This article examines the two French-language novels by the Franco-Chinese migrant writer François Cheng, Le Dit de Tianyi (1998) and L’Éternité n'est pas de trop (2002), and proposes to conceptualize them as two novelistic models of cultural translation. Cheng’s engagement with, and departure from, canonical Western novelistic models such as Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu in Le Dit reveals his ‘comparatist’ ambition to reorient Western cultural heritage by putting it into dialogue with that of the East. L’Éternité, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with a translingual rewriting of Chinese literary traditions such as that of classical romance. While the first model applies principles of analogy, the second reflects a more traditional conception of translation that emphasizes faithfulness and authenticity. The two models are mutually complementary rather than exclusive. The study pays special attention to Cheng’s ‘Chinese-inked’ French language and style, highlighting the aesthetic innovations and challenges in Cheng’s transcultural writings.
François Cheng’s double cultural heritage (he was born in China in 1929 and has resided in France since 1948) is undoubtedly his most valuable asset for his professional development as a literary translator (French–Chinese, both directions), essayist, and specialist in Chinese art and philosophy, as well as for his vocational engagement as a poet and novelist of the French language. Cheng is a scholar turned creative writer. His Master’s dissertation (1968), which examines classical Chinese poetry of the Tang dynasty from a structuralist perspective, was well received by Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva.1 In the 1980s, he was actively involved in poststructuralist debates, engaging in particular in cross-cultural dialogues with Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze. Poststructuralist discourses find echoes later in Cheng’s creative writings, but often with a palpable sense of conceptual reorientation towards Eastern thought. He turned to fiction in the late 1980s when he was well into his sixties. This intellectual trajectory may explain the learned, deeply reflective and retrospective outlook of his two novels, Le Dit de Tianyi (1998) and L’Éternité n’est pas de trop (2002).2 More importantly, this intellectual trajectory could help us to understand Cheng’s ultimate artistic ambition to transcend cultures through dialogue. Indeed, ‘transcendence’ and ‘dialogue’ are the two key words that lie at the heart of Cheng’s aesthetic vision. The dialogue between the West and China that Cheng endeavours to create through and in art and literature must be ‘equal’, ‘reciprocal’ and ‘mutually beneficial’;3 ‘la vraie transcendance’, Cheng stresses, ‘se situe dans l’entre’.4 Such an intellectual and artistic enterprise has earned him a reputation as a passeur intermediating between Chinese and Western cultures.
Le Dit and L’Éternité can be seen as the novelistic articulation of Cheng’s aesthetic vision. Both works are defined as ‘transcultural novels’ in the present investigation, for very similar yet at the same time contrastively different reasons. Both novels reflect a ‘more active conjunction and blending of differences’5 and embody a new kind of transnational, transcultural literary aesthetics, whereby the prefix ‘trans-’ is understood not only in the sense of ‘boundary-crossing’, but also as what Cheng aspires to achieve as ‘transcendence’. This ‘transculturality’ signals a definitive aspect of my investigation of Cheng’s novels as tales of ‘cultural translation’. The notion of ‘cultural translation’ was first developed by Homi Bhabha in his attempt to reframe Jamesonian postmodernism from a postcolonial perspective. Bhabha’s concept of cultural translation is fundamentally performative, as it is understood as a way of being. It captures the ‘liminality of migrant experience’, ‘the migrant culture of the “in-between” ’ and the ‘space of the translation of cultural difference at the interstices’.6 This attribute of cultural translation resists ‘a “nativist”, even nationalist, atavism and a postcolonial metropolitan assimilation’.7 Compared to Bhabha's formulation, the kind of cultural translation in Cheng’s Franco-Chinese context plays down the strong antagonism often felt in postcolonial discourses. Cheng’s idea of ‘transcendence’ is, furthermore, in tune with the discourse of transculturalism that is, to borrow Noemí Pereira-Ares’s words, ‘frequently endowed with an ethical dimension or cultural attitude which seeks to promote more harmonious ways of understanding our contemporary cultural order, moving away from postcolonialism’s emphasis on the nation state’.8 In both novels, Cheng repeatedly announces his and his protagonists’ intention to take on the role of a cultural ambassador and to establish transculturalism as a fundamental principle of artistic creation. Increasingly, it becomes the artist’s responsibility to propagate the discourse of transculturalism. This echoes a key ‘operative’ aspect and ‘active factor’ in Wolfgang Welsch’s conceptualization of transculturality.9 However, in both form and content, Le Dit and L’Éternité demonstrate two contrasting novelistic embodiments of cultural translation. Whereas the former consciously adapts Proust’s novelistic model to develop a cross-cultural narrative which takes place in twentieth-century Europe and China, the latter creatively reinvents a classical Chinese romantic tale of the seventeenth century, attempting to imbue the Chinese literary tradition with ‘new’ life through French language and culture.
The following study first explores how Cheng’s aesthetic of reorientation and rapprochement is manifested in his creative take on the Western canon in juxtaposition with the Chinese canon in Le Dit; moving on to L’Éternité, the article then examines the linguistic, stylistic and diegetic particularities and novelties of such a transcultural rewriting. It aims to demonstrate how Cheng’s two contrastive novelistic approaches to intercultural exchange accord with two well-established translation models based respectively on principles of ‘analogy’ and concerns over ‘faithfulness’ and ‘authenticity’.
1 ‘Le Dit’: Proust and Chinese thought in dialogue
Both Cheng the author and his protagonist Tianyi compare their work to Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. The importance of Proust’s work as an intellectual and artistic model for Cheng, especially in relation to Le Dit, is crystallized in the author’s own words: ‘[M]a démarche, sans prétention de ma part, est très proche de celle de Proust: avec cette langue, j’ai pu repenser ma vie, et repenser ma pensée, autrement que si j’étais resté en Chine.’10 ‘Cette langue’ generally refers to the French language, but specifically refers to Proust’s French in this context. In the Chinese preface to Le Dit, which he wrote for the benefit of his Chinese readership, Cheng fleetingly reiterates the affinity between his and Proust’s works. This is then followed by a non-verifiable quotation ostensibly attributed to Proust, which can be translated literally into English as follows: ‘real life is a re-lived life, and that re-lived life is obtained through re-creation by memory and language.’11 This ‘real life’ recreated by memory and language is a ‘new life’. Cheng’s Proustian quotation – rather than an actual quotation from Proust – finds strong echoes again in his inaugural address at the Académie française:
ce qui m’advient […] signifiera le début d’une nouvelle vie […] surtout à partir de ce moment où j’ai résolument basculé dans la langue française, la faisant l’arme, ou l’âme, de ma création. Cette langue […] m’a procuré cette distanciation par rapport à ma culture d’origine et à mes expériences vécues et, dans le même temps, elle m’a conféré cette aptitude à repenser le tout, à transmuer ce tout en un lucide acte de re-création.12
The idea of a new language creating a new life – not only the life of a person, but also that of a literary tradition – will become even more compelling when we analyse Cheng’s French rewriting of a classical Chinese tale in L’Éternité.
