Earlier I wrote about a course on World Christianity and World Literature (WCWL). It has been a good semester so far. It’s a small course run seminar style and students seem to like the discussion. In my earlier post I gave a simple typology for WCWL. Here I thought I’d write a bit about challenges for teaching in terms of student backgrounds, materials, and themes.
First I’ll tackle student backgrounds. In the US, literature is pretty firmly rooted in our curricula. Like most high school students, I read or was assigned to read dozens of novels over the four years of high school. These included plays, classical novels, and more contemporary literature. By the time we got to junior and senior year we were reading books by Tolstoy and Shakespeare, and also by Richard Wright, Virginia Woolf and so on. In college I also read novels for language, literature, and history classes. In contrast, most of our students have read little fiction in school. They often begin a more serious study of classical Chinese in high school and the curriculum is rooted towards standardized testing. Students rarely write long essays and they also rarely read long works of fiction.
(As an aside, I am really ambivalent about both systems. A colleague of mine when I taught US undergrad students said she had a nephew who literally never read any of the novels he was assigned in high school, so it is not as if the US educational culture naturally leads to critical reading. Similarly, I know students here who majored in English for college in Taiwan and did essentially four years of grammar and translation with no engagement with literature or culture.)
A second question is materials. Our course is a bit of a hodgepodge, but in a good way. Students have read a mix of works for Japan, Nigeria, US, Russia, Germany and other areas. We’ve had a guest lecture by a Taiwanese poet who has translated Latin American materials. For many students, there is a vague sense that the west is formed by Christian culture, but it is still interesting to talk about the variety of ways this takes shapes, from Tolstoy’s anarchist Christianity, to revolutionary liberationist movements, to real ambivalence about the relationship of Christianity and culture. One of the books we read is The Color Purple, which treats a long stretch of Jim Crow-era US and also includes a black missionary family to Africa. Many people in Taiwan have literally never met someone who is black. Race has an impact here, but in a totally different way. For many students, the engagement with the US has primarily been via Hollywood, so trying to get behind these images is a challenge.
What I like best about this course is that it gets at themes that would be hard to find in other ways. We’ve talked a lot about identity. What does it mean to describe something as Taiwanese, as Christian, or as indigenous? I taught a short section on Christians and atrocity. Taiwan is an interesting place to discuss this because it has had its own waves of colonialism and dispossession. The shift in Christianity has taken place together with the end of colonialism and new nationalisms. Christianity in Asia has also often been a critic of the state.
The strength of a course like this is that it gives different lenses to view Christianity’s development in different places. How does faith look when one is part of majority culture, minority culture, empire, or colony? How do Christians abet or resist violent states? How is faith formed or diminished by suffering, resistance, capitulation, consumption?
Ironically, we are limited in the materials we have about Asia. This semester on my own I’ve read two novels that indirectly deal with Christians in Asia, both are epic family tales that cover the WW2 era through the present. The first is the Man Asian Literary Prize winner Please Look After Mom (Kyung-sook Shin, 2008; translated 2011) which tells about a sacrificial mother who goes missing and is never found. (See the New York Times review.) Set in post-war Korea, the book describes the children’s’ reactions with frequent flashbacks to the past. Churches pop up only a few times during the novel, but the concluding scene finds the daughter Chi-hon (an author, likely modeled after Shin) visiting the Pieta and reflecting on how Mary’s relationship to the suffering Christ helps her understand her mother. I remember being surprised that this was the concluding vignette.
I’ve also just finished Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996, 2011 edition). Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature. (See John Updike’s take in the New Yorker.) Mo Yan writes in a magical realist style, with ghosts or magical events interspersed in a family epic set during the era from Japanese occupation (1937) into the 1990s. This book also had very little directly on faith–it’s not an intellectual reflection on meaning or existence–but featured a foreign missionary and a church that is a major site in the book. The protagonist of the story is the first son born into a family after seven daughters. He is the bastard son of a red-headed Swedish missionary with perfect Chinese who dies fairly early in the novel. The protagonist’s mother sometimes expresses faith in God or divine guidance. At the end of the novel, the protagonist finds his half-brother in a church and the story concludes abruptly.
One of my hopes is that eventually I could cobble together a dozen or fifteen books, translated hopefully into English and/or Chinese, that could give a bit more heft to the Asia section of our course. There are major differences between Taiwan’s modern development and the history of China or Korea, but I think the family epic dovetails well with how many Taiwanese families tell national or Christian history.