People often place national borders around the written word. If you read French poetry or Victorian novels, it is tempting to understand these texts strictly in relation to the history and culture of France or Britain. However, it is often useful to have a broader view of literary production.
Consider that for many centuries, Chinese provided a common language for literary elites in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In the 19th century, writers throughout East Asia produced their work specifically in Classical Chinese, an ancient form of writing in which each character denotes a word, not a sound.
Then, with the global wave of modern nationalism, many of these older works were marginalized in the public sphere. But in recent years, that trend has begun to change, according to Wiebke Denecke, a professor in MIT’s Literature program and an expert on premodern East Asia. More and more scholars are re-immersing themselves in older works written in Classical Chinese.
“With the rehabilitation of literary Chinese, a whole field has emerged, a paradigm shift in Japanese studies [among others] now,” says Denecke.
Certainly, if Denecke has anything to do with it, this paradigm shift will continue. His work analyzes these older periods of East Asian history – largely from 1200 BCE to 1200 CE – and is highly comparative in nature. Denecke published two books, numerous scholarly articles, edited numerous volumes, and worked vigorously as an editor to anthologize classic East Asian literature, making it more readily accessible to many readers.
“In many ways, my mission is that I hope that at some point, maybe in my life, when people hear, ‘Oh, that person is a classic,’ they won’t think of Homer. or Ovid, but they might think of Confucius, they might think of The Tale of Genji, the masterpiece of Japanese literature, or they might think of people like [Korean poet] Kim Si-seup,” Denecke says.
Denecke joined MIT full-time in 2021, having served on the faculty at Boston University and, before that, Barnard College/Columbia University. She brings to the Institute scholarship projects that align with MIT’s global vision, as well as a clear goal of conveying her international and historical perspective to Institute students and the general public.
“I came to MIT because it’s such a special place in terms of the humanities,” says Denecke.
Mastering the “Literature of the Masters”
As an undergraduate, Denecke attended the University of Göttingen in her hometown in Germany and began studying medicine. But a long trip to China and Japan as a medical student helped her learn Chinese and Japanese, and provided the impetus for change. Already interested in East Asia, Denecke made it the center of her studies.
Denecke also earned a master’s degree from Göttingen in several disciplines—sinology, Japanese studies, philosophy, and the history of medicine—then decided to pursue a doctorate, earning his doctorate in 2004 from Harvard University, in the Department of Languages and Civilizations. from East Asia. . Subsequently, Denecke spent two years as a Mellon Fellow at Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities, before taking up his first professorship at Barnard.
Denecke was a very productive researcher. His first book, “The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Throught from Confucius to Han Feizi,” published by Harvard University Press, examines a rich body of Chinese texts from the 5th to 2nd centuries CE, arguing that many scholars have misappraised these works as “philosophy” in a familiar Western sense. Instead, Denecke thinks, these writings are best placed in a Chinese tradition of “master literature” – the term is now commonly used – geared around the wisdom of a single character.
“It’s a form of literature that talks about… political philosophy and ethics, about the good life, how to govern well or how to withdraw from it, for the contemplative life,” says Denecke. “But in many ways, [it is] very different, [and] centered around a charismatic master figure.
She also adds: “Since Plato, there has been a veritable secular struggle between philosophers and poets in the Greco-Roman and European tradition. This is not the case in China… as the first Confucius said, you have to study poetry, it’s the only way to get by in life. There are “philosophical” texts from these old masters that include poetry.
Denecke quickly followed with a 2014 book, “Classical World Literatures: Sino-Japanese and Greco-Roman Differences”, published by Oxford University Press. This comparative work examines a striking convergence in Eastern and Western intellectual history: Japanese and Roman literatures developed in the shadow of an older “reference culture”, namely Chinese for Japanese writers and Greek for writers from the Roman world. This circumstance colors the content of Japanese and Roman texts in many ways.
However, despite some parallels between Japanese and Roman cultural production, there are also many discrepancies. For starters: Rome conquered Greece in 146 BCE, while Japan never took over China in the same way.
“That’s when you started to have a disjunction between political power, [of] young Romans and cultural power,” says Denecke. “Because it was still the great Greeks, and the Romans had this inferiority complex, and you had this confusing phenomenon [in] that you had Greek slaves teaching Roman elites. Now, that never happened in the case of China and Japan.
New library of “literature for all”
Beyond her own research, Denecke is very involved in publishing collections of primary texts. She served as East Asia Editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature and Editor-in-Chief of The Norton Anthology of Western Literature.
Denecke is also the general editor of the New Hsu-Tang Library Series of Classical Chinese Literature, published by Oxford University Press and created through a gift from Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang. The series is akin to a version of Chinese literature from the Loeb Classical Library, the Harvard University Press series that has made Greek and Roman texts available in paperback editions for more than a century.
Denecke worked extensively on the Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature, collaborating with translators to establish an in-house style that renders texts both scholarly and eminently readable for a general audience.
“The accessibility, the idea that it’s actually literature for everyone in the world and it’s enjoyable, that’s important,” says Denecke.
Centered on the humanities
One of the benefits of Denecke’s work is that it brings together scholars from countries with sometimes frosty relationships, what she calls the “cultural diplomacy” created by academia. Along with a Japanese colleague, she convened dozens of scholars from Japan, Korea and China to co-write the first-ever history of East Asian literatures, a tightrope act given the tensions in the region.
Bringing people together is very much on Denecke’s radar at MIT. Along with colleagues at MIT as well as other Boston-area institutions and collaborators around the world, Denecke is currently spearheading a Global Humanities Comparative Initiative at MIT, seeking to establish a center that would enable scholars , students, experts and the public to produce work with historical data. depth and global reach on socially relevant topics and issues. A first conference, “Worlds Enough and Time: Towards a Comparative Global Humanities” took place in November 2021.
This initiative, according to Denecke, would be a “catalyst for deep forms of collaborative creation in the humanities”, with an international and interdisciplinary orientation. For Denecke, who also calls herself a “human memory activist,” including historically oriented projects in the center’s activities is particularly crucial at a time when nationalist movements often distort or erase history in the service of creating favorable political narratives.
At a time when many global crises demand a better understanding of our societies, when funding for the humanities is shrinking in many places, Denecke believes that adding to MIT’s strengths in humanistic knowledge and adapting the humanities to the challenges of our time, especially in the area of social justice, is a lofty ideal.
“To create more equal societies in the present, we need to create more equality for other places and other pasts – and learn from all the riches and lessons they have to offer,” says Denecke.
“Having heard from an initiative that designs the humanities of the future at one of the most forward-looking and visionary institutions in the world, I think that’s also why I came to MIT, to give it a shot,” Denecke says, adding, “The humanities are more important than ever.”