In a very dense manner, the protagonist Tianyi makes a crucial reference to Proust and his work whilst on a voyage to Nanjing along the Yangtze River:
Je m’inclinai avec gratitude devant son explication [Prof. F. on the Daoist idea of ‘l’éternel retour’] en bien des points obscurs pour moi. Je retins au moins qu’elle affirmait que rien de la vraie vie ne se perd et que ce qui ne se perd pas débouche sur un futur aussi continu qu’inconnu. Explication dont je me souviendrai lorsque en France il me sera donné de lire A la recherche du temps perdu. Contrairement à Proust, j’aurais écrit ‘A la recherche du temps à venir’. La loi du temps, du moins ma loi à moi, à travers ce que je venais de vivre avec l’Amante, n’était pas dans l’accompli, dans l’achevé, mais dans le différé, l’inachevé. Il me fallait passer par le Vide et par le Change. (Le Dit, p. 191)
This is quite literally a pivotal passage connecting the first two parts of the novel, as Tianyi is about to leave China for France. It self-referentially announces the novel that we are reading as Tianyi’s livre à venir. The fluvial concept of time – with ‘le fleuve comme symbole du temps’ (Le Dit, p. 190) – is reformulated in a philosophical language that juxtaposes Western, and notably poststructuralist, discourses with Daoist vocabulary. For example, ‘le différé’ is recognizably Derridean, and even Cheng’s nuanced formulation of ‘un futur aussi continu qu’inconnu’ as the ‘temps à venir’ is strongly reminiscent of Derrida’s distinction between futur and avenir:
In general, I try to distinguish between what one calls the future and ‘l’avenir’. The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There’s a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable.13
Deleuze describes Proustian time as moving ‘vers le futur, non vers le passé’.14 Just as in the book that the protagonist begins to write at the end of La Recherche, the Proustian sense of time revolves indeed around the idea of coming – Cheng’s ‘temps à venir’. Deleuze additionally identifies another type of Proustian time as ‘un temps originel absolu, véritable éternité qui s’affirme dans l’art’,15 which will be of further interest to Cheng.
Cheng’s conception of a ‘temps à venir’ is also critically informed by his reading of the Book of Changes, also known as Yijing or I Ching, a fundamental classical text which significantly predates and exerts huge influence on both Daoist and Confucian scriptures. In Vide et plein: Le Langage pictural chinois, Cheng explains that whereas le Vide (originel) corresponds to the ‘mutation non changeante’ (in other words to the primordial and original ontological state of all things to which we constantly return, therefore echoing Deleuze’s Proustian time in art), le Change refers to both the regular movement of the Cosmos, the ‘mutation simple’, and the evolution of particular beings, the ‘mutation changeante’.16 By insisting on going through le Vide and le Change, Tianyi is determined to take a new direction in his engagement with Proustian time. Tianyi’s understanding of Proustian time is highly personal (‘ma loi à moi’ (Le Dit, p. 191)) and is ostensibly ‘contrary’ to Proustian time. But as my subsequent analysis will show, Tianyi’s ‘contrairement à Proust’ should not be understood as ‘anti-Proustian’; rather, the phrase, especially in view of Cheng’s démarche proustienne, suggests that Cheng engages with the Proustian concept of time – synecdochical of the entirety of Proust’s novel in Tianyi’s commentary – by creating something different. In other words, Cheng’s démarche proustienne, which, perhaps paradoxically, is at the same time ‘contrary’ to Proust, indicates that the Proustian model does not signify an aesthetic destination for Cheng; rather, it marks a critical as well as geographic point of departure and return, through which Cheng is able to develop an aesthetic of reorientation and rapprochement.
What exactly, then, is so inspirational in Proust’s Recherche that has led Cheng to describe his own creative practice as following a démarche proustienne? It would be useful to begin with a few formal observations. La Recherche provides Cheng with a key literary expression of generic hybridity. It is well known that the blurring and blending of literary genres constitutes a vital force behind the evolution of Proust’s own novelistic conception, from Les Plaisirs et les jours, via Jean Santeuil and Contre Sainte-Beuve, to La Recherche. As Marion Schmid accurately summarizes:
through its theme of an artistic quest, its portrayal of a young man’s development from the naivety of childhood to a deeper understanding of himself and the world he inhabits and its meditation on the nature and function of the art work, À la recherche aligns itself with a number of generic models and foundation texts that have shaped European narratives for almost a thousand years.17
As for Cheng, the titles of each part of the novel, namely, ‘épopée’, ‘récit’ and ‘mythe’, foreground his conscious engagement with literary genres. Besides the novel’s status as both Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman like La Recherche, Cheng deliberately challenges the boundaries between biography, autobiography and fiction; between essay and novel; between history and literature.
However, it is Cheng’s approach to Proust’s novelistic engagement with the fine arts which is at the heart of his démarche proustienne. Richard Bales opens his discussion of Proust’s relation to art with the following remark: ‘few authors foreground the arts quite so comprehensively as Proust; certainly, none made them so central to their own literary production. […] [P]robably no other work of literature celebrates the arts as totally as his, or is so convincing in this pursuit.’18 The firm belief in the primacy of the arts in spiritual life, or what both Cheng and Proust should prefer to call ‘la vraie vie’, also represents a central thematic concern in Le Dit, although the apparent difference in scale would inevitably make Cheng’s efforts seem small when compared to Proust’s. Of course, it is far from the purpose of Cheng’s démarche proustienne to match Proust’s Recherche in length. Cheng’s approach signals, to borrow Bales’s words, ‘a keen awareness of the literary possibilities of incorporating the arts in the fabric of [his] own work’19 – crucially, in the wake of La Recherche.
