Chinese Poetic Modernisms 9004402896, 9789004402898

This volume explores Chinese poetic modernism from its origins in the 1920s through 21st century manifestations. Moderni

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Chinese Poetic Modernisms
 9004402896, 9789004402898

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Chinese Poetic Modernisms

Sinica Leidensia Edited by Barend J. ter Haar Maghiel van Crevel

In co-operation with P. K. Bol, D. R. Knechtges, E. S. Rawski, W. L. Idema, and H. T. Zurndorfer

volume 143

The titles published in this series are listed at

Chinese Poetic Modernisms Edited by

Paul Manfredi Christopher Lupke


Cover image: “To Bacon” ੁษṩ㠤ᮜ by Lü De’an ੅ᗧᆹ Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Manfredi, Paul, editor. | Lupke, Christopher, 1959– editor. Title: Chinese poetic modernisms / edited by Paul Manfredi, Christopher Lupke. Description: Leiden ; Boston : Brill, [2019] | Series: Sinica Leidensia,  ISSN 0169-9563 ; volume 143 | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifijiers: LCCN 2019012583 (print) | LCCN 2019018908 (ebook) |  ISBN 9789004402898 (E-book) | ISBN 9789004402881 (hardback : alk. paper) Subjects: LCSH: Chinese poetry—20th century—History and criticism. |  Chinese poetry—21st century—History and criticism. | Modernism  (Literature)—China. Classifijication: LCC PL2332 (ebook) | LCC PL2332 .C49 2019 (print) |  DDC 895.11/509—dc23 LC record available at

Typeface for the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic scripts: “Brill”. See and download: issn 0169-9563 isbn 978-90-04-40288-1 (hardback) isbn 978-90-04-40289-8 (e-book) Copyright 2019 by Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands. Koninklijke Brill NV incorporates the imprints Brill, Brill Hes & De Graaf, Brill Nijhofff, Brill Rodopi, Brill Sense, Hotei Publishing, mentis Verlag, Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh and Wilhelm Fink Verlag. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, translated, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher. Authorization to photocopy items for internal or personal use is granted by Koninklijke Brill NV provided that the appropriate fees are paid directly to The Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Suite 910, Danvers, MA 01923, USA. Fees are subject to change. This book is printed on acid-free paper and produced in a sustainable manner.

Contents List of Figures vii Contributors viii Introduction 1 Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke

part 1 Toward an Origin of Chinese Poetic Modernisms 1

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets 21 Lan Dizhi 㬍ἓѻ, translated by Paul Manfredi


From Du Fu to Rilke and Back: Feng Zhi’s Modernist Aesthetics and Poetic Practice 38 Géraldine Fiss


Drama-tic Synthesis: Time, Memory, and History in the Writings of the Nine Leaves Poets 57 Yanhong Zhu


The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism 82 Dian Li

part 2 Modernist Poetry from Taiwan 5

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan 107 Michelle Yeh


Yu Guangzhong’s Modernist Spirit: from In Time of Cold War to Tug of War with Eternity 132 Chen Fangming 䲣㣣᰾, translated by Thomas Moran

vi 7


Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal 153 Ruan Meihui 䱞㖾ᜐ, translated by Yvonne Jia-Raye Yo and Paul Manfredi

part 3 Bridging Borders in Contemporary Poetry 8

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao 181 Nikky Lin


National Myth and Global Aesthetics: Reading Yeats alongside Chinese Poetic Modernism 209 Christopher Lupke


Measure Words Not for Measure: a Linguistic Experiment in Modern Chinese Poetry 235 Lisa Lai-ming Wong

part 4 Reconceptualizations of Poetry in the Post-Mao Era 11

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention: the Case of Chinese Poetry Readings 261 Nick Admussen


Modernist Waves: Yang Lian, John Cayley, and the Location of Global Modernism in the Digital Age 283 Jacob Edmond


Annotating the Aporias of History: the “International Style,” Chinese Modernism, and World Literature in Xi Chuan’s Poetry 304 Lucas Klein


Modernist Literati: Abstract Art of Contemporary Chinese Poets 336 Paul Manfredi Bibliography 365 Index 396

Figures 7.1 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 13.8 13.9 13.10 13.11 13.12 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 14.7

14.8 14.9

Picture of Water Bufffalo ≤⢋െ. 175 IBM Building, 330 N. Wabash, Chicago, IL; photo: Paul Klein. 309 860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL; photo: Paul Klein. 310 S. R. Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL; photo: Paul Klein. 311 The demolition of Pruitt Igoe; photo: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Wikipedia Commons. 312 The Sony Building, New York; photo: David Shankbone. Wikipedia Commons. 313 Harold Washington Library, Chicago, IL; photo: Paul Klein. 314 The McCormick Tribune Campus Center, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL; photo: Paul Klein. 314 Beijing West Railway Station (Beijing xi kezhan ेӜ㾯ᇒㄉ), Beijing; photo: Lucas Klein. 315 CCTV Tower, Beijing; photo: Yeti Hunter. Wikipedia Commons. 316 National Center for the Performing Arts, Beijing; photo: Hui Lan. Wikipedia Commons. 317 Beijing National Stadium, Beijing; photo: Lao Huanggua. Wikipedia Commons. 317 Sanlitun, Beijing; photo: Lucas Klein. 318 “Cen,” Qian Dian. 340 “Han,” Wu Kuan. 340 “Thatched.” Photograph by Lü De’an. In Maowu wei xifeng suopo; Courtesy of Lü De’an. 346 “Abstract Landscape 1” (“Chouxiang shanshui” ᣭ䊑ኡ≤1), 170cm × 132cm, acrylic, 2007. In Lü De’an, Langmande luocha, 43; Courtesy of Lü De’an. 348 “To Bacon” (“Xiang Peigun zhijing” ੁษṩ㠤ᮜ), 148cm × 131cm, 2012. In Wang Jiaxin and Sun Lei, Huying de hai, 73; Courtesy of Lü De’an. 351 “Buddha Eyes” (“Foyan” ֋⵬), 50cm × 50cm. In Xu Demin, Xu Demin zuopin, 125; Courtesy of Xu Demin. 357 “Bug: Ink Experiement” (“Chong: shuimo shiyan” 㲛≤໘ᇎ傼), ink on paper, 68cm × 68cm. In Xu Demin, Xu Demin zuopin, 155; Courtesy of Xu Demin. 358 “Untitled” (“Wuti” ᰐ仈), Yang Xiaobin; Image provided by Yang in e-mail correspondence, 12 June 2015. 362 “Untitled” (“Wuti” ᰐ仈), c. 2008, Yang Xiaobin. In Yang Xiaobin, Zongji yu tumo, 11; Courtesy of Yang Xiaobin. 363

Contributors Nick Admussen (Ph.D. Princeton University) is an Assistant Professor of Chinese literature and culture at Cornell University. His fijirst book is titled Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016), analyzes modern Chinese prose poetry. He edited a special issue on Lu Xun’s Yecao for The Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese. His translation of Floral Mutter, poems by Ya Shi (forthcoming from Zephyr Press), was supported by a PEN/ Heim Translation Fund Grant. Chen Fangming 䲣㣣᰾ (Ph.D. University of Washington) lived for many years in the United States in virtual exile, following the 1979 Gaoxiong Incident. Instrumental in the founding of the graduate program in Taiwan literature at National Chengchi University, Chen is a prolifijic author of scholarship on Taiwan literature, assorted essays in historical topics such as the 1947 February 28 Incident, and political critique on Presidents Li Denghui, Chen Shuibian, and others. Jacob Edmond (Ph.D. University of Auckland) is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012) and Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019). His contribution updates an essay fijirst published in Parallax 20.3 (2014). Géraldine Fiss (Ph.D. Harvard University) teaches modern Chinese literature and fijilm at the University of Southern California. She is fijinishing a book that traces encounters between Chinese intellectuals and German ideas, texts, and thought in the early twentieth century. Her research focuses on transcultural practice, especially Chinese-German literary and poetic encounters. She also works on Chinese women’s fijiction and fijilm, and on East Asian ecocriticism. Lucas Klein (Ph.D. Yale University) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong in the School of Chinese. His articles have appeared in PMLA, Chinese



Literature, Essays, Articles, and Reviews (CLEAR), Comparative Literature Studies, and elsewhere. His book-length translation of the poetry of Xi Chuan, recipient of the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize, was published by New Directions in 2012. He also has translated the work of Mang Ke, the Tang poet Li Shangyin, and others. His monograph The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (2018) was published by Brill, and his translations of the poetry of Duo Duo, which recently won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, is forthcoming from Yale University Press. Lan Dizhi 㬍ἓѻ (M.A. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) is Professor Emeritus of Chinese literature at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he taught for several decades. He served as editor of Wenxue pinglun ᮷ᆖ䇴䇪 (Literary review) and other prestigious journals for many years. Among the many books he has published is Xiandai wenxue jingdian: Zhenghoushi fenxi ⧠ԓ᮷ᆖ㓿ި ⯷‫ى‬ᔿ ࠶᷀ (Classic works of modern literature: An analysis of the disease; Qinghua University Press, 1998). Dian Li (Ph.D. University of Michigan) is Associate Professor of Chinese in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona. In addition to his English-language monograph The Chinese Poetry of Bei Dao, 1978–2000: Resistance and Exile (Edwin Mellen, 2006) and the Chinese-language work Ye luo bugui: Zhongguo xiandai wenxue de lisan zhuti ਦ㩭нᖂ ѝഭ⧠ԓ᮷ᆖ Ⲵ⿫ᮓѫ仈 (Leaves of no return: The theme of diaspora in modern Chinese literature; Sichuan University Press, 2014), he has published articles in such journals as Asian Cinema, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Positions: Asia Critique, and Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese. Nikky Lin (Ph.D. National Cheng Kung University) is a Professor in the Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages, and Literature at the National Taiwan Normal University. She previously was a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in the Netherlands. Her areas of research and teaching are modern Taiwanese poetry and literature under Japanese rule. She is the author of Fu’ermosha shizhe: Lin Hengtai ⾿⡮᪙⋉䂙ଢ ᷇Ә⌠ (Philosophical poet of Formosa: Lin Hengtai; INK Publishing, 2007) and articles in the journals Chung-wai Literary Monthly, Journal of Taiwan Literary Studies, and others.



Christopher Lupke (Ph.D. Cornell University) is Professor of Chinese cultural studies and chair of the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Alberta. Most recenty, he has published The Sinophone Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien: Culture, Style, Voice, and Motion (Cambria Press, 2016) and is engaged in a book-length project on the notion of fijiliality in modern and contemporary China. His articles have appeared in boundary 2, Comparative Literary Studies, Journal of Asian Studies, and other venues. His translations of the poems of Xiao Kaiyu have been published in Michigan Quarterly, Five Points, Free Verse, Epiphany, Eleven Eleven, and other literary journals. Thomas Moran (Ph.D. Cornell University) is the John D. Berninghausen Professor of Chinese at Middlebury College, where he has taught for twenty-fijive years. Moran served as editor or coeditor of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Chinese Fiction Writers, 1900–1949 (Thomas Gale) and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Chinese Fiction Writers, 1950–2000 (Gale Cengage), as well as numerous scholarly articles and translations, particularly of ecoliterature such as Wei An’s environmental nonfijiction prose. Paul Manfredi (Ph.D. Indiana University) is Professor of Chinese and Chair of the Chinese Studies Program at Pacifijic Lutheran University. His book Modern Poetry in China: A Visual-Verbal Dynamic (Cambria, 2014) bridges literary and visual art studies in the context of twentieth- and twenty-fijirst-century China. He has published articles on Chinese poetry and visual art in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, the Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, as well as poetry translations in Manoa and Free Verse, among other literary journals. Ruan Meihui 䱞㖾ភ (Ph.D. National Cheng Kung University) is an Associate Professor of Chinese and Chair of the Department of Chinese at Tunghai University in Taizhong, Taiwan. An authority on postwar Chinese poetry from Taiwan, Ruan is the recipient of the Wu Yongfu Prize in Literary Criticism (2009) and author of many works on Taiwanese poetry and the history of literature in Taiwan. Lisa Lai-ming Wong (Ph.D. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) retired from her professorship at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and is now an



independent scholar. Her book, Rays of the Searching Sun: The Transcultural Poetics of Yang Mu (Peter Lang, 2009), investigates the complicated cultural forces that have informed the work of one of the most important postwar poets writing in Chinese. She is the translator of Yang Mu’s book of poetics, The Completion of a Poem: Letters to Young Poets (Brill, 2017). She also has published articles in Modern China, New Literary History, and the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, among other scholarly journals. Michelle Yeh (Ph.D. University of Southern California) is Distinguished Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Davis. Her publications include Modern Chinese Poetry: Theory and Practice since 1917 (Yale University Press, 1991), three book-length translation collections titled No Trace of the Gardener: Poems of Yang Mu (Yale University Press, 1998), A Lifetime Is a Promise to Keep: Poems of Huang Xiang (Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 2009), and Hawk of the Mind: Collected Poems of Yang Mu (Columbia University Press, 2018), as well as several anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation. Her articles have appeared widely, including in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, and Reviews (CLEAR) and Modern Chinese Literature and Culture. Yvonne Jia-Raye Yo is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include translation theory, Taiwanese literature, aesthetics, and modern poetry. She is currently writing her dissertation on the aesthetic of landscape as it is manifested in modern Taiwanese poetry. Yanhong Zhu (Ph.D. University of Southern California) is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Washington and Lee University. Her research interests include literary theory, modern Chinese literature, and Chinese cinema. She is currently working on a book manuscript on the poetics of temporality in Chinese fijiction and poetry in the 1940s. Her articles have appeared in Journal of Chinese Cinemas, Journal of East Asian Popular Culture, Chinese Literature Today, American Quarterly, Journal of East Asian Humanities, among other scholarly venues.

Introduction Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke

There has been a distinct resurgence of interest in modernism as a theme or aesthetic practice in recent years. With the single word “Modernism” as a main title, there were eight volumes published in English in the past decade alone.1 We can see the full breadth of interest in the topic if we expand the title search only slightly, to notable examples such as Marjorie Perlofff’s TwentyFirst-Century Modernism, David Bradshaw and Kevin Dettmar’s Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, Michael Levenson’s Cambridge Companion to Modernism, Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough’s Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, and Mia Carter and Alan Friedman’s Modernism and Literature, not to mention the newly emergent journal Modernism/Modernity and its afffijiliated Modernist Studies Association.2 Yet, apart from Christopher Bush’s Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media, relatively little has appeared in English about Chinese modernism, and even less still about modernism in Chinese poetry.3 The only exceptions are Carolyn FitzGerald’s Fragmenting Modernisms: Chinese Wartime Literature, Art, and Film, 1937–1949, a work quite restricted in time span and focused largely on the historical dimensions of violent conflicts and their efffect on artistic practice across generic forms, and Au Chung-to’s Modernist Aesthetics in Taiwanese Poetry since the 1950s, a work that takes Taiwan as a singular focus.4 1  Heesok Chang, Modernism; Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy; Robin Walz, Modernism; Christopher Butler, Modernism: A Very Short Introduction; Ahmet Ersoy et al., Modernism: Representations of National; Michael Levenson, Modernism; Peter Childs, Modernism (The New Critical Idiom); Laura Winkiel, Modernism: The Basics. 2  See the following: Marjorie Perlofff, Twenty-First-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics; David Bradshaw and Kevin Dettmar, A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture; Michael Levenson, The Cambridge Companion to Modernism; Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough, The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms; Mia Carter and Alan Friedman, Modernism and Literature: An Introduction and Reader. 3  Bush’s work, excellent though it is, does not so much address writing in Chinese as it does the idea of the Chinese character as catalyst for the development of Euro-American modernism. As to work about modernism in Chinese poetry itself, there has yet to be a single volume in print. See Bush’s Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media. 4  FitzGerald’s discussion of poetry is principally about Mu Dan’s, to which she devotes an entire chapter and a signifijicant segment of the epilogue. Her discussion of Mu Dan, though acknowledging heterogeneous sources in Chinese and Western poetics, does not develop a modernist theme as it could, focusing more on the urban/rural divide and other thematic elements of Mu Dan’s work. Au’s study offfers many detailed insights into a specifijic set of

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 002


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Our book fijills this gap; it is the fijirst broad-based compilation of research on modernist Chinese poetry collected in a single volume in English. The goal of our research, moreover, is not simply to attempt to fijix “modernism” within the cultural record, Chinese or other. We aim, rather, to narrow the aperture enough to enable in-depth discussion of one style and geographical and generic pairing, Chinese modernist poetry, while at the same time allowing for at least some of the intellectual anarchy Xudong Zhang describes in his 1997 discussion of Chinese modernism, a cultural phenomenon that is “never a neatly developed, fully secured, and glamorously ossifijied object awaiting gentlemanly scholarship; it is always in a moment of painful birth, and profound ambiguity, mired in its formal and political promises and fragility.”5 Part of the problem, as Zhang points out, is not only the question of origin, but also the attendant problem of scope. Zhang is not the only scholar to address such questions where modernism is concerned, and we fijind related problems in traditions other than Chinese. Most recently, in a wide-ranging study, Susan Stanford Friedman enjoins “planetary modernism” as a challenge to the most basic assumptions about what we as scholars and literary historians gain by staking out such stylistic or temporal categories. Friedman’s highly ambitious work uses a “more expansive framework” to move back in time to before 1500, a traditional starting point for Western modernity, and then across the planet to various episodes of cultural upheaval and modern development. The real benefijit of Friedman’s work in the context of our study of modernisms is its successful decentering or complete dismantling of a center (West)—periphery (Chinese) epistemology.6 Such a reorientation, necessary and vibrant though it may be to our current effforts to grapple with modernism worldwide, is still on a slightly diffferent track from what we endeavor to accomplish in this work. While it seems clear that the West did not actually invent modernity, it is evident that the West successfully created the idea that the West created modernity. Further, many cultures, China among them, accepted that invention both because Chinese people were forced to by very real threat of signifijicant military reprisals by Western powers in the mid to late nineteenth century and because an appeal to exogemodernist poets associated with Taiwan but does not situate them into the broader modern Chinese (language) literary tradition (for good or ill). Moreover, the characterization of them as “Taiwanese” is sure to raise eyebrows among scholars, as all the subjects of her work are waishengren ཆⴱӪ, “mainlanders” who were born in mainland China and migrated to Taiwan after the Civil War. See Carolyn FitzGerald, Fragmenting Modernisms; Au Chung-to, Modernist Aesthetics in Taiwanese Poetry since the 1950s. 5  Xudong Zhang, Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms, 3. 6  Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms, esp. ix–xi and 311–313.



nous authority worked in local context more efffectively than, say, appeal to the authority of tradition, or even more or less ex nihilo creation, if such a thing can be said to exist. In other words, and particularly where literary practice is concerned, the Western “roots” of modernity in China are difffijicult to deny, even if by recognizing them we to some degree recapitulate the misguided assumptions that accrue to the Western-centric origin story for modern culture. Fortunately, the granular view of poetic practice in the Chinese case in fact efffectively complicates larger narratives so as to make moot the concern of Western hegemony, at least in case of Chinese poetic modernism. Before delving into the granular, though, we will provide a simple but necessary review of the developmental arc of modernism in Chinese poetry. Such an arc is typically described as having occurred in three distinct waves: the fijirst fully conscious and self-titled “Modernist” Movement in China emerged with the writer Shi Zhecun ᯭ㷴ᆈ (1905–2003) in the early 1930s. The 1932inaugurated journal Les Contemporains (Xiandai ⨮ԓ) is therefore the default enclosure for establishing the “in” and “out” of modernist poetic writing early in the century, and the Chinese term Xiandaipai, or “Modernist group (or school),” of authors refers explicitly to the poets whose works were selected by Shi Zhecun for inclusion in the journal.7 This is also to say that from the point of view of a great deal of Chinese scholarship, the bulk of modernist poetic expression appeared in print between the years 1932, when Les Contemporains fijirst appeared, and 1935, when it was forced into closure by worsening political and social circumstances in war-torn Shanghai. Some of the writers fijirst associated with the Modernist group went on to form other modernist-afffijiliated organizations, but for the most part Chinese scholarship treats modernism as something that grew out of Shi Zhecun’s journal and waned with the same well before the middle of the century. The second wave emerged on Taiwan, with Ji Xian’s ㌰ᕖ (1913–2013) groundbreaking Modern Poetry Quarterly (Xiandaishi jikan ⨮ԓ䂙ᆓ࠺, established in 1954, but adopting an explicitly modernist program beginning in 1956. The fijinal wave returns us to mainland China, where loosening of the Maoist propaganda apparatus, with its once ubiquitous control and absolute adherence to strict socialist-realism as the only admissible style of creative expression, began to fall apart in 1979. What followed were fijive or so years of renewed explicit interest on the part of writers and artists alike in modernist styles drawn once again from the West. These are the broad strokes. However, there is considerably more to the story than the three-wave description will reveal. For instance, an earlier, less recognized but 7  A good example of this is Lan Dizhi’s Xiandaipai shixuan, the introduction of which forms chapter 1 of this volume.


