Thurify yourself

One of the things we have read for the May Fourth class I am teaching is Liang Qichao’s On the Relationship between Fiction and the Government of the People (論小說與羣治的關係)1  It is a good reading if you want to explain to students why May 4thers cared so much about literature, and also why everyone should care about literature.

As a good Confucian Liang of course sees no need to explain that literature can have a transformative effect on someone’s mind and morals, or that this can be connected to the stability of the state. Claiming that fiction (rather than, say, poetry) can do this will take more proving for his audience.

He claims that people enjoy fiction, of course, and it is easy to get them to read it. Besides being enjoyable, it lets us experience things outside our own lives.

..human nature is such that it is often discontented with the world. The world with which we are in physical contact is spatially limited. Thus, apart from direct physical or perceptual contact with reality, we also often desire to touch and perceive things indirectly; this is the life beyond one’s life, the world beyond one’s world. This sort of vision is inherent in both the sharp and the dullwitted. And nothing can transcend the power of fiction in molding the human into more intelligent or duller beings.  Thus, fiction often leads us to a different world and transforms the atmosphere with which we are in constant contact.

It was through fiction that the May Fourthers met Nora Helmer, and Young Werther and it is nice to have Liang make this point for me. Fiction goes beyond this to have various powers to transform the individual.

The first power is called thurification. It is like entering a cloud of smoke and being thurified by it, or like touching ink or vermillion and being tinted by it. As mentioned in the Lanikavatara Sutra, the transformation of deluded knowledge to relative consciousness and of relative consciousness to absolute knowledge relies on this kind of power. When reading a novel, one’s perception, thinking, and sensitivity are unconsciously affected and conditioned by it. Gradually, changing day by day, it makes its effect felt. And although the effect is momentary, alternating interruptions and continuations, over the course of a long period of time the world of the novel enters the mind of the reader and takes root there like a seedling with a special quality. Later, this seedling, being daily thurified by further contact with fiction, will become more vigorous, and its influence will in turn spread to others and to the entire world. This is the cause of the cyclical transformation of all living and non-living things in the world. Thus, fiction reigns supreme because of its power to influence the masses.

My students did not know what thurification () meant, so I had to explain it.2 This point fits in with a lot of stuff on the impact exposure to fiction  has on one’s world-view, a point that goes back, for me, to Orwell’s Boy’s Weeklies. The stuff you read creates your world-view in ways that you are not always consciously aware of. Thus if you read lots of British Boys Weeklies of the 1930’s you soak up a lot of old imperialist attitudes without realizing it.3  If you were a regular reader of the satirical and irreverent Mad Magazine of the late 70’s then…..Obviously the May 4th crowd wanted to transform the people, and reforming fiction was able to transform not only the masses, but non-living things as well!

While fiction can transform you without you knowing it, it can also do so more consciously.

The second power is known as immersion. Whereas thurification is spatial and hence its effect is proportional to the space in which it acts, immersion is temporal, and its effect varies according to the length of time it operates. Immersion refers to the process in which a reader is so engrossed in a novel that it causes him to assimilate himself with its content. When one reads a novel, very often one is unable to free oneself from its effect even long after having finished reading it. For instance, feelings of love and grief remain in the minds of those who have finished reading The Dream of the Red Chamber, and feelings of joy and anger in those who have finished reading The Water Margin. Why is it so? It is because of the power of immersion. It follows that if two works are equally appealing, the one that is longer and deals with more facts will have the greater power to influence the reader. This is just like drinking wine. If one drinks for ten days, one will remain drunk for a hundred days. It was precisely because of this power of immersion that the Buddha expounded on the voluminous Avatamsaka Sutra after he had risen from under the Bodhi Tree.

I have not yet experimented with drinking for ten days and seeing if it keeps me drunk for 100. Perhaps the undergrads can try that one. I have, however, lived in novels and been influenced by them. So have my students. They are selling IUP Quiddich t-shirts at the bookstore, I assume because some of our students wish they were going to to Hogwarts instead of here. Nor has fiction done for me what the Bodhi Tree did for Gautama, and transformed me into the God of Gods, Unsurpassed doctor or surgeon, or Conqueror of beasts, although I suppose I could lay some claim to Teacher, if not Teacher of the World.  So the idea that one’s reading turns one into a new person makes sense to us as well, and is in fact the foundation of Liberal Education.

Of course in some respects Liang is not a modern Liberal.  While he does not quite call for banning books he is not one of those (like almost all American teachers) who sees reading as either good or a waste of time, but certainly not something that could hurt you. There is a long tradition of condemnations of bad literature in China, and Liang is part of it

Nowadays our people are frivolous and immoral. They indulge in, and are obsessed with, sensual pleasures. Caught up in their emotions, they
sing and weep over the spring flowers and the autumn moon, frittering away their youthful and lively spirits. Young men between fifteen and thirty
years of age concern themselves only with overwhelming emotions of love, sorrow, or sickness. They are amply endowed with romantic sentiment
but lack heroic spirit. In some extreme cases, they even engage in immoral acts and so poison the entire society. This is all because of fiction. ……One or two books by frivolous scholars and marketplace merchants4 are more than enough to destroy our entire society. The more fiction is discounted by elegant gentlemen as not worth mentioning, the more fully it w ill be controlled by frivolous scholars and marketplace merchants. As the nature and position of fiction in society are comparable to the air and food and indispensable to life, frivolous scholars and marketplace  merchants in fact possess the power to control the entire nation! Alas! If this situation is allowed to continue, there is no question that the future of our nation is doomed! Therefore, the reformation of the government of the people must begin with a revolution in fiction, and the renovation of the people must begin with the renovation of fiction.

If you want a clear analysis of the role of literature in human society, some Buddhist references, a denunciation of pop culture that might come from Big Hollywood, with a bit of the Great Learning at the end Liang Qichao is your man.


  1. published in 1902. Translation by Gek Nai Cheng from Denton, Kirk, ed. Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 1996. 

  2. Google is your friend. 

  3. For instance, simplistic and outdated stereotypes. From Orwell ” In papers of this kind it occasionally happens that when the setting of a story is in a foreign country some attempt is made to describe the natives as individual human beings, but as a rule it is assumed that foreigners of any one race are all alike and will conform more or less exactly to the following patterns:….

    Spaniard, Mexican, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.

    Arab, Afghan, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.

    Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail. 

  4. 華士坊賈 I might translate that as ‘alleyway merchants’ or something like that 

1 Comment

  1. “My students did not know what thurification (熏) meant, so I had to explain it.2”

    A “thurible” is a piece of liturgical equipment for burning incense. It is also called a censor. It is a metla cup with a lid with holes in it to let the smoke escape, hanging on three chains that come up to a handle. You hold it with both hands, one at the handle, one further down on the chains, and you swing it and the smoke wafts around. The “thurifer” is the acolyte/altar server who caries it. You “cense” the altar, the congregation, whatever, by swining the thurible back and forth, there times, I guess, but “thurification” sounds like a better term.

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