Global and Transcultural Issues
from a Humanist Perspective
by Professor Andrew T.L. Parkin
former Chair Professor, English Literature
From soon after our birth, we human beings learn at an amazing rate and with an intelligence brilliant enough to select sounds into mere noise, music, and the words of our native language. We use our natural endowments and our capacity to learn so that we may survive. We learn to recognize our immediate environment, our family, and our own capacities. Walking instead of crawling is a part of our culture. We learn to speak the language we hear around us and thus we are learning our immediate culture. We discover that our family exists among others. We find that the language we speak, and later read and write, has embedded in it bits and pieces of a culture in its different phases: “It’s a piece of cake” comes from a phase of culture when cake is freely available to us all. “It’s as easy as falling off a bike” could not have arrived in the language until the bicycle had been invented and become a popular possession.
learning our native culture is so basic and natural we may not realize that it is a culture, and just one of many. We
think of it wrongly as the norm. Once
we are at home in our own culture, accepting its language, customs, and common
values, we feel a sense of identity, personal and national. A popular French
idiom I hear in the streets of
If we are capable of learning to live with our native culture, we are capable also of learning to live with a different culture from our own, whatever xenophobes may say and do. After all, when we travel to different regions within our own countries, we learn to recognize different cultural norms and may enjoy them, adopt them, or disapprove. We do this also, of course, when we travel abroad. When we study our own language in more depth and learn about cultural phases and practices that have all but vanished from the very culture into which we were born, we may even need translations. Beowulf needs to be translated into English, as do Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight and Piers Plowman. Cultures and their languages change as societies and living conditions change. We embrace new technologies along with their vocabularies. We abandon, maybe slowly, the vocabulary and the metaphors of obsolete technologies. We have often abandoned unlovely, sometimes savage and unjust aspects of our own cultures for more enlightened norms and have sometimes embraced desirable aspects of foreign cultures. And we should beware of aspects of other cultures which seem to us inhumane, cruel, or merely superstitious, and which through immigration may threaten hard-won freedoms in our own home culture. Crucially, we need to study our own history and that of others.
A body of evidence is a basis for truths that will in turn be modified by new evidence becoming known. Responsible scientists, historians and literary biographers and critics modify studies according to new facts and evidence that emerge. If not, they are either mere propagandists or simply unaware of the latest research. Yet history is not only political and economic; it is also the heritage of nations that helps people to have a local identity in a world that changes so rapidly that it calls all in doubt and can provoke identity crises in individuals and communities. Thus the meticulous restoration of works vandalized in the past or dismantled, stolen, and sold is of great importance as a part of cultural history that demonstrates afresh glorious moments of our civilization. Private, sometimes American, organizations and foundations (an example is that of the Aga Khan) as well as French government agencies are involved in the funding for restoration of crucial historical sites such as the Palace of Versailles, the chateau at Chantilly, and many others, together with period furniture and décor. This gives the greater public an idea of some actual evidence of a culture that would otherwise have vanished. It is part of the French identity but is not contemporary French culture, for this has moved on since the French Revolution. But all the best remnants of ancient cultures now also belong to humanity, for the greatest artistic achievements belong in the end to us all. This is why we feel outrage at the vandalism of monuments and works of art by criminal terrorists. Yet now, with globalization of travel and communications, the best of modern achievements pass rapidly beyond national boundaries. Even the cruelest of terrorists, rejecting western values, spouting propaganda against the wicked modernity of the west, want to buy its best weapons for killing! They do not want to return to bows and arrows, swords and spears, nor ride horses and donkeys when they can travel and terrorize the unarmed with modern means.
and thankfully for the most part peace-loving, are now commonplace for many of
us within our own countries and when we travel; we may even become
intercultural in our daily living and eating as well as in our reading and
appreciation of the arts of many foreign cultures. Though we may be critical of
some foreign judicial systems or governance, we have for centuries been
appreciative of foreign arts of many kinds. Cross-cultural writing is, of
course, built into The Holy Bible and
has been reinforced for that compendium by its translation into most known
languages. In medieval
is the great literary work for making one culture’s literary discoveries
available to people in a different and often distant culture. Its great
practical value is that it makes the spread of crucial, modern information a
real force for cultural understanding. Literary translation has the wonderful
further effect of showing the way more deeply into another culture so as to
enhance a reader’s artistic appreciation of foreign writing. During the late
nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries translations abounded,
growing at a pace that has now made us realize the need for studies in
translation theory and practice, and the establishment of departments of
translation in colleges and universities. Translation is a “growth industry” in
our age of rapid globalization. And the ethics of translation must be studied.
Translators have duties to textual fidelity rather than mere propaganda.