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fully modernist expression in poetry and visual art emerged on Taiwan before Les Contemporains was inaugurated. Moreover, modernist writing formed an important backdrop to Ji Xian’s Modernist Movement almost twenty years later. Or, in another important case, some post-Les Contemporains activities of many of the Shanghai group, combined with others from around the country during the short-lived Southwest Associated University in Kunming, found expression in the Nine Leaves poetry of the early 1940s, a sophisticated movement that became an important touchstone for writers later in the century. These and other complexities are explored in detail in this book. Of the questions our inquiry into the term modernism(s) will raise, where and when such modernism may be said to “end” is perhaps the most challenging. Here is where the authors in this volume stake out new territory. Allowing for the obvious importance of postmodern discourse in literature worldwide in general terms, and in Chinese literature and culture beginning with Fredric Jameson’s lectures in Beijing in the mid-1980s, what we see emerging in the fijinal decades of the twentieth and into the twenty-fijirst century is a notable continuation of (rather than return to) modernist strategies emerging alongside postmodern challenges to aesthetic practice, both modernist and not. Modernism remains, in other words, an ongoing poetic style the arc of which continues to travel through our shared cultural sky. The fijirst step in the process of exploring such cultural productivity, however, is to acknowledge the plurality of aesthetic practices associated with the word modernism, and hence our choice of “Modernisms” as a title. At the same time, commonalities do exist among modernist practices in the Chinese cultural record, and part of our goal will be to provide lucid descriptions of what these entail. One notable example is the relationship between cultural production and the social, or even political, self-positioning of artists and writers across the twentieth century, a fundamentally ambivalent or even contradictory status, given modernism’s clear association with progressive modernity, and its coterminous association with an “art for art’s sake” disafffection with social programming in general. This important contradiction inherent in modernism’s status as strand, strain, or shade of modernity is not of course particular to China, but is more pronounced in a Chinese context where modernization was taken to be a matter of survival, a national mission, and not simply a frivolous aesthetic pursuit. The early thrust of this activity was the social and political “selfstrengthening” operation designed to keep China intact just as a multitude of outside pressures sought to literally tear it apart. The end of the nineteenth century in China, then, is the story of fijinding the best mode of governing that would enable the culture to keep its essential identity while changing enough in practical terms to enter the international community as an equal. It was



not until establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that such stability was reached, and in exchange for that stability China sacrifijiced most of its freedom of expression with the establishment of a strict cultural policy concerning what could appear in public record.8 Not surprisingly, when the reins were loosened ever so slightly in 1979, and the stirrings of cultural change began in fijits and starts around Beijing and other major Chinese cities, it was immediately “modernism” that emerged, for the reformers, as a style rich with new potentialities and, for the censors and others attempting to control cultural and other discourse, the quintessential signal of the erosion of the commitment of artists and writers to the common good. We hope that our volume amounts to more than one more replaying of “the game of origins” (i.e., attempting to identify the specifijic moment when a discrete “Chinese modernism” can be said to properly start and from which a single “it” develops). Instead, by tracing multiple modernist trajectories from roughly the era of May Fourth modernization through the twentieth and into the twenty-fijirst centuries, we provide a sufffijiciently variegated account of poetic practices related to modernism to achieve something approaching a comprehensive view, much of which has not been published before in English, and certainly not in one volume. As we approach the contemporary period in particular the need for such a study is ever more acute given the rapidly shifting status of China as a geopolitical cultural force. After decades of centripetal absorption of everything from technology to political systems, China is now exerting considerable centrifugal influence on the outside world. The degree to which this influence will be soft, meaning cultural as well as economic and political, remains to be seen. But at the very least, China’s newly emergent high position on the global stage means that a review of its cultural record in the modern period is needed. It will be upon this cultural record that subsequent steps are taken by Chinese cultural producers of all kinds, poets included. This is also to say that it may well be time to turn the tables on modernism, to look again at this strain of cultural production now moving in the other direction, from the heretofore peripheral (China/East Asia), now increasingly central, and the heretofore central (Euro-American West), now arguably moving toward the periphery. To return again to one of the central features of the global dynamic as observed by Ezra Pound in his important work Guide to Kulchur, the fragments are now “dispersing” in the opposite direction, a fact 8  The strictures on literature and art in particular were laid down by Mao Zedong in his “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” and have remained until the present day. For a translation and comprehensive introduction, see Bonnie S. MacDougall, Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art.


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that makes the question of the globality of such writers such as Xi Chuan 㾯ᐍ (b. 1963), Bei Dao ेጦ (b. 1949), and other prominent Chinese poets of magnifijied signifijicance, voices expressed on globalized stages when the takenfor-granted hegemonic fijigure of a Western empire fijinally seems to be moving offf to the wings.9 The arrival of China as a global force happens to occur just as the medium of modern Chinese poetry itself celebrates its centennial. The fact that such an event can be dated (albeit roughly) at all is again testament to the selfconscious quality of Chinese cultural modernity, one that patterned itself upon advancement of the nineteenth century in a process of study, appropriation, and implementation of externally (Western) technological or even political systems. For poets, the task of modernizing their art form has been particularly arduous and self-aware given poetry’s longstanding status as China’s premier expressive medium, the one that gave lyrical voice to the experiences of China’s literati culture since at least the turn of the last millennium. The reform of such a voice, particularly along the lines of an imported aesthetic, resulted in an acute sense of identity rupture, one that can be seen repeatedly in the tentative experiments of early reformers. It was, in fact, in the context of this quest for a new, modern, lyrical voice that modernism was introduced into Chinese poetry. Now, after one hundred years of literary practice, modern poetry’s lyrical subjects stand on solid ground, and poetic modernisms of various sorts have lodged themselves in the cultural record in ways that are secure but also continue modernism’s well-established role of oppositional and cutting-edge poetics. In this volume, we will be exploring the center and the edges of modernist practice in Chinese poetry, providing a combination of historical record and careful analysis of loosely but importantly connected aesthetic practices across a century of poetry writing in Chinese. The collection of essays here is divided into four sections that are to some extent chronological, but also geographical, and, to a lesser extent, emblematic of the diffferences that the respective literary milieu inside and outside mainland China have created. The fijirst section is mindful of the aforementioned receding horizon one pursues in seeking a concrete beginning point to modernism in China. Nevertheless, it provides copious information and analysis with respect to modernist poetry of the Republican era (1911–1949). The second section highlights modernist poetry from Taiwan, a hotbed of creativity for modernist poetry beginning in the 1950s and continuing for several decades. Each of the chapters in the third section of the book deals with a wide variety of poets and transcends political borders, including works from mainland 9  Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, 82.



China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. The fijinal section provides a reassessment of poetry from the post-Mao era in mainland China, over thirty years of great productivity. The demarcations of epoch and milieu certainly have an efffect on the styles and tendencies of modernist poetry in Chinese. Equally important, given the propensity of modernist authors to articulate themselves through painstaking attention to formal uniqueness and idiosyncrasy, is that we do not want to discount individual voice in considering these poets. Each of the poets discussed in this volume is her or his own person, unmistakably inimitable and dedicated to individual expression. One of the paradoxical characteristics of modernism is the way its proponents have sought to distinguish themselves as much from each other as they do from previous movements and poetic trends. Thus, as editors, we resist the urge to present an overly procrustean view of what constitutes Chinese poetic modernisms. Nevertheless, we still seek to take on the daunting task of examining Chinese poetic modernisms in diffferent periods and locales in an efffort to provide the reader with a comprehensive appreciation of how the past century of poetry has been greatly afffected by this global aesthetic phenomenon. The fijirst section, “Toward an Origin of Chinese Poetic Modernisms,” begins with Lan Dizhi’s 㯽ἓѻ (b. 1940) classic essay originally published in Chinese in 1986 as the introduction to an anthology of modernist Chinese poetry edited by Lan. It sketches the origins of Chinese modernist poetics from the publication of Li Jinfa’s ᵾ䠁Ⲭ (1900–1976) three collections of poetry that appeared in the 1920s and the later Creation Weekly (Chuangzao zhoukan ࢥ䙐䙡࠺) work of Mu Mutian ぶᵘཙ (1900–1971) and Feng Naichao 俞ѳ䎵 (1901–1983), but devotes most of its space to the poetry found in Les Contemporains. Lan’s chapter takes “pure poetry” as the core feature of modernist practice in Chinese in the mid-1930s and credits this period in the larger development of free-verse Chinese poetry with major innovations in form and method. By “pure” the author means poetry free from particular ideological commitment and without explicit social function. In this respect, modernist poetry is distinct from the realist and formalist poetics against which it draws its primary contrast. Lan also elucidates aspects of a modernist style, namely, anti-lyrical, as overtly sentimental poetry lacks refijinement, anti-rational, as too much logic inhibits poetic freedom, and anti-inspirational, as ebullient feelings often overwhelm attention to craft. Lan addresses another attribute often associated with Chinese modernist poetry: incomprehensibility. Lan diffferentiates between poetry that is fundamentally huise Ზ⏙ (opaque) and that which is merely “difffijicult to understand” (nan dong 䴓៲). The opaque, he suggests, has no place in poetry. The difffijicult to understand, by contrast, follows in the tradition of French Symbolists, and


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particularly Stéphane Mallarmé, who believed that it is not the poet’s responsibility to clearly indicate or explain what the poem is about. Mallarmé in turn was one of the principal influences on Dai Wangshu ᡤᵋ㡂 (1905–1950), a leading author of Chinese modernist poetry in the 1930s. Poetry that is challenging is ultimately worth the time and efffort to understand. Géraldine Fiss’s chapter offfers a reading of one major modernist poet of the Republican period, Feng Zhi 俞㠣 (1905–1993), illustrating how his work establishes a dialogue with that of prior greats, both Chinese and European. Fiss argues that Feng Zhi expresses in his nonpoetic writings, particularly his collection of essays titled On Goethe (Lun Gede 䄆ⅼᗧ), a poetic-philosophical system of thought that is based on a syncretic fusion of classical Chinese aesthetics (Du Fu’s poetry), European Romantic impulses (Goethe’s thought), and modernist poetic practice (Rilke’s experimental innovations). Fiss presents an analysis of key themes in Feng Zhi’s aesthetic thought and delineates his intertextual relations and indebtedness to Rilke, Goethe, and Du Fu, among whom he perceives a correspondence of poetic ideals. Feng Zhi, similar to Rilke, Goethe, and Du Fu before him, seeks to transcend the surface of concrete objects to bring to light the invisible substrata of deeper consciousness that informs our lives. In order to achieve the Goethean ideal of revealing the “open secret of nature,” Feng Zhi writes “thing-poetry” and employs the Rilkean techniques of “turning point,” “transformation,” “sublimation,” and “pure contradiction.” A reading of Feng Zhi’s Sonnets (Shisihang shi ॱഋ㹼䂙, 1942), in relation to his mature poetic-philosophical thought and Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus, 1923), illuminates the unique modernist traits of Feng Zhi’s art. Although perhaps a slight misnomer to label the “Nine Leaves poets” (Jiuye shipai ҍ㩹䂙⍮) a group or a movement, since the label was applied much after the fact and not all the poets congregated together for an extended period, the group that has come to be known as the Nine Leaves was most active during the same historical moment (primarily the 1940s) and shared a great many aesthetic qualities and interests. Yanhong Zhu, in her chapter, suggests that the salient commonality among the nine poets who form this group is a hybrid dramatization or “drama-tic synthesis” that rifffs offf two denotations of the term “drama”: fijirst, the poetry indeed is often written in the form of drama or with dramatic efffect; second, the poetry is oftentimes spectacular and dazzling, containing reconceptualizations of time, memory, and history. Time is manipulated in the work of the poets so that the present, the “Now,” as Zhu terms it, emerges as the nodal point of poetic expression, even though embedded within this preoccupation with the present are resurgences of the past. The “modernism with Chinese characteristics” that Yuan Kejia 㺱ਟహ



(1921–2008), one of the poets and the critical exponent of the group, espouses as their dominant aesthetic seeks to infuse modern Chinese poetry with Western modernist poetics and sensibilities. We often see past, present, and future coexisting in the work of the Nine Leaves through what Yuan describes as “nonlinear, spatial logic.” This, for the Nine Leaves, is the essence of New Poetry (xinshi ᯠ䈇), something that defijies the linear, temporal orientation of preceding poetic work. Not surprisingly, the Nine Leaves poets are some of the best educated and most erudite of modern Chinese literary fijigures, and all are urban based. The past-present duality is further explored in Dian Li’s chapter concerning “classical echoes” in modernist poetry. Thoroughly undermining the sense of rift upon which much modern discourse is developed, Li locates essential “building blocks” of the modern poetry program within classical poetics. Taking, for instance, shiyi 䂙᜿ (poetic-ness) as an essential trope, Li explores the ways in which a modern poem, while seeming to labor in the shadow of classical poetics, actually more often than not returns to modifijied classical models to advance formal and other innovation. At the heart of Li’s discussion, then, is a challenge to the zero-sum contest between modernity and tradition, where the modernist poem can succeed only when tradition has thoroughly receded. In fact, as Li demonstrates through a review of work beginning in the contemporary context of Wang Xiaoni ⦻ሿ࿞ (b. 1955) but then working back through May Fourth-era discussions of form in poetry, the Chinese poetic tradition continues to exert considerable influence in modern and modernist poetics throughout the history of the genre of New Poetry. The best example of the classical echo is the modern sonnet, itself an important formal experiment in the development of New Poetry. Part two of the volume, titled “Modernist Poetry from Taiwan,” offfers three essays on modernist poetry published in Taiwan, both by poets who were born in mainland China and immigrated to Taiwan during the Civil War period and by those born and raised in Taiwan. Michelle Yeh’s chapter, which principally addresses the work of a single author, Xia Yu (Hsia Yü) ༿ᆷ (b. 1956), begins with a review of each of the six moments during which modernist style held sway in Chinese poetry. This review spans the urban centers of Shanghai in the 1930s (Modernist school), to Taiwan in the same decade (Le Moulin group), on to Kunming (Southwest Associated University poets) of the 1940s, back to Taiwan and Hong Kong for coterminous modernist movements, and fijinally the post-Cultural Revolution surge in modernist writing in mainland China. In the process, Yeh advances the importance of a fully historicized reading of this literary history, necessary because transnational application of literary-historical nomenclature often does not account for the fundamental


