Stephen Owen has been the single most important scholar of Chinese Classical poetry in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. A leading scholar on Tang poetry, he has also written widely in other literary fields, and has translated important writings in both prose and poetry. To this work, he brings not only penetrating Sinology, but also a breadth of comparative applications and theoretical sophistication that have made his scholarship unique worldwide.
Over four decades of writing about, translating, and training students to read Chinese literature, Stephen Owen (1946－) has done as much as any scholar of his generation to introduce the riches of the Chinese literary tradition to Western readers both scholarly and popular, to reflect upon its contribution to the world’s literary heritage, and to revolutionize the way it is read. His main contributions that re-define the field of Classical Chinese literature as we know it span the following areas:
Although he has published on virtually every period of Chinese literature, Owen’s original focus, as well as the field to which he has made the most decisive contributions, is Tang poetry. In 1975, Owen published what still remains the definitive study of the poetry of mid-Tang luminaries Meng Jiao 孟郊 and Han Yu 韓愈, a slimmed-down edition of his voluminous doctoral thesis, which translated and studied a large percentage of their collected works with an attention to detail and to biographical context that was unprecedented in previous studies of their verses. Two years later, in 1977, Owen embarked upon writing a complete literary history of Tang-dynasty poetry, a project that would ultimately span four books and nearly thirty years. These books—The Poetry of the Early Tang, The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang, The End of the Chinese "Middle Ages": Essays in Mid-Tang Literary Culture, and The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century—have all been translated into Chinese. Taken together, these works remain the most detailed history of Tang poetry available in any language and are basic reading for any scholar working in the field anywhere in the world. Far from merely repeating known narratives with incremental variations, Owen's interpretations are often strikingly original, dealing extensively with poets, formal considerations, and sociological nuances that had been left out of precedent works.
Moreover, Owen’s work meticulously studies the intricate relationship among Tang poetry, civilization, culture, literature, and art, unearthing facets that were not covered by previous studies of literary history. In his study of early Tang poetry, Owen carefully examined the features of these poetic works—tone and rhythm, court culture, and the distinct features of the period were all part of his study. For instance, he pointed out that forms and genres that in the past were considered the norm—e.g. the treatments of poems on “landscape” and poems in “Palace-style” (gongti 宮體) and in “old-style” (guti 古體）—have all in fact undergone subtle changes in the early Tang Dynasty, indicating the rise of the imperial poetry. His in-depth study of High Tang poetry highlighted that at the time, the poet gradually became a professional; poetry was no longer simply an endeavor of creative expression that commented on the world, events, and happenings. The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century returns to the framework of traditional literary history, uniquely interpreting Du Mu 杜牧, Li Shangyin 李商隱 and Wen Tingyun 溫庭筠 to reveal novel perspectives that portray the distinctive style of poetry in the late Tang.
In 2015, Owen completed his translation of The Poetry of Du Fu in six volumes, the first complete translation of Du Fu’s corpus in any Western language and one of the first attempts ever in English to comprehensively translate the output of any major Chinese poet. By including every existing Du Fu’s poems, Owen made the poet’s full complexity accessible for the first time to Western readers. The Poetry of Du Fu is also the first volume in the Library of Chinese Humanities series—itself initiated and edited by Owen—which makes important Chinese texts available in facing-page translations, both in hardcover editions and also free on the web. By pioneering a new model of publishing for translations of Classical Chinese literature, Owen’s Library of Chinese Humanities series will bring philologically rigorous translations of Chinese literature to a broader readership.
Chinese literary thought, literary theory, and poetics
Beyond Tang poetry, Owen's second major focus has been on Chinese literary thought, literary theory, and poetics, especially as they relate to questions of comparative literature. Owen approaches questions in Chinese literary theory in an epistemological manner for a comparative study and analysis. Adding to the established theoretical frameworks of literary history, Owen has been able to finely explore those areas in Chinese poetry that cannot be explained using literary history. Owen’s masterpieces in the studies of literary theory include his 1985 monograph, Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World, and Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, published in 1992.
Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World highlights Owen’s ingenuity in offering innovative insights through close reading. As far as poetics is concerned, Owen believes that it is only possible to establish clear propositions to discuss literary studies from the perspective of poetics, raising the discussion of literary studies from imagery and sentiments to an epistemological context encompassing the broader branch of studies concerned with the theory of knowledge. Owen further nuanced his account of Chinese literary theory in Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, elaborating on the intertwined relationship and impact among style, literary theory, and civilization, showing that the literary narrative is a text to be analyzed.
History of Chinese literature
His work in the furthering of studies in the history of Chinese literature has also redefined our understanding of the field. Setting aside existing “tried and true” models and theories in the study of the history of literature including popular theoretical frameworks, Owen embarked on a journey to develop and facilitate a brand new conversation between wen 文or literature and history. At the same time, his interpretations also echo the traditional Mencius prescription of understanding and interpreting literary works through “knowing the person”—the poet or the intellectual—by considering the age in which he lived and then deducing his original intent through the text.
In 1997, he published what has been hailed as a groundbreaking text in Chinese Studies, An Anthology of Chinese Literature (commonly known as the “Norton Anthology of Chinese Literature”). This revolutionary work brings together representative works of Chinese literature—ranging from poetry to prose and fiction to drama—from the first millennium B.C. to the end of the imperial period in 1911 through magisterial translations. Recognized for its remarkable organization of materials, this comprehensive sampling of Chinese literature is arranged according to genres, themes, and forms to show how the core texts build on one another. His anthology reveals the insider’s interplay between Chinese literature, culture, and history, thus enabling non-Chinese readers to participate in the dialogue that native readers of classical Chinese would notice reflexively.