Professor Klaus Stierstorfer’s Düsseldorf conference on translation led in part
to his and Professor Monika Gomille’s book relating translation processes and
issues to literary and language studies.[iii] Scholarly
associations of translators exist in a number of different countries. In
Some of the consequences of cross-cultural influences on specific cultures became apparent long ago with the ancient trade routes and growth of empires. With mass migration in the modern world, an enormous area of enquiry has opened up in the realms of development and cultural loss, identity loss or confusion, cultural gains and identity formation. The many student exchange schemes between universities around the world in a number of disciplines have proved to be a very significant factor in internationalizing culture and knowledge and have helped students to understand such issues. Travel changes us but it also strengthens our understanding. It may, of course, strengthen our love of our own country.
arts, the growth of English literature and other literatures in English has
been a powerful bridge linking many different cultures now available to readers
of English across the planet. Professor Rüdiger Ahrens’ work is a significant
and inspiring example of the benefits of English teaching and scholarship at
the university level.[v] A
very significant aspect of his cross-cultural work apart from his own writing
has been his involvement with the Erasmus scheme for student exchanges. Also in
we turn back to the Chinese perspective, no reader could fail to be impressed
by T.C. Lai’s original writings in English or by the translation and commentary
of T.C. Lai[vi],
or by the steady accumulation of translations from Chinese into English that
have appeared in the magazine Renditions.[vii] The
analysis of global change in the contemporary world by the prolific Chinese
scholar and Director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Yeung
Yue-man, gives us great insight into recent developments in
Another very recent example of senior high-level research stretching across cultures comes to mind, this time from science. The 2009 Nobel Prize Laureate for Physics, Professor Charles Kao, is the Chinese, English-speaking, much-traveled “father of fibre optics” and thus inventor of a technology that has already changed the modern world and continues to change it almost at the speed of light.[xii] His work suggests the power of education across cultures. It also shows some of the benefits of global links.
is now time to record the well-known remark that translators are also writers.
Some of these writers, knowing two or more languages, have explored themes and
experience that do not inhabit a single village, country or even continent.
Their work can best be described as international and transcultural. Two recent publications using the moon as an anchor
illustrate this very well. The first example is by one of the most prolific
translators to emerge in the twentieth century, the late Michael Bullock. Born
and educated in
Moons and Mirrors is a handsome, subtly elegant paperback containing a selection of Michael Bullock’s poems about the moon as a symbol and as a beautiful prompter and mirror of human emotions. The front cover bears an illustration by Bullock’s grand-daughter, Susannah Cartwright, of a huge silvery-blue moon looming behind and held by the thorny branches of a black bush. This strong image is on a dark blue cover.
Inside the book, we find “Moon Branches,” the first poem, reproduced in holograph (Bullock’s own hand) with the Chinese translation in vertical calligraphy by Yim Tse, rather than in print characters, all the words printed in white on pages of light-grey paper: “Bare branches / claw at the sky / crooked fingers / scribble / on the moon-mirror / a poem to night” (front matter page). This reappears as the last poem in the collection (p. 156) but with its Chinese translation (p. 157) printed in characters reading the modern way, horizontally from left to right, as in English printing.
The book contains fifty-six poems, of which six poems and their translations are graced by the calligraphy of Yim Tse beneath the print version. Tse’s calligraphy also appears on the cover design. Of course, the calligraphy reads in the traditional way vertically down the page and moving from right to left. The calligraphy below the modern print seems like moon beams or reflections of moonlight, just as translation itself is a reflected image of the original text. The beauty of this book as a physical object is peculiarly appropriate to its cross-cultural presence and to the imagined presence of the moon itself.
Many of these imagistic verses were published also in Bullock’s earlier Avatars of the Moon. His introduction states very clearly what the moon is and does, so far as the poet is concerned. A great deal of it is compressed into “The Moon is a Mirror”: “The moon is a mirror / reflecting the face of the sky / its mysterious clouds / the night birds flying from nowhere to nowhere / catching the glint of stars / A mirror / polished by the hand of the wind” (p. 24). Two of the items, “Two Moons” (p.36) and “Clear Mirror” (p. 60), are terse prose poems. The method is for clear, simple language throughout, its only punctuation in linear verses being the end-of-line pause. The style is full of images and events, in a world where everything is alive and everything is capable of becoming something else. Such metamorphoses are a constant in Bullock’s surrealist works. Culturally specific references in this book are rare. Only minimal explanatory notes are needed. In this aspect the book becomes transcultural, at once Canadian and not Canadian, Chinese and not Chinese. It inhabits a space like the bilingual space of a translator contemplating human experience as if placed in universal moonlight.