Concerning the engagement with the arts, perhaps the most obvious novelistic parallels between Le Dit and La Recherche are found in their respective casts of key artist-characters. Just as in Proust, where certain artist-characters stimulate the narrator’s discussions of the arts, Cheng’s four main characters personify different forms of art. The Table below summarizes these parallels.
|Art forms||Characters in Le Dit||Corresponding characters in La Recherche|
|Painting||Tianyi (plus calligraphy)||Elstir|
|Literature||Haolang||Bergotte and the narrator|
|Theatre||Yumei||Berma and Rachel|
|Music||Véronique||Morel and Vinteuil|
|Art forms||Characters in Le Dit||Corresponding characters in La Recherche|
|Painting||Tianyi (plus calligraphy)||Elstir|
|Literature||Haolang||Bergotte and the narrator|
|Theatre||Yumei||Berma and Rachel|
|Music||Véronique||Morel and Vinteuil|
Like La Recherche, Cheng’s Le Dit features abundant literary and artistic allusions and references. A comparison between the two novels reveals a high incidence of referential overlaps: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire in literature; Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, Giorgione in painting; Beethoven and Schubert in music, to name but a few. Cheng, in the wake of Proust, sometimes even comments on the same work by the same artist, such as Vermeer’s A View of Delft. Indeed, Cheng extends Proust’s cultural references from Europe to the Far East. The Chengian transcultural literary aesthetic is manifested in his ambition to reorient Proust’s approach to the arts towards a model of intercultural communication. ‘Cultural translation’, in this light, is practised as consistent constructions of cultural, and more specifically artistic, ‘parallels’ or ‘equivalents’ from both Western and Eastern heritages. We have already examined the example of Cheng’s deliberate amalgamation of East–West philosophical discourses. The subsequent analysis further elaborates on the example of painting to illustrate how this novelistic model of cultural translation operates.
Like the protagonist of La Recherche and, even more so, like Proust himself, Tianyi makes a number of artistic pilgrimages in Europe. In addition to Paris, he visits Florence and Venice for Italian paintings, Amsterdam for Rembrandt, and The Hague for Vermeer. Initially stimulated by his study of Renaissance paintings, Tianyi proposes the following ‘theory’ on the development of Western art:
Sur fond d’univers objectif, l’homme jouait maintenant le rôle principal. L’univers, tout en participant à l’action de l’homme, était relégué au rôle de décor. […] [J]e me mettrais dès lors à traquer le long de l’Occident la lignée des peintres qui avaient cherché à restaurer le royaume perdu […]. Commencement de la grandeur. Commencement de la solitude. Plus tard, je comprendrai pourquoi l’Occident était si hanté par le thème du miroir et de Narcisse. Arraché au monde créé, s’érigeant en sujet unique, l’homme aimait à se mirer. Après tout, c’était désormais sa seule manière de se voir. Se mirant dans le reflet, il captait sa propre image, et surtout l’image de son pouvoir, nourri d’un esprit affranchi. A force de se contempler et de s’exalter, son regard ainsi exercé n’avait de cesse qu’il ne transformât tout le reste en objet, plus exactement en objet de conquête. Ne reconnaissant plus d’autre sujet autour de lui, il se privait pour longtemps – volontiers? malgré lui? – d’interlocuteurs ou de pairs. Pouvait-il réellement échapper à la conscience aiguë de la solitude et de la mort? (Le Dit, pp. 231–32)
Cheng evidently traces the development of the Western conceptual and perceptive equation of the artist with the Creator to the Renaissance theological turn, according to which man – instead of God – is now the centre of the universe. Cheng implicitly refers to the birth of the modern human subject famously announced by Descartes. ‘Le royaume perdu’ evokes the biblical fall of man and it is the artist’s task to restore (‘restaurer’) this lost paradise.
The idea of retrieving a lost paradise through art is intrinsic to Proustian aesthetics and spirituality. As Proust’s narrator reaffirms at the end of La Recherche:
[le souvenir] nous fait tout à coup respirer un air nouveau, précisément parce que c’est un air qu’on a respiré autrefois, cet air plus pur que les poètes ont vainement essayé de faire régner dans le paradis et qui ne pourrait donner cette sensation profonde de renouvellement que s’il avait été respiré déjà, car les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.20
Proust juxtaposes ‘les vrais paradis’ with ‘le paradis’. Incidentally, the latter is capitalized as ‘le Paradis’ in the Flammarion edition of La Recherche directed by Jean Milly, which enhances its specifically Christian reference.21 Proust’s nuance is crucial because, ultimately, the real lost paradises (plural) that artists endeavour to restore are not the Paradise of the Bible, but many paradises – ‘la création du monde n’a pas eu lieu une fois pour toutes, […] elle a nécessairement lieu tous les jours’22 – which are essentially recreated by and in man. The studio of Tianyi’s corresponding character in La Recherche, Elstir, is described as ‘le laboratoire d’une sorte de nouvelle création du monde’,23 and Elstir is directly compared to the divine Creator: ‘[S]i Dieu le Père avait créé les choses en les nommant, c’est en leur ôtant leur nom, ou en leur donnant un autre qu’Elstir les recréait.’24
This ‘artificial’ paradise leads then, according to Cheng, to man’s ‘commencement de la solitude’ and the flourishing of ‘le thème du miroir et de Narcisse’ in Western art. Although Cheng does not cite any specific artistic examples, critics have long observed this paradigmatic shift to self-reflexivity in Western painting, and by extension, Western thought: from what Foucault characterizes as the ‘resembling’ representation to the ‘pure’ representation,25 and, arguably, from the Classical to the Baroque and postmodernist aesthetics; from the ‘mirror’ of the world to that of the self and to the mirror of the mirror, or what may be described as the metanarrative structure of knowledge. In this respect, Proust’s novel, with its ‘double internal focalisation’26 within a first-person narrative as well as the fragment of ‘Un Amour de Swann’ seemingly written in the third person, epitomizes the narcissistic game of self-mirroring. To appropriate the narrator-protagonist’s own words, ‘tout tournait autour de moi’.27 In fact, Cheng’s work also illustrates such a narrative dynamism – albeit less sophisticated than Proust’s – with the multiple reincarnations and alter egos of the author himself as the narrator (in the preface), the protagonist, Professors C. and F., and Haolang the poet.
But Cheng does not explore Western artistic traditions per se; rather, they signal areas of cross-cultural translation. His reflection inspired by Renaissance art is followed by an extensive discussion of Chinese traditional aesthetic theory. He first looks for the Chinese temporal and historic ‘equivalent’ of the Italian Renaissance because the art ‘of his own country’, to borrow T. S. Eliot’s formulation, ‘has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order’:28 ‘je ne crois pas avoir été autant de connivence avec les peintres chinois des Song et des Yuan que dans les musées de Florence et de Venise’ (Le Dit, p. 232). In doing this, Cheng effectively reorients the preceding European conception of artistic creation towards a Chinese alternative:
Ne répétait-elle pas à la longueur de siècle, cette cosmologie […] que la Création provient du Souffle primordial, lequel dérive du Vide originel? Ce Souffle primordial se divisant à son tour en souffles vitaux yin et yang et en bien d’autres a rendu possible la naissance du Multiple. Ainsi reliés, l’Un et le Multiple sont d’un seul tenant. Tirant conséquence de cette conception, les peintres visaient non pas à imiter les infinies variations du monde créé mais à prendre part aux gestes mêmes de la Création. Ils s’ingéniaient à introduire, entre le yin et le yang, entre les Cinq Éléments, entre les Dix Mille entités vivantes, le Vide médian, seul garant de la bonne marche des souffles organiques, lesquels deviennent esprit lorsqu’ils atteignent la résonance rythmique. (Ibid.)
