For most of its history the field of comparative literature as practiced in much of the world has focused largely on certain privileged European literatures.  In recent years, there has been a blossoming of interest in Western-language writings not only from previously marginalized European literatures but also from former European colonies in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, Oceania, and South and Southeast Asia.  Yet even today, scholars working on non-Western-language literatures – the creative texts of billions of people with thousands of years of literary heritage – remain a disproportionate minority in most comparative literature departments.[1]  Most notably, although Asian peoples make up more than half of the world’s population, departments of comparative literature generally have no more than one or two members with expertise in East or South Asian languages; very few departments include anyone with even a basic understanding of a Central or Southeast Asian language, despite the fact that Central and Southeast Asia together have nearly the population of Europe.[2]  

Moreover, intra-European comparative scholarship, indeed even intra-Western European comparative scholarship, is rarely if ever thought of as “area studies.” In contrast, despite the fact that East and South Asia both have twice the population of Europe and longer and more diverse cultural histories, intra-East Asian and intra-South Asian, even intra-Asian scholarship is frequently dismissed as “area studies.” The same holds true for scholarship on Central and Southeast Asian literatures, notwithstanding the plethora of languages involved.  In addition, when they have been studied in a comparative context, non-Western-language literatures, as well as Western-language literatures from outside Western power centers, have mainly been examined in terms of their connections with literatures from Western power centers, either as inspirations/appropriations or as exhibiting similarities/differences.  And often, Europe remains the standard for comparison. But Europe is as much an “area” as are other sections of the Eurasian landmass; it makes as much sense to call Europe a separate continent as it would to call the Indian peninsula one continent with the remainder of Eurasia – from Korea to Portugal – another (Lewis and Wigen, 36).[3]     

As its name suggests, world literature – a branch of comparative literature once associated primarily with an established canon of mostly Western classical masterpieces – has embraced literatures written in non-Western languages more readily than has the broader field of comparative literature.  In “What is World-Literature?” (1886), the opening section of his discussion of world literature, the early Irish comparatist Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett demonstrates real openness to a broad spectrum of the world’s literatures (50).  More than a century after Posnett, David Damrosch, in his own What is World Literature?, expresses similar flexibility:

I take world literature to encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin either in translation or in their original language . . . a work only has an effective life as world literature whenever, and wherever, it is actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture (4, 281).

In theory, Posnett’s and Damrosch’s responses to the question “What is World Literature?” include not only texts that circulate among European and North American nations or between these and other cultures but also those inaccessible to readers unfamiliar with non-Western languages.   

Yet in practice, literary networks within and among non-Western regions, especially contacts of the last few centuries, receive much less notice than those where Europe and North America figure prominently, most frequently as a source (e.g., Chinese engaging with European aesthetics), but also as a destination (e.g., Europeans engaging with Chinese aesthetics).  As Kan Wang has observed, “[Because] the hierarchy privileging Western language literature has become increasingly solidified . . . [Chinese and other non-Western writers] cannot enter into the ranks of ‘universal writers’ without recognition from the West” (571).  Similarly, to quote Stephen Owen, “For a young Korean poet to be translated into Tagalog and acclaimed in Manila is, no doubt, a matter of satisfaction; but it has less cachet than to be translated into English or French and invited to New York or Paris.  It is unfair but it is a fact” (533).  Likewise, although an Asian-language text that has been translated into other Asian languages but not into any Western languages would generally not be spoken of as world literature, a European-language text that has circulated widely in Europe but not been translated into a non-European language would even today likely be regarded as world literature.[4]  As Owen asserts, these are facts.  Yet we must be careful to use them to expose rather than to perpetuate inequities.  

By working more assiduously to unearth the multiple, multi-directional, forever mutable, and frequently precarious textual pathways that have crisscrossed the globe across time, the field of comparative literature will be able not only to deconstruct cultural assumptions and hierarchies more effectively, including the absolute authority and precedence of conventional European and North American power centers, but also to create more pluralistic understandings of literatures, cultures, nations, regions, and even continents. So doing – moving more closely to region neutrality, where cultural contacts among Western spaces or between Western and non-Western sites are no longer privileged above those that involve Western power centers only secondarily if at all – provides clearer perceptions of interactions among peoples and cultures the world over, whether shunning, embracing, or far more frequently rigorously negotiating with one another in their attempt to make better sense of human experience.    

Focus on relationships among peoples and cultural spaces within the so-called Global South has uncovered many pathways of knowing and relating among Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, parts of Oceania, and much of Asia, as well as marginalized Western communities; Western power centers are not disregarded, but neither are they prioritized.[5]  Instead, this field of inquiry brings to light the complex, multitextured, and frequently nuanced and ambiguous connections among peoples and cultures globally, revealing Europe in many cases as one space among many.  Yet to date, most academic writing on literature and the Global South has highlighted relationships among Western-language creative production.[6]  Although such scholarship – which reads creative work within, across, and against formal, national, regional, and continental boundaries (Ramazani, 304) – aptly dismantles many conventional groupings, it remains relatively confined linguistically. And, by excluding interactions among close cultural neighbors (e.g., China and Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, Israel and other nations of the Levant) because of disparities in average income, life expectancy, and education of these nations (determinates of the United Nations Human Development Index on which the North-South division is largely based), academic writing on literature of the Global South paradoxically duplicates some of the same lacunae of more conventional comparative scholarship.       

