Whenever I tell people that I traveled to Duke Kunshan University to teach a course about Henry David Thoreau and China, I often receive a bemused look and a response that goes something like this: “Thoreau seems so quintessentially American. How could you possibly relate him to China, let alone energize twenty-first-century Chinese students to study him?”
Although Thoreau never physically traveled beyond North America, he often sauntered intellectually across the Celestial Empire. He admired, for instance, the practicality of Confucian philosophy. In an 1856 letter, he writes how Confucius “is full of wisdom applied to human relations,—to the private life,—the family,—government, etc.” This admiration was so strong that Thoreau helped introduce Chinese thought to America, selecting passages from Chinese literature for the “Ethnical Scriptures” section of The Dial, the major magazine of American Transcendentalism.
Indeed, some scholars even argue that Chinese thought provided Thoreau justification for his two-year experiment living along the shores of Walden Pond. In one of his translations, Thoreau recounts how a Confucian disciple named Tian answers the question: What would you do if you became famous? Tian says that he would travel to the river Y, bathe in its waters, breathe the fresh air of the woods, and return home. Thoreau ends this story by inserting himself into the narrative: “For the most part I too am of the opinion of Tian.” The beginning of Walden frames Thoreau’s life using a similar trajectory: He lived in the woods near a body of water before returning as “a sojourner in civilized life again.”
Walden intricately resonates with Chinese history. The year 1949 marks both the Chinese Revolution and a literary milestone: the publication in Shanghai of the first Chinese translation of Walden. Thoreau’s words seemed familiar to my students, often leading them to compare him to Chinese poets both ancient and modern. This resonance led the writer Lin Yutang to argue in 1937: “Thoreau is the most Chinese of all American authors in his entire view of life, and being a Chinese, I feel much akin to him in spirit.”
The country’s discovery of Thoreau coincides nicely with the rise of lyrical prose (sanwen), a genre that gives voice to personal experience and emotional inflection. Although lyrical prose had been around for centuries in China, it only became the preeminent genre with the help of the 1917 Vernacular Writing Movement. Imagine growing up in China during the first half of the twentieth century and realizing that this laowai—this foreigner—from another continent and a previous century, is no foreigner at all, but decidedly familiar, resonating with the voices of your country’s great writers.
In class, whenever we came across a Confucian quotation in Walden, students would excitedly provide the original Chinese words before sharing their own English translations, pointing out, in the process, any faults in Thoreau’s rendering. They often didn’t agree with Thoreau’s version, which makes sense because Thoreau was translating from a French text, meaning his own English translations were two steps removed from the original Chinese. During these translation moments, my students learned what it means to have a voice in the classroom. They often told me that, thus far, their Chinese education had taught them only to be silent in the classroom. It felt as if Thoreau was enkindling in them a new sense of agency and freedom of thought, sharing his keen sense of critique, while radically changing their academic mode of being.
The most compelling way to connect my students with Walden was to bring them to Walden Pond. The summer before I left for China, I traveled to Concord, Massachusetts, making a daily trek to the shores of Walden Pond, taking a series of videos replicating the objects and movements-through-space Thoreau describes in his book. I created a digital field-trip course website in which the text of Walden is provided with hyperlinks to videos illustrating the areas, objects, and phenomena Thoreau references.
Nothing enlivens students’ sense of the living author more than transporting them—even digitally—to the place where Henry David Thoreau was fully alive. By the end of the course, students had created their own videos called Walden Pond in Kunshan, using passages from Thoreau’s book to describe the Chinese landscape, and leaving us—as a learning community—with the opposite question to the one I so often get from others: How could you possibly not relate Thoreau to China? Such a connection between Thoreau and China began in the nineteenth century, with Thoreau helping to introduce Chinese thought to America; by 1949, Chinese readers were experiencing Thoreau’s Walden in its entirety; and now, in the twenty-first-century classroom at Duke Kunshan University, students are revising Thoreau’s words to express their own relation to the land and their country.
Morgan specializes in nineteenth-century American literature as an English Ph.D. candidate at Duke. He’s also the editorial assistant for American Literature journal and taught a course earlier this summer, “The Great American Short Story.”