Although both European and Chinese traditions share the aesthetic conception of the artist as creator/Creator, the Chinese tradition differs significantly from the European in its conceptual independence of the human subject. The Chinese conception, to adapt Cheng’s remark on Chinese poetry, ‘cherche à laisser parler le paysage et les choses, à laisser transparaître entre les signes un état de communion où l’invisible a sa part’.29
Yet the ceaseless and pluralistic recreations of the world through the same primordial principle share a strong affinity with Proust’s aesthetic foundation. In fact, Cheng’s formulation of ‘One and Many’ (‘ainsi reliés, l’Un et le Multiple sont d’un seul tenant’) subtly brings together two epistemologically very different aesthetic and cosmological theories. The notion of ‘One and Many’ is fundamental in Daoist thought, but Cheng conveniently leaves out the numerical significance of ‘Two’ and ‘Three’30 – which would have otherwise made this notion specifically Daoist – in order that it should resonate with certain Western schools of thought, some of which have been extensively employed to study Proustian aesthetics. Deleuze, for instance, applies Neoplatonic concepts to the understanding of Proust’s idea of ‘essence’, especially that found in art:
Le monde enveloppé de l’essence est toujours un commencement du Monde en général, un commencement de l’univers, un commencement radical absolu. […] Certains néo-platoniciens se servaient d’un mot profond pour désigner l’état originaire qui précède tout développement, tout déploiement, toute ‘explication’: la complication, qui enveloppe le multiple dans l’Un et affirme l’Un du multiple.31
More recently, the notion of ‘One and Many’ in Proust has been systematically examined by Erika Fülöp in Proust, the One, and the Many.32 She meticulously negotiates these two perspectives in La Recherche and formulates them into one coherent structure, by engaging with a range of European philosophers from Schelling to Derrida.
Once again, Cheng’s aesthetic reflection has shown compelling evidence of both Western (especially French poststructuralist) and Daoist influences. But perhaps more importantly, this ‘comparatist’ intellectual and artistic energy channelled through ‘cross-fertilization, assimilation, creative adaption, indigenization, translation, and making-new, within and across locally differentiated traditions, through centuries of uneven modernities’33 has come to define Cheng’s literary aesthetic. A similar pattern of exploration applies to Tianyi’s observations on other arts: Tianyi’s criticism of progressive and patriotic literature in wartime immediately strikes a Proustian echo; his discussion of the ‘théâtre parlé’, also known in Chinese as huaju (‘spoken drama’), registers the Western influence of realist aesthetics on modern Chinese theatre at the turn of the twentieth century; and Tianyi also extensively remarks on the intercultural imaginings activated by both Western and Chinese music that require no ‘translation’ to be ‘understood’.34
Cheng’s true religion is art, and this is a vital aspect of Cheng’s spiritual connection to Proust. Throughout Cheng’s work, there is a thought-provoking convergence of cross-cultural ideas of art and literature. Perhaps Cheng pushes the artistic aspect of Proustian spirituality further in the sense that he understands the highest and most sacred achievement of art as creating ‘dialogues’ – dialogues between cultures, art and nature, self and other – aiming at ‘transcendence’ and universal harmony.
2 ‘L'Éternité’ and the transcultural rewriting of a tradition
If Cheng’s ambitious ‘twofold’ approach to Western canonical works in Le Dit favours the assimilation of his Sinity into French culture while initiating a critical as well as geographical reorientation of the Western canon, in L’Éternité the author seems content to act simply as a spokesperson and promoter of classical Chinese culture for his Western readership, by revisiting the literary tradition of classical Chinese romance. Cheng’s fondness for things of intelligence and erudition as manifested in his thorough engagement with La Recherche in Le Dit is subordinated to sentiment, passion, virtue, and moral and social concerns in L’Éternité. Compared to Le Dit, L’Éternité has received significantly less critical attention, not least because the second novel has largely abandoned the formal experiments with multiple genres and encyclopaedic cross-cultural references which feature prominently in Le Dit.
The narrative revolves around the Platonic love affair between the hero Dao-sheng and the heroine Lan-ying, who can never be together in life because of social barriers and moral codes. It is the despotic and profligate villain, the Deuxième Seigneur Zhao, who marries and owns the body of the heroine. Dao-sheng and Lan-ying eventually die on the same day – one passes away naturally on the way to see the other who is already at death’s door from her illness. This tragic ending of reunion in death is reminiscent of Tristan and Isolde for Western readers; indeed it is how the novel is advertised on the back cover by the publisher: ‘un Tristan et Iseult chinois’. Cheng also encourages such a comparison in his interviews.35 Instead of displaying his cross-cultural erudition in art, literature and traditions, he chooses to focus on the universal subject of love in L’Éternité, ‘un sujet pour ainsi dire “intemporel” ’ (L’Éternité, p. 12). Love is also the main subject of his inaugural address in relation to Jacques de Bourbon Busset at the Académie française.36 Although he does not make any direct link between his second novel and Bourbon Busset, as we will see, Bourbon Busset’s formulation of ‘l’amour absolu’ as ‘une vertu sociale […] [qui] fera régner la justice sociale’ and as ‘le sacré [qui] peut réellement triompher de l’injustice et de l’oppression’, strongly resonates with Cheng’s vision of love in L’Éternité.37
Cheng ostensibly grounds the rewriting of this romantic tale in the framework of intercultural dialogue. Through the voice of a scholarly narrator, Cheng specifies in the Preface that this classical Chinese romantic tale is reconstructed according to an old book that he has accidentally come across at a conference on intercultural exchange in a monastery in northern France. However, the content of the narrative, unlike that of Le Dit, features very few intercultural elements. The protagonist’s encounter with the Western Jesuit missionary, to which I will return shortly, is an important exception. As we will see, Cheng’s ‘transcultural novelty’ in L’Éternité is subtly reflected in his reliance on the particularities of French expressions to ‘translate’ established Chinese cultural references.