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variability and elasticity of its categories. For instance, the internal logic of Chinese poetic modernism permits a much closer proximity between that style and romanticism, against which Euro-American modernism is studiously opposed. Similarly, and more to the point for Yeh’s analysis of Xia Yu, is the fact that modernist/postmodernist divergence is not very acute or, in some respects, even useful, which is to say that Xia Yu’s work often demonstrates an important blend or overlapping of the two literary styles. Building on Michelle Yeh’s work on Xia Yu, Chen Fangming’s 䲣㣣᰾ chapter sets out to account for a paradoxical aspect of Yu Guangzhong’s ։‫ݹ‬ѝ (1928–2017) poetry: the twin features of modernism and traditionalism that pervade his work. Chen argues that Yu Guangzhong neither rejected nor wholeheartedly embraced modernism. Rather, his stance is better characterized as a critical acceptance of modernism, a position that includes an adherence to its fundamental tenets, such as individualism, an existentialist view of life, and a skeptical regard of industrial progress on the one hand and, on the other, a rich devotion to traditional Chinese imagery and symbolism. Chen compares Yu to some of the modernists in Taiwan of the 1950s who advocated a clean break with the past. Yu, by contrast, never sought such a dramatic divestment of traditional aesthetics and literary techniques. Chen suggests that Yu charted his own course in reconciling the salient tenets of modernism with a lyricism that he retained from traditional Chinese poetry, especially Song dynasty ci 䇽. His poetry of this period also presented a unique sense of the self. In the process of establishing his distinctive poetics he unavoidably crossed pens with other writers, including Luo Fu ⍋ཛ (1928–2018). The polemics that arose in poetry circles at the time fully illustrate that the modern poetry written by Chinese émigrés to Taiwan after the War of Resistance was far from a monolithic entity. Pivotal to Chen’s argument is an exposition of how Yu evolved from a poet who in the 1950s largely followed the trends of other modernists into someone who came to eschew such stereotypical modernist topics as exile and alienation as his poetry evolved. A much more characteristic topic of Yu’s mature style is the theme of life afffijirmation, a subject that went against the generally dour grain of many modernists. As other poets regarded traditional culture with disdain, Yu came to celebrate it, fashioning intertextual relationships between his own work and that of many of the ancients, including Qu Yuan ቸ৏ (c. 340–278 BCE), Wang Wei ⦻㏝ (699–759), and Su Dongpo 㰷ᶡඑ (1037–1101). Like others of his era, his poetry reveals a deep distaste of war and an attempt to seek refuge away from it in intimate, human embrace. His opposition to the Vietnam War, for instance, is evident in poems such as “Double Bed” (“Shuangren chuang” 䴉Ӫᒺ) and “In the Event of a Distant War” (“Ruguo lianfang you zhanzheng” ྲ᷌䚐ᯩᴹᡠ⡝). Ultimately, Yu elects to celebrate



reconciliation with the various phenomena of his contemporary environs— including modernization in Taiwan, the status of traditional Chinese culture and literature, and the state of mainland China—over the themes of exile and abandonment. In the process, he forges a complicated, variegated poetic oeuvre that is both a continuation of modernism and an extension of localism. Modernism in postwar Chinese poetry from Taiwan is generally considered to be associated with poets born in mainland China who fled to Taiwan near or at the end of the Civil War in 1949. But the fact that modernist poetry is understood to be an overwhelming feature of the mainland refugees masks the fact that many nativist Taiwanese poets were associated with modernism as well. The nativist or “homegrown” poets who convened and founded the Bamboo Hat poetry group (Li shi she ㅐ䂙⽮), in 1964, though often considered to be primarily “realist” poets and often lumped in with “nativist” or “localist” writers, actually had extensive afffijinities with modernism and modernist poetry. Ruan Meihui’s chapter on the Bamboo Hat group and its journal illuminates the connections between the modernists and the Bamboo Hat poets. Ruan begins with a detailed description of the complex historical background from which the journal emerged. From there she argues that the Taiwan modernists were fundamentally diffferent from Euro-American, or even Japanese, modernists, because in the latter case modernism had an opportunity to percolate through intellectual circles over decades; whereas in Taiwan, as Ji Xian declared in his 1956 manifesto, modernism was enacted by a process of “horizontal transplantation,” one that could happen suddenly, and at any time. The Bamboo Hat poets founded their eponymous Bamboo Hat (Li ㅐ) journal in 1964 with twelve principal members. Several of these poets were already active in one or more of the three aforementioned poetry societies, having honed their modernist skills long before joining to form the journal. The fluid quality of many of the literary encampments is one misunderstood aspect of Taiwan’s literary history that Ruan seeks to redress. The other is that the journal Bamboo Hat itself was antagonistic to modernism. Ruan provides detailed documentation of various articles, both those originally written in Chinese and those in translation from English, French, German, and Japanese, primarily, to refute this notion. Bamboo Hat poets sought to further extend and modify the evolution of modernism in Taiwan by making it more germane to the precise historical, social, and culture specifijicities of the island. Bamboo Hat was influential in translating and publishing the manifestos from European literary movements such as Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto,” F. T. Marnetti’s “Futurist Manifesto,” and Richard Aldington’s “Six Beliefs of the Imagists.” What is often overlooked, however, is that Bamboo Hat established its heritage with previous groups by featuring a number of poets not in the Bamboo


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Hat group numerous times over the years. They also published analyses of some of these poets’ works. In spite of these connections, there is certainly no question that the Bamboo Hat coterie moved the line on modernist poetry in Taiwan. Their contribution in reestablishing the link between the Japanese Colonial (1895–1945) and postwar eras in Taiwan as well as highlighting the work of Japanese modernists in their journal stands out as a distinguishing component of their contribution. The Bamboo Hat poets certainly were more engaged with the social issues of the moment in Taiwan in a way that many of the émigré Chinese authors were not, at least not initially. Several articles in the 1960s spoke of the need for poetry to zhenji ⵏ᫺ (strike truth) or of the need to be “truth striking.” By this, the Bamboo Hat poets stressed sincere adherence to life as it was lived at the time in Taiwan; it needed to be empirical. But it also needed to be “modern,” in the sense of being of the times as well as exhibiting the broader characteristics of modernism. Ruan offfers the most substantial, subtle, and evenhanded scholarly presentation of the relationship between those most closely associated with modernist poetry in Taiwan and the nativist poets who formed the Bamboo Hat poetic society. “Bridging Borders in Contemporary Poetry,” the third portion of our volume, contains three chapters that focus on particular stylistic tendencies or thematic propensities that transcend the boundaries of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Nikky Lin’s chapter does what few scholars seem willing to do: it compares a Taiwanese poet with a contemporary mainland Chinese poet. Her paper begins exploring similarities between poetic modernism in Taiwan in the 1950s and that of the so-called Misty or Obscure poets who began writing in China during the 1970s. The return of modernism in the post-1949 era was one of the most prominent literary phenomena in both Taiwan and mainland China: in Taiwan, this reemergence began in the mid-1950s when the government’s interference in art and culture was at its peak; in China, it happened in the late 1970s, shortly after the Cultural Revolution had ended. The rise of modernism in the post-1949 era on both sides not only signaled a break from the political-literary orthodoxy of the day, but was also indicative of a new pursuit of what poetry should be. However, rather than emerging from a highly developed industrial society as it had in the West, the return of modernism in Taiwan and later in China had a strong and specifijic political element, a corrective to policies that creative writers found oppressive or at least detrimental to the development of their art. For instance, the feelings of “confijinement” and “exile” are two of the most signifijicant themes in Taiwanese and Chinese modernist poetry. Lin describes how modernism motivated Taiwanese and



Chinese poets to broaden poetry’s aesthetic dimension and delve into alienation of the individual, as well as conflicts between the individual and society. She compares the two sides’ unique experiences in regard to this transformative time. By focusing on two modernist poets who experienced physical exile, one Taiwanese and one Chinese, Shang Qin ୶⿭ (1930–2010) and Bei Dao, respectively, she examines how descriptions of “confijinement” and “exile” are not only a reflection of their own personal experiences caused by historical circumstances, but also serve as pathways to explore the universal state of human existence. And it is therein that the poets’ challenge to what poetry should be can be found. One of the conundrums of modern Chinese literary studies is how to navigate the tortuous road between the particular cultural heritage from which it arises, the global phenomena of such trends as modernism, and the individual creative voice. Some take the tack that indigenous culture and Westernization are mutually exclusive. Others emphasize the need to view Chinese modernism as part of a global trend in which cultural and national specifijicities are at best superfijicial, cosmetic, and incidental. In this chapter, through a discussion of specifijic poems from William Butler Yeats and the three Chinese poets Wu Xinghua ੣㠸㨟 (1921–1966), Luo Fu, and Xiao Kaiyu 㩗ᔰᝊ (b. 1960), Christopher Lupke advances the view that it is precisely the ability to mine the native landscape, transforming it into the rejuvenated imagery of a modern form, that makes contemporary Chinese poets modernist in style and outlook. Utilizing Yeats as a signpost, Lupke suggests that it is not only Asian authors who bridle against the converging trends of modernization. Yeats, who saw himself as residing on the margin, engaged in a battle to maintain and resurrect the myths and narratives of his own cultural heritage. Yeats himself worried about becoming a poet whose verse could be interchangeable with that of anyone in any other language. Facing the same predicament in the second half of the twentieth century, some Chinese poets have also turned to the Chinese tradition with its history, beliefs, and stories and used it as a reservoir for their artistic endeavors. An analysis of modern Chinese poets afffords a picture of complicated, even conflicted, feelings toward the modern predicament that are best articulated through a hybrid style. Rather than asserting a historically deterministic thesis that Chinese authors are influenced by Yeats in a tightly causal sense, Lupke asserts that in some ways their situations were similar, their grievances were shared, their thoughts resound with a certain amount of afffijinity, and they all possess a desire to express themselves in the somewhat controlled linguistic idiom of verse rather than in a more expansive


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mode of narrative. Lupke concludes that Yeats’s work, preoccupations, and methods of resolving his troubles in writing have some kinship with those of a number of modern Chinese poets. In the 1950s the wave of modernist experiments in Chinese poetry was marked by Ji Xian’s launch of Modern Poetry Quarterly (1953) in Taiwan and Ronald Mar’s 俜䛾 (b. 1933) publication of New Trends in Literature and the Arts (Wenyi xinchao ᮷㰍ᯠ▞ 1956) in Hong Kong. Both Ji Xian and Mar called for a continuation of the May Fourth generation’s project of literary reform and promoted the development of “Chinese modernism” or “new modernism” in poetry writing. Literary works produced during this phase showcase daring experiments with new poetic forms and the Chinese language. Since the use of the vernacular seemed to guarantee the “newness” in New Poetry or modern poetry from its inception, colloquialism and nonconformism in language use has become one of the keys to modernism in the Chinese literary scene. To offfer a fresh perspective to the study of Chinese modernist poetry, Lisa Wong’s chapter looks at how some representative poets writing in Taiwan and Hong Kong—namely, Shang Qin, Luo Fu, Huai Yuan ␞䚐 (b. 1950), Ye Si ҏᯟ (1949– 2013), and Xi Xi 㾯㾯 (b. 1938)—have explored the linguistic possibilities of an almost invisible part of vernacular speech (measure words) in their poems published from the 1960s to the 1980s. By comparing the conventional syntax and pairing of measure words in the received Chinese classifijier system with the modernists’ application of it to poetry writing, she argues that these poets’ innovative use of measure words has contributed artistically and in terms of technique to seeing things anew by a twist of grammar, using a poetic device unique to the Chinese language. Our fijinal section turns to mainland Chinese poetry of the post-Mao era, offfering four papers that reconceptualize contemporary poetry in China. We begin with the chapter by Nick Admussen, who addresses recent work on network theory as it bears generally on research in the humanities, and specifijically on poetry circles in contemporary China. Before looking at Chinese poetry, though, Admussen thoroughly and critically examines the limitations of data-based analysis. Such analysis, in Admussen’s view, “actively performs modernization and globalization on its objects, deforming nonmodern and local materials into parts of a modernist narrative.” With attention to the etymological origins of the “network” itself, a metaphor that is “centrally materialist and commercial … and which has also evolved to accept a top-down, imaginative imposition of order onto a variety or experiences,” Admussen redeploys focus on the “slippage, lacunae, and aporia” that not only delineate the limits of network analysis but also provide fertile ground for exploration of modernist expression. One of Admussen’s essential insights is that nodes are



not only homogenous in many cases, but actually entirely overlapping, where the very same people act in completely diffferent capacities in the social milieu that is contemporary poetry circles. The author then envisions the possibility of a data-based system that allows for necessary switches among categories (in network analysis amounting to shifting dynamics of node-to-edge relationships), accounting for poets who host poetry festivals, business executives who compose and perform at poetry events, and all points in-between. His reconfijiguration of nodes and edges of network analysis redeems commodity-based hermeneutics and points us toward something that strikes closer to the heart of the contemporary poetry community in China today. Jacob Edmond is interested in the implications of recent scholarship on imaginings of China in Western modernism for reading what Marjorie Perlofff calls “twenty-fijirst-century modernism.” If, as this scholarship argues, the concept of modernism itself is inseparably bound up with Western modernist imaginings of China, how then do these imaginings play out when they are reimagined by a contemporary Chinese poet such as Yang Lian ᶘ⛬ (b. 1955)? And what models for conceptualizing cross-cultural interaction, translation, and modernism itself do these reimaginings offfer, other than discredited notions of mimetic reproduction and authenticity? Edmond revisits the entwinement of Chinese and Western modernisms and the mutual crosscultural readings and imaginings that inform them by examining the work of contemporary Chinese poet Yang Lian and especially his collaboration with Canadian poet John Cayley. Yang and Cayley share a fascination with Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry and his and Jacques Derrida’s influential texts on the Chinese language. In their collaborations, they combine theoretical thinking about the Chinese language with a variety of translational and quasi-translational rewriting practices. In Cayley’s digital reworking of Yang’s Where the Sea Stands Still (Dahai tingzhi zhi chu བྷ⎧‫→ڌ‬ѻ༴), for example, a text already built on reiterations is subjected to further repetitions and transformations. Yang and Cayley’s work demonstrates that while translation—and Pound’s translations and imagining of Chinese poetry in particular—played a key and much discussed role in the development of English-language modernist poetry, cross-cultural reading and translational and quasi-translational iterative practices occupy an arguably even more important place in twentyfijirst-century modernisms. If Edmond’s chapter seeks to shatter the prism through which we have viewed modernist poetry from the West, inverting the paradigm and reflecting on how one Chinese poet reappropriates the classic modernist trope that absorbs Chinese imaginings into itself, the last two chapters in this volume transgress the bounds of media, with Lucas Klein’s chapter placing modernist


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Chinese poetry into an architectural context and Paul Manfredi establishing connections with visual art. But Klein’s chapter is not so much about a comparison of Chinese poetry with architecture, although it is that, as it is a meditation on an aesthetic internationalism and new sense of world literature to which he sees Chinese poetry as having a profoundly interventionist strategy. Taking the work of Xi Chuan 㾯ᐍ (b. 1963) as his primary example, and as chief translator of Xi Chuan’s work Klein is intimately familiar with it, he treats modern Chinese poetry as something that resides at the intersection of language, national identity, and memory. He offfers the reader a thorough reprise of modernist and postmodernist architecture, including examples from contemporary China. But his main goal is to indicate how modernist aesthetics allows both for its own rootedness in the local and its continuous reinvestigation of its own history. Xi Chuan views modernism as an ongoing project, and he establishes an erudite dialogue in his work with the multifaceted works of literary and philosophical fijigures throughout the world. Paradoxically, though, Xi Chuan’s dialogue with the world is “ultimately a dialogue with ourselves,” as he dispassionately observes in one of his most important poems. The conclusion is that no poet in the contemporary world can be shut offf from the world. On the contrary, he or she must reconstitute the matter to which he is exposed into something that is deeply unique and personal, something that functions on an international, a national, and an individual level all at once. Klein’s chapter provides several close readings of important poems by Xi Chuan to exemplify how this is accomplished. The fijinal chapter of the volume, by Paul Manfredi, focuses on a recent convergence or mutuality of visual and verbal expression in the twenty-fijirstcentury Chinese poetic context with specifijic regard to abstract expressionism. Since the year 2000 a strong link has been forged between plastic art and the world of poetry in China, mostly due to the number of poets who are now engaged in visual art production. Their intermedia expressions are akin to modernist practices of the early twentieth century in the West, particularly extensive cross-fertilization, visual and verbal, in texts by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and other Imagists. By focusing on specifijically abstract expression, in both visual and verbal format, Manfredi explores a key facet of poetic innovation in contemporary Chinese literary scene. The Western connection to such art is easily the most visible, as iconic asemic expressions of concrete poetry or even visual art work of Franz Kline are immediately recognizable in the painting of notable contemporary Chinese artists, particularly of the ink brush variety. Manfredi encourages us to recognize, though, a broader visual context for Chinese contemporary poetry that is fijirmly connected to older traditions. From at least the ninth century but arguably long



before in China, creative practice both in terms of production and reception was marked by habitual traveling across media (from poetry to painting and calligraphy), often occurring in the same work. Moreover, in many instances literati expression was as much a function of the art displayed as it was a demonstration of the artists’ degree of self-cultivation on extra-artistic levels. By reading contemporary poetry and visual art together, we can observe many contemporary Chinese poets returning to such a holistic mode of cultural expression, one that envelops innovation necessary to the contemporary global context into a milieu of writing and reading that demonstrates inherent cognizance of practices ancient in origins but still relevant. Manfredi’s chapter takes three such fijigures, poet and abstract painter Lü De’an ੲᗧᆹ (b. 1960), critic, poet, and abstract photographer Yang Xiaobin ὺሿ☡ (b. 1963), and painter, poet, and abstract art theoretician Xu Demin 䁡ᗧ≁ (b. 1953), as points of focus. However, the shared poetics of these three fijigures is one with considerably wider implication and, Manfredi predicts, long-term influence. By gathering these various discussions, stitching together geographical, temporal, and stylistic features across roughly an entire century of Chinese poetic production, we are able to obtain a complete and complex picture of the multifarious elements known collectively, if sometimes contradictorily, as “modernism” in Chinese poetry.

part 1 Toward an Origin of Chinese Poetic Modernisms

chapter 1

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets Lan Dizhi 㬍ἓѻ Translated by Paul Manfredi

The Modernists (Xiandaipai ⧠ԓ⍮) were a group of poets who espoused a style of pure poetics relatively early in the development of what is now called Chinese New Poetry (xinshi ᯠ䈇).1 Their work came to prominence in the early 1930s, found its apogee during the middle years of the same decade, and quickly receded shortly thereafter. The “Modernist” name comes directly from the literary arts journal Xiandai ⧠ԓ (Les contemporains, or “The Modern”), where the poets’ work was fijirst published. The journal was founded by Shi Zhecun ᯭ㴠ᆈ (1905–2003) in January of 1932, immediately following the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and it ran under the coeditorship of Shi and Du Heng ᶌ㺑 (1907–1964) for a period of two and a half years. Shortly after the journal’s founding, Shi proclaimed that Xiandai “does not risk politics,” and “always takes a middle road.” The journal’s primary motivation, in other words, was commercial rather than political and, in an efffort to meet all tastes, it became nearly kaleidoscopic in nature. Thus, the poems published in Xiandai were stylistically not entirely consistent. However, from both the philosophical

1  Editors’ note: This article by Lan Dizhi was composed in 1983, then revised and published in 1985, a moment in Chinese literary history when the rigid, ideologically inflected policies of artistic expression in place since the founding of the People’s Republic were fijinally giving way to more nuanced and in-depth readings of Chinese writing. This relatively liberal moment, however, was quickly followed by a conservative backlash, and “modernism” was one of the major points of contention between those who wanted, in essence, more autonomy and freedom of expression in the arts and those who were determined to maintain a strict communist line. We can see in Lan’s essay both forces contending, with sometimes overly enthusiastic praise for modernist writers followed by seemingly contradictorily negative readings of the movement as a whole. Nonetheless, the work is an important step forward in critical discourse concerning literature in general and modernist poetry in particular toward the end of the twentieth century. As a product of that era, the citation style of the original article is diffferent from current expectation. Thus, some diffferences in citation, such as the omission of page numbers for footnoted items, reflects this earlier style.

