Prof. Wiebke Denecke Publishes Volume on the Long History of the Concept of “Literature” in Japan

in Uncategorized
March 27th, 2013


Conference volume on the changing faces of the concept of “literature” in East Asia and Japan, edited by Wiebke Denecke (BU, MLCL) and Kimiko Kono (Waseda University, Director of the Institute of Japanese Classics, Tokyo).

This volume is the first attempt to recapture the adventurous history and future critical potential of the Chinese concept of wen 文 (Japanese pronunciation bun), which encompasses a broad range of meanings ranging from “pattern” and “refinement” to “writing,” “civilization,” and “literature. The concept of wen/bun has played an exceptionally prominent and manifold role in the cultural history of East Asia. The character for wen, 文, already appears on Chinese oracle bones used for divination and in bronze inscriptions from the 12th century BCE on, where it seems to refer to patterned animal fur or tattooed human skin. The rich connotations this concept accumulated over a period of almost two millennia in China were quickly adopted in Early Japan. However, with the Meiji Period (1868-1912) the particular relation between bun and the East Asian traditional notion of elite “Letters” changed dramatically, as “bun-gaku” (bun-learning) became the standard translation for the contemporary European idea of “literature,” in particular for fiction and belles-lettres, which had traditionally a low standing in the East Asian genre hierarchy. Nowadays the Western concept of literature has overwritten the traditional concept of “Letters” in Japan and we need to invest much effort in historical research to recover that lost world of wen/bun and reflect on what it meant in traditional East Asia and what it can contribute to critical discourse in contemporary literary studies around the globe.

Based on regular cyber-conferences of the two editors over the past couple of years and an international symposium held in Tokyo in July 2012, the volume presents articles by 19 scholars from Japan, China, the US, and Europe. Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Center for the Study of Asia generously sponsored the workshop and made this volume possible.