Instead of engaging with Western canonical models such as Proust’s Recherche, Cheng’s L’Éternité revisits the classic patterns of Chinese romance and of a particular category of Ming novel known as shiqing xiaoshuo (novel of manners; literally, worldly affairs novel). The Chinese literary tradition of love stories can be dated back to the Tang dynasty (618–907) with the emergence of the literary genres of chuanqi (tales of marvels; literally, transmitting the strange) and ci verse. The treatment of the subject of love ‘finally climaxes in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties when the issue of qing (feelings, love) comes to the forefront in thought and literature’.38 The story of L’Éternité is set in the late Ming dynasty. Judging by the realist texture of L’Éternité – which is supposedly based on the narrator’s recollection of an old book called ‘Récit de l’homme de la montagne’ – Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus), minus its pornographic elements, would have been the most famous contemporaneous novelistic model for L’Éternité.
What makes Jin Ping Mei differ significantly from its contemporary novels and novels before it is that it does not contain any supernatural and fantastic elements (unlike A Journey to the West), nor does it engage with any specific historical event (unlike The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin). The novel is a milestone in the development of Chinese fiction; in C. T. Hsia’s words, it ‘has departed from history and legend to treat a world of its own creation, peopled by life-size men and women in their actual bourgeois surroundings divested of heroism and grandeur’.39Jin Ping Mei depicts the rise and fall of the household of Ximen and the family members’ evil deeds, especially in their dealings with corrupt officials, local tyrants and greedy merchants. In this respect, the villain character of the Deuxième Seigneur Zhao in L’Éternité strongly echoes Ximen Qing in his greed for money, abuse of women, and insatiable sexual appetite. Zhao’s cunning and overbearing concubine Madame Fu Chun, who enjoys an adulterous liaison with her servant, could find many incarnations in Jin Ping Mei (such as one of the central characters Pan Jinlian, or Golden Lotus).
My purpose in drawing this brief comparison between L’Éternité and Jin Ping Mei is by no means to suggest that Jin Ping Mei is the only model that Cheng engages with. After all, later works of shiqing xiaoshuo, notably Dream of the Red Chamber from the Qing dynasty, reached a much higher level of technical accomplishment. But Jin Ping Mei is the first shiqing xiaoshuo whose publication falls into the same temporal frame as the story that Cheng consciously rewrites. However, Cheng’s intention to develop the subject of ideal love evidently goes against the morally ambiguous portrayal of the ‘degeneracy of love in a polygamous and promiscuous society’ in Jin Ping Mei.40 This leads Cheng to resort to earlier traditional legends of romance, some of which are widely circulated in China and known to virtually all households, but not necessarily in the West. For example, the topos of two lovers’ reunion after death is reminiscent of one of China’s Four Great Folktales known as Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, or The Butterfly Lovers.41 The legend revolves around the romantic encounter between the scholar Liang and the daughter of the wealthy Zhu family, who disguises herself as a boy in order to take up her academic pursuits. While in school together, Zhu falls in love with Liang and tries in vain to reveal to him that she is a girl, which is accidentally discovered by their classmate Ma Wencai, the son of another rich family. The Ma family soon arranges the marriage with the Zhus before Liang finally discovers Zhu’s true identity and realizes his intense passion for her. Knowing that Zhu is to marry Ma, the heartbroken Liang falls critically ill and dies. On Zhu and Ma’s wedding day, during the wedding procession, Zhu demands to pass by Liang’s grave to pay her respects. Suddenly, the grave cracks open and Zhu jumps into the chasm in despair before it closes again. Their spirits then turn into two butterflies, fly away together and are never to be separated again. Cheng clearly echoes this classical legend of romance in his rewriting. But he discards the magical and fantastic ending and focuses instead on the metaphysics of love, as the narrator comments in the Preface:
Par l’idéalisation du sentiment humain ou par un élan proprement mystique, les partenaires s’engagent dans un processus de dépassements continuels. […] Le personnage principal, soumis aux tourments de l’amour, subissant l’épreuve de l’inaccessibilité corporelle, résonne à sa manière […] sur la dimension mystique de l’amour et sur l’immortalité de l’âme. (L’Éternité, pp. 13–14)
Although consciously rewriting a classical Chinese tale of romance following certain canonical patterns can be described as a more ‘faithful’ reconstruction of literary traditions, especially with a view to catering for Cheng’s French readership, the phenomenon of recycling literary topoi poses a great challenge to Cheng’s transcultural aesthetic. The clear-cut binary characterization of heroes and villains, for example, is a major weakness of the novel. The hero is generous, broad-minded, knowledgeable, and able to endure humiliation in order to carry out important missions; the heroine is refined, virtuous and kind-hearted. By contrast, the villains are rotten to the core. Even many secondary characters, such as the loyal and considerate servant girl, or the unfaithful and scheming concubine, are typical, or perhaps even stereotypical, representations found in classical novels and plays. Certain plots, such as the young lady of a noble family intentionally dropping her handkerchief as a love token for her beloved, also belong to the realm of clichés.42
Nevertheless, Cheng’s transcultural efforts in L’Éternité are devoted to at least two important areas of novelistic reconfiguration – diegesis and language. In L’Éternité, Cheng places a special emphasis on China’s early intercultural encounter with the West through an elaborate characterization of the Jesuit missionary. The scholarly narrator at the end of the Preface particularly emphasizes this diegetic detail and offers a succinct summary of the Jesuits’ historical journey in China. Although Jesuit missionaries’ religious activities in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century China were well documented, their impact on Chinese society was very limited, and they seldom feature in classical literature.43 By contrast, the missionary’s presence in L’Éternité can be said to take a central position thematically. It is essentially through his theological dialogue with the Jesuit that the male protagonist Dao-sheng reaches a certain metaphysical understanding of the love which he feels for the heroine. In other words, love has a specifically Christian meaning in Cheng’s rewriting of classical Chinese romance.
The Jesuit first introduces the body–soul dichotomy: ‘le corps meurt, l’âme ne meurt pas; elle demeurera vivante pour l’éternité’ (L’Éternité, p. 134), which he attempts to relate to the Daoist spiritual reintegration and the Buddhist rebirth to aid Dao-sheng’s understanding. The missionary then directly equates love with God and explains that it is love that makes our eternal spiritual existence possible: ‘c’est grâce à l’amour que nous ne mourrons pas, parce que c’est par l’amour que nous serons sauvés. […] Notre-Seigneur est amour. Si nous croyons en Lui et que nous aimons comme Lui, nous ne mourrons pas’ (p. 135). This Christian theological definition of love clearly strikes Dao-sheng as something conceptually very different from traditional Chinese thought, as he reflects:
pourquoi dites-vous toujours: aimer, amour? C’est vrai que nos sages usaient aussi d’expressions: jian-ai [amour pour tous], fan-ai [amour universel]. Ils visaient avant tout la concorde et l’harmonie pour la société. Mais en privé, entre particuliers, on ne dit pas s’aimer; on dit plutôt se plaire. (Ibid.)