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and artistic points of view, the poems did share enough commonality that a single critical term for describing them, “Modernist,” came into being.2 Other journals were also involved in publishing writing of this style. The poetry that appeared in the literary magazine Huoxing ⚛ᱏ (Mars, October 1934 to March 1935) edited by Bian Zhilin ঎ѻ⩣ (1910–2000) was similar to Xiandai in its push for a new wave of poetic development. In October of 1936, Dai Wangshu ᡤᵋ㡂 (1905–1950), with participation from Bian Zhilin, Feng Zhi ߟ㠣 (1905–1993), Sun Dayu ᆉབྷ䴘 (1905–1997), and Liang Zongdai ằᇇዡ (1903–1983), began editing Xinshi ᯠ䈇 (New Poetry) magazine, bringing a modernist poetic style to its highest point of achievement. At about the same time, numerous other journals appeared, for instance Xiandai shifeng ⧠ԓ䈇仾 (Modern poetry style), Xiandai wenyi ⧠ԓ᮷㢪 (Modern literature and art), Shizhi 䈇ᘇ (Poetry intent), and Xiaoya ሿ䳵 (Elegentia), all demonstrating the spread of this new poetic style. Responding to such a development, Lu Yishi 䐟᱃༛3 (1931–2013) put it this way: The years 1936 and 1937 were the Golden Age of Poetry after the beginning of the May Fourth Movement. During that period, poetic activities in all quarters were lively, and writers of great talent and creative productivity gave rise to a kind of cultural renaissance. Apart from Shanghai, others in Beijing, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and such cities all saw relatively small-scale poetry journals and poetry-centric journals that focused on pure literature.4 The style of these various literary journals was actually relatively consistent. In a reference note, Xiaoya editor Wu Benxing ੤྄ᱏ (1913–2004) observed: “for many years, our poetry circles have been desolate beyond belief, the poem’s form becoming a kind of poetry-cum-prose, a bent-out-of-shape creation. But in 1936, a group of pure poetry advocates took an art for art’s sake position, opening up the fijield of poetry to something very diffferent from the years before.”5 From the point of view of literary development, 1936 and 1937 were the pinnacle of poetic maturity in modernist poetry and indeed an important stage in the entire history of poetry in modern China. However, the “Golden Age” of Chinese modernist poetry was also completely cut offf from the surge 2  Sun Zuoyun, “Lun Xiandaipai shi.” 3  This is the pen name of Lu Yu 䐟䙮, who in the 1950s, writing under the new pen name of Ji Xian ㌰ᕖ, became editor of the influential Xiandaishi jikan ⧠ԓ䈇ᆓ࠺ (Modern poetry quarterly). 4  Lu Yishi, “Sanshi zishu.” 5  Wu Benxing, “Shezhong renyu.”

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets


of nationwide resistance to Japanese aggression, in particular the pivotal and patriotic student demonstrations in December 1935. By July of 1937, the cannons of the War of Resistance could be heard across the country, making the concerns of “pure poetry” entirely out of sync with the needs of the age. As a consequence, poetry groups fractured and poets began stepping out from their ivory tower, fijinally forming new groups to take up positions against the Japanese aggressors. The modernist wave of poetry thus accordingly receded. In the history of literature, major trends or stylistic waves do not emanate from the subjective will of a single artist; in essence, artistic waves stem from the social conditions of the time combined with a given author’s own ideological state of mind. At the same time, literary waves have deep historical origins as they must issue from accumulated changes within the broader trends of literary and artistic production. Even if an author’s advocacy comes to fruition, such advocacy still falls obliquely within a longer trend, making it impossible for any single artist to take full credit for changes in literary style. Although the Xiandai editors proclaimed “no plans to advocate for the creation of a particular literary group,” they also observed that the poems submitted to the journal for publication should “bear some stylistic similarities or common characteristics.”6 These words precisely express the emergence of a literary style, demonstrating deep roots that even those involved themselves did not fully understand. The modernist style in Chinese poetry neither emerged nor receded suddenly. As a literary group, the Modernists were the direct inheritors of a style developed in the 1920s by Symbolist poets led by Li Jinfa ᵾ䠁ਁ (1900–1976) and then later the Creation Society poets Mu Mutian ぶᵘཙ (1900–1971), Feng Naichao ߟѳ䎵 (1901–1983), and Wang Duqing ⦻⤜␵ (1898–1949). In the mid-1920s, Li Jinfa published three poetry collections in succession. In the introduction to his fijirst collection, Weiyu ᗞ䴘 (Light rain), he stated: “As to the whole of the poetic form, there no doubt will be those who are not happy with the result, but that is not important.” His concern in writing poetry, he explained, was to “express everything.” In the colophon to the poetry collection Shike yu xiongnian 伏ᇒҾࠦᒤ (Visitor in hard times), moreover, he expressed hope for fijinding “the fundamental root” that would allow him to have Western poetry and Chinese ancient poetry communicate and come to an accord. Li was not satisfijied with the dispassionate quality of classical Chinese verse, nor with what he considered the absurd scenes that arise from the mere collection of images. He felt that between Chinese and Western poetry there were commonalities of thought, spirit, vision, and even content, and that there was no 6  Shi Zhecun, “Xiandai zayi.”



superior or inferior to speak of.7 Thus, behind the impenetrable compositions by the “Poet Strange” Li Jinfa, these perspectives are all at work. Li Jinfa’s “expression” of art drew most directly from the symbolist method of French poet Paul Verlaine. His poetry is like pieces of a broken pagoda, or scattered bright pearls, fragments that are obscure and abrupt, full of fantasy and replete with sentimentalism and exotic flavor. What Li refers to as “classical Chinese poetry” is largely that of the late Tang, works written in the mode of Li Shangyin ᵾ୶䳡 (c. 813–858), Wen Tingyun ⑙ᓝ㆐ (812–870), and other poets. It is particularly in this realm that we do in fact fijind classical Chinese poetry and Western symbolist poetry sharing strong afffijinity. This is also to view the matter from the angle of so-called pure poetry, an approach that later proved great inspiration for the Modernists. Before Li Jinfa, and even in the pervasive atmosphere of realism in Chinese poetry circles, many writers in fact were already looking to symbolism as a new method. Hu Shi 㜑䘲 (1891–1962) once observed that poetry that can “break through the stupidity of facts” is good poetry.8 Zhou Zuoren ઘ֌Ӫ (1885–1967), unsatisfijied with the incessant “boringly blank descriptions,” believed instead that bi ∄ (metaphor) and xing ‫( ޤ‬analogy) are the better avenues to success, and that xing really corresponded to what was known as “symbol” in the West. Guo Moruo 䜝⋛㤕 (1892–1978) believed that “real literature and art is a symbolic world generated by rich experience further sublimated by a pure spirit.”9 In sum, a change that served to correct the overemphasis on realism was brewing in many forms at the time. From the perspective of the West, symbolism was a response to naturalism. At the end of the nineteenth century, realism had evolved into naturalism. Symbolists denied the notion that outer reality could be mechanistically imitated, and instead advanced the expression of inner worlds, believing that therein could be found a deeper reality. From another point of view, symbolism is also a refutation of romanticism, even though many characteristics are in fact carried over from romanticism. For instance, the leading Modernist poet, Dai Wangshu, who began writing in the years between 1922 and 1924, observed that “at the time there was a widespread phenomenon of wanting to express the self, to express wildly, to express directly, using a bold and urgent style as a model. In our hearts we harbored a strong rebellion against this trend.”10 Dai Wangshu studied French from 1925 to 1926, and read 7   8  9  10 

Li Jinfa, Shike yu xiongnian. Hu Shi, Hui de feng. Guo Moruo, Guo Moruo, wenyi lunji. Dai Wangshu, Wangshu cao.

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets


Verlaine’s work in the original. It was from Verlaine’s work that Dai found a path that would resist the “direct and plainspoken” tendency of the time. The Modernists at the same time also inherited the so-called pure aspect of traditional Chinese poetics. Bian Zhilian said that “intimacy” and “implicitness” were two common points connecting Western symbolist and traditional Chinese poetics.11 In Tan xinshi 䈸ᯠ䈇 (On New Poetry, 1948), Fei Ming ᓏ਽ (1901–1967) observed that the Modernists developed out of the tradition of Wen Tingyun and Li Shangyin. He believed that Li’s and Wen’s poems were like sifted gold nuggets; lively, with full range of imagination and free expression, these poems were solid like sculptures, giving the reader a feeling of concreteness. The poetics of Wen and Li that Fei Ming promoted in his writings were a direct refutation of Hu Shi’s style. Hu Shi advocated a poetics of Bai Juyi ⲭት᱃ (722–846), Su Dongpo 㰷ᶡඑ (1037–1101), and others, while the Modernists argued for a continuation of Wen Tingyun and Li Shangyin, therefore markedly diffferent from the road taken in the early stages of the vernacular poetry movement. Liang Shiqiu ằሖ⿻ (1903–1987) maintained that Hu Shi’s standard for poetry writing was a kind of mere comprehensibility or “understand-ism,” but Hu’s corrective was overly correct. According to Liang, “now it is no longer a question of the words of poetry, but a question of poetic substance itself.”12 Again, this was the pure poetry of symbolist poetics, and it was the kind of poetry that the Modernists wanted to write. From one point of view, the Modernists’ arrival on the poetry scene meant the displacement of the Crescent Moon group (Xinyuepai ᯠᴸ⍮) led by Xu Zhimo ᗀᘇ᪙ (1897–1931). From another point of view, though, Modernists can be seen actually continuing the same trends established by the late stage of the Crescent school. Thus, if we take Crescent’s poetry published in Morning Poetry Supplement (Chenbao shijuan Იᣕ䈇䳭) as a kind of classicism, then, coming to the later period, works that appeared in Shikan 䈇࠺ (Poetry), there was indeed a new trend toward symbolism. In poems such as “Taishan” ⌠ኡ (Mount Tai), “Miaoxiao” ⑪ሿ (Miniscule), “Beiwei” ঁᗞ (Petty), “Huangli” 哴呲 (Oriole), and “Ji Hou” ᆓ‫( ى‬Season), Xu Zhimo gave expression to new and subtle feelings. Wen Yiduo 䰫аཊ (1899–1946), publishing in Shikan, contributed a long poem titled “Qiji” ཷ䘩 (Traces), a startling work that appeared after a three-year hiatus from writing. The startling quality, moreover, was precisely to be found in the poem’s symbolist method. Lin Huiyin ᷇ᗭഐ (1904–1955) and Zhu Xiang ᵡ⒈ (1904–1933) also wrote symbolist poetry at the time, while Sun Dayu’s long poem “Ziwo Xiezhao” 㠚ᡁ߉➗ (Self-portrait) 11  12 

Bian Zhilin, “‘Wei’erlun yu xiangzheng zhuyi’ yixu.” Liang Shiqiu, Guanyu Lu Xun.



was characteristic of the “intricate consciousness” of the modern person. Bian Zhilin was also transitioning from English Romanticism to Symbolism, fijinding friendly relations. In sum, it would not be wrong to say that the Modernists were actually an amalgam of the Crescents and Symbolists. Symbolism, however, is not a sufffijicient concept to explain the characteristics of the Modernists in the literary historical record. Modernist poet Fan Cao reflected on this, saying that the poetry he loved was one that drew from both romanticism and symbolism in the matter of poetic substance. He observed that if there is no romantic sentiment, the poem will lack emotional spirit; if there is no symbolist rendering, the poem will have no form.13 Du Heng, in commenting on Dai Wangshu’s poetry, noted both symbolist form and classical content, and strict avoidance of empty sentimentality or falsehoods. Fan Cao also takes Dai Wangshu as a model for modernist expression, not of the “English department approach,” but instead as a blend or summation of the styles of romanticism, Parnassianism, and symbolism. A modernism so construed is the same as the movement in poetic modernism that took root in Latin America, but which also developed in Spain itself and other Spanish-speaking locales. Du Heng once recalled that he and Dai spoke at length about the Spanish Modernists, and that in Dai’s poetry about loneliness and love he could see the projection of many of the Spanish writers. Whether or not the entire Modernist group could be described as having this characteristic is of course another question, but in the poetry of Dai Wangshu, at least, in addition to Verlaine and others, we can certainly see the influence of Spanish writers.


The Characteristics of the Modernist Group

If we begin to examine more closely the modernist wave, we fijind that each poet has his or her own characteristics, and that each situation is quite different. Lin Geng ᷇ᓊ (1910–2006) moved from writing modern free verse to classical, rhymed poetry, because he came increasingly to see the commonalities between classical and modern poetics. Hou Ruhua ‫( ॾ⊍ן‬1910–1938), Chen Jiangfan 䱸⊏ᐶ (1911–1970), and Jin Kemu 䠁‫ݻ‬ᵘ (1912–2000) can be found traveling from writing poetry heavily laden with classical sentiments and images to modernist poetry, this transition forming something of a common practice in poetry of the period. The poetry by Shi Weisi ਢছᯟ that 13 

Quoted in Zhong Dingwen, “Wo suo zhidao de Dai Wangshu ji Xiandaipai.”

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets


leaves the strongest impression is his modernist work exhibiting emotions of hermetic experience. Li Xinruo ᵾᗳ㤕, meanwhile, uses a modernist lens to view rural life, and also wrote of the disorientation and chaos caused by life in the city. The long poems by Li Guangtian ᵾᒯ⭠ (1906–1968) and Fan Cao contain a relatively high amount of descriptive content that is a blend of symbolist and realist methods, seemingly foreshadowing the future development of modernist poetics. As an editor, Shi Zhecun was focused on the image, looking for poetry that would express subtlety and contingent experience, without explanation or observation. Clearly, Dai Wangshu’s work was the outstanding model of this style, with its soft and beguiling lyrical power combined with just a hint of adornment. Ling Jun’s ⧚ੋ style, though, was also perspicuously beautiful, while He Qifang’s օަ㣣 (1912–1977) was full of lovely color and swaying postures. Poems by Fan Cao and Li Baifeng ᵾⲭࠔ (1914–1978) were one half symbolist and one half romantic, lyrical expressions that made fully transparent the poets’ psychological states. Bian Zhilin’s work was like sculptured jade and gold, indirect but warm, portentous, and limitless, like treasure troves in poetic form. In sum, we can see that each poet came to the movement with his or her own distinct characteristics. Despite the fact that the Modernists did abandon the style of cryptic mysticism typical of Li Jinfa’s work, for readers accustomed to romanticism and classicism, modernist poetry was still rather challenging to understand. Generally speaking, the poetry of Dai Wangshu was relatively easy for contemporary readers to read, but works such as “Leyuan niao” Ҁഝ呏 (Garden bird) and even “Yuxiang” 䴘ᐧ (Rain alley)—poems that are heavily infused with symbolist meaning—also proved difffijicult to comprehend. The French Symbolist Mallarmé once said: “To clearly indicate one’s subject is to take away three quarters of the pleasure that poetry has to offfer.” When Dai Wangshu started writing, he believed that the motivation for poetry was in the combination of expressing and concealing the self at once. In recalling a dream, one discovers an ego buried in the unconscious, whereas in a poem one reveals the buried and secretive soul. In either case what is revealed must remain at least partly obscure. Dai’s later poetry became a way of escaping from the realities of life, fabrications that were too remote for the average reader to easily grasp or identify with. Bian Zhilin’s “Yu huashi” 劬ॆ⸣ (Petrifijied fijish), as another example, is full of allusions from both the Western and the Chinese literary traditions, with free associations of his own devising but no explanation, making it almost impossible for a reader to fijigure out. However, on the level of the sentence, Bian’s poems can be read, and the scenes depicted are concrete, as in:



You stand on the bridge looking at scenery, A sightseer stands on the tower looking at you The moon adorns your window As you adorn another’s dream. ֐ㄉ൘ẕкⴻ仾Ჟˈ ⴻ仾ᲟӪ൘ᾬкⴻ֐DŽ ᰾ᴸ㻵侠Ҷ֐Ⲵデᆀˈ ֐㻵侠Ҷ࡛ӪⲴỖDŽ

After reading this, we feel that we have understood, but on reflection we realize that we do not understand completely, and the deeper we go, the more the possible implications proliferate. It is due to situations just like this that Shi Zhecun observed: “just as when we read essays and do not demand full comprehension, when reading poetry a general grasp is sufffijicient.”14 He believed that the question of understanding or not understanding is fundamentally not a question of the author, but one of the reader, and the question of the reader is again whether or not s/he understands the “substance” of the poem, which is to say understands the diffference between poetry and prose. The English scholar William Empson, writing in Cambridge in the beginning of the 1930s, produced a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Empson’s work had broad and lasting influence, exploring the phenomenon of ambiguity in Western poetry from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries with more than two hundred examples. A number of readers derived from Empson’s work that ambiguity has been part of literature for centuries, being in fact a basic feature of literary practice. The untitled works of Li Shangyin even today make readers dizzy with incomprehension. The poems that Empson uses as examples combined with Li Shangyin’s untitled works are precisely what the Modernists inherited as a style, thus a misty ambiguity is unavoidable. Literary periodicals of the time engaged the question of ambiguity or opacity in literature quite seriously. Zhu Guangqian ᵡ‫( ▌ݹ‬1897–1986) felt that the social function of literature could not be dismissed, and thus ambiguity could not be an ideal for poetry. From his point of view, ambiguity in poetry could not but be a form of pollution. For clarity’s sake, though, Zhu advocated replacing the dichotomy between clear and ambiguous with that between understandable and incomprehensible. Ambiguous poetry is indefensible. Poetry that is difffijicult to understand, on the contrary, has its rightful place. The purpose in taking “understanding” as the main point of his analysis 14 

Shi Zhecun, “Haishui libo.”