Closely related to transnational studies of the Global South, yet breaking linguistic barriers more radically and illuminating a number of heretofore excluded cultural contact spaces, is scholarship on circulation of texts in local, national, and for the most part non-Western languages within and among non-Western regions, including East, Central, South, and Southeast Asia.[7] Intra-Asian comparative work dispels common and primarily Western misperceptions of the Asian continent as either a space of excess, extravagance, and near chaos, one where commonalities are so general as to be insignificant, or as a space of near unchanging uniformity, an undifferentiated, even exotic immobile other (cf. Wigen, 37).[8]  Even more important, intra-Asian comparative scholarship pushes comparative literature closer to region neutrality and provides greater impetus to radically restructure the field.  And, equally vital, it offers new understandings of the dynamics of literary networks themselves, including those that have accompanied major cultural shifts in world history (e.g., the spread of Islam to South and Southeast Asia) as well as those whose attributes create or reinforce, diverge from or even clash with official discourse and power imbalances such as significant economic, political, military, and social hierarchies (e.g., transculturation in early twentieth-century East Asia among imperial Japan, semicolonial China, and colonial Korea and Taiwan).[9]  To go one step further, focusing on the relationship between networks of Asian literatures and such regional and global challenges as atrocity, disease, environmental degradation, poverty, and war not only deepens understandings of globally renowned Asian writers, it also brings to light many texts, writers, and literary dynamics that have been relatively overlooked by Western power centers.  Additionally, it gives new perspectives on transnational issues, contributes significantly to the medical and environmental humanities, and guides the humanities writ large to engage more directly with a broader array of matters of global concern.      

Extant comparative and world literature scholarship, as well as that on national literatures, provide important foundations for these types of studies.  So too do secondary sources in a number of other fields, particularly world/global history, with its attention to empire, trade, demography, economics, religion, cultural production, disease/health, slavery, and environmental degradation among cultures and geographic regions.  But as might be expected, intra-Asian comparative scholarship – as with examinations of any number of other understudied literary networks, relies heavily on intensive scrutiny of primary sources and vernacular archives in multiple sites. Hardly neutral ground, and often replete with lacunae, archives nevertheless offer some of the field’s best hopes of unearthing the many creative trajectories that have been buried over the decades, allowing comparative literature to diverge significantly, even radically, from conventional pathways. The digital humanities are certain to help with this endeavor, including excavating some of the countless materials that have not traveled and elucidating numerous barriers to motion. Indeed, just as important to recognizing what has circulated and examining how and why particular texts crisscross nations, regions, and the globe is knowing what has not, and understanding, at least in part, why this has been the case.

An illustrative example is the Korean writer Yi Ch’ǒngjun’s novel Your Paradise (Tangsindǔl ǔi ch’ŏnguk, 당신들의 천국, 1976) on the Sorokdo (Korea) leprosarium, one of many East Asian texts that have circulated in the region and beyond; the novel has been translated into English, French, Japanese, Spanish, and Urdu. Although focusing in large part on the abuse and absolute segregation of Hansen’s disease patients, Your Paradise concludes with the marriage of an individual with Hansen’s disease to one without, an event celebrated as bringing together the island’s two communities.  As a former director of Sorokdo declares, “This longstanding embankment road [둑길] now is connected and the road [길] has opened up.  And your neighbors will unite their strength [힘을 합하다] and will protect/keep watch over [지키다] and broaden this road” (438).  The English translation additionally has the neighbors “traveling freely” across the newly opened road as well as “buttressing” it, describing more explicitly precisely how this space will be both used and safeguarded (511).[10]     The same perhaps can be said of scholarship, the concluding lines of Your Paradise helping us to reimagine the potentials of comparative literature. 

 Broadening, unearthing, and even creating pathways among what have been or at least have been taken to be relatively discreet linguistic/cultural entities, comparative literature scholarship – particularly when going global, in every sense of the word – can give us a much better sense of how diverse societies both within Asia and around the world have interacted with one another and with any number of pressing global concerns.  This understanding is crucial if we are to address these problems more effectively.  The “buttressing” to which the former director of Sorokdo refers at the conclusion of Your Paradise is anything but ossifying; pathways are safeguarded not against change – not against more deeply interconnecting people, places, and cultural products – but instead to facilitate motion and thereby to decrease response time not only to difficulties in particular disciplines including the alleged crisis in the humanities, but also to those facing humanity as well as the nonhuman world more broadly.  