For Dao-sheng, the Jesuit’s formulation of love represents a defining tenet of Christian belief:
les taoïstes parlent de l’entente avec l’univers des vivants; les bouddhistes de la compassion et de la charité; lui, avec son histoire de l’amour, il est poussé à agir, à convaincre, à attendre, à espérer, en un mot, à se passionner. (p. 140)
In the end, Dao-sheng is not totally convinced of the Jesuit’s conception of love: ‘encore que lui et moi, ce n’est pas tout à fait la même chose. Lui dit qu’il aime tous les êtres, moi, une femme inaccessible’ (ibid.). But this Christian theological connection of love to the ‘Seigneur du Ciel, c’est-à-dire à l’Origine’ (ibid.) deepens Dao-sheng’s understanding of the subject, which he has hitherto believed to be ‘quelque chose de simple’ (ibid.). Furthermore, the missionary’s teaching – ‘plus l’amour est vrai – car il y a différents degrés dans l’amour –, plus on est à même de jurer l’éternité’ (ibid.) – indirectly informs us of the title of the novel as ‘L’Éternité n’est pas de trop’, a phrase that Dao-sheng pronounces before joining his beloved in death. In fact, Cheng’s ultimate vision of love goes beyond the missionary’s ‘degree of love’ and accords with Busset’s ‘l’amour durable, ou l’amour absolu’44 cited earlier.
Besides body, soul and love, Dao-sheng and the Jesuit’s dialogue touches upon other Christian theological issues such as original sin and the role of the Saviour. Despite their mutually inquisitive spirit, it is important to acknowledge that neither of them is ultimately convinced of each other’s conception of these issues. Many of the questions posed by Dao-sheng, naive though they appear at times, point to some fundamental cultural differences and even misunderstandings which call for continuous re-negotiation. In many ways, this diegetic reconfiguration of the early intercultural encounter between China and the West reaffirms Cheng’s role as essentially a cultural ‘dialoguer’ rather than a religious believer.
Linguistically, the act of writing a classical Chinese romance in French is both innovative and challenging. Sophie Croiset has well observed the ‘alternance codique’ – by drawing on a range of theoretical terms such as ‘hétéroglossie’ (Lise Gauvin), ‘hétérolinguisme’ (Rainier Grutman), and ‘code-switching’ ( John Gumperz) – in Cheng’s transcultural writing.45 On the one hand, Cheng employs many Chinese terms that are transliterated in pinyin, often with additional footnotes explaining their meanings in French. In our preceding example, Dao-sheng attempts to understand the Christian concept of love in terms of jian-ai and fan-ai, which are respectively footnoted as ‘amour pour tous’ and ‘amour universel’. Cheng’s own explanation of this linguistic insistence on the use of Chinese terminology is that it increases the directness and accuracy of the ‘Chinese experience’ with its special cultural connotations.46Jian-ai and fan-ai, in this case, as Dao-sheng remarks, ‘visaient avant tout la concorde et l’harmonie pour la société’, with specifically Daoist and Confucian meanings.47 After all, transliteration is a standard scholarly practice when we engage with cross-cultural phenomena and concepts, and this linguistic feature in Cheng’s creative writing displays his Sinological background.
On the other hand, the French expression is still ‘privilégié autant que possible au point qu’il “remplace le chinois” dans des tournures où l’on s’attendrait à rencontrer la langue d’origine’.48 Some Chinese idioms and expressions are translated literally into French: ‘plus durable que Ciel-Terre’ for tian chang di jiu; ‘par-delà rochers pourris et océans à sec’ for hai ku shi lan (L’Éternité, pp. 139, 141). The heroine’s uncorrupted noble character despite her years of bad marriage is described as follows: ‘érodée par des décennies de “vents et sables”, elle garde son port altier non dépourvu de noblesse’ (p. 78). Other Chinese expressions with rich imagery, such as ‘des libellules qui effleurent [l’humble étang]’ for qingting dian shui (pp. 124–25), are seamlessly incorporated into Cheng’s description of ‘Chinese settings’. In this case, it is not the figurative sense of this expression, meaning to ‘do something without going into it deeply’, but the image itself that is used to enhance the ‘typicality’ of the classical ambiance.
These two linguistic features largely apply to Le Dit too. Critics like Croiset have mainly focused on how Franco-Chinese writers’ creative writing ‘colours’ the French language with ‘Chinese ink’, as distinguished from the ‘situations de créolisation et de colonisation’.49 The decision of the Académie française to award Cheng the Grand Prix de la francophonie reaffirms his lifelong contribution to the French language. With a change of perspective from the Francophone to the Sinophone world, my subsequent analysis aims to demonstrate how Cheng’s transcultural rewriting of a classical romantic tale subtly revises well-established Chinese literary traditions through the French language.
As suggested earlier, the romantic pattern of L’Éternité strongly echoes one of the Four Great Folktales in Chinese literary history, The Butterfly Lovers. As the ‘cultural ambassador’ of China to France, Cheng does not hesitate to explicitly incorporate another of the Great Folktales in the novel, namely, The Legend of the Herdsman and the Weaver-girl,50 as the background story of the Festival of Double Seven (so-called because it takes place on the 7th day or the 7th month of the Western calendar), popularly known in the West as the Chinese Valentine’s Day.51 Cheng’s account effectively constitutes a romance within a romance. It is an elaborative translation and, at the same time, a conscious critical rewriting of the legend:
A l’approche de la nuit du Double Sept, comme tout le monde parle du Bouvier et de la Tisserande, il commence à observer ces deux étoiles qui se situent de part et d’autre de la Voie lactée […], ce couple d’amants, nés en même temps que le Ciel et la Terre […]. La légende dit que, par décret céleste, il leur est permis de se retrouver une fois l’an, et que le septième jour du septième mois, jour de leur rendez-vous, les pies sont chargées de construire un pont enjambant la Voie lactée afin de faciliter leur traversée. […] A un moment précis, après minuit, environnée de brumes, la lumière que dégage la Voie lactée devient diffuse. Les deux étoiles, immergées dans le sidéral scintillement, sont en train d’effectuer leur rencontre. […] En cette nuit mythique, tous les amants de sous le ciel, le cœur serré, les yeux en larmes, assistent à l’événement-avènement sacré. Ils échangent leur serment; car c’est dans l’obscurité que, toute pudeur abandonnée, on engage sa vie sur une parole. Rien ne peut empêcher que cette parole ne monte au ciel, qu’elle ne touche le shen même. […] Un immense désir charnel s’empare de Dao-sheng, l’allume, l’embrase. Son corps se gonfle, se dilate, s’ouvre au corps rêvé qui se donne à mesure. Il fouille ce corps attendri jusqu’aux os, […] l’entraîne à se fondre dans la mémoire extatique de la laiteuse Origine. (L’Éternité, pp. 143–44; my italics)
On the surface, this passage appears to be recycling rather than creating a cultural cliché.52The Legend of the Herdsman and the Weaver-girl, which is contextualized in Dao-sheng’s longing for Lan-ying, may still hold interest for Western readers with limited knowledge of Chinese culture. But the legend itself is simply bland for most Chinese readers, which would require Cheng to rewrite it creatively through a transcultural prism. First, this account of the legend subtly reflects Dao-sheng’s changed perception and conception of love. Like the pair of lovers who were ‘nés en même temps que le Ciel et la Terre’, the concept of love is now linked to the ideas of the Origin and eternity, as postulated by the Jesuit missionary in L’Éternité. Indeed, the solemn and moving ritual of two lovers’ exchange of vows before the ‘événement-avènement sacré’ evokes the Christian rite of holy union more than any traditional Chinese festive celebration.