The beauty of some of the lines may suddenly appear and then vanish, as if a wizard with an almost off-hand manner is at work, or a cloud passes across the face of the moon. Most are in free verse lines of varying syllable counts. Rhyme appears seldom, and then is used discreetly, as in “Blue Mirror,” (p.64) for structure is maintained more by the use of stanzas. Although the poems might be considered to be more about nature than about human beings, we should not forget that Bullock uses nature as a realm symbolic of human emotion. Nor should we forget “Mirror Moon” which “reflects all the dreams of the world / Great eye peering / deep into human hearts” (p. 94).
Perhaps the poem most overtly tied to human relationships is “Waiting for the Moon” written for Susannah. In it the romantic evocation of dusk is offset by the ordinariness of kitchen utensils, intensifying the mood: “evening wraps its cloak around us / pots and pans glint in the last glimmer of light /…we exchange words like flowers/ as we wait for the moon / to bless us with its light” (p. 150). The poem is very much a blessing. It shows, without preaching, the human need for love and companionship. Although human and animal violence is depicted in the surreal aggression of the poem in prose, “Two Moons,” where a frightened moon is swallowed by the “death’s head jaws” of a second moon (p.36), there is no hatred in the book. Bullock’s work does not, like some overtly political writing, deal in pet hates or murderous hatred; he has instead a profound regret for the sadness of life. In an age when millions of lives have been sacrificed to political and religious fanaticisms that claim new victims with every news cast, it is a relief to find a poetry that refuses to express hatred. This is not to say that there is no anguish in these poems. Yet the great virtue of this poetry is its intimacy with external nature and human nature in its many moods, always finding out its beauty in elegant and unexpected ways: “A white rose glows / like a mirrored moon” (p. 108).
The beauty of the original and of the calligraphy (I expect that the translators too have rendered the poem into a Chinese equally lovely) is strikingly presented on the parallel verso and recto pages in “Breast Moon”:
Breast moon peeping
from dark-blue silk
the white milk of its light
over the sleeping world
The calligraphy, as much a picture as are other kinds of painting, streams down from the harder print like milky moonlight full of energy.
Michael Bullock’s introduction and foreword to the translation is characteristically clear, factual, and helpful for readers, letting us know how the book came about. The translators Kai Loh Leung and Jenny Tse with the very talented team who designed and produced the book deserve our respect and applause for creating a book that is like a showcase of refined beauty for many bright gemstone poems.
I’m grateful that I have it to read and re-read. The poet’s voice lives in this book and it lives in beauty, a beauty that travels across from one culture to another and remains authentic.
The next recent book with the moon as an anchoring image in the majority of its poems is Satish Verma’s Hundred Moons.[xvi] It seems a to be an “antithetical” Indian mask of Bullock’s surrealism, because it uses surreal juxtapositions of imagery and idea to produce visions of suffering, culturally specific yet applicable across cultures, that are shadowed by politics and the horrors of terrorist violence. This mature poet’s work often recalls Baudelaire’s irony and recognition of evil:
What do you think
a redemption of a clone will work
in the galaxy of stars?
The hope was drying and violence
refuses to decline in the valley of flowers.
Orphaned moon climbs up the hill
to preside over the murmuring truths.
Nothing seems to work
for the liberation of long night
and the winds put off the lantern’s light
which was standing on the shore.
A black widow crawls on my chest
for a certain drenching by a sucked heart.
Still I stare at the black eyes
for a washed up death.
with previous revolutionary movements, in Maoist China there came the decision
to start again, to wash one’s hands of all the past culture that stood in the
way of the Maoist ideology. The cultural revolution was launched. The peasant
in his village was to be a model teacher, not those educated in the great
universities. This was an attempt to destroy education seen as a system
producing the cosmopolitan, the intercultural and the cultivated individual. Ma
Jisen and Leung Laifong have recently provided startling contexts for the “scar
literature” that has been published since the cultural revolution. Ma was
working in the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of
What became abundantly clear in the twentieth century’s wars of empires and ideologies and in the current power struggles, supposedly justified by religion and politics, is that, however reluctantly, we are all implicated one with another. It is also clear that increasingly intercultural and transcultural writers and their publications will grow in abundance. This is because global trade, politics, science, technology, and advanced education have created growing numbers of international people who can feel comfortable in different cultures. In this sense they can be seen as transcultural. The university communities world-wide resemble a club of varyingly cultivated people whose common pursuit is the acquisition and transmission of knowledge. It is this dedication to research and knowledge that distinguishes “the academic club” from those of the politicians seeking re-election at all costs, or businesses seeking profits at all costs. Yet these different clubs need each other. International business leaders and the very wealthy who move between luxurious milieux in a variety of countries may also sometimes be transcultural but are in any case loyal to their individual interests, whatever other loyalties they may have. They also depend in many ways on knowledge and research. These are stronger forces than retrogressive groups who have not yet learned that failure to adapt to a changing world leads to extinction.