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets


was to move the question away from the literary work itself and refocus it on the specifijic relationship between work and reader. True appreciators of poetry, Zhu maintains, will each have their own psychological condition, and the degree of understanding of a poem is thus diffferent in each case according to the reader’s experience, training, and personal interest. Some blocks in communication are the failure of the reader’s imagination to accept uncanny associations, breakdowns that are difffijicult trace because the would-be imaginative associations are buried initially deeply within the unconscious. For the sake of the entire modern poetry movement, Zhu felt that poets and readers alike needed to take time to reflect on who or what is in fact responsible for the breakdowns in communication.15 Lin Geng felt that poetry is a mediation between the normal and the startling, the former being like the beauty of the setting sun—a wonder that is still part of everyday life. The latter, meanwhile, is like “tears falling from a pearly moon above a pale sea, or the jade sun born from smoke above blue fijields,” something that stands outside everyday experience.16 Modernist poetry, in terms of its art, had a number of clear characteristics. First, the Modernists opposed direct lyrical expression. Even if we take the more sentimental examples of the Modernists’ poems, for instance, Bian Zhilin’s “Petrifijied Fish,” He Qifang’s “Yuyan” 亴䀰 (Prophecy), or Dai Wangshu’s “Wode lianren” ᡁⲴᙻӪ (My lover), and we compare them with Guo Moruo’s “Ping” ⬦ (Vase), Xu Zhimo’s “Feilengcuide yiye” 㘑ߧ㘐Ⲵаཌ (A night in Florence), or the works of the Lakeside poets, we can clearly see that the Modernists did not bother to reveal their inner emotions, and they are not providing an explanation of their feelings. Instead of empty lyrical idealism, Modernists created distinct poetic shapes and images that indirectly demonstrate, through the use of implication and metaphor, their state of mind. By the late 1930s, Xu Chi ᗀ䘏 (1914–1996) had taken the position that lyricism must be banished from the realm of poetry entirely. Lyricism is beauty, but that can come only after renovation and renewal of this world, this society. At the time of composition, the banishment of lyricism was constructive, and the presence of lyricism was actually destructive, especially in a time of war.17 Anti-improvisation is the other major characteristic of the Modernist poets. A good percentage of old-style poetry was based entirely upon improvisation and inspired allusion. Such serendipitous, question-and-answer poems take the scene as occasion to inspire poetic feelings, and this, according to the 15  16  17 

Zhu Guangqian, “Tan huise.” Quoted in Ke Ke, “Za lun xinshi.” Xu Chi ᗀ䘏, “Shuqing de fangzhu.”



Modernists, is too heavily dependent on wit and subjectivity. Real emotion, they believe, does not derive from the scene, as the scene is only the objective correlative found by the emotion. The fijirst pass of emotion cannot stand alone as poem; it is only the poem’s basis. The Modernist poet monitors his or her own emotions from a distance, adjusting their moods, carefully transforming these emotions into images, sounds, and words. The purpose is to give the feelings more depth through restraint, their expressions thus becoming more deeply evolved and expansive. Given this tendency of the Modernists, any attempt to read the authors biographically through their poetry is untenable. The third characteristic of modernist poetry is its anti-logical quality. This characteristic demonstrates modernist poetry’s fundamental departure from classical, realist, epigrammatic, and philosophical poetry. According to the view of these authors, modernist work is designed not to move people’s emotions, but to inspire their deep contemplation, to bring about truer unifijication of emotion and thought. Poets worked from studious observation of universal humanity, an observation they accumulated and developed over long periods of time. When the fruits of such observation meet an instant of inspiration, poems are produced, without deliberate intervention by the poet. At this point the poet himself cannot explain the poem, as to do so would amount to writing prose, not poetry. This is why conventional logic cannot be used to explain poetry. There is one view that the principal meaning of a poem is precisely that which cannot be translated or paraphrased. Around the year 1935, Bian Zhilin wrote a number of works including “Juli de zuzhi” 䐍⿫Ⲵ㓴㓷 (Organization of distances), “Bai luoke” ⲭ㷪༣ (White snail shell), and other such poems that led to labeling his poetry “huise” Ზ⏙ (opaque). This is because these poems cannot be interpreted according to the logic of daily life. The poems are a form of structural thinking, taking novel ideas and theories and making with them a kind of revelatory writing wherein juxtapositions of space and time, like entire worlds in grains of sand, or oceans in drops of water, can be seen. These poetic principles are then merged with new scientifijic ideas (e.g., the Theory of Relativity and four-dimensional thinking) and further combined with the poets’ own long-standing observations of human emotions, collectively becoming the basis for their poems. From the point of view of more traditional poetics, these three characteristics of the Modernists can be reduced to the correspondence of complicated imagery and marvelous concepts. The anti-inspiration and anti-lyricism of modernist poetry is better understood then as the use of images to express emotion, a method of indirect expression, which objectifijies emotions without squandering them. The French poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945) has said that a naked emotion is just as weak and vulnerable as a naked individual. Such

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets


a person should be given clothing, and the clothing is precisely the poetic image. In rejecting excited, automatic writing, poets should let their own emotions flow back, and work with them using a distant or dispassionate point of view. In this way, they are able to transparently transform emotion into image. Modernist poetry, particularly in the early years of its development as part of New Poetry, was often referred to as “lyrical imagism” for just this reason. If we look at the Modernists’ most representative works, we fijind that their poetic images do indeed harbor complex emotions. They express the subtle moments of human experience where ancient and modern, foreign and indigenous, mutually flourish, their respective times and places becoming one. The explanation-laden poetry of the May Fourth period is crystalline and thorough, while the Modernists’ conceptual poetry harbors dense ambiguity, difffijiculty, a lingering aftertaste, and echoes. The Modernists’ poetry uses images to make suggestions, simplicity to pursue richness, limits to pursue limitlessness, all in a misty state. However, we also must admit that some tendencies of the Modernists were imitative, and their approach of completely eschewing lyricism or denigrating outworn romanticism wound up also destroying a good deal of the romantic spirit of poetry itself. In terms of artistic form, the Modernists carved their own path, creating a free verse style that had prose-poetic beauty. Dai Wangshu’s “Shilun lingzha” 䈇䇪䴦ᵝ (Scattered notations on poetry) clearly laid out the program. Dai believed that the major focus of reform effforts should not be changes in poetic line or form, but poetic sentiment. The question of rhyme is not one that is located in shifts in cadence at the end of lines or stanzas, but in the changes in sentiment at the end of lines or stanzas. Poetry, Dai thought, should be rid of musicality.18 In fact, this idea was expressed by Guo Moruo even before Dai Wangshu mentioned it. Guo observed that internal rhyme derives from the mind and not from the body. Poetry can be said to have the “spirit of music,” but it is not music per se.19 Dai Wangshu, at the beginning of his writing career, was also in pursuit of a formal beauty, endeavoring to make New Poetry into something that could be sung or “intoned” in the manner of ancient poetry. From the point of view of the evolution of form in New Poetry, the Modernists’ challenge was directed toward the Crescent school’s advocacy for poetry’s formal beauty. The Crescent poets’ contribution to the formal development of New Poetry occupies an important place in Chinese literary history and should not be underestimated. That said, when their poetic style ceased to advance and became ossifijied, its limitations and failings grew all 18  19 

Dai Wangshu, “Shilun lingzha.” Guo Moruo, “You shi de yunlü shuo dao qita.”



too conspicuous, as commented upon by Xu Zhimo himself. Dai Wangshu’s accomplishment was to fijind a poetic practice that could take the place of a strict formal pattern. His poem “Wode jiyi” ᡁⲴ䇠ᗶ (My memory) is a work that exhibits a kind of prose-poetic as its signature formal feature. Dai’s views on poetry are a continuation yet also an important augmentation of 1920s Symbolist poets’ views. Symbolism in China was fijirst pursued by Li Jinfa, but there was no theory to accompany it. From a theoretical point of view, the beginnings were introduced by Mu Mutian, Wang Duqing, and Feng Naichao. Mu Mutian’s view of a “pure poetry” was one that emerged in a literary space and time characterized by acute attention to both formal and musical beauty. Wang Duqing’s “pure poetics” relied heavily on color and music to advocate for an art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic; his poems are like crystal balls falling onto plates of white jade. Feng Naichao used sonorous rhythms to achieve a hypnotic efffect. Dai Wangshu both absorbed these techniques and refijined them. Given that the inclination of a prose-based, free verse poetry was to approximate vernacular speech, it had a great deal of flexibility, and was thus able to express a modern sensibility. It also tracked well to the pure poetry trend that was prevalent in Europe, and in this way amounted to a natural critique of the Crescent school’s excessive attention to form. Looking historically, the Modernists wrote a good many excellent poems, amassing a rich body of artistic work that continues to inform writers all the way down to the present day. However, this poetic wave itself also clearly moved beyond its accomplishment as a poetic style, entering a period of decadence, ossifijication, and then total dissipation. The later poems by Dai Wangshu lost the crispness and clarity of vernacular speech, becoming too laden with foreign allusions and unnatural classicisms; his one-time prose beauty had become prosifijication. With the advent of the War of Resistance to the Japanese, the conditions that had allowed urban intellectuals in relatively peaceful small cities to freely advocate “modern feeling” and “pure poetry” were no longer available. Before long, the People’s War of Resistance exploded in all areas of the country and the popularization of poetry became more widespread. Many of the Modernists fled from the cities that fell to Japanese aggressors and became more focused on poetry for the people, developing renewed interest in poetry recitation, and poetry returned to more clear meters and structures. Talking about Xiandai, Shi Zhecun once observed that the journal publishes only purely modern poems, ones that exhibit modern emotions of modern people stemming from experiences of modern life. Looking across the Modernists’ poetry, we can see that what is meant by “modern people” is actually a group of young intellectuals who had been strongly influenced by Western ideology and modernist literature; they lived in big cities, were highly educated, and were

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets


not engaged in either government or other mundane work. Looking at their social position and way of thinking, they were upper-class petty bourgeois members of society. What is called “modern life” really amounted to living in the socially warped half-feudal, semicolonial environment. What they referred to as “modern emotion” was really just sentimentalist, confused, hypersensitive, hallucinatory nihilism. It has long been said that there is only one kind of health, while there are myriad forms of sickness. The Modernists’ poetry gives the reader these myriad forms, allowing decadent emotions to spread, delighting in pain, remorse, tears, and romanticizing sadness. Their poetry takes too much interest in personality; it concentrates an entire world of poetic feeling into an individualized subjective wish, pursuit, and sentiment—the “I” of the poem is the core. Such intense subjectivity makes their work too remote from the realities of life, with no concern for what is really happening. Even with these general criticisms in mind, whether on the emotional or philosophical levels, we cannot say that the Modernists have absolutely no positive signifijicance. The sad tone of the Modernists is in fact also a genuine and notable product of their time and place. They could see no clear path for society, could not divine a strong voice of the age. Instead, they used their fijinely tuned mournful sensibilities to meld an individual-based experience with the sadness that surrounded them. Their disappointment and disafffection with political afffairs and their sense of loss in the increasingly disfijigured urban environment all coalesced into a broader condition or malaise shared by people at large.


The Evolution and Evaluation of the Modernists

At the very moment that the Modernists were at their apogee, a few perceptive poets and other cultural critics could clearly see that their current state of afffairs could not go on forever. After having written “Leyuan niao,” Dai Wangshu went for a long time without producing any new material. Meanwhile, the poet Ke Ke ḟਟ pointed to a number of tendencies prevalent in the Modernists’ work of the time that are worth noting, namely, their stilted poetic form, a drying up of inspiration, a pedantic bookishness, a premature aging, and a kind of poor nutrition from overfeeding. Ke points out that making poetry is not the same as literary research and scholarship, and that historically the great literary masters always had some degree of wildness to them. He called on the Modernists to become wilder, more elemental, rougher, fresher, and more youthfully vigorous. He concludes: “The ossifijication of poetry and its overly civilized quality can be counteracted only with wild power strong enough



to combat tendencies old and new, East and West that have been around in fact for centuries.”20 Similarly, Sun Zuoyun ᆉ֌Ӂ (1912–1978) felt that the Modernists’ poetry was readable only by the highly educated, and he hoped that those writing poetry could be inspired by a bit of the wild. He observed that although we cannot dispense with carefully crafted and fijinely wrought writing, we also need to pursue a rougher and more powerful poetry.21 Ke Ke and Sun Zuoyun were both ardent supporters of the Modernists, and so from their critiques in particular we can observe how the tenor of the age was changing. Mu Mutian, in a discussion of European Symbolism, once said that the Symbolist wave is like a slanting ray at sunset, giving readers a sense of wonder enshrouded in mystery. However, as soon as the fog lifts, we fijind ourselves staring at the clear sky and all the more welcoming the dawn.22 In the history of modern literature in China, the Modernists are like this as well; the cannons of the War of Resistance fully shattered the edifijice of mysticism, just as Lu Yishi once observed: “this short golden age ended suddenly, the friends scattering, and the poetry circles falling suddenly cold and lonely.” Dai Wangshu moved to Hong Kong, and with Ai Qing (who was in Guilin), coedited Dingdian 亦⛩ (Pinnacle) poetry journal, carrying on where Xinshi had left offf, though stylistically he now discarded his former literary tendencies and attempted to more fully engage with reality. He Qifang and Cao Baohua ᴩ㩶ॾ (1906–1978) went to Yan’an, and Bian Zhilin transferred to the turbulent Wuhan, then to Chengdu, and fijinally Yan’an as well. He called Yan’an “another kind of world,” and “a clearing in the wilderness.” There, he wrote his “Weilao xinji” ហࣣ ؑ䳶 (Collection of consolation letters). This was a book of poems open to wide readership, reflecting the realities of life, even though his method was still modernist, with some Auden influences. Once in Yan’an, He Qifang could see an all-new direction, and wrote “Ye Ge” ཌⅼ (Night song). However, he later criticized this poem, saying it was too sad and mournful, full of empty thoughts and weak, but compared with works like “Prophecy,” “Night Song” was clearly a major step forward. With the increase in real-life content in poetry, a stronger connection between lyrical description of personal internal emotions and scenes from real life was forged. The period of the War of Resistance, for instance, changed both Xu Chi’s lifestyle and the style of his poetry. In the 1940s Xu went to Chongqing, where he encountered Marxism and disavowed modernism, and then on to 20  21  22 

Ke Ke, “Za lun xinshi.” Sun Zuoyun, “Lun Xiandaipai shi.” Mu Mutian, “Shenme shi xiangzheng zhuyi?”

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets


Guilin, where he published “Zui qiangyin” ᴰᕪ丣 (The strongest sound) and “Langsong shouce” ᵇ䈥᡻޼ (A handbook of recitation).23 Feng Zhi was once listed as editor-at-large for Xinshi, but he never published any poems for the journal. Though not strictly speaking a member of the Modernist group, his trajectory did overlap in many places with Modernist writers, and so some discussion is in order. During his coeditorship with Fei Ming of the weekly journal Luotuo cao 傶催㥹 (Camel grass), Feng Zhi began to feel that his creative expression, from conception to practice, had fallen into a rut. He then spent fijive years living and studying in Germany, where he became interested in existentialism and deeply influenced by the modernist work of Rainier Maria Rilke. In September 1935, Feng Zhi returned, and with the influence of Rilke and the surrounding Chinese realities over a sustained period of time, in 1941 he fijinally broke through his extended “writer’s block” and produced Shisihang ji ॱഋ㹼䳶 (Collected sonnets). With both philosophical depth and acute perception about Chinese reality, the book is a condensation of Feng’s lived experience. Compared with his Zuori zhi ge ᱘ᰕѻⅼ (Songs of yesterday), Shisihang ji is clearly a work of considerable maturity. From the point of view of its modernist sensibility and style, we can say that it is in fact a development and elaboration of the modernism of the 1930s. Modernism continued to develop into the 1940s. However, the word “modernism” began to absorb diffferent meanings. Behind the lines of the War of Resistance, at the Southwest Associated University (Xi’nan lianda 㾯ই㚄བྷ) in Kunming, there was considerable academic freedom, revolutionary poetry recitation was very popular, and there were many who continued to pursue Eliotesque poetry. The English scholar William Empson was himself present at Southwest Associated University, where he taught modern Western poetry and deeply influenced many students. At this time, there were many faculty who were also poets and very much engaged in the production of some important texts of New Poetry, from Feng Zhi’s Shisihang ji to Bian Zhilin’s Shinian shicao ॱᒤ䈇㥹 (Poems of a decade) and Wen Yiduo’s Xiandai shige ⧠ԓ䈇ⅼ (Modern poems). In addition, there was the perspicacious poetry criticism of Zhu Ziqing ᵡ㠚␵ (1898–1948), Wen Yiduo, and Li Guangtian, collectively afffording students a rich learning resource. Of the students, Mu Dan ぶᰖ (1918–1977), Zheng Min 䜁᭿ (b. 1920), and Du Yunxie ᶌ䘀⠞ (1915–2002) were the most accomplished, and Wen Yiduo’s Modern Poetry Drafts (Xiandai shichao ⧠ԓ䈇ᢴ) provided a selection of many of their poems. In the latter part of the 1940s, two journals emerged from this environment: Shi chuangzao 䈇ࡋ䙐 (Poetry composition) and Zhongguo xinshi ѝഭᯠ䈇 (Chinese 23 

Xu Chi, “Xu Chi zizhuan.”