Besides the Norton Anthology, Owen’s more recent two-volume Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, which he co-edited with Kang-I Sun Chang of Yale University, published in 2012, is also a feat of ingenuity with wide-ranging impact. Owen, in charge of the first volume, surveyed Chinese literature beginning from the Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Poetry) and ending with works from the Yuan Dynasty. Through his work, Owen put into practice a new perspective on the history of literature that also speaks to the history of literary culture; he accomplishes this by understanding the importance of developments in the material culture—including the early manuscript culture (copying by hand), printing culture, modern magazines and newspapers—and their impact on literature. Owen also pays special attention to the organic structure and development of the history of Chinese literature in its entirety as well. Worthy of our notice also includes his emphasis on the importance of the relationship between trends and the historical autonomy of texts and cultures and the uncertainty of texts. As such, questions of authorship, the history of the acceptance of literature, printing culture, compilation of the selections as well as the production, circulation and rewriting of texts have all received unprecedented attention in the volume.
Owen’s focus on comparative poetics has been an integral angle of his approach into broader and more comparative topics. His comparative work situates Classical Chinese literature in the greater context of world literature and its history. In collaboration with Benjamin Elman of Princeton University, Owen is working together on a “Comparative Project on China and India.” Chief among his most popular books and widely read books in comparative poetics are Remembrances: The Experience of the Past in Classical Chinese Literature (1986), Milou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire (1989), and Borrowed Stone: Selected Essays of Stephen Owen (他山的石頭記), and more.
Remembrances: The Experience of the Past in Classical Chinese Literature is an aesthetic interpretation on topics of memory and trauma. Owen regards it as a way of re-creating Chinese literary values through the English literary form. Traditional Chinese literary thought typically originates from Lunwen論文 (“On Essays”) by Emperor Wen of Wei 魏文帝, where its initial ideas are systematically derived. Emperor Wen was famous for declaring that writing is “the grand enterprise in ordering the state, an imperishable glory” (經國之大業，不朽之盛事). As such, embedded in subsequent works and creations are often the authors' anxiety of having their work passed on—the fear of being forgotten by later generations and the importance of written works living on long after its author. Therefore, the behavior of “remembering” predecessors itself presupposes how later poets or writers hope they could be recalled. This book is Owen’s exploration into the ontology of writings and reveals that “remembrance” is intrinsically the origin of literary creation in China for several millennia. Moreover, Remembrances reads core differences between Chinese and Western literary theory not as a token of an unbridgeable gap between two worlds, but rather as distinct approaches to a common human problem.
In Milou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire, Owen traces the labyrinths of desire as they play out in various literatures around the world. The title milou 迷樓 (labyrinth) originates from a Tang account of the milou built by Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty 隋煬帝 in his later years. In a way, Milou represents a metaphorical labyrinth, a “hardcore” game of its own right, in which Owen freely traverses between Chinese poetry and its Western counterpart. Owen uses the imagery of a labyrinth to discuss the role of desire and words in poetry within both Classical Chinese and Western poetry and their cycle of ebb and flow. His discourse on the role and impact of poetry in the introduction to Milou presents new theoretical groundings and opinions that greatly contributes to and influences contemporary poetics. He believes that although poetry conveys ideas and function as poetic models, poets or poetry all in a way deviate from orthodoxy, leading people into the maze or labyrinth of words. Poetry does not create a utopia, but it may awaken desires in people.
Through Owen’s writing, poetry can be as clear as a vivid picture, but it can also be full of twists and turns, like the legendary labyrinth—milou. To understand poetry, we must open the door of desire and enter the milou of poetics through distinct scenes of attraction and rejection, suspicion and pause, offense and replacement, hope and disillusion, exposure and concealment, substitution and escape, compromise and sacrifice. Milou alludes to the classics of both the East and the West, referring to ancient Chinese poetry while also touching upon ancient and modern Western classics—from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Das Stunden-Buch (The Book of Hours)—once again showcasing Owen’s mastery and ability to traverse, navigate, and freely travel back and forth between Chinese and Western poetry and poetics.
Borrowed Stone: Selected Essays of Stephen Owen (他山的石頭記) is a collection, in Chinese translation, of Owen’s selected papers; it is an overall reflection of the academic traditions of Chinese and Western literature based on his profound experience and solid exploration of Chinese classical literature. In understanding that tradition is not necessarily unshakable, Owen blazes new paths, offering innovative perspectives, giving voice to the traditional and facilitating its dialogue with the modern. In terms of theoretical groundings, Owen rises above the diametrical portrayal of the East and the West. He believes that in thinking about and sorting out knowledge, we often put too much emphasis on dichotomous distinctions, classifying what is “Chinese” and what is namely “Western. He advocates that distinguishing between China and the West is nowhere as important as another pressing issue at hand: Finding a way or method to allow the torch of the Chinese literary tradition to be passed on and carried forth vibrantly, allowing its impacts to reach far and wide. While all new ideas start as what encompasses “the Other,” but where the Other is made welcome, then that is where he will make his home, take root and flourish.
Owen’s world vision and openness to knowledge are key prerequisites that further the growth and development of Chinese poetics as well as contemporary Sinology. For his contributions as illustrated above, Owen is awarded as one of the two co-recipients of the 2018 Tang Prize in Sinology.