Furthermore, Cheng’s description of the new-found or enhanced physical intimacies between human beings in darkness is strongly reminiscent of Proust’s narrator’s observation in the dim passages of the metro station during an air raid in Le Temps retrouvé, but with contrasting reconfigurations. Whereas Proust’s narrator emphasizes the dangerous pleasure of blind, speechless and unknown bodies which may well perish at any minute in an air raid,53 Cheng’s protagonist yearns for physical reunion with his beloved through a sacred ritual of words during an annual festival. In Proust’s passage, ‘l’obscurité’ is underground and signals a doomsday scenario comparable to the entombment of Pompeians. In Cheng’s passage, ‘l’obscurité’ is in the sky and signals the cosmic origin.
In evoking the cosmic origin, Cheng simultaneously gives a Daoist twist to the legend through the French language. The ‘Dao’ of Daoism literally means ‘the way’ in English and is commonly translated as ‘la Voie’ in French. This is why Cheng repeatedly emphasizes ‘la Voie lactée’ and, significantly, ends the passage with ‘la laiteuse Origine’. The English expression ‘the Milky Way’ would seem to work too on this first level of linguistic association. Moreover, the Chinese Dao also means ‘to say or to speak’, which explains Cheng’s specific elaboration on two lovers’ ‘parole’ which ‘monte au ciel’ and ‘touche le shen même’. Shen can be literally translated as ‘the divine’. In this respect, the homonymic relation between the two French words, ‘la voie’ (the way) and ‘la voix’ (the voice), would seem to accommodate the two meanings of ‘Dao’. In fact, earlier passages in the novel have already paved the way for such an interpretation, as Dao-sheng remarks: ‘toutes ces voix convergent pour former une immense Voie. Oui, la Voie, le Tao. Et justement, j’y pense, le Tao en chinois n’a-t-il pas double sens: chemin et parole, marcher et dire?’ (L’Éternité, p. 139). Incidentally, this connection between dao, voice, and saying or speech also echoes the title of the first novel, ‘Le Dit de Tianyi’, as well as its incipit: ‘au commencement il y eut ce cri dans la nuit’ (Le Dit, p. 15; my italics).
The French term ‘la Voie lactée’ has clearly inspired Cheng’s rewriting of the ancient fable. However, it must be pointed out that the actual Chinese word for ‘la Voie lactée’, yinhe (silver river) or tianhe (sky river), has no direct etymological link or conceptual association with Dao or Daoism. In fact the earliest reference to this fable dates back to an ancient poem collected in Shijing, the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, which is generally thought to have been compiled by Confucius. Shijing is therefore a canonical work associated with Confucianism rather than with Daoism. It is essentially via the French language – first through the French translation of ‘Dao’ as ‘la Voie’ and then the French ‘la Voie lactée’ and the homonym ‘la voix’ – that Cheng is able to conjure up a particularly Daoist revision of an ancient Chinese fable, which suitably intertwines with the Daoist hero’s passionate pursuit of enduring and absolute love. Traditional Confucian morality would have vehemently opposed such a diegetic configuration and characterization which promote romantic feelings, passion and desire that divert men from their much more important pursuit of zhi. Difficult to define precisely, the word zhi, as Hsieh explains, ‘suggests will, ambition, resolve, intention, determination, aspiration. It is what a man must have to fulfil his proper duties and goals. It is what a man loses when he indulges in pleasure and is diverted from his responsibilities by the charms of women.’54
This rewriting of The Legend of the Herdsman and the Weaver-girl is in many ways synecdochical of the novel L’Éternité as a whole, where classical tales, myths and folklore, as well as allusive Chinese idioms, are elaborately ‘translated’ into French and given a French twist based on French linguistic and cultural associations, which, in turn, offer a creative dimension to the classical Chinese literary tradition.
This study will conclude by corroborating the qualitative difference between Le Dit and L’Éternité in their respective approaches to intercultural exchange and transcultural writing. The two works demonstrate a certain intellectual and aesthetic tension between two rather different – although by no means mutually exclusive – models of, and attitudes to, cultural translation in Cheng’s novelistic conception.