New Poetry). The poets published included Hang Yuehe ᶝ㓖䎛 (pen name of Cao Xinzhi ᴩ䗋ѻ, 1917–1995), Chen Jingrong 䱸ᮜᇩ (1917–1989), Wang Xindi ⦻䗋ㅋ (1912–2004), Yuan Kejia 㺱ਟహ (b. 1921), Tang Qi ୀ⽸ (1920–1990), Tang Shi ୀ⒌ (1920–2005), and others. These writers were all under the influence of Eliot, Rilke, and Auden, at the same time that they drew their inspiration from Feng Zhi, Bian Zhilin, Ai Qing, and Dai Wangshu. These writers made greater use of a new realism to substantiate and strengthen their work, so that modernism and realism could come together in a mutually benefijicial and complementary fashion. Regarding the poetry of the Modernists, critics have been divided. There are those who say that they are the beginning of Chinese New Poetry’s resplendence, taking symbolism and making it a major new wave of poetic expression. And there are those who severely criticize the work of the Modernists, observing that the negative characteristics greatly outnumber the strengths of this work. With the objectivity of history, we can clearly see that, although modernist poetry is rife with stifling pedantry and self-absorbed narcissism, and even though it is often weak, efffete, morose, and not to be emulated, still the poets worked hard at their ivory tower creations, creating some worthwhile, even occasionally precious cultural products. A modernist poetry with a proselike beauty enriched New Poetry’s form and style, strengthening its expressive capability. The focus of the Modernists on “pure poetry” and their pursuit of the philosophical in poetry distinguished it clearly from prose, raising the quality of the poetry. Through the activities of the Modernists, a host of complicated issues, such as the essential quality of poetry, the function of obscurantism, the balance of free verse versus rhyme and meter, image and connectivity, and so on all achieved a more substantive discourse. The Modernists left behind a body of poetic works that, in their misty beauty and half-transparent state, are still quite readable today, with lingering beauty for every reader. These selfabsorbed lyrical expressions of the poets’ internal psychological worlds are in clear discord with the era of ethnic, economic, and national struggle during which they were composed, but they do also reflect, in an indirect way, the society of their time and allow us to understand well the internal feelings of the intellectuals of the period. Lenin once said: “Loneliness is no small matter.” People’s emotional worlds cannot be casually dispatched or worse yet ignored altogether; emotional and spiritual pain is the kind of pain that is hardest to relieve. Compared to material lack, emotional lack is by far more unbearable. Modernist poetry gives us a deep impression of this. The Modernist poets, in their careful acquisition of elements from both Chinese and Western traditions, showed themselves to be highly conscientious not only from the point of view of a comparative literature—Dai Wangshu

The Origins and Historical Development of the Modernist Poets


had translated French scholar Paul Van Tieghem’s On Comparative Literature (1931)—but also in their practice of absorbing the strengths and carefully eschewing the weaknesses of each tradition. From the Symbolists and Imagists they obtained a poetic feeling and the art of poetry, but their voices remained their own, and so did their styles. In sum, the Modernists produced a wave of poetic composition that simply cannot be overlooked when examining the evolution and development of New Poetry in China.

chapter 2

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back: Feng Zhi’s Modernist Aesthetics and Poetic Practice Géraldine Fiss

Feng Zhi 俞㠣 (1905–1993), one of modern China’s greatest poets, conceived of nature as an “open secret” that could be revealed only by a deeply perceptive artist able to craft “living images of the objective world.”1 Writing about the life and work of Goethe (1749–1842) in 1985, in the fijinal decade of Feng’s life, Feng celebrates Goethe’s capacity to see “the grand in the minuscule, overall oneness within each individual element, infijinity in that which is fijinite, and eternity in a single instant” (“Thoughts,” 77). Feng’s emphasis on this particular approach to the art and practice of poetry is no accident; it represents the condensation of a lifetime spent thinking about and creating modern poetry. In his collection of essays titled Lun Gede 䄆ⅼᗧ (On Goethe), which he composed at two very diffferent times in his life, from 1941 to 1947 and from 1978 to 1987, Feng draws numerous parallels and connections between the German Romantic thinker Goethe and the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu ᶌ⭛ (712–770). Particularly in his critical essays “Gede yu Du Fu” ⅼᗧ㠷ᶌ⭛ (Goethe and Du Fu) and “Gedanken zu Goethes Gedichten” (Thoughts about Goethe’s poetry), which he published in German in 1985, Feng emphasizes the inner resonance between these two poets’ aesthetic-intellectual philosophies, life experiences, and lyrical modes of expression. The way in which Feng understands and interprets Goethe by relating him to Du Fu in these analytical works is, I argue, fundamentally informed by his own poetic credo and the influences he had received from Rainer Maria Rilke’s (1875–1926) modernist poetics. The reflections recorded in On Goethe connect to poetic ideas Feng had initially expressed in his article titled “Li’erke: Wei shi zhounian jiri zuo” 䟼⡮‫ݻ‬: ⛪ॱઘᒤ⾝ᰕ֌ (Rilke: On the tenth anniversary of his death) in 1936, his “Gei yige qingnian shiren de shi fengxin yizhe xu” ㎖а‫ػ‬䶂ᒤ䂙ӪⲴॱሱؑ 䆟㘵ᒿ (Translator’s introduction to Ten letters to a young poet) in 1937, and the 1941 preface to his Shisihangji ॱഋ㹼䳶 (Sonnets, 1942). He later articulated similar poetic-philosophical ideas in a 1987 article titled “Wailai de yangfen” 1  Feng Zhi, “Gedanken zu Goethes Gedichten,” 66. All translations of this German-language essay herein are my own.

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 004

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


ཆֶⲴ伺࠶ (Nourishment from abroad). In what follows, I present an analy-

sis of key themes in Feng Zhi’s poetic thought and delineate his intertextual relations and indebtedness to Rilke, Goethe, and Du Fu, among whom he perceives a correspondence of poetic ideals and practice. This study contributes to existing scholarship about Feng Zhi’s modernist poetics by shedding light on Feng’s philosophical arguments concerning poetics in On Goethe, and tracing how this modernist Chinese poet envisioned a syncretic fusion of classical Chinese aesthetics (Du Fu’s poetry), European Romantic impulses (Goethe’s thought), and modernist poetic practice (Rilke’s experimental innovations). I argue that Feng Zhi, similar to Rilke, Goethe, and Du Fu before him, seeks to transcend the surface of concrete objects to bring to light the invisible substrata of deeper consciousness that informs our lives. He achieves this by writing “thing-poetry” and employing the Rilkean techniques of “turning point,” “transformation,” “sublimation,” and “pure contradiction.” A reading of Feng Zhi’s Sonnets in relation to his mature poetic-philosophical thought and Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus, 1923) illuminates the unique modernist traits of Feng Zhi’s art.


The Thing-Poem in Rilke’s Poetics

Feng Zhi was, like Rilke, concerned with developing a new conception of the relationship between subject and object by presenting an interior landscape in which subject and object are suspended in an indeterminate, fluid space of an all-encompassing, organic whole that subsumes both the “I” and “other” of external reality. By thus projecting the poet’s psyche onto the exterior world, both Rilke and Feng Zhi destabilize received notions of fijixed subjectivity and instead propose the idea that sensory perception is critical in the constitution of any idea of self.2 The lyric form that both poets choose to metaphorically depict this precarious, aesthetic form of self-knowledge is the modernist thingpoem in which the “subject is both observing its own soul and entering the soul of objects.”3 The purpose of Rilke’s “thing-poem” was to describe with utmost clarity a great variety of physical objects and to focus especially on “the silence of their

2  This idea is related to the simultaneous evolution of early psychology as well as the thought of Henri Bergson (1859–1941), who convinced many thinkers that immediate experience and intuition are more signifijicant than rationalism and science for understanding reality. See Judith Ryan, The Vanishing Subject, 10–12. 3  Ulrich Baer, The Poet’s Guide to Life, xviii.



concentrated reality” (Ulrich Baer, The Poet’s Guide to Life, 10). As he wrote in a letter to his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé in 1903, “The thing is defijinite, the artthing must still be more defijinite; removed from all accident, left away from all obscurity, withdrawn from time and given over to space, it has become enduring, capable of eternity. The model seems, the art-thing is” (The Poet’s Guide, 154, original emphasis). A thing-poem thus presents an object’s efffects upon the poet’s consciousness, rather than chronicling the poet’s emotional or cognitive responses to it. As the psychological distinction between the observer and object under observation melts, it becomes clear that the task of the artist, in Rilke’s view, is to completely shed his own subjectivity (and narrative voice) and to engage in pure objectivity (becoming one with the object) so as to “transform the visible into the invisible, the outward into the inward, so that he [the artist] would fijinally become the world” (The Poet’s Guide, 160). This approach, wrote Rilke, would lead to “the substance of the Things revealed as pure Being, a hypostatic realization of the unutterable” (The Poet’s Guide, 62). The landscape of things in Rilke’s poems becomes in some cases a snapshot of human life and in others a luminous description of the perceiving artist’s own “worldinnerspace” or, as Rilke also called it, an individual’s “heart space” (The Poet’s Guide, 67). Already in 1898, Rilke wrote these words, which express his conception of the true purpose for poetic art: I consider art to be the individual’s efffort to come to an agreement with all things beyond the narrow and obscure, with the smallest as well as the largest, and to further approach in such consistent dialogues all of life’s ultimate, quiet sources. The secrets of things fuse inside this individual with his most profound sensations and become audible for him, as if they were his proper longings. The rich language of these intimate confessions is what we call beauty. The Poet’s Guide, 140

One aspect of Rilke’s thing-poetics, which would become very important for Feng Zhi, is his idea that poetic language possesses the power not only to reflect but indeed to create reality. External reality, feared Rilke, was in danger of vanishing, and it was important, he felt, for human beings to rebuild their intimate connections to things so that their lives would again be fijilled with humanity, authenticity, and truth.4 Poetry, for Rilke, was an ontological necessity as it permitted him to go beyond the surface of concrete objects and to 4  Renate Breuninger, Wirklichkeit in der Dichtung Rilkes, 25.

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


create a “second nature” of poetic art that was intelligible, true, and authentic. The task of art was therefore not merely to represent reality but to transform it into what he termed “the invisible.”5 By “going within,” into his own solitude, the poet creates poems that are “intimate confessions” of all things and beings in the world, endowing them with meaning and signifijicance.6 The practice of thing-poetry, in this sense, was a way for Rilke to escape the inauthentic world of “mere appearances” (The Poet’s Guide, 24), which to him seemed empty, false, and devoid of truth. It was also a response to the cataclysmic changes in human consciousness that had occurred as a by-product of modernization and the traumatic “destruction of civilization and reason” (Judith Ryan, Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition, 51) he experienced during World War I.7 In his understanding of “depth within surface,” Rilke was influenced by Nietzsche, who locates meaning in the aesthetic surface that dialectically evokes the depth beneath this surface.8 Nietzsche writes, in one of his last works, Nietzsche contra Wagner: “They know how to live: what is needed for that is to stop bravely at the surface, the fold, the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in shapes, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superfijicial—out of profundity!”9 Essence, for Nietzsche, is abstracted from appearance, and style is that which gives meaning to life through representation. Similar to Nietzsche, Rilke also believed in the primacy of aesthetics over metaphysics and concurred that “style is to be imposed on the crude matter of reality through a superior act of artistic will” (Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, Modernism, 67). This increased attention to the formal surface of art is one of the most fundamental impulses of the modernist age. The fusion of the external with the internal and the projection of exterior reality upon an “audible landscape of interiority” was Rilke’s self-proclaimed purpose (The Poet’s Guide, 130). Throughout his entire poetic career, he sought to “listen to things,” give objective shape to human emotions, and allow language itself to “become the carrier of being” (Rilke, Modernism, 63). Believing that “beauty dwells and is awake in each thing,” Rilke interlocks his descriptions of everyday objects with transcendent themes and, similar to the French Symbolist poets, renders in language “that which otherwise cannot be represented in visible, audible and tangible reality” (Rilke, Modernism, 75). 5  Klaus Mühl, Verwandlung im Werk Rilkes, 22. 6  Judith Ryan, Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition, 31. 7  Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890–1930, 69. 8  Ben Hutchinson, Modernism and Style, 64. 9  Robert Solomon, Nietzsche, 73, original italics.

42 2


Islands of Authenticity: Feng Zhi’s Poetic Response to Rilke

In the process of translating Rilke’s poems and letters into Chinese, Feng Zhi absorbed Rilke’s thought about thing-poetry and understood it deeply. First, he intuitively shares Rilke’s coalescing of poetry and the plastic arts. Already in 1931, just several months after his arrival in Heidelberg, Feng wrote in a letter to his mentor Yang Hui ὺᲖ (1899–1983): “A poem should be made in the way a statue is created by the sculptor. Completely unexpectedly, when I came to Germany and encountered Rilke’s poetry, I found that most of his poems are nothing but statues—I was overjoyed!”10 In his 1936 article “Rilke: On the tenth anniversary of his death,” he expands this thought: “He [Rilke] changed the musical to the plastic, the flowing to the crystal, the boundless ocean to the heavy mountain.”11 He then carefully describes Rilke’s method of observation and poetic creation: He began to observe: with the pure love he had within himself, he watched myriads of things in the universe. He observed the petals of roses, the buds of poppies, a panther, a rhinoceros, a swan, flamingos, a black cat; then prisoners, a woman after an illness, an adult woman, a courtesan, lunatics, beggars, an old woman, a blind man; he watched a mirror, beautiful lace, the fate of a woman, childhood. To all and everything he behaved in an open manner, with a heart full of understanding and calmly listened to their words or mute expressions; together with them he bore their fates that interested no one. He looked at every single thing about him as if it had just come out of God’s hands; thus, he undressed them from culture’s cloak and observed them with primitive eyes…. In this way, Rilke carefully discovered the souls of many objects and saw the manner of many objects. He wanted to hold onto these various afffairs that had never been paid attention to since the beginning of life. He wanted to express all these things through writing. To him, writing became the rock or jade that is not overly carved, or rock or jade that has never been carved. feng zhi, “Rilke,” 84

This passage reveals that Feng Zhi was acutely aware of certain themes that lie at the heart of Rilke’s thought. First, he emphasizes the objective, neutral act of the observation of things in the natural and human world, allowing various 10  11 

Márian Gálik, “Feng Zhi and His Goethean Sonnet,” 122. Feng Zhi, “Li’erke: Wei shi zhounian jiri zuo,” 82.

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


manifestations of life to “have their own world.” The expansiveness of his vision includes all of life, not just the beautiful and lovely but also “prisoners,” “a woman after illness,” “a courtesan,” “beggars,” “a blind man,” and all manner of things that may be difffijicult and painful. While the poet, as Feng emphasizes in this essay, should not “ostensibly discuss himself or express his personal sadness,” it is his task “to carefully discover the souls of many objects, and see the manner of many things” (“Rilke,” 87). This ability to enter deeply into the reality of entities external to the poet’s self is something that Feng values in Rilke because it permits the poet to “express all these things through writing” so that the objects in the world may be united to form a “true, solemn and existing republic” (“Rilke,” 88) echoing the Rilkean ideal of an unbroken cosmic whole (Einheit) to which all beings belong. Like Rilke, Feng understands that the poet’s subjectivity must fuse with external aspects so as to reflect reality truthfully in art and express the metaphysical idea of wholeness. Most importantly, Feng Zhi tells us that the true poet “undresses [things] from culture’s cloak, and observes them with primitive eyes” (“Rilke,” 85). In an essay titled “Nourishment from abroad,” which he published in 1987, Feng writes: “An artist must live alone and removed from society’s customs so as to humbly and seriously observe all objects, to discover their true qualities.”12 The value of such alone-ness lies in obtaining the time and independence to see the world from within oneself: Regarding observing all on earth, when an artist models after an object, s/he must: see all the parts of the object, hide nothing and neglect nothing; recognize all sides, see all from top to bottom, and every intersection. Then, once an object exists, it is an island, completely disconnected from the unstable mainland. This “unstable mainland” is referring to the inherited customs; often they cover up the original appearances of objects, and blur the true qualities of the things. Artists and poets must break away from customs and humbly and seriously observe all objects, to discover their true qualities. Since Rilke attained this recognition, he put it into action and observed the world’s abstract and concrete objects. Similar to how Rodin sculpted all types of persons and objects out of stone, Rilke worked words into poetry, incarnating the existences of all types of people and things. feng zhi, “Nourishment from abroad,” 195


Feng Zhi, “Wailai de yangfen,” 193.



Feng Zhi celebrates the poet’s ability to observe objects and to create “islands of authenticity” that exist independently of the “unstable mainland” of conventional reality. He also again draws a parallel between the sculptor and poet. Throughout his critical texts, Feng calls for a return to a more innocent and authentic childlike way of seeing and perceiving the world, evoking Rilke’s ideal of the “all-knowing, uncomprehending wise child” (The Poet’s Guide, 65). Indeed, Rilke distinguishes the natural state of wise knowledge, akin to a child’s, from the superfijicial understanding of what he terms “the meaningless chatter and preoccupations with the empty customs” of a deceiving, illusory world (Scheinwelt; Renate Breuninger, Reality in the Poetry of Rilke, 25). Feng attributes to Rilke’s mode of poetic art the power to reflect meaning precisely because he is able to focus profoundly and “enter into” the things of this world. Finally, Feng Zhi emphasizes the power of poems to praise objects, further revealing a concern for Rilke’s belief that “in praising, one can transcend the limitations of the self and access a higher truth” (The Poet’s Guide, 194; original emphasis). Both Rilke and Feng Zhi engage in moments of transcendental praise and subsequent transformation in their sonnets. Feng Zhi goes on to explain Rilke’s linked powers of observation and poetic reflection by emphasizing the need to remain rooted in mundane reality and to immerse oneself in varied as well as direct experience. “Selection and rejection” are the attitudes of many people; we always hear others say, this is not poetic material, it cannot be incorporated into poems, but Rilke responded by saying that we already have emotions, what we need is experience: like the experience of Buddhist followers, transforming into all beings in order to taste the concerns of the common people. He said in his Jottings: “We must observe numerous cities, observe people and objects, we must understand animals, we must feel how birds fly, know the manner of how tiny flowers bloom in the morning.” … This is Rilke’s poems’ confession; at the same time this is how he lived. feng zhi, “Rilke,” 86

The genesis of poetry, writes Feng, is human experience and activities, such as “observing,” “feeling,” “knowing,” “recollecting,” and “remembering,” and what poetry provides us is not emotion but “experience.” He relates this Rilkean notion of “experience” to the endeavor by Buddhist followers to “transform into all beings in order to taste the concerns of common people.” Feng attributes to poetry the power not only to observe but to deeply experience reality. By using the word “confession” in the fijinal line, he evokes Rilke’s stated priority to “bear witness to all of life” (The Poet’s Guide, 31).

