A New Spin on an Old Tale: Vergil in China

Dr. Jinyu Liu, associate professor and chair of the Classics Department at DePauw University.

Before the summer began, I had the good fortune to listen to a talk about a familiar topic in a seemingly unusual setting.  Dr. Jinyu Liu, chair and associate professor of Classics at DePauw University, spoke about the reception of the Classics in China.  Specifically, her talk was “Graeco-Roman Classics in China (1600-1949): The Case of Virgil.”  Dr. Liu began her presentation by demonstrating that the Classics actually have a hold on the popular imagination in China.  She showed pictures of a full-scale replica of Trajan’s Column in Macau, “the Chinese Las Vegas”, and a Colosseum made of beer bottles at a museum in Taiwan.  Apparently, Jesuit missionaries first introduced the Classics to China around 400 years ago.  The question which Dr. Liu’s talk then addressed was what values did the Chinese people and Chinese scholars see in the Classical world and how did their views influence their decisions to translate certain texts and not others.

One first notices that the Chinese people have clearly favored the works of Homer over those of Vergil.  Since the early twentieth century, Homer has been translated into Chinese multiple times while the first full translation of the Aeneid in that language did not become available until 1984.  Why this slanted view of the Classics?  According to Dr. Liu, in the early part of this last century the Chinese drew on examples such as those of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae and the fierce Greek warriors in Homer’s epics to inspire themselves to stand firm as a nation.  By contrast, the Chinese viewed the Romans as archetypical conquering warriors, an image that threatened Chinese nationalism.  In accordance with this Greek-Roman dichotomy, the Chinese found support for their nationalistic views in the works of the poet Lord Byron, who wrote about Greek culture and advocated for the independence of the modern state of Greece, a movement with which many Chinese in the early 1900s could identify themselves.  On the other hand, many Chinese scholars, when they finally began translating small portions of Vergil’s work, rendered the character of Aeneas as more of a conquering villain than his familiar role as the pious pawn of destiny.

Fortunately for the lovers of Vergil among us, Dr. Liu says that Vergil’s reputation in China is

A replica of Trajan’s Column near the Sands casino in Macau, China.

currently enjoying a bit of revival.  Apparently, as China begins to embrace more and more globalization, the figure of Aeneas has become more appealing.  As a sign of this resurgence of interest, a book about the Aeneid by esteemed Classicist Eve Adler became the first ever such work received favorably in China.

While the details of Dr. Liu’s research proved interesting in themselves, I found that, after her talk, the audience was struck by the fact that her research has barely scratched the surface of a field that few have analyzed because few have possessed the necessary skills to do so.  Dr. Liu’s interdisciplinary approach which requires her to examine both modern Chinese and ancient Latin and Greek sources and to view them in the light of Chinese history appears to me to be a wonderful example of the power of the Classics to bring sources and viewpoints together.  As the Chinese people have demonstrated, the Classics can mean different things to different people.  Thanks to Dr. Liu for helping us see that in such a vivid way!


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