Anyone who’s happened upon this blog will notice that I devote a large amount of space to analyzing the works of Stephen Owen. You may also notice that much of this criticism is negative, and you may therefore conclude that I hold a low opinion of this esteemed Harvard professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature.
The truth is, I admire Prof. Owen quite a bit. His far-ranging knowledge, critical acumen, elegant prose, and catholic taste make him a fine scholar in my book. I would even call him one of my professional heroes, along with Victor Mair, Paul Kroll, David Knechtges, Pauline Yu, James J. Y. Liu, Qian Zhongshu, Edward Schafer, A. C. Graham, Arthur Waley, and James Legge (among others). Like all of these other scholars, he approaches Chinese literature not as an isolated, self-contained field, but as a manifestation of a universal literary impulse, one of the many ways in which humanity’s search for beauty creates art.
In fact, it is because of my high admiration for Prof. Owen that I criticize him so harshly. After all, he is, without a doubt, the most influential scholar of classical Chinese poetry writing in English today. He’s the author of 11 books and 50+ articles, and the editor of 4 books (cf. CV). His graduate students have already become the second generation of major scholars of Chinese poetry. As an aspiring scholar and translator of classical Chinese poetry myself, I live in the shadow of this giant.
Therefore, I always read Owen’s work carefully – more carefully than I read most others’ – and when I notice mistakes or flaws in his theses, I feel the need to point them out and make a counterargument. The falsities closest to the truth are the most dangerous.