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


Expanding his explanation of Rilke’s poetic purpose by focusing on the linked concepts of loneliness and authenticity in his “Translator’s introduction to Ten letters to a young poet” Feng Zhi has this to say about his German forebear: But he tells us, when people arrive on earth, it is difffijicult and lonely. All individuals on earth are like trees in a garden, planted side-by-side. The leaves and branches may have some interaction with each other, but the trees’ roots, which are intertwined underground to absorb nutrients, are independent of each other; they are silent and lonely. People are usually so occupied with unnecessary hustle and bustle that they forget that the root of life cannot be left in loneliness, and when observing plants and animals (like us, they also are living beings) to experience some meaning in life, they only slide down forever on the outer surface of life. As such, nature has no such thing as difffijiculty or loneliness. There is only deception and concealment. The tools of deception and concealment, as Rilke tells us, are society’s customs. feng zhi, “Translator’s introduction,” 282

While Feng Zhi responded to Rilke’s strong focus on things, he was also struck by Rilke’s attitude toward the experience of loneliness, which in turn caused him to reflect on the diffference between the empty, illusory world (“the deception and concealment of society’s customs”) and the necessity to “live genuinely” (Feng Zhi, “Translator’s introduction,” 283). The presence of loneliness leads to the cardinal question of interhuman communication in the split and alienated world of the period during which both Rilke and Feng Zhi were composing their poems. Like Rilke, Feng Zhi yearned to be a poet who could see and reflect “things” through the original prism of his own experience and knowledge.13


Nature as an Open Secret

When we read Feng Zhi’s essay “Goethe and Du Fu” in On Goethe, it becomes clear that Feng’s core understanding of the relationship among the poet’s self, the act of writing, and things in the world is similar to Rilke’s. However, rather than focusing on the transformation of the artist into the described object, as Rilke does, Feng Zhi compares the ways in which Goethe and Du Fu observe 13 

Feng Zhi, “Gei yige qingnian shiren de shi feng xin yizhe xu,” 282.



nature. While Feng Zhi and Rilke reach a similar conclusion—that a portrayal of the life within objects may yield insights about the nature of human experiences and emotions—the way in which the two poets articulate their poetic-aesthetic ideas difffer. Goethe and Du Fu become conduits for Feng Zhi to express a theoretical concept that is shaped by Feng’s reading of Rilke but also by much older classical Chinese aesthetic principles.14 In the third section of his essay, titled “Shi yu ziran” 䂙㠷㠚❦ (Poetry and nature), Feng describes Goethe’s mode of observing nature thus: Goethe believed that everything in the universe exists within the alternating processes of systolic and diastolic forces, that everything continuously evolves and never remains static. With this thought as his guiding principle, he observed everything in nature and also applied this idea to the study of human beings, literature, and art. He used natural phenomena like the inhaling and exhaling of living things (including human beings), the systolic and diastolic contractions of the heart muscle, and the metamorphoses of plants and animals to convey concretely the laws of nature in his poetry and other writings. This is the everlasting formula of life. feng zhi, “Goethe and Du Fu,” 183

Feng presents evidence from Goethe’s lyrical poems that substantiates his assertion that Goethe’s whole poetic system was directly related to his empirical observation of natural phenomena. The rhythmic life force, symbolized by the act of breathing, becomes recreated in his poetry. The purpose of Goethe’s art is therefore to “reveal the secret of nature” by mirroring the ever-present rhythm of exhaling and inhaling that defijines a living being’s interchange with the world. Feng also foregrounds the contradictory tension between the systolic and the diastolic that Goethe recognized and sought to portray in his verse. Goethe said, “Whoever nature reveals her open secret to, that individual then feels an irresistible desire and longing for the most valuable explainer, art.” This quotation indicates that art is the most suitable medium to unveil this “open secret,” which also reflects the dialectical relationship between the systolic and diastolic. feng zhi, “Goethe and Du Fu,” 184 14 

Feng Zhi, “Gede yu Du Fu,” 174–190.

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


Most important, Feng Zhi here emphasizes Goethe’s reference to art as the “most valuable explainer.” Art, Feng means to say, is a medium that allows human beings to gain insight into the workings of the natural world. Feng agrees with Goethe that art, and particularly poetic art, can “unveil the open secret” of reality that otherwise would remain incomprehensible. In his essay, Feng Zhi perceives a close afffijinity between Du Fu and Goethe as both of them engaged in this kind of careful empirical observation of nature and then superimposed their own feelings upon the external landscape, creating an “interior landscape” of the soul. Du Fu could not study nature systematically as Goethe did, who deduced a set of laws and conscientiously included them in his work, having them as both the guiding principle and the form of expression. Nevertheless, Du Fu was also very meticulous and extensive in his observation of nature…. If he did not observe so precisely, he would not have been able to write such poetry; if he did not have deep feelings toward nature, he would not have been able to write such poetry. In addition, he often incorporated his own ideologies and emotions into the objective objects, which caused the objective and subjective, the individual and natural, emotions and scenery to be united. feng zhi, “Goethe and Du Fu,” 184

At the heart of true poetry, Feng writes, lies the capacity to observe carefully and reflect natural phenomena. But the more critical talent of a poet lies in his ability to “have feeling” for these natural phenomena. The joining of careful observation, description, and feeling within the poetic line is the special power of the revealer-poet. It is this quality that Feng perceives in both Goethe and Du Fu. At the end of his essay, he writes: When I fijirst began discussing the relationship between Du Fu and nature, Du Fu and Goethe had no similarities. But at this point, though Du Fu and Goethe began from diffferent directions, they have met with each other. This is because Du Fu’s poetry also reflects the patterns of systolic and diastolic forces…. In the “Annotations and Discussions” of Goethe’s East-West Divan, he discusses the art of Persian poetry: “It is eternally diastolic and systolic; … it is constantly walking toward infijinity, but immediately returns to a fijixed area.” Du Fu’s poetry is unrelated to Persian poetry, yet this quote is also applicable to Du Fu’s works. feng zhi, “Goethe and Du Fu,” 185



Feng Zhi concludes his comparison of Goethe and Du Fu by observing an “inner resonance” between the two masters, particularly with respect to their ability to mirror the laws of nature in concrete images and words. This essay reveals an important aspect of Feng’s worldview in that it shows that he conceived of Du Fu and Goethe on the same continuum. Feng Zhi, in his essay “Thoughts about Goethe’s Poetry,” which he composed in German, elaborates on this relationship of equivalence between classical Chinese poetics and Goethe’s work. Writing about Goethe, he elucidates what the Romantic poet meant when he equated nature with an “open secret”: Nature reveals itself without reserve to human beings. She does not hold back or conceal anything and serves us selflessly for the purposes of admiration or scientifijic inquiry. Some of her laws and contradictions have already been discovered, while others must still be studied in depth. All these laws and contradictions are full of secrets for us. This is what Goethe called the “open secret.” … All things that could be understood but have not yet been understood or are very difffijicult to grasp he named in this way. feng zhi, “Thoughts,” 67

In particular, he focuses on the poet’s power to portray through the description of individual, concrete things greater universal laws of nature. Poetry, Feng writes, is a means to uncover the “laws and contradictions” inherent within natural and human nature. Throughout his essay, he emphasizes the need for poetry to focus upon the particular and concrete object in nature in order to deduce more generally valid insights. The most important thing for a poet, writes Feng Zhi, is “to always perceive in the particular and concrete an image or metaphor of that which appears in general to be true” (“Thoughts,” 73). “Only by connecting the individual and particular with the universal can a higher poetic perspective be attained. If a poem is exclusively focused on describing the particular objectively, then a greater, more general truth cannot emerge. Such poems also cannot be conceived of as masterpieces” (Feng Zhi, “Thoughts,” 71). The important talent of a poet, Feng emphasizes, is to create living images of the particular, concrete object, for only in “capturing the liveliness of these objects without being fully aware of it” will the poet intuitively “receive the universal, general truth” at the same time (“Thoughts,” 71). This technique, according to Feng, relates to Goethe’s practice of poetry but also to the nature of poetry overall. He recalls that this same idea has also been expressed by Chinese classical poetics in the notion of bi ∄ and xing 㠸, where bi refers to

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


direct comparison and xing embodies indirect association.15 Feng then proceeds to articulate his understanding of art as a “second nature”: One feels that the world revealed by the poet, in which revelation and secret exist simultaneously, becomes a form of “second nature.” Goethe himself often called a completed work of art the “work of nature” and described such works of art as “living, highly organized forms of nature.” One could say that the most perfect kind of poetry and art can reveal nature, but since they are a “second nature” they also have their “open secret” and must be studied and interpreted by readers and researchers. feng zhi, “Thoughts,” 67

Art, Feng ventures, is “more highly organized” and therefore more illuminating than nature itself. Nevertheless, this “second nature” that exists parallel to the natural world must be studied, researched, and interpreted in order to be fully understood. But to divine the grand from the minuscule, the greater whole from the individual fragment, infijinity from that which is fijinite, and eternity from an instant … this spirit permeates the best of Goethe’s poems and expresses the true essence of poetry. A very similar poetic perspective exists in classical Chinese poetry. Many Chinese poems in the Shijing 䂙㏃, the Chuci ᾊ䗝, and in the work of Du Fu absorb living images from the world to express the poet’s inner world. feng zhi, “Thoughts,” 72


Often, classical Chinese poetry juxtaposes a natural scene with a social or personal situation. The reader of the poem sees the similarity in the natural description and the human condition, and comes to a new awareness of each by this contrast. In Chinese, this idea is embodied in the terms fu 䌖, bi ∄, and xing 㠸. Fu refers to a straightforward narrative with a beginning, middle, and conclusion that stands by itself. Bi, literally “against,” implies a comparison or contrast, placing two things side by side. When one takes two diffferent fu, and places them together, the two create a bi. This results in xing, a mental stimulation or “lightning” that pervades the mind of the reader, bringing new insight or awareness into the nature of the individual fu that compose the poem. Confucius stated that this xing is the purpose of poetry, that the point of a poem was to make the mind contemplate its subject deeply. See Ming Dong Gu, “Fu-Bi-Xing: A Metatheory of Poetry-Making,” 1–22.



To substantiate his analysis of Goethe’s poetry, Feng Zhi draws a parallel between Goethe and Lu Ji 䲨₏ (261–303), a Chinese poet and literary theorist.16 Lu Ji, in his important text Wen fu ᮷䌖 (Poetic exposition on literature), describes the purpose of poetry as “observing the past and the present simultaneously, and touching the four oceans in the same instant.”17 Lu also speaks of the need to “place heaven and earth within the same frame and capture all things of the world with the point of the writing brush” (Hammill, The Art of Writing, 28). All great poets of world literature, writes Feng, are capable of expanding the intellectual horizons of their readers by means of “one immense, powerful surge” and, in so doing, “encourage all human beings to constantly continue to strive” (“Thoughts,” 72). What Feng Zhi emphasizes throughout his reflections in these two essays is the importance of composing a poem in the direct observation of a concrete phenomenon or object of natural reality. It is this concreteness and lack of abstraction, and the ability to mirror the laws of nature in images and words, that Feng Zhi values and which lead him to detect an inner resonance among Goethe, Du Fu, Rilke, and himself.


The Orphic Songs of Two Sonneteers

When we read Feng Zhi’s famous 1942 sonnet cycle Shisihang ji, we are inevitably curious about the following questions: How do his theoretical beliefs, which he had so carefully articulated in his nonpoetic writings, come alive in his poetry? How do the philosopher’s concerns regarding the true perception of reality, the revelatory power of art, the need for authenticity, and the fusion of subjective and objective dimensions of existence become concretely expressed in his sonnets? How does Feng Zhi craft an innovative, new form of modernist poetry by means of transforming and integrating foreign poetic structures? How does he achieve a creative synthesis of classical Chinese poetics and modernist German ideas in his verse? 16 


Lu Ji 䲨₏ (261–303), style name Shiheng ༛㺑, was a renowned Chinese literary critic and the fijirst important writer to emerge from the kingdom of Wu (222–280). His most important work is Wen fu ᮷䌖 (Poetic exposition on literature), a subtle and important work of literary criticism. This celebrated essay on literature, in which he enunciated principles of composition with rare insight and precision, was written as a fu 䌖, an intricately structured form of poetry mixed with prose often called “rhymeprose.” Lu Ji’s work emphasized the importance of originality in creative writing and discredited the longestablished practice of imitating the great masters of the past. Sam Hamill, The Art of Writing, 23.

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


As Lloyd Haft has argued, Feng Zhi’s sonnets are a “sophisticated hybrid form” that, though composed in baihua ⲭ䂡 (vernacular language), maintain the formal symmetry and proportion of classical poetry.18 The foreign mold of the sonnet form applies a metrical scale to vernacular Chinese while allowing the poet’s inner thoughts to be made manifest. In each sonnet, Feng engages in a “trancelike contact with objects” and creates a brief meditative moment that, as Wai-lim Yip pointed out, “aims at presenting ordinary things as signifijicant existences.”19 With great artistry, Feng Zhi fashions concise, memorable lines that are ostensibly outward-directed but in fact convey his innermost thoughts. When we read Feng Zhi’s Sonnet 24 in conjunction with Sonnet 1 of part 2 of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, we see a beautiful embodiment of the idea of “worldspace,” particularly the continuous, rhythmic interchange of the interiority and exteriority of that space. Here is Rilke’s sonnet: Breathing, you invisible poem! Worldspace in pure continuous interchange with my own being. Equipoise in which I rhythmically transpire. Single wave whose gradual sea am I; of all possible seas the most frugal,— windfall of space. How many of these places in space were once in me. Many a breeze is like my son. Do you recognize me, air, you, full of places once mine? You, once the smooth rind, orb, and leaf of my words.20

18  19  20 

Lloyd Haft, A Selective Guide to Chinese Literature, 16. Wai-lim Yip, Lyrics from Shelters, 35. Edward Snow, The Poetry of Rilke, 405.



In Rilke’s poem, there is a lack of demarcation between realms of existence. Rilke presents his self as a “single wave whose gradual sea am I” and locates his being within the many spaces of natural phenomena. Feng Zhi’s sonnet expresses a similar idea of “oneness” and cosmic interrelatedness in the universe, but there is one important diffference: Unlike Rilke, Feng Zhi focuses on the notion of eternal, continuous existence in past, present, and future time. Imagining that “here, a thousand years ago, everywhere, our lives seem to have been before we were born,” he situates selfhood in present existence, in memory of the past, and in anticipation of the future. There is no rhythmic fragmentation, as in Rilke’s poem, but instead an understanding that a song “had already been sung” about the collective fate of mankind. The sky, the green grass, and the pines know this song, but humans “burdened by hardships” are still seeking to hear it.21 Here, a thousand years ago Everywhere, our lives seem to have been Before we were born. A song had already been sung from the elusive sky, From green grass and pines about our fate. We are burdened by hardships here, how can we hear such a song? Look, the tiny insect in its flight, it is eternity all the time. dominic cheung, Feng Chih, 87


Throughout this study, I gratefully cite and acknowledge Dominic Cheung’s English translations of Feng Zhi’s sonnets.

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


䙉㼑ᒮॳᒤࡽ 㲅㲅ྭ‫ۿ‬ᐢ㏃ ᴹᡁ‫⭏Ⲵف‬ભΧ ᡁ‫ف‬ᵚ䱽⭏ࡽ а‫ػ‬ⅼ㚢ᐢ㏃ ᗎ䆺ᒫⲴཙオˈ ᗎ㏐㥹઼䶂ᶮ ୡᡁ‫Ⲵف‬ભ䙻DŽ ᡁ‫ف‬ឲᛓ䟽䟽ˈ 䙉㼑ᘾ哬ㄏᴳ 㚭ࡠ䙉⁓Ⲵⅼ㚢? ⴻ䛓ሿⲴ伋㸢ˈ ൘ᆳⲴ伋㘄‫ޗ‬ ᱲᱲ䜭ᱟᯠ⭏DŽ feng zhi, The Sonnets, 239

So as to connect the present with the past and the future, and achieve wholeness, the poet implies that we must “look” and become truly present in the ephemeral moment. For, “the tiny insect in its flight” is “eternity all the time.” Both poets here want to lend metaphoric shape to what Rilke calls “worldspace in pure continuous interchange with my own being” (The Poet’s Guide, 132) and to mirror in poetic form the rhythm of life that encompasses all types of existence. Rilke achieves this by reflecting on the constant movement of water and air, of which he and we are a part. For instance, when he writes “How many spaces in this vast horizon have I been contained within? Many a wind has seemed like my own son,” Rilke underscores the profound interconnectivity between himself and the world around him, as well as the continuation of his self in future generations. Feng Zhi, on the contrary, expresses a similar idea of interconnectedness by transposing upon natural landscapes in the present moment an awareness of the ephemerality of human life and the need to experience eternity in the present. Like Rilke and Goethe before him, Feng situates transcendence in immanence. Both poems embody the poets’ shared belief in the need to live every moment intensively and to perceive one’s life in conjunction with the cosmic universe. Both texts also foreground the importance of sensory perceptions—such as hearing sound, feeling air, seeing an insect’s flight—in the composition and knowledge of subjectivity. The



individual self, they both seem to say, is not an objective, immovable entity separate and distinct from that which lies outside ourselves, but is instead in constant communion with these forces. We are an integral component of the “worldspace” of water, air, and time, and only the music of poetry can allow us to refocus our attention onto the present moment, so as to “perceive eternity in an instant” and thus more fully (and more sensually) experience life, and in so doing deepen knowledge of our selves. Feng Zhi’s Sonnet 2 is another poem that is deeply signifijicant to Feng’s sonnet cycle and poetic thought because it expresses his understanding of the interconnection between life and death. This sonnet also underlines Feng Zhi’s belief that “we have to study nature to get to know human beings as they really are,” which he later articulated in On Goethe (182). What falls from our bodies We allow to turn into dust: We align ourselves in time like autumn trees, each Offfering leaves and belated blossoms to the autumn wind, that our trunks may stretch into frigid winters; We align ourselves with nature: molted cicada Leaving its discarded skin in soil and mud; We arrange ourselves for that Coming death, a passage of the song, Falling from the corpus of music And only the body remains, Transformed, a series of silent mountains. dominic cheung, Feng Chih, 79

⭊哬㜭ᗎᡁ‫ف‬䓛к㝛㩭ˈ ᡁ‫ف‬䜭䇃ᆳॆ‫ڊ‬ລෳΧ ᡁ‫ف‬ᆹᧂᡁ‫ف‬൘䙉ᱲԓ ‫⿻ۿ‬ᰕⲴ⁩ᵘˈаἥἥ ᢺ⁩㩹઼Ӌ䙾䚢Ⲵ㣡ᵥ 䜭Ӕ㎖⿻付ˈྭ㡂䮻⁩䓛 ը‫ޕ‬೤ߜΧᡁ‫ف‬ᆹᧂᡁ‫ف‬ ൘㠚❦㼑ˈ‫ۿ‬㴫ॆⲴ㸜㴮

From Du Fu to Rilke and Back


ᢺ⇈⇬䜭я൘⌕㼑൏㼑Χ ᡁ‫ف‬ᢺᡁ‫ف‬ᆹᧂ㎖䛓‫ػ‬ ᵚֶⲴ↫ӑˈ‫ۿ‬а⇥ⅼᴢˈ ⅼ㚢ᗎ丣′Ⲵ䓛к㝛㩭ˈ ↨㍲࢙лҶ丣′Ⲵ䓛䓰 ॆ‫ڊ‬а㜸Ⲵ䶂ኡ唈唈DŽ feng zhi, The Sonnets, 217

Envisioning “us” as trees, he traces the slow transformation that occurs in nature every autumn. His minute, careful description of leaves, the tree trunk, the wind, and the change in temperature becomes an evocation of the experience of death. And yet he equates both the tree and death with music. This theme of “music within death” or, in other words, “death and subsequent becoming” is an important idea in Feng Zhi’s thought that returns us to the ideas he expressed in his essay “Goethe and Du Fu.” What Feng Zhi means to express in this and other poems is that the “open secret of nature” can be understood only by tracing and fully understanding the constant interplay of alternating systolic and diastolic forces. Just as many love poems speak of the eternal “separation and unifijication” of lovers, so do all natural processes exist in a never-ending process of transformation, creation, and destruction. Only careful observation enables us to gain insight into the workings of nature, and only creative works of art, particularly the visual arts and poetry, are able to reflect the laws that govern the universe. Feng Zhi returns to Du Fu’s theme of “hills of the heart” that we fijind in Goethe’s work and that also appears in Rilke’s poetry. Feng then echoes this metaphor in the fijinal line of Sonnet 2 when he writes “and only the body remains, transformed, a series of silent mountains.” Again, we see here that it is the poetic technique of exact observation of the natural world and the transposition of internal feelings upon empirical reality that allows the poet to express deeper truths about the constant, necessary, and organic connection between life and death. This theme also allows us to further trace the inner connection that Feng Zhi perceived among Du Fu, Goethe, Rilke, and his own lyrical experiments.



