Professor Andrew F. Jones: "If you take literature seriously enough, you will find that it's a material force that changes the world"

Prof. Jones as a visiting scholar in Beijing, China
October 31, 2023

This is an interview with Andrew F. Jones, Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, who also holds the Louis B. Agassiz Chair in Chinese, he is also the Head Graduate Advisor. Bold questions posed by Ann Chen. 

What sparked your interest in Chinese literature, and music?

There were always books around me as I was growing up, and my parents were always reading, so reading was an early and natural passion for me. I think I knew from early on that whatever I ended up doing would have something to do with literature, arts, or the humanities in general.

As for China in particular: as a boy, I got interested in world history, and came across books about the Chinese revolution, especially a book called Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow. I was interested in that grand, epic story about social justice and power struggle. After that, in my first year of high school, I applied for a summer exchange program in China, which was pretty early in China's reform process and when I was only 13. I'm grateful to my mother for letting me be so independent and making that trip. China in the 80s was quite different from what we now see: it was still a profoundly different life-world from northern California, where I grew up. I made Chinese friends that summer, and decided to learn Chinese so that I could speak to them in their own language.  When I came back to the US, I studied Chinese on my own —Chinese classes still weren't offered in most high schools – and read more about Chinese history and literature. That's how my passion for this field started. When I went to Harvard College, I decided to major in East Asian Languages & Civilizations and went on to study Chinese and Japanese literature.

In 1988, I received a scholarship to study at Peking University, where I spent most of my time reading the classic novel The Story of the Stone. Apart from reading literature, I also witnessed an exciting time in Chinese cinema and music, as the post-Mao cultural and political renaissance reached its apogee in 1988. I watched the pioneering Chinese rock musician Cui Jian's first big public concert, and got involved with the rock & roll scene in Beijing. Every Saturday there were new film screenings at Peking University's lecture hall. Every week I’d go to a movie and wonder: "What new breakthrough will take place this week? What new cultural expressions will emerge, and what new tapes of pop music can I find in the market at Zhongguancun just outside the university?" That exciting year culminated with the tragedy of the Tian'anmen student movement. 

I've always related to the world through literature and music, and I like learning about culture and history through sound. I thus got very interested in this new sound world of 1989 in Beijing. One year after I left Peking University in the wake of Tian'anmen Incident, I got an undergraduate research grant to go back to China and conduct research about Chinese rock music. That research project became my first book, Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music.

Are you still doing research in Chinese politics, or rather in the "pure land" of literature?

I don't think there's actually a "pure land" of literature. If you take literature seriously enough, you will find that it's a material force that changes the world, transforms people's minds, and even shapes reality. Of course, literature has its own craft and distinctive forms, and the intricacy of literary language matters a great deal. What would be left of The Story of the Stone if it was just a newspaper report about a young aristocrat leaving home to become a monk? But literature doesn't come from nowhere. Although I don’t want to politicize literature in a blunt way, it's inevitably part of history, politics, and how we live in the world. Of course, literature can transcend its historical moment, and the formal beauty of literature has power in itself.  In reading, you can exercise historical imagination, try on different cultural perspectives, or even read in a decontextualized way, if you like. Yet you can't read as deeply in the complete absence of history either.

What makes you pursue this higher education, to become a researcher, literature professor, and writer? Any challenges in this process?

For me, it was probably inevitable. Why wouldn't I want to spend my life doing the things I find most valuable? What an honor it is to read and understand the traces of themselves that humans have left behind, and to share these beautiful forms with others, and especially with students…what more could I want? Of course, people often feel pressured to find a job that brings more money or social esteem. But I was honest with myself and chose the path most appealing to me. I did try journalism as a graduate student, since I like writing and investigating the world, but I realized that it wouldn’t work for me. In my experience, editors and magazines often wanted to shape your narrative to fit the preconceptions of readers, while in scholarship, I found more intellectual independence and depth of inquiry.

Stereotypically, literary critics are accused of being writers who couldn't write well enough; and that might be true for me too. I realized early on that I probably couldn't write fiction. But that doesn’t mean that critics don't exercise creativity in scholarship or scholarship itself can’t be a genre of writing. Jorge-Luis Borges, for instance, likes to walk the borderline between fiction and expository writing: he had the temperament of a researcher, and a philosophical bent, an unfettered imagination, and a respect for form. His work is intricately and tightly crafted while being short — not easy. Some of my favorite writers live in the borderland between prose essays and fiction: writers like Lu Xun, W.G. Sebald, Eileen Chang, to name just a few.

I also look for some narrative pleasure as I write scholarly books, by crafting chapters focused around a particular character, or making sure that motifs recur across the length of a book. The process of fiction-writing can be transformative for the writer, and so is academic writing: after writing pages of an argument we might reach a different conclusion from what we originally expected. If you open up yourself and are sensitive enough to the texts you're reading, a kind of permeability between different genres becomes possible.

How do you view interdisciplinarity in your field?

Interdisciplinarity is increasingly significant and it's also quite hard to achieve. I’m fortunate to have been trained in literature, as it’s important to learn one discipline really well – that’s the foundation for any further interdisciplinary work. I’ve written a lot about music, but I’m not trained in musicology, or even conversant with musical notation. I had to figure out how to write about music in a more informed way as I went along. I think the fact that I’m well-grounded in one discipline (Chinese literature) really helped me. Interdisciplinarity does offer the promise of flexibility and variety. I can spend some time on a literary project and switch back to the visual or musical side.

In my projects, these disciplines often work in combination: for example, my book Developmental Fairy Tales talks about many things at the same time – it’s about the “evolutionary thinking” that was pervasive and powerful in modern China; it’s about children’s literature; meanwhile, I made the argument that Chinese modern literature was, in some sense, pedagogical, a lesson in how to be modern that adapted evolutionary science to narrative form. So the book combines readings in literary form, natural history, and the history of science, and works with various materials from children’s textbooks to films. That's because the question it asks is actually a large one, and to tackle that question, one needs to dive into different archives and disciplines.