Works Cited

Lewis, Martin W. and Kären Wigen. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

March, Andrew. The Idea of China. New York: Praeger, 1974.

Owen, Stephen. “Stepping Forward and Back: Issues and Possibilities for ‘World’ Poetry,” Modern Philology 100:4 (May 2003), 532-548.

Ramazani, Jahan. “Poetry, Modernity, and Globalization,” in Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Literary Modernisms.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 288-309.

Ricci, Ronit. Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Tiwari, Bhavya. “Comparative Literature: Three Case Studies from the Global South.” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin, 2013

Thornber, Karen Laura. Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Thornber, Karen Laura. “Reimagining (Global) World Literature – Health, Paradise, and Betrayal in Korean, English, and Urdu,” in Diana Sorensen, ed., Geographic Imaginaries for the Twenty-first Century (2015).

Wang, Kang. “North America, English Translation, and Contemporary Chinese Literature,” Frontiers of Literary Studies in China 6:4 (December 2012), 570-81.

Yi Ch’ongjǔn. Anatatachi no tengoku. Tokyo: Misuzu Shobō, 2010. Trans. Kyō Nobuko.

Yi Ch’ongjǔn. Āp kī jannat.  Lahore, Mashal Books.  Trans. Masud Ashar.  

Yi Ch’ongjǔn. Ce Paradis qui est le vȏtre. Paris: Actes Sud, 1993. Trans. Ch’oe Yun and Patrick Maurus.

Yi Ch’ongjǔn. Paraíso Cercado. Madrid: Trotta, 2003. Trans. Hye-Sun Ko and Francisco Carranza Romero.

Yi Ch’ongjǔn. Tangsindǔl ǔi ch’ǒn’guk. Seoul: Munhak kwa Chisǒngsa, 2012.

Yi Ch’ongjǔn. Your Paradise. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005. Trans. Jennifer M. Lee and Timothy R. Tangherlini.



[1] To be sure, a number of European languages are also not well represented in departments of comparative literature, but the training of most scholars of these literatures overlaps significantly with that of scholars of the more dominant Western European literatures.  Bringing on board scholars of the former (e.g., scholars with expertise in Dutch, Swedish, Ukrainian, etc.) is important, but far less urgent than is including those with expertise in non-European languages (e.g., scholars of Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese, Swahili, etc.), whose training has given them access to a vastly different canon.

[2]  Europe’s population is approximately 740 million (about half that of China), compared with Southeast Asia’s 610 million and Central Asia’s 48 million.  Understandings of Central Asia have varied greatly, but the region is often seen as including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, and at times Mongolia and parts of Iran, Pakistan, and China.  India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal are said to comprise South Asia, sometimes together with Iran and Iraq, at least for the premodern period. Southeast Asia includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Viet Nam; East Asia includes Mongolia, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. The Association for Asian Studies (AAS, est. 1941), the world’s largest and most prestigious professional organization of its kind, has since 1970 featured four area councils: China and Inner Asia (from Afghanistan to Mongolia), Northeast Asia (Japan, North Korea, South Korea), South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

[3] Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen also argue that viewing Europe and Asia as belonging to a single continent would be more accurate geographically, but it also would undermine European claims of distinctiveness, and ultimately superiority.

[4] The same is true of course of indigenous African-language texts circulating in Africa; texts would likely need to be translated into a major European language to be considered part of world literature.

[5] Asian nations belonging not to the Global South but instead to the so-called Global North are Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan from East Asia; and Singapore from Southeast Asia.  Israel is the one Middle Eastern nation not included as part of the Global South, although a number of other countries in the Middle East enjoy great wealth. Australia and New Zealand are part of the Global North.  Also generally excluded from the Global South are China’s Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Mainland China’s own position between South and North varies.   

[6] There are exceptions.  See, for instance, Tiwari’s “Comparative Literature,” which examines interconnections among Hindi, Bengali, and hispanophone Latin American literatures.  But the far more dominant trend, as embodied in such active fields as anglophone, francophone, lusophone, hispanophone, and sinophone studies, is to focus on the literatures of a single language as manifested globally.

[7] There are a number of additional possibilities, including work on circulation of texts between Latin America and East Asia, comparison of environmental writing from Ireland and India, dialogue among HIV/AIDS narratives in Swahili, Chinese, and Japanese, etc.

[8] March elaborates on this paradox.  Europe is far from a homogeneous entity, but differences among European cultures have tended to be less significant than those among Asian counterparts: the major Asian languages are not nearly as cognate as the Romance and Germanic languages of Europe; the spoken languages of China alone are more diverse than the spoken Latinate languages of Europe. Moreover, with their multiplicity of cultural systems (including religion), many regions of Asia, not to mention the continent itself, have nothing like the commonality of European counterparts.  It goes without saying that removing misconceptions of Asia helps scholars reconceptualize European engagement with the continent.

[9] For two pertinent examples see Ricci and Thornber (2009).

[10] For more on the circulation of this text in Asia and beyond see Thornber (2015).