Remarks by Zha Jianying at Professor C.T. Hsia’sFuneral
Frank E. Campbell
1076 Madison Avenue
New York City
January 18, 2014
When I first knocked on the door of Professor C.T.Hsia’s Columbia office in the fall of 1984, I could almost hear my ownheartbeat: I had read his classic book onmodern Chinese fiction and was veryconscious that I was about to meet and study under a scholar who is a giant inthe field. But the very first thing hesaid to me, in a loud voice and ashocked, accusing tone, was this: “Ah, so here you are, you are tall!” Hegrabbed both of my hands, shaking them forcefully as he kept going: “How tallare you? Six feet? Howcan you be so tall? Better nutrition in mainland China!”
And when I explained that,after three years in theEnglish department of University of South Carolina, I chose Columbia because I wantedto be in New York City and to study with him,Professor Hsia issued anotherrapid-fire response: “Of course you'd choose me, of course! But a good thingyou didn’t come to New York straight from Beijing,or you’d be eating inChinatown and hanging outwith other Chinese and in twenty years your Englishwould still be awful!”
His disarming candor startled me, but I was alsohugely relieved and quickly became at ease. I knew there and then that this isthe genuine article, and I have found a unique mentor, whowould be anything butan overbearing stuffed shirt, which I probably dreaded subconsciously untilthat moment.
I’m recalling this because I think everyone who knewProfessor Hsia must have experienced his or her version of such moments, andbecause this might give youa sense of how it felt to be his student. Not ateacher who minced his words incritique, I knew one or two students who wereterrified of him, but most of ussimply loved C.T. Hsia.
His teaching style was like his personality: open, loose,quirky, and intellectually challenging. He expected us to read voraciously andto think hard, as he did himself. In the classroom,he was not known fordelivering long, meticulous lectures, but for providingsharp insights and pithyopinions on literature and history. He talked about watching Hollywood moviesin Shanghai, and told fascinating, revealing stories about brilliant, neglectedauthors whose work he had single-handedly rediscovered and placed on the map ofliterary history. He urged and stimulatedus to question and to debate, while hesmoked and laughed out-loud, as though talking with friends in his own livingroom. I remember walking out of his class with a slim notebook in hand but aswelling hunger to read more, discover more, and with a certain fierce attitudethat one should not take any academicview or methodology for granted justbecause it’sestablished or in fashion.
Deeply embedded in a humanisticand New Criticismtradition, professor Hsia did not hide his skepticism about ahost of newtheories, just as he was outspoken about his political views. Yethe guided hisstudents with a mixture of passionate opinion and lassie-faire liberalism. As astudent in Comparative Literature, I took some theory coursesand I rememberProfessor Hisa’s insistence on reading my paper for a French professor’s courseon semiotics. Hebombarded me with questions afterwards, including theprofessor’s accent I think he was checking whether my fascination withsemiotics might have less todo with the value of the theory than the charmingspell of the French accent.In the end he assured me that my paper did notchange his mind about semiotics,but he also said that it was interesting enoughand I was to be commended.
He was a funny man who wrote serious books, a bluntcritic who was never cynical, a teacher who never stopped learning, acosmopolitan who appreciated excellence in any culture.Quick witted, incisiveand brilliant, he was also a very warm and endearing human being, sparing noenergy in helping students or promoting young scholars.He had endured deeppersonal losses in life, but remained a sunny, loving character. Always thecenter of a party, he had a rare quality that brings tomind an old Chineseexpression: 赤子之心.
I was fortunate to be among those who not onlybenefited greatly from his books and writing, but also from his teaching,conversation, and friendship. He has been a great influence and inspiration inmy and many others’work and life.
Beloved teacher and mentor,thank you! May your soul restin peace. Your teaching, your spirit, and your laughter, will always remainhere with us.