In Le Dit, Cheng consistently sets up cultural ‘parallels’ and audaciously constructs ‘equivalents’ from both Western and Eastern cultural heritages, thereby artificially – but also instinctively – creating a transcultural dialogue. This type of cultural translation is based on principles of analogy. Translation, in this light, prioritizes the enhancement of one’s culture of origin by comparatively integrating the other, and vice versa. Proust’s novelistic model provides Cheng with a canonical Western framework of departure and return for the ambitious cross-cultural comparisons which have come to define his literary aesthetic. Cheng’s first novelistic model of cultural translation effectively rebalances ‘the radically asymmetrical relations of power’ that characterize Mary Louise Pratt’s postcolonial conception of the ‘contact zone’, where the ‘relations among colonizers and colonized, or travelers and “travelees” ’ are treated ‘in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices’ instead of ‘separateness’.55Le Dit shows Cheng’s profound knowledge of both French and Chinese cultures, while highlighting the necessity of ‘equality’ in the treatment of their interaction. Moreover, the novel closely reflects Cheng’s personal translation of his own rich cross-cultural experience, which gives the novel the appearance of an ‘autofiction’. Such a translation-creation process also resonates heavily with Proust’s notion of translation as well as his famous declaration in Le Temps retrouvé that the task of the artist is ‘to translate the subjective and sentimental dimensions of human perception and experience’.56
In comparison, L’Éternité is primarily concerned with the translingual rewriting of classical Chinese literary traditions. As a work of cultural translation, it can be described as more ‘authentic’ in the sense that the narrative structure, content and other essential novelistic ingredients are typical of classical Chinese romance and the particular novelistic genre of shiqing. It may seem at first to correspond well to the type of (primarily Western) linguistic translation theories that prioritize more ‘restrictive principles of faithfulness’57 and the ‘adherence to the fixities and authority of the source text’.58 However, as my detailed analysis has shown, this novelistic model does not merely signify a one-way process of ‘translating’ from the ‘original’ either. It may be more fruitful to think of the tale as a transcultural adaptation; not the adaptation of one specific work, but rather of the classical Chinese romantic genre, an adaptation which blends multiple storylines.59 A sense of cultural hybridity – perhaps more subtly than in Le Dit – persists in L’Éternité. Not only does such an adaptation diachronically recontextualize and reframe classical Chinese literary traditions, other Chinese cultural discourses have also found their ‘Way’ through the French language to enrich and renew the literary content of these traditions.
From the example of Cheng’s novelistic writings, we observe that, despite the infrequent use of Chinese terminology in both pinyin and literal translation, the ‘basic substance’ of the French language, on both the lexical and the syntactical levels, remains largely undisturbed. French, as Croiset astutely points out, functions as the ‘matrix language’ (langue matrice) which provides Chinese, the ‘embedded language’ (langue encastrée), with a morphosyntactical frame that guarantees accessibility and readability for the Francophone readership.60 Cheng’s (and other Franco-Chinese authors’) voluntary and personal embrace and even idealization of the classical form of French – which again can be taken as another aspect of the Proustian aspiration – points to, in Croiset’s words, ‘un principe de création essentiel: le respect’.61 Unlike the ‘protesting’ attribute in the process of creolization and other forms of French postcolonial cultural manifestation, what we see in Cheng’s creative writing and rewriting is not a ‘discours métissé’ but, rather, an attempt to ‘construire un pont extraordinaire entre deux idiomes totalement dissemblables. Empreinte subtile, parure remarquable.’62 It is also in this particular geopolitical linguistic sense that I propose to conceptualize Le Dit and L’Éternité as two novelistic models of cultural translation.
In fact, this notion of translation resonates with the earliest Chinese attempts to define it as ‘exchange’ with clear geopolitical designations. Some of the earliest Chinese terms ( ji, xiang, Didi and yi) for what we now designate as the ‘translator/interpreter’ refer to geographically varied ‘official titles of government functionaries responsible for communicating and maintaining diplomatic relations with the neighbours of China’. When the Buddhist monk Ning Zan of the Song dynasty (960–1279) later writes, ‘ “to translate” means “to exchange”, that is to say, take what one has in exchange for what one does not have’, he is referring specifically to the aesthetic and rhetorical move to ‘elevate Buddhist sutra translations to the status of literary texts and an effort to, as it were, canonize the translated sutras’.63 In this light, Cheng’s canonical engagement with cultural heritages, with the ambition to renew literary traditions and ‘transcend’ cultural differences, fulfils his role as a ‘cultural ambassador’ of China to France, a ‘dialoguer’ and a passeur between East and West.
My approach to Cheng’s novelistic models of cultural translation goes beyond their evident linguistic aspects. The concept of cultural translation offers a hybrid vantage point for observing intercultural transactions and understanding and negotiating cultural differences. It can actively resist any nationalist propaganda of linguistic translation, which effectively essentializes national languages and identities in a monolithic logic of circularity.64 This hybrid vantage point is transcultural; it destabilizes the ‘the assumed integrity of the national language and culture’ and ‘the essentialist homogeneity of the national identity’.65
What we can also discern in comparing the two novelistic models of cultural translation is the sense of intellectual and aesthetic ‘revolution’, a classical thematic ‘turn’ in Cheng’s novel writing, from a political and, to a certain extent, personal representation of modern China to traditional Chinese culture, endeavouring to ‘translate’ a cultural, spiritual, mythical and indeed mystical China. Such a literary revolution must be understood in the Proustian sense, as Antoine Compagnon explains:
en littérature les révolutions ne vont pas toujours vers l’avant, […] il peut y avoir des révolutions en arrière, à rebours pour ainsi dire. Le sens de la ‘révolution’ proustienne aurait été celui-là, le rattachant à la grande tradition classique.66
Albeit beyond the scope of the present study, it is worth mentioning that other established Franco-Chinese writers’ novelistic works largely share this classical thematic turn. Notable examples include Dai Sijie, from his earlier Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise (2000), which takes place against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, to Par une nuit où la lune ne s’est pas levée (2007), with its explicit engagement with classical Chinese thought such as Daoism and traditional artistic practice such as calligraphy; and Shan Sa, from her engagement with the events of Tiananmen Square in Porte de la Paix Céleste (1997) to Impératrice (2003), inspired by the historical figure Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty, and La Cithare nue (2010). If their initial engagement with political issues is linked to their discontent with Communist China, their subsequent collective thematic turn may be explained by these first-generation Franco-Chinese authors’ general as well as artistic nostalgia for a China that manifests a radically different sense of space and time than is apparent today. To borrow Cheng’s formulation in Le Dit, ‘tout ce qui avait été vécu avec [l’univers] par l’homme s’était transmué en lointaine nostalgie’, and these Franco-Chinese writers try to ‘restaurer le royaume perdu’ (Le Dit, p. 231) in their fictional works. The Franco-Chinese authors’ classical thematic turn can therefore be seen as a re-enchantment of Chinese culture after its modern experience of political dystopia.
The creative motivation behind Le Dit and L’Éternité is inextricably linked to Cheng’s personal, intimate experience and knowledge of both China and France, as well as to his intellectual and aesthetic ambition to re-think cultural heritages – crucially through the French language. In both content and form, the two novels crystallize the ‘liminality of migrant experience’67 that is central in Bhabha’s characterization of cultural translation. They exemplify and further open up ‘a cultural space – a third space’68 where the borderline tension caused by seemingly incommensurable cultural differences can be translated, understood and creatively negotiated. Cheng’s transcultural practice signals, therefore, a new form of art and literature preoccupied with a palpable sense of both ‘to-comeness’ and ‘re-naissance’ across languages and cultures; or, to retain Bhabha’s terms, with the sense of ‘an interstitial future, that emerges in-between the claims of the past and the needs of the present’.69