully interfaced digital edition will allow illuminating images of Kafka’s handwriting; multilingual audio readings of his aphorisms; and intensive annotations for the reader to explore. Four interlocutors have collaborated with me to develop this project as an integral part of the “Digital Transreading” series that I envisioned in 2020. We use several real-time collaborative editing systems to stimulate individual contributions from multiple remote participants and to accelerate our joint scholarly endeavors through discussion, debate, and mutual constructive critique.
2. Book Project: “The Nordic Mode of Transreading”
Norway, my new intellectual home since 2021, has exposed me to unexpected cross-cultural phenomena. I have been inspired to enrich my established transreading theory with a new research project, “The Nordic Mode of Transreading.”
The 20th-century literary environment was dominated in many ways by American, German, and French circles. Poets in the most visible international spheres revolutionized their art by transreading ancient Chinese literature, using it as a novel lens to investigate their own cultural contexts.
Sitting outside of the dominant spheres, Scandinavians looked both outwards and inwards by necessity. Nordic thinkers and poets took the opportunity to integrate the Chinese classics and the modern Euro-American milieu to enrich their unique cultural base, stacking the lenses of modern Western thought and ancient Eastern wisdom atop one another to throw Nordic tradition into enigmatic and energizing focus.
Olav H. Hauge, for example, on the one hand transread the Chinese philosophical and poetic canon through the lens of Baudelaire, Pound, and Celan, and, on the other hand transread Euro-American modernism through the lens of Laozi, Li Po, and Tao Qian.
This Nordic mode of transreading—of incorporating prominent global work, ancient and modern, alongside local touchstones like the Edda—is further exemplified by Vilhelm Ekelund, Erik Blomberg, Gunnar Ekelöf, Paal Brekke, and Georg Johannesen.
Having discovered these novel and complex transreading connections, I will explore why they came to be, what their effects were, and how these reasons and consequences reveal more nuanced facets about Nordic cultural production.
3. Book project: “Transreading: A Common Language for Cultural Critique”
This research project grew out of the urgent need for productive cross-cultural dialogue. A paradox of our time is that even though technological and economic ties pull China and Europe ever closer, culturally the two seem to be drifting apart. As encounters become more frequent, anxiety heightens. The simultaneous overconfidence and self-doubt of a culture and its perception of others as incomprehensible or incompatible are but two symptoms. These circumstances demand a new approach to bridge-building between cultures. My drive toward synthesis and my ability to work across disciplines enable me to craft new intellectual frameworks. Utilizing my language skills in classical Chinese, modern Chinese, German, and English, and benefiting from my scholarly network in Scandinavia, I will focus on three representative ethnolinguistic areas: Lu Xun in Chinese; Søren Kierkegaard, Georg Brandes, and August Strindberg in Scandinavian languages; and Friedrich Nietzsche, Käthe Kollwitz, and Franz Kafka in German. By thematizing the global dialogue on modernity, walking unexplored paths to contextualize its central participants, and communicating the findings via traditional and new media to scholars and the general public, I will demonstrate how authentic and intensive cross-cultural dialogue helps diverse cultures better understand one another as well as themselves.
The manifold pressures of modernity—mechanisation, corporatisation, and dehumanisation—drove creative minds across geographically disparate cultures to a string of common responses. Together, these responses are characteristic of Europe and China’s dialogue on modernity. The problems they detected have by no means been resolved: the participants in this dialogue are voices speaking to the present. Examining how they wrestled with 19th- and 20th-century issues reveals how we might overcome the challenges of our own age.
My project aims to use “transreading”—an integration of lento reading, poetic translation, cultural hermeneutics, and creative writing—to reconstruct a transcontinental dialogue on modernity. Lento or slow-close reading sharpens our focus on linguistic and argumentative nuances that might otherwise be overlooked; poetic translation compels us to consider both the content of a message and the delivery that reinforces it; cultural hermeneutics grounds individual works in a panoramic context, providing the foil with which the author converses; creative writing hones our skills in condensing all of these considerations for a new audience. The synergy of these activities is essential to understanding the participants in Europe and China’s dialogue on modernity, whose works are foundational yet often cryptic. The examination of macro-scale phenomena through micro-level transreading characterizes my research and lends this project broadness, exactness, and originality.
By achieving my objective to thematise the global dialogue on modernity, my project will produce the first panoramic portrayal of the new cultural breakthrough in three ethnolinguistic areas and advance the understanding of individual thinkers by contextualizing them in a fresh landscape. It will bridge the gaps between Chinese, German, and Scandinavian studies and create new perspectives for future research.
By achieving my objective to illustrate transreading, my project will provide an innovative tool for a variety of scholarly and pedagogical applications. It will show how the principles of transreading can be distilled from the methods employed by the participants in Europe and China’s dialogue on modernity, spanning literature, philosophy, and art. It will also demonstrate how transreading benefits scholars, educators, and students alike by combining proven techniques that enable critique with deeper understanding.
Both the thematic and methodological originality of my project is relevant and timely. A paradox of our time is that even though technological and economic ties pull China and Europe ever closer, culturally the two seem to be drifting apart. As encounters become more frequent, anxiety grows. The simultaneous overconfidence and self-doubt of a culture and its perception of others as incomprehensible or incompatible are but two symptoms. These circumstances demand a new approach to bridge-building between cultures. By transreading the global dialogue on modernity, I will demonstrate how authentic and intensive cross-cultural dialogue helps diverse cultures better understand one another as well as themselves. My project will provide readers—in academia and beyond—deeper insights that will facilitate more productive intellectual exchanges.