Huiwen (Helen) Zhang


Professor, Chinese and Comparative Literature


Research groups


Educated at Peking, Friedrich-Alexander, and Yale universities, Huiwen Helen Zhang (Professor of Chinese & Comparative Literature) examines cross-cultural phenomena through “transreading,” a method she developed in publications such as Kulturtransfer über Epochen und Kontinente (Gruyter 2012), “An Ethics of Transreading” (Educational Theory 2014), “Lu Xun contra Georg Brandes: Resisting the Temptation of World Literature” (EU-topías 2017), “Mu Dan’s Poetry as a History of Modern China” (Oxford 2018), “Transreading ‘Wish, to Become Indian’ in Light of Kafka’s Dao” (Orbis 2021), “American Students Decipher a Modern Chinese Classic” (Routledge 2022), “Hauge’s Cathay” (CLEAR 2022), “War and Chinese Culture” (Cambridge 2023), “Translation, Transreading & Transceiving” (Nanjing University Press 2023), “Olav H. Hauge in Dialogue with Laozi and Eckhart” (Migrating Minds 2023), and “Richard Wilhelm and Alfred Döblin Transread the Chinese Tradition” (Asian Studies 2024). Zhang continues to transread pivotal moments in cross-cultural history in her current book projects: Transreading: A Common Language for Cultural Critique, Kafka’s Dao: The Patience Game, and Nordic Modes of Transreading.


Educated at Peking University, Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, and Yale, Huiwen (Helen) Zhang defines herself as a transreader—a lento reader, poetic translator, creative writer, and cultural critic in one. Transreading is an interdisciplinary method that she has developed to explore how history, literature, philosophy, and art generate and reshape one another.

Professor Zhang utilizes transreading throughout her work. Her first book with De Gruyter, Kulturtransfer über Epochen und Kontinente (2012), explores how Feng Zhi transformed a gory legend of revenge from 400 BCE into a lyrical allegory of the 1940s wartime generation’s search for home. Her online publication with Oxford, “Mu Dan’s Poetry as a History of Modern China” (2018), illustrates poetry as a source for historical studies.

Professor Zhang’s open-access article in Orbis Litterarum, “A perfect bliss-potential realized: Transreading ‘Wish, to Become Indian’ in light of Kafka’s Dao” (2021), reveals how, through creative writing, Kafka not only penetrates esoteric Daoist classics, but also furthers their spirit in a way that transcends Richard Wilhelm, the pioneer European Sinologist. Her latest article in Migrating Minds with Routledge, “Transreading across Cultures: American Students Decipher a Modern Chinese Classic” (2021), exhibits both the scholarly and pedagogical value of transreading, proving it an effective approach to developing cultural cosmopolitanism.

Professor Zhang’s second book with Gruyter, Transreading: A Common Language for Cultural Critique (under contract), engages those whom she terms “transreaders of modernity”: Lu Xun in Chinese; Kierkegaard, Ibsen, and Strindberg in Scandinavian languages; and Nietzsche, Döblin, and Kollwitz in German. It uses transreading to reconstruct a transcontinental dialogue that illuminates common responses to modernity which prompt us to ponder the nature of and the solutions to the problems of our time. As the first panoramic portrayal of the modern breakthrough in three ethnolinguistic circles, it will build bridges between cultures for scholars and the general public alike by demonstrating how cross-cultural dialogue helps diverse cultures better understand one another.

Professor Zhang’s third book, Kafka’s Dao: The Patience Game, challenges the reader to decipher one of the most astonishing cross-cultural enigmas: how, through transreading, Kafka transplants the seed of Dao and nurtures it in a European mind. Distinct from the approaches of his contemporaries, Kafka’s Dao is a patience game with words and thoughts maneuvered like marbles. Not only does his voice echo ancient Chinese philosophers, but he also delivers their messages in an uncompromising way that informs and inspires.


Created and taught over thirty courses in comparative literature, philosophy, religion, history, politics, cinema, popular culture, social media, creative writing, and journalism:

1.    Modernity and Its Discontents: Scandinavia—Germany—Japan—China [Spring 2020, Spring 2019, Spring 2018, Spring 2017, Fall 2015, Fall 2014]
2.    Transreading for Creative Writing [Fall 2020]
3.    Tradition and Revolution [Fall 2020, Fall 2017]
4.    Critical Thinking and Language Innovation [Spring 2020, Spring 2018]
5.    Critique via Social Media [Spring 2020, Spring 2017]
6.    Modern Europe Transreads China: Alternative Solutions for 20th-Century Issues [Fall 2019]
7.    Contemplative Cinema [Fall 2019, Spring 2016]
8.    Kafka and Daoist Philosophy [Summer 2019]
9.    Poet—Warrior—Philosopher [Spring 2019]
10.    Critique via Popular Music [Spring 2019]
11.    Transreading across Genres [Fall 2018]
12.    Anatomy of “Breaking News” [Fall 2018]
13.    Voicing Sentiments [Spring 2018]
14.    Transreading Literature as History [Fall 2017]
15.    Philosophy in Literature [Spring 2017]
16.    Transreading Prose Poetry [Spring 2016]
17.    Cross-cultural Microblogging [Fall 2015, Spring 2015]
18.    Modern Poetry and Prose [Fall 2015, Spring 2015, Fall 2014]
19.    Untimely Meditations: A Chinese Perspective [Spring 2014]
20.    Global Cinema: The Chinese Contribution [Spring 2014]
21.    The Dilemma of Modernity: Kierkegaard to Kafka [Fall 2013]
22.    Concealment and Revelation: Transreading Lu Xun [Spring 2013]
23.    The Wanderer in Hong Kong Cinema [Fall 2012]
24.    Modernization and Its Discontents: China—Germany—Scandinavia [Fall 2012]
25.    Chinese Microblogging [Fall 2014, Fall 2013, Spring 2012]
26.    Authentic Beauty: Chinese Perspectives (1979-present) [Spring 2012]
27.    Modernization and Its Discontents: Lu Xun—Nietzsche—Georg Brandes [Fall 2011]
28.    Act it out—Chinese through Theatre [Fall 2011] 
29.    Authentic Beauty: Chinese Perspectives (1917-1978) [Fall 2013, Fall 2012, Fall 2011]
30.    The Treasure of Sorrow: China’s Lost Generation [Spring 2011]
31.    Blessed in Translation [Spring 2011] 
32.    Four Faces of the Wanderer: An Exploration of Modern Chinese Literature [Fall 2010]
33.    Nietzsche’s Superman and Daoist Philosophy [Spring 2009]

Academic article
Academic chapter/article/Conference paper
Academic lecture

See a complete overview of publications in Cristin.

Siste publikasjoner:

Richard Wilhelm and Alfred Döblin Transread the Chinese Tradition

Transreading in the Nordic Mode: Olav H. Hauge in Dialogue with Laozi and Eckhart

War and Chinese Culture

Upon the Eagle-Mound: Hauge’s Cathay

Transreading “Wish, to Become Indian” in light of Kafka’s Dao

Transreading across Cultures: American Students Decipher a Modern Chinese Classic

Applying Transreading in Teaching Literaturphilosophie: Laozi, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Olav H. Hauge


Siste presentasjoner:

«Å se» Hauges gestalt med Laozi, Heraklit, Blake, Emerson, Whitehead og Kafka: Filosofi ved poesi, fra paradokser til aforismer (Bergen, april 2024)

Å knekke ‘en hard nøtt’: Kafkas og Hauges translesing av Laozi (Bergen, des 2023)

Reach for the Highest: Transreading Laozi and Eckhart through Olav H. Hauge (Aarhus, oct 2023)

Sidan har ingen spurt etter ferskenblomekjelda? Olav H. Hauge transleser T’ao Ch’ien (Haugesenteret Ulvik, sep 2023)

A German-Jewish Outsider: Alfred Döblin Transreads Laozi, Liezi & Confucius, European Association for Chinese Philosophy Conference “Interpretation and Reinvention” (Macerata, jun 2023)

Kafka’s Dao: The Patience Game, University of Chicago Center in Paris Symposium, “Translation and the Irreducible Plurality of Languages” (Paris, april 2023)

Slik talte de norske taoistene Olav H. Hauge og Jan Erik Vold: Amund Børdahl og Jørgen Sejersted i samtale med Helen Zhang om filosofi og poesi (Bergen, jan 2023)

Transreading the Limits of Knowledge: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Hannover keynote, nov 2022)

Olav H. Hauge transleser Laozi: Gammel kinesisk litteraturfilosofi i moderne norsk poesi (Bergen, nov 2022)

Transreading Chinese Literature as World Literature (Bergen paneldebatt, mai 2022)

Dao—‘the strongest ferment for the newer European literature’ (Bergen paneldeatt, nov 2021)




1. Book project “Kafka’s Dao” and digital project “Kafka’s Zürau Collection”

My sabbatical in the Spring of 2024 will be dedicated to the completion of my book (print), “Kafka’s Dao: The Patience Game,” and the development of my parallel project (digital), “Kafka’s Zürau Collection and Associated Reflections.”

Both Kafka’s interest in China and his Zürau aphorism collection have been extensively researched. However, even the finest works in the field miss a crucial point: how Kafka’s fascination with Laozi led to his Zürau collection—a modern German continuation of the Daodejing. My two projects focus on this point. Using the transreading method and paying particular attention to the far-reaching dialogues between ancient China and modern Europe, my projects will illuminate the promise of “Dao for modernity.”

“Kafka’s Dao: The Patience Game” is divided into 4 chapters: “Kafka’s Riddles,” “Kafka’s China,” “Patience Game,” and “Kafka’s Dao.” I concentrate on Kafka’s Zürau collection, which is comprised of 109 numbered aphorism cards. The modularity of this collection makes each card not only ideal to be mingled with other corresponding cards, but also with Kafka’s parables, journals, and letters. Drawing materials from the innovative Stroemfeld edition of Kafka’s handwritten manuscripts, I have completed 60% of the book.

“Kafka’s Zürau Collection and Associated Reflections,” is related to, yet independent of, “Kafka’s Dao.” They are related, because my own translation of the Zürau collection is being produced to lay the foundation for “Kafka’s Dao.” The digital project stands alone because it bridges a gap: the published translations of the Zürau collection do not adequately consider the Europe/China dialogue on modernity that influenced its creation. A fully interfaced digital edition will allow illuminating images of Kafka’s handwriting; multilingual audio readings of his aphorisms; and intensive annotations for the reader to explore. Four interlocutors have collaborated with me to develop this project as an integral part of the “Digital Transreading” series that I envisioned in 2020. We use several real-time collaborative editing systems to stimulate individual contributions from multiple remote participants and to accelerate our joint scholarly endeavors through discussion, debate, and mutual constructive critique.   

2. Book Project: “Nordic Modes of Transreading”

Norway, my new intellectual home since 2021, has exposed me to unexpected cross-cultural phenomena. I have been inspired to enrich my established transreading theory with a new research project, “Nordic Modes of Transreading.”

The 20th-century literary environment was dominated in many ways by American, German, and French circles. Poets in the most visible international spheres revolutionized their art by transreading ancient Chinese literature, using it as a novel lens to investigate their own cultural contexts.

Sitting outside of the dominant spheres, Scandinavians looked both outwards and inwards by necessity. Nordic thinkers and poets took the opportunity to integrate the Chinese classics and the modern Euro-American milieu to enrich their unique cultural base, stacking the lenses of modern Western thought and ancient Eastern wisdom atop one another to throw Nordic tradition into enigmatic and energizing focus.

Olav H. Hauge, for example, on the one hand transread the Chinese philosophical and poetic canon through the lens of Baudelaire, Pound, and Celan, and, on the other hand transread Euro-American modernism through the lens of Laozi, Li Po, and Tao Qian.

This Nordic mode of transreading—of incorporating prominent global work, ancient and modern, alongside local touchstones like the Edda—is further exemplified by Vilhelm Ekelund, Erik Blomberg, Gunnar Ekelöf, Paal Brekke, and Georg Johannesen.

Having discovered these novel and complex transreading connections, I will explore why they came to be, what their effects were, and how these reasons and consequences reveal more nuanced facets about Nordic cultural production.

3. Book project: “Transreading: A Common Language for Cultural Critique”

This research project grew out of the urgent need for productive cross-cultural dialogue. A paradox of our time is that even though technological and economic ties pull China and Europe ever closer, culturally the two seem to be drifting apart. As encounters become more frequent, anxiety heightens. The simultaneous overconfidence and self-doubt of a culture and its perception of others as incomprehensible or incompatible are but two symptoms. These circumstances demand a new approach to bridge-building between cultures. My drive toward synthesis and my ability to work across disciplines enable me to craft new intellectual frameworks. Utilizing my language skills in classical Chinese, modern Chinese, German, and English, and benefiting from my scholarly network in Scandinavia, I will focus on three representative ethnolinguistic areas: Lu Xun in Chinese; Søren Kierkegaard, Georg Brandes, and August Strindberg in Scandinavian languages; and Friedrich Nietzsche, Käthe Kollwitz, and Franz Kafka in German. By thematizing the global dialogue on modernity, walking unexplored paths to contextualize its central participants, and communicating the findings via traditional and new media to scholars and the general public, I will demonstrate how authentic and intensive cross-cultural dialogue helps diverse cultures better understand one another as well as themselves.

The manifold pressures of modernity—mechanisation, corporatisation, and dehumanisation—drove creative minds across geographically disparate cultures to a string of common responses. Together, these responses are characteristic of Europe and China’s dialogue on modernity. The problems they detected have by no means been resolved: the participants in this dialogue are voices speaking to the present. Examining how they wrestled with 19th- and 20th-century issues reveals how we might overcome the challenges of our own age.

My project aims to use “transreading”—an integration of lento reading, poetic translation, cultural hermeneutics, and creative writing—to reconstruct a transcontinental dialogue on modernity. Lento or slow-close reading sharpens our focus on linguistic and argumentative nuances that might otherwise be overlooked; poetic translation compels us to consider both the content of a message and the delivery that reinforces it; cultural hermeneutics grounds individual works in a panoramic context, providing the foil with which the author converses; creative writing hones our skills in condensing all of these considerations for a new audience. The synergy of these activities is essential to understanding the participants in Europe and China’s dialogue on modernity, whose works are foundational yet often cryptic. The examination of macro-scale phenomena through micro-level transreading characterizes my research and lends this project broadness, exactness, and originality.

By achieving my objective to thematise the global dialogue on modernity, my project will produce the first panoramic portrayal of the new cultural breakthrough in three ethnolinguistic areas and advance the understanding of individual thinkers by contextualizing them in a fresh landscape. It will bridge the gaps between Chinese, German, and Scandinavian studies and create new perspectives for future research.

By achieving my objective to illustrate transreading, my project will provide an innovative tool for a variety of scholarly and pedagogical applications. It will show how the principles of transreading can be distilled from the methods employed by the participants in Europe and China’s dialogue on modernity, spanning literature, philosophy, and art. It will also demonstrate how transreading benefits scholars, educators, and students alike by combining proven techniques that enable critique with deeper understanding.

Both the thematic and methodological originality of my project is relevant and timely. A paradox of our time is that even though technological and economic ties pull China and Europe ever closer, culturally the two seem to be drifting apart. As encounters become more frequent, anxiety grows. The simultaneous overconfidence and self-doubt of a culture and its perception of others as incomprehensible or incompatible are but two symptoms. These circumstances demand a new approach to bridge-building between cultures. By transreading the global dialogue on modernity, I will demonstrate how authentic and intensive cross-cultural dialogue helps diverse cultures better understand one another as well as themselves. My project will provide readers—in academia and beyond—deeper insights that will facilitate more productive intellectual exchanges.