this has been said, we must recognize that one cannot be equally loyal to any number of different cultures and languages. When
the chips are down loyalty to Shakespeare as a dramatist and poet, to Mozart as
a musician, to Turgenev or Proust as novelists, to The Tale of Genji or to Peking Opera, or European Penaissance art
or Romanticism, or to Mark Twain or William Faulkner, or to Frank Lloyd Wright,
or Beethoven, or Ibsen, does not prevent world war. As conditions slide into
conflict, cultures become conflictual. When conditions become extreme, to which
country and culture is one loyal before all others? The recent referenda in Europe
have shown that a majority of people may go along with a transcultural Europe
as long as it strengthens their own interests and fills their own pockets but
[i] This is the unsharpened part of a sword’s blade next to the hilt.
[ii] I am deliberately referring to the collection of essays presented to Professor Rüdiger Ahrens on his sixtieth birthday.
[iii] See K. Stierstorfer and M. Gomille [eds.], Cultures of Translation ((Newcastle-upon-Tyne:
[iv] See Florence Ribstein (Ed.), Treize nouvelles Liaisons dangereuses (Perros-Guirec, France : Editions Anagrammes, 2009).
[v] Contributors to and prospective readers of this volume must be reminded of Heinz Antor and Kevin Cope (editors), Intercultural Encounters –Studies in English Literatures. Essays Presented to Rūdiger Ahrens on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday (Heidelberg: G. Winter, 1999).
[vi] See as a landmark text T.C. Lai’s Ch’I Pai Shih (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1985; 1st printing 1973, 2nd printing 1982).
[vii] This journal also has a very useful series of paperback books. See for example, Chen Zhongyi (ed.) with translations by Eva Hung et al., Selected Poems by Shu Ting. An Authorized Collection, (Hong Kong: Research Centre for Translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1994).
[viii] See as fascinating examples, his Global Change and the Commonwealth (Hong
Kong: Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong Press, 1996) and New Challenges for Development and Modernization: Hong Kong and the
Asia Pacific Region in the New Millennium (
[ix] Some general works of great interest to literary scholars and applied linguists too are Kwok-Kan Tam, Wimal Dissanayake and Terry Siu-Han Yip (eds.), Sights of Contstation: Localism, Globalism and Cultural Production in Asia and the Pacific (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2002), Kwok-kan Tam and Timothy Weiss (eds.), English and Globalization: Perspectives from Hong Kong and Mainland China (Hong Kong: Chine University Press,2004) , and Kwok-kan Tam (ed.), Englishization in Asia: Language and Cultural Issues (Hong Kong: The Open University of Hong Kong, 2009.
[x] See Gilbert C. F. Fong, The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian ( Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1999).
[xi] See Kwok-kan Tam (ed.) Soul of Chaos: Critical Perspectives on Gao Xingjian (Hong Kong:
[xii] For a uniquely Chinese yet international celebration of Professor Kao’s work, see The CUHK Newsletter (No. 345) 19 October, 2009 and the website, www.cuhk.edu.hk/cpr/charleskao/.
[xiii] The fullest critical study is Jack Stewart’s The Incandescent Word: The poetic Vision of Michael Bullock (London, Ontario: Third Eye, 1990). See also for a large selection of Bullock’s poetic and prose work, Peter Loeffler and Jack Stewart, eds. Michael Bullock, Selected Works (London Ontario: Third Eye, 1998).
Bullock [translation by Kai Loh Leung and Jenny Tse], Moons and Mirrors (
Andrew Parkin and Laurence Wong,
Satish Verma, Hundred Moons on my palm (
[xvii] Ma Jisen, The
Cultural Revolution in the Foreign Ministry of China (Hong Kong:
[xviii] See Tong Xiaoxi’s review in The China Review , Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), p. 167.
[xix] See Laifong Leung, Morning Sun: Interviews with Chinese Writers of the Lost Generation (New York and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1994), p. xvii.
[xx] For a personal account of how such a scholar
survived prison and hard labour camp, see Wu Ningkun and Li Yikai , A Single Tear: A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist
[xxi] John Donne, Devotions, XVII.
About the author:
Andrew T.L. Parkin, M.A. (
Brief c.v. and biographical note
Since his retirement from his
post as Chair Professor of English Literature at the
Further information is available by Googling: andrewparkin.wix.com/author
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