Sometimes trying to understand an object or text will send you into new, unexpected regions. My latest book, Circuit Listening, talks about Chinese music culture in the 1960s. There was a briefly popular genre, the “Quotation Songs,” in Maoist China, which set Chairman Mao's quotations from the “Little Red Book” to music. At first these songs sounded strange to me: hard and high-pitched and very short and repetitive. Why did they sound that way? Because form follows function: they were broadcast over a wired broadcasting system that encompassed nearly a hundred million speakers across China! So I realized that I needed to understand the technology underlying that music, and to learn some of the basics of electrical engineering, circuit design, and the like. The book became a re-education program for me as well. This was a perfect illustration of the necessity of interdisciplinarity, since it turns out you can't understand the aesthetics of recorded music without understanding the art and science of recording technology. That why I called the book Circuit Listening: in the physical sense, it's about the importance of transistor circuit in producing and disseminating music in the 1960s; it could also refer to the repetitive structure in many “Quotation Songs” and in propaganda songs; metaphorically, it speaks to the notion of a linguistic circuit or socio-political circuit, like that of Mainland China, which was quite self-enclosed in those years: a closed circuit. Yet at the same time in the Chinese-speaking world of the 1960s beyond the People's Republic, in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong, there also existed completely different and separate circuits of musical preference and taste, reliant on the same transistor technology but resulting in a completely disparate music. It was only in the 1980s that these circuits converged again with the huge popularity of the Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng in China and the availability of cassette tapes in China.

As for music, I listen to all kinds of music though my main field of study is in popular and folk music. As a child, I was quite sensitive to music; my father immigrated to the US from Jamaica, so I listened to Jamaican records a lot, which was formative for me in all sorts of ways. Learning a culture and studying history via music seemed like a natural methodology for me. I am also a devoted listener to jazz, and I wrote about the fusion of jazz and local sounds that yielded China's first modern popular music culture in the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s in a book called Yellow Music

I also think of translation as an outlet for scholarly creativity. It’s important for my field to make Chinese texts accessible to English readers as a practical matter, but it's also a creative process, maybe something like acting - acting with a script but also creating your own version or voice for the character/ writer you are bringing into English. This is related to the eternal yet not-quite-productive argument about creativity versus fidelity in translation. Of course, people take different stands on that spectrum, from absolute fidelity to “non-fidelity”; yet fundamentalism doesn’t make that much sense to me, in that a translation can be literally correct yet miss the spirit or tone of the original language. I wouldn’t consider a blunt, flat-footed yet “faithful” translation of Eileen Chang – one of the most stylish Chinese writers - as truly faithful to the spirit of her writing.  

Has there been challenges in your academic life or in deciding to study humanities?

I’ve been blessed to have been able to choose my own path with the support of my family and friends. The initial challenge for me was in teaching, as I was a bit shy and introverted, at least when I was still in graduate school or starting out as an assistant professor. Teaching is challenging in that it requires a high state of alertness, attention, an openness and ability to respond quickly and accurately to other people, and also the physical stamina necessary to project one’s voice and bring energy into a room. I tend to get a sore throat the first week of teaching from having to re-learn how to speak loud enough! Over the years, teaching and speaking to students every day has transformed me. Learning to communicate well, and to listen to others, and open up my interests to them: that’s been a joyful process and I love being in the classroom.

What advice would you give to undergraduates who are interested in humanities but not sure about their path?

I always say to my graduate and undergraduate students: things get better when your life-decisions are not merely instrumental. By “not merely instrumental,” I mean not using something or someone to get somewhere. Do things for love not for ‘likes,’ for the craft, for learning in and of itself, for the human connections the process can afford you. That’s what ultimately fulfills us, and may incidentally also opens up all sorts of career opportunities and possibilities that you had not previously imagined. 

I would urge everyone to explore more, and to learn the underlying skills that help you to do well in various endeavors. Learn how to communicate, how to write, how to read the world — in the broadest sense of the word — so that you can understand the nuance and beauty of a literary or musical text, but also the nuance and beauty of rituals you might learn about in an anthropology or history class, or even the rituals you engage in every day with your family, friends and community. The humanities are a path through which you can develop a deeper apprehension of the world around you, whether through formal study of a text, or by learning to see the world itself as a beautiful and infinitely intricate text, not merely as something you can use instrumentally, but as an end in itself.

It’s also important to learn to extend the domain of empathy, and push outward at the boundaries of the self, so that you can, invoking the American poet Walt Whitman, “contain multitudes.” Reading and understanding other people and other times beyond our own, with care, humility, and in-depth, will allow you to become more than merely "you."

Speaking of language, how many languages do you speak?

Honestly, in one sense – only English! That's the one language I unselfconsciously inhabit. In an immersive language environment, I use Chinese easily and naturally and obviously I read and work extensively with Chinese texts; I have some familiarity with Japanese; I can read some French and Portuguese. And recently, I’ve been systematically studying a language that I grew up hearing all around me, but never fully understood: Jamaican patois.

Learning new languages might be instrumental in the sense of being useful, but it’s also a form of self-cultivation. Learning Chinese, I adapted to a new mindset, different modes of behavior and forms of kinship and friendship. Language includes gestures as well: sociologists talk about how our language, position, and profession shape our “habitus” – our unique mode of being, how we dress, hold ourselves, gesture, and speak. We are all exquisitely sensitive detectors of habitus. And so, in studying other languages and cultures, we can not only expand our perceptual range, but also our palette of possibilities for being in the world as human beings.