The aesthetic synthesis that informs Feng Zhi’s poetic practice is molded by both Chinese poetics and Western influences. When we read Feng Zhi’s poetry closely, and analyze it in conjunction with his early poetic thought as well as later, more mature reflections in On Goethe, it becomes apparent that he conceives of an inner resonance between poets as disparate as Du Fu, Goethe,



and Rilke, and that he envisions the possibility, within his own work, to create a new mode of Chinese writing that is dialogically connected to all of them. In order to fulfijill the German Romantic Goethean ideal of revealing the “open secret” of nature, Feng Zhi employs Rilke’s modernist conception of “thingpoetry” and adapts this technique to his own needs, engendering new forms of modernist innovation in Chinese poetry. Feng Zhi responds to the idea of interconnectivity and hope that led Rilke to create the Sonnets to Orpheus in only a few days. But, while Rilke places primary emphasis upon the “Music of the Powers,” Feng foregrounds the Daoist notion of becoming one with the elements surrounding us. Rilke’s sonnets reveal a turning point in the writer’s poetic journey in that, after sufffering deeply in the Duino Elegies, the poet now seeks to overcome the experience of loneliness and pain and to see the earth as a rich, wonderful place that “bestows” and “where the seed turns into summer” (Edward Snow, The Poetry of Rilke, 373). Feng Zhi, in the writing of his sonnets, also reaches a turning point that allows him to gain and express insight into the workings of reality: all elements of the natural world, all experiences and emotions, all “our growth, our grief” (Dominic Cheung, Feng Chih, 84), belong to the same whole. In unifying the European Romantic ideals of humanity and nature with traditional Chinese poetics, Feng Zhi symbolically represents his understanding of the convergence of all things and identities in moments of poetic solitude and silence.

chapter 3

Drama-tic Synthesis: Time, Memory, and History in the Writings of the Nine Leaves Poets Yanhong Zhu

We hope we can have a hope, Then, humiliation, pain, struggle, and death, Because there is courage rushing through our shining blood, Yet in the middle of courage: bewilderment. We hope we can have a hope, It says: I am not beautiful, but I will no longer deceive Because we see in the eyes of the dead The flames of tears flicker in our despair. … We only hope that we can have a hope as revenge. ᡁԜᐼᵋᡁԜ㜭ᴹањᐼᵋˈ ❦ਾ޽ਇ䗡ˈⰋ㤖ˈᥓ᡾ˈ↫ӑ, ഐѪ൘ᡁԜ᰾ӞⲴ㹰䟼྄⍱⵰ࣷᮒˈ ਟᱟ൘ࣷᮒⲴѝᗳ˖㥛❦DŽ ᡁԜᐼᵋᡁԜ㜭ᴹањᐼᵋˈ ᆳ䈤˖ᡁᒦн㖾ѭˈնᡁн޽Ⅺ僇ˈ ഐѪᡁԜⴻ㿱䛓Ѹཊ↫৫ⲴӪⲴ⵬ⶋ ൘ᡁԜⲴ㔍ᵋ䟼䰚⵰⌚Ⲵ⚛❠DŽ DŽDŽDŽ ᡁԜਚᐼᵋᴹањᐼᵋᖃ‫ڊ‬ᣕ༽DŽ —mu dan, “Shigan sishou” ᰦᝏഋ俆

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The Nine Leaves poets (Jiuye shiren ҍਦ䈇Ӫ) were a group of “selfconscious modernists” 㠚㿹Ⲵ⧠ԓѫѹ㘵, representing the “newborn generation of poets” 䈇Ⲵᯠ⭏ԓ, in the words of Tang Shi ୀ⒌ (1920–2005), a poet and literary critic of the Nine Leaves school.1 The school took its name from Jiuye ji ҍਦ䳶 (Nine Leaves collection), a collection of works by nine representative poets of the group published in 1981. Among these nine poets, four of them, Mu Dan ぶᰖ (1918–1977), Du Yunxie ᶌ䘀⠞ (1918–2002), Zheng Min 䜁᭿ (b. 1920), and Yuan Kejia 㺱ਟహ (1921–2008), started to establish themselves as modernist poets when they attended college at Southwest Associated University (Xi’nan lianda 㾯ই㚄བྷ, 1938–1946) in Kunming, where they came into contact with the Western modernist poetic tradition. The other fijive members, Xin Di 䗋ㅋ (1912–2004), Hang Yuehe ᶝ㓖䎛 (1917–1995), Chen Jingrong 䱸ᮜᇩ (1917–1989), Tang Qi ୀ⽸ (1920–1990), and Tang Shi started their poetic careers in various geographical locations during the war era, but were drawn together by their shared poetic sensibilities and gathered in Shanghai in the late 1940s to start publishing poetry journals. It is generally believed that the Nine Leaves school was formed when the journal Shi chuangzao 䈇ࡋ䙐 (Poetry creation, July 1947–June 1948) was published and that the school matured during the publication of another journal, Zhongguo xinshi ѝഭᯠ䈇 (Chinese new poetry, June 1948–October 1948), which created an opportunity for the poets of the Southwest Associated University to join their Shanghai counterparts in poetry writing and publication. The Nine Leaves poets emerged during the tumultuous years of war and social instability in the 1940s, when the literary scene of China was dictated by the policy on literature and art articulated by Mao Zedong ∋⌭ь (1893–1976) at the Yan’an Forum in 1942 that emphasized the importance of political demands over artistic merits.2 Many writers and poets in 1940s China were committed to writing socially engaged works in response to the surging fervor of nationalism as well as the leftist emphasis on the sociopolitical function of literature. The dominant trend of New Poetry in the 1940s, in the opinion of another poet and literary critic of the Nine Leaves school, Yuan Kejia, was toward “the didactic and the sentimental” 䈤ᮉⲴᡆᝏՔⲴ, and the poems lacked “poetic qualities” 䈇Ⲵ㍐䍘.3 Reacting against the contemporary prevailing trend of New Poetry, the poets of the Nine Leaves school made a conscious efffort to strike a balance between aesthetic value and social commitment in their poetic diction, as they employed Western modernist poetic 1  Tang Shi, “Shi de xinshengdai,” 29. 2  Mao Zedong, “Zai Yan’an wenyi zuotanhui shang de jianghua,” 847–879. 3  Yuan Kejia, Bange shiji de jiaoyin—Yuan Kejia shiwenxuan, 68.

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devices in their writing while expanding the thematic scope of their poems, often from introspective and individualistic themes to more socially engaged topics. What they strove to construct through their writing was a new poetic tradition, which Yuan Kejia referred to as “Chinese-style modernism” ѝഭᔿ⧠ ԓѫѹ (Footprints, 2),4 or, more specifijically, “a new synthetic tradition of reality, symbolism, and metaphysics” ⧠ᇎǃ䊑ᖱǃ⦴ᆖⲴᯠⲴ㔬ਸՐ㔏.5 This chapter explores this new poetic tradition through examining the notions of temporality represented in the poetry and poetic criticism of the Nine Leaves poets and delineates the way in which they difffer from the dominant poetic tradition at the time as well as the modernist tradition of the West. This new synthetic tradition that represents “Chinese-style modernism” emphasizes what I term “drama-tic synthesis,” with the word drama-tic carrying two levels of meaning, both of which reject linear temporality as the organizing frame for New Poetry. On the one hand, “drama-tic synthesis” refers to a kind of synthesis that relates to drama, or, in Yuan Kejia’s words, the “dramatization in poetry” ᯠ䈇ᠿࢗॆ. Yuan proposes that the modernization of Chinese New Poetry can be achieved through “dramatization in poetry,” a poetic device that has been employed in the West by modernists such as Rilke and Auden (Footprints, 68–71). By insisting on writing verse in the form of drama or with dramatic efffect, Yuan envisions a temporal logic for New Poetry that defijies the linear temporal logic and suggests the possibility of a multilevel structure for poetry, one that is congruent with the Western modernist poetic tradition that assumes a nonlinear and spatial logic. On the other hand, “drama-tic synthesis” implies a dramatic, or a rather spectacular and striking, re-thinking of time, memory, and history. The Nine Leaves poets understand history no longer as events existing in the past that have no bearing on the present, but see human life or history as ordered through multiple layers of consciousness with no strict separation between past and present. They demonstrate in their works an ambivalent attitude toward the past and an obsession with the present. The present, the “Now,” for the Nine Leaves poets, signifijies at once disruption and continuity. It is a moment that is constantly haunted by the past yet at the same constantly enriched by the past. 4  The term “Zhongguo shi xiandai zhuyi” ѝഭᔿ⧠ԓѫѹ (Chinese-style modernism) has now been used by many critics. See Sun Yushi, Zhongguo xiandai zhuyi shichao shilun, chaps. 2–9. Also see Liu Qiang, “Zhongguoshi de xiandaipai yishu,” 86–93; Wang Delu, “Jiuye shipai,” 51–70; Jiang Dengke, “Xifang xiandai zhuyi shige yu jiuye shipai de liupai tezheng,” 143–147. 5  Yuan Kejia’s article “Xinshi xiandaihua—xin chuantong de xunqiu” is included in other volumes of Yuan’s collected works as well. I use this particular version for my chapter because it retains the original English terminology that Yuan included in his essay. See Yuan Kejia, “Xinshi xiandaihua—xin chuantong de xunqiu,” 13–19 (quote on p. 15).

60 1


Nonlinear Temporality and Western Modernist Tradition

Literary modernism in the West is usually considered a response to the cultural crisis experienced at the turn of the century and especially in the wake of the Great War of 1914–1918, which completely shattered the faith in technologies of science and material progress held fijirmly in the Enlightenment period. Ronald Schleifer, in his book-length study of the relationship between modernism and time, argues that the Enlightenment understanding of temporality sees time as “absolute, true and mathematical,” and the idea of homogeneous and empty time from Newtonian science implies “a stubborn belief in progress” that is expressed in the metaphysical progressivism of Hegel.6 At the turn of the twentieth century, however, with the enormous changes in wealth, knowledge, and experience, perspectives on temporality also changed. The once held belief in linear temporal progression gave way to the sense of “dynamization of temporality” in which “past, present, and future exist in a relationship of crisis.”7 The rejection of linear temporality and the loss of faith in historical progressivism became the defijining features of modernist sensibility. Modernist art and literature reflect precisely this shift in experience of time from linear to nonlinear. As a result, modernist works tend to be ordered “not on the sequence of historical time,” but “to work spatially or through layers of consciousness.”8 This new mode of literary representation that breaks away from linear temporal logic and privileges juxtaposition, fragmentation, and nonlinearity takes what Joseph Frank calls “spatial form” in his influential essay “Spatial Form in Modern Literature.”9 Frank argues that the implication of Ezra Pound’s defijinition of image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” is important in that Pound advocates “a unifijication of disparate ideas and emotions into a complex presented spatially in an instant of time.”10 The space-logic is further exemplifijied in T. S. Eliot’s ability to fuse seemingly diffferent experiences into one, as his most famous poem, “The Waste Land,” best demonstrates his ability to “form new wholes” out of seemingly disconnected materials and disparate experiences (Joseph Frank, The Widening Gyre, 12). Modernist literature demonstrates a general preoccupation with temporal experiences and spatial form in literary representation. It is therefore

6  7  8  9  10 

Ronald Schliefer, Modernism and Time, 37–40. Tim Armstrong, Modernism: A Cultural History, 9. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, Modernism, 1890–1930, 50. Joseph Frank, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” 643–653. Joseph Frank, The Widening Gyre, 9.

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reasonable and productive to examine the poetry and poetic criticism of the Nine Leaves school through the discussion of the ways in which temporal notions and spatial logic are represented and employed, so that the shared modernist sensibilities between the Western modernists and the Nine Leaves poets as well as the specifijicity of Chinese-style modernism can be explored. Western modernist poetic tradition served as a source of inspiration for the Nine Leaves poets, especially for those who studied at Southwest Associated University in Kunming, as the study of poetic tradition in the West was integrated into their education. The arrival of the British poet and critic William Empson (1906–1984) also greatly heightened the modernist fervor among the young poets. According to Zhao Ruihong 䎥⪎㮫 (1915–1999), Empson’s lectures on Shakespeare and English poetry were attended by all students from the Department of English Literature, and it was he who exerted great influence on their modernist poetic pursuit.11 Wang Zuoliang ⦻ր㢟 (1916–1995) described the interests of the young poets in modernist literature at Southwest Associated University as follows: The library was even smaller in the early years of the war, but what few books it had, especially the precious new books from abroad, had been devoured with voracious hunger…. But the young poets of Southwest Associated University have not read their Eliot and Auden in vain. Perhaps the Western world will fijind its own ignorance of the cultural East shocking and shameful when it is told of how, with what gusto and what dreamy eyes, these two poets are being read in distant China. wang zuoliang, A Chinese New Poet, 306–30712

Thus, Western modernist poetry and poetic theories that the Nine Leaves poets came into contact with at Southwest Associated University exerted great influence on the poetic theories and practices of many of them. Western modernist poets, particularly T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), inspired not only their formal and thematic explorations in their own poetic diction but also their rethinking of the meaning of life, their position in time, and their relation to history.

11  12 

Zhao Ruihong, “Nanyue shanzhong, Mengzi hupan,” 164. The English translation is quoted with minor modifijications from Leung Ping-kwan, “Aesthetic Oppositions,” 70. See Wang’s essay: “Yi ge Zhongguo xin shiren,” 306–307.

62 2


Drama-tic Synthesis and Dramatization in Poetry

When Yuan Kejia wrote his series of essays on the modernization of New Poetry, he was writing in response to the prevailing literary trend at the time. The failure of the contemporary poems, according to Yuan, lay in the way in which poetry was composed. New Poetry lacked “the process of transforming intentions or emotions into poetic experience” ᢺ᜿ᘇᡆᛵᝏॆ֌䈇Ⲵ㓿傼Ⲵ 䗷〻 (Yuan Kejia, Footprints, 67).13 Therefore, Yuan called for the modernization of New Poetry through a “revolution of sensibility” ᝏᙗ䶙ભ, which was driven by the belief that poetry should not be subordinated to politics and that although poetry should reflect the “reality of life” Ӫ⭏⧠ᇎ, its own “reality of poetry as art” 䈇Ⲵᇎ䍘 should also be respected (Yuan Kejia, “Modernization,” 15–16). Just as another poet of the Nine Leaves school, Chen Jingrong claimed, poetry “has a sacred task of integrating life and art.”14 Yuan Kejia’s proposal for the modernization of New Poetry was, therefore, a revolt against the dominant trend of poetry that was politicized, formulaic, and propagandistic. In order to efffectively carry out the “revolution of sensibility,” Yuan held that New Poetry had to be modernized, and this modernization should be based fijirst and foremost on the understanding of the Western modernist poetic tradition that was highly synthetic in nature. He writes: In terms of poetic criticism, thematic consciousness, and poetic representation, modern poetry can be characterized as being highly synthetic…. Art is repositioned to be in a parallel relation to religion, morality, science, and politics, and all sorts of master-subordinate relationships and entrenched old ideas are negated. This is at the heart of synthetic criticism. On the other hand, in the works of modern poets we can discern strong self-consciousness as well as strong social consciousness. The realistic depiction of religious sentimentality, the connection of the semicircles of life and death, the permeation between tradition and contemporaneity, the efffective use of “Great Memory,” the undifferentiation of abstract thoughts and concrete sensibility, the mixed use of lighthearted and serious language, the pervasive use of paradox, and the synthetic attempts toward life and culture manifested in modern

13  14 

For a detailed discussion of Yuan Kejia’s criticism of the majority of contemporary poetry, see Wai-lim Yip, Lyrics from Shelters, 26–27. Chen Jingrong, “Zhencheng de shengyin,” 61.

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mythology and poetic drama indicate that modern poetry is developing along the same lines as critical theory…. Modern poetry is a new synthetic tradition of reality, symbolism, and metaphysics. yuan keijia, “Modernization,” 14–15

This new synthetic tradition is what Yuan Kejia believes to be the key to the modernization of New Poetry in the 1940s. What lies behind this statement is a nonlinear temporal logic that Yuan thinks is essential to the organization of modernist poetry. In “Poetry and Democracy” (“Shi yu minzhu” 䈇о≁ ѫ), Yuan explains in detail his understanding of the diffference between the romantic and modernist traditions, arguing that the change from romantic poetry to modernist poetry is indeed a change from linear to nonlinear expression. He writes: The development of romantic poetry to modernist poetry is without a doubt a development from lyricism to drama. This is not to say that lyricism is no longer needed for modernist poets, but that the forms of lyricism, due to the pressure of change in culture, have to give up the original linear expression ⴤ㓯‫ ⌫ٮ‬and adopt cursive and dramatic development ᴢ㓯ⲴᠿࢗⲴਁኅ…. Lyrical poems aim at describing the emotional states of happiness or sadness so that they stop short at linear progression →Ҿⴤ㓯䘀ࣘ…. The dramatic poems at present are exactly the opