Stephen Owen

Reinvigorate Literary Tradition and Liberate Literary Studies—Prof. Stephen Owen

  • Stephen Owen
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Chinese original by Evelyn Chiu

(This article is the outcome of a project collaboration between the Tang Prize Foundation, Pan Sci Taiwan and Story Studio.)

Prof. Stephen Owen, winner of the 2018 Tang Prize for Sinology, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1946. Moving to Baltimore with his family when he was 14, he had a chance encounter with Chinese poetry in a library which resulted in his tying the knot with Chinese literature for the rest of his life.

In 1972, Prof. Owen got his PhD degree in Chinese Literature from Yale University, where he stayed as a teacher until 1982, when he opened a new chapter in his career at Harvard University. He was offered the James Bryant Conant University Professor when he was only 51. In 2018, he retired from Harvard as an esteemed professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and the Department of Comparative Literature.

Stephen Owen’s research on Chinese literature began with and has since been revolving around Tang poetry. Photo courtesy of the Tang Prize Foundation.

Prof. Owen’s career as a sinologist began with his doctoral thesis, The Poetry of Meng Chiao and Han Yu, followed by The Poetry of Early Tang and The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang. He then extended the scope of his research to study Chinese literary criticism, history of Chinese literature, comparative literature and so on. His academic life spans nearly half a century and has been decorated with the publication of 15 monographs. The publication of each one of his books has resounded throughout Chinese and Western academia of sinology. Even the renowned German sinologist Wolfgang Kubin hailed him as the most eminent sinologist in America.       

This is what I hope readers will get from my works: these books open our eyes to the potential of Chinese tradition no one has seen before. (Stephen Owen)

An overview of Prof. Owen’s research tells us that his lifelong concern is how Chinese literary tradition can rejuvenate itself in the modern era, including how we can make a breakthrough in interpreting a tradition and how a tradition can be rediscovered. In response to the common stereotype about literary works, he would ask questions about how some labels people apply to these works without hesitation, such as “traditional,” “classic,” and “great writers,” have become common sense that needs no verification. What are the eras and societies through which and what are the purposes for which these labels were singled out and adopted? If we want to revive a literary tradition that is thousands of years old, we need a new angle to study literary works, an angle that breaks away from traditions.  

The fluidity and the reinterpretation of a text help us explore the spirit of researchers working on literary texts

There are no fixed texts. Nor are there verifiable sources. What we have is a history that is fluid and always open to interpretation.

Prof. Owen believes that before a text can be finalized, it has to go through various stages of transformation. Therefore, it is usually in a fluid and uncertain state, a point that can be illustrated by Shijing. Also known as The Book of Odes, it is the earliest anthology of Chinse poems and a composite text that slowly changed over time. In various versions of Shijing we can find now, there is a huge amount of homophones. They are the evidence which shows that Shijing has its origin in oral tradition. Thus, it’s impossible to trace back to the “very first” version of Shijing because it doesn’t belong to any specific time in the history of literature. Instead, it evolved over a long period.    

He also cautions us against ignoring the influence the material existence of a literary work has on the reconstruction of a literary world. A text is like a household item. Whether or not it was thrown away or has been preserved and passed down to future generations is determined by many variables, including the authors, the scribes, and the editors. Take Qu Yuan’s “Huaisha” (Embracing Sand) as an example. The widely-held perception is that it was completed before this tragic poet threw himself into the Miluo River. However, taking into consideration the availability of writing materials at that time, Prof. Owen has cogent reasons to cast doubt on whether Qu Yuan could actually put pen to paper and compose this poem. We have to bear in mind there exists an important difference between “writing” a text and “writing down” an oral text.

For a text that is being circulated, the transition from oral to written narrations is rife with uncertainties, the recognition of which would mean that all kinds of phenomena we take for granted when studying literary works will start to call for more ambiguous interpretations. Borders and boundaries will gradually melt away too. Conventional ideas about “literary era,” “literary work,” and “an author” that we have espoused for a long time will no longer be clear and precise but might turn out to belong to a stage in a long and complicated process of transformation. For those who study literary works, their responsibility is to peruse these texts in order to delineate the intertwined boundaries along which literature has been developed.  

A new perspective and a close reading of literary texts are new rules for understanding classics

“We write literary histories, so we know how these great authors were born and we know the social and literary contexts that gave birth to these great authors.” From “If Americans Could Learn A Bit Of Tang Poetry—An Interview With Stephen Owen” by Wang Yin, published on Southern Weekly on April 5th, 2007


The conceptual world a poet creates will vanish when its cultural background changes. Besides, the obstacles to reconstructing a civilization so remote in the past and to inhabiting the mindset of readers at that time seems insurmountable. Therefore, when dealing with a literary work written thousands of years ago, a competent reader shouldn’t just be an archeologist of languages, but he or she also has to strive to restore the literary context both the poets and the readers once immersed themselves in. Through the perusal of texts and the exercise of historical imagination, Prof. Owen succeeded in creating a new historical context for works once confined by labels and ideologies attached to them. He then pumped the blood of culture into these works to help them reincarnate.       

A literary text is what is deposited at the bottom of the river that runs through history’s landscape. An accomplished reader should be fully aware of the gap and obstacles lying between readers and texts. Nonetheless, many a priori impressions we formed have desensitized us to such a degree that our over-intimacy with the texts ended up estranging us from them. With regard to the cultural heritage that gave birth to Du Fu’s poetic works, many Chinese readers in the modern era are convinced that there is a set of so-called Confucian values, which, in Prof. Owen’s eyes, is “a series of values that underwent dramatic transformations against different cultural backgrounds over the past two thousand years.” For him, what makes Du Fu a great poet is not any singular personal attribute he happened to have, but the diversity of his creations.   

Prof. Owen is able to read between the lines and analyze literary texts and history from a brand new perspective. Photo courtesy of the Tang Prize Foundation.

A new perspective and a close reading of a literary work are the best compasses Prof. Owen discovered to help him sail through the gap between texts and history. We can examine the relationship between Li Qingzhao and Zhao Mingcheng as an example. For the majority of literati, this couple have always been seen as kindred spirits passionately in love with each other. However, through his careful study of the epilogue to Jinshilu (Bronze and Stone Inscriptions), Prof. Owen was able to discern that the change of the pronoun from “we” to “I” is indicative of the different attitude Zhao had toward collecting books and of Li’s grievance against Zhao for the lack of deep affection he displayed in the last days of his life. 

How do we decide whether or not a text can be considered classic? The approach Prof. Owen recommended is to read extensively the works of a poet and those of his contemporaries so that we can compare different texts by studying them diachronically and synchronically. Moreover, through the restitution of literary contexts, we can eventually understand why classics always stand out. Take a look at Wang Wei’s poem, “Guo Xaing Ji Shi” (Passing by the Temple of Garnering Incense.) The poet chose to depart from the model of poetic language embraced by his fellow writers and didn’t mention the temple’s murals or its architecture even once. We wouldn’t be able to appreciate the artistic merit of this poem had no one ever compare it with hundreds of other poems composed around the same time about visiting temples.     

What’s worth noticing is that, unlike many other academic papers, Prof. Owen’s articles are not encumbered with endless footnotes and are thus highly readable. His book, Remembrances, talks about a tendency in Chinese classics for authors and readers to adopt specific psychology when writing or reading about the past. Fusing the styles of Chinese and Western essay writing, he managed to fit academic arguments into a prose narrative in this book and demonstrated his agile mind that can travel between the present and the past with great ease.  

Though Remembrances received many accolades in academia East and West for the author’s keen insight, meticulous attention to detail, and for its compelling narrative, Prof. Owen never attempted to repeat his success only to cater to market needs. Instead, he continues to explore the possibility of studying new texts, finding new perspectives and developing new writing styles. That’s why people from all walks of life can all expect to be surprised when reading his works.  


Making classical Chinese literature one of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity

“If a poet’s voice is woven into the fabric of a particular language and dissolves when removed from that fabric, it becomes the translator’s task to reconstitute the voice and make restitution of the identity.”

--Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of The World, p122.

To assess Prof. Owen’s contribution to the promotion of classical Chinese literature, we cannot ignore his considerable achievement in translation. Regarding himself as a literary agent, he endeavors to introduce classical Chinese literature to English readers by tapping into his expertise as a proficient translator. Besides Readings in Chinese Literary Thought (1992) and An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911 (1996), his oeuvre also includes the English rendition of 1400 existing poems by Du Fu, a literary tour de force that took him eight years to accomplish single-handedly. In 2015, The Poetry of Du Fu was published in 6 volumes. It is the first completed English translation of Du Fu’s poetic works.


As a translator, his aim is to retain the polysemy and ambiguity of the original texts. Therefore, his translation strategy is to adopt different tones when working with different authors. In this way, English readers would be able to tell, with a quick glance, that this is Du Fu’s poem, and that one belongs to Su Shi. A poet’s works will not be mistaken for those of any others. Therefore, when doing translation, what Prof. Owen is striving to accomplish it to present to readers different kinds of beauty and wisdom embedded in different poems and embodied by different poets.   

Navigating through the gap between texts and history with an acute mind, Prof. Owen first looks for the unnoticed traces left in history and then reconstructs the scene the original text was meant to portray through elaborate narratives. In this process of reconstruction, cultural traditions and literary classics can be liberated from the shackle of any kind of ideologies, avoid becoming a showcase for nationalism, and thus be constantly injected with torrents of vitality. For Prof. Owen, to see his scholarly output as the outcome of his research interests will undermine how serious his study of literature and translation is, for what lies behind his works is his great vision of Chinese literature being crowned as intangible cultural heritage of humanity in today’s globalized world.