Chinese writer’s interpretation of ‘Lolita’ sparks debate in China

By Wang Qi Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/2 17:23:39

 Promotional material for the film Lolita (1997) Photo: IC

A woman reads the Chinese version of Lolita Photo: Tao Mingyang/GT

Even a genius like Vladimir Nabokov probably never imagined his masterpiece Lolita would ignite heated debate and controversy outside the US 63 years after its publication.

Regarded as one of the greatest English novels in literature history, the Russian-born US novelist's Lolita, however, has continued to be at the center of public debate as story is intricately tied to the themes of incest and pedophilia.

One of the latest debates surrounding the novel occurred in the last week of 2018 after well-known Chinese writer Jiang Fangzhou suggested on her weekly podcast on audio platform Dragonfly FM that Lolita is essentially a moral story and Nabokov wants readers to see how a pedophile defends himself.

The Chinese version of the book was published in the Chinese mainland in the late 1980s.

Jiang's suggestion quickly became the center of its own controversy, which later sparked a discussion concerning the nature of morality in literature on Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo.

Moral lens

According to Jiang, 90 percent of the book's readers failed to pass the writer's test, which was to make people see the main character Humbert's guilt and sin instead of coming to understand or even sympathize with him.

"Nearly all the professional critics and educated readers in the world have failed," she asserted. "They have accepted Humbert's defense and let him off the hook," Jiang said confidently.

"Nabokov didn't write Lolita to make us understand a pedophile or to understand the dark side of human nature."

Instead, Jiang said that the writer wants readers to tread carefully when navigating this abnormal man's story since he is the one who is narrating the story.

Jiang's interpretation was praised by her supporters, whose comments mainly stuck to a discussion of the plot.

"When villains have a perfectly logical system of their own and impose it on their victims, the courage of the character Lolita becomes precious," netizen HI-Viviani commented in a Weibo post that was typical of many of Jiang's supporters.

In another post, netizen Boring Tuzi Lisa said that they found Jiang's words "extremely inspiring," and that "people will blur the line between good and evil when chasing aesthetics and unique works."

It wasn't long before the voice of dissent rose.

Netizen Zei Guoyi stated that Jiang was over-stressing the need for a moral lesson in writing as well as looking down on "the art of literature."

Even official media outlets became involved in the debate.

In an editorial, the Beijing News intensely criticized Jiang's interpretation as "narrow and thin." The editorial said that Jiang was focusing too much on the educational aspects of literature and art and that claiming Lolita was actually a lesson on morality was an affront to literature discourse.

Professional opinion

As the debate of art versus morality raged on, literary scholars began to give their opinion. While most scholars acknowledged that looking at Lolita from a moral angle may be one way to interpret the work, some suggested that Jiang's interpretation was narrow, naïve and superficial.

"The relationship between aesthetics and morality in Lolita has multiple dimensions. However, Jiang's interpretation has missed the mark by a far margin when it comes to Nabokov's literary wisdom. What's more, such an interpretation is boring," Dan Hansong, an English literature professor at Nanjing University, posted on Sina Weibo.

In an interview with Chinese online short news platform Pear Video, Professor Liang Yongan from Fudan University said that examining works through a moral lens is the simplest form of literary interpretation and also the easiest way to have one's interpretation understood and accepted by the public. However, he personally is not a supporter of this type of interpretation. 

Liang noted that of more importance is the fact that Nabokov started writing in English after he immigrated to the US. For this reason, he always felt a gap between his native language Russian and English, the language of the novel. The writer's relationship to these two languages can be seen in the novel as Humbert represents the Russian language and Lolita, the character Humbert is obsessed with, represents English, so there is "a kind fascination, anxiety and strong antagonism between the two characters."

Not all scholars abhor Jiang's interpretation. In an interview with the Global Times, Ma Hongqi, a professor at Nankai University and an expert on Nabokov's works, noted that the condemnation of evil, which is represented by Humbert in Lolita, is actually one of the very important themes in Nabokov's novels.

Concerning the broader argument about the correct way to interpret a work of literature, Ma noted he believes that it is arrogant and rude to severely criticize different ideas since the interpretation of literature is a highly subjective process that involves a distinctive personal style on behalf of the critic, and it is this ability to be interpreted in different ways that is the true beauty of literature.

Generally speaking, a majority of netizens and scholars have noted that this type of online public outburst and debate concerning a work of literature was overall positive and significant.

"We need this kind of discussion and collision of ideas. By exchanging ideas and speaking frankly after carefully reading and thinking about a work, netizens can make progress collectively," netizen Zhizi Zhizi posted on Sina Weibo.

Newspaper headline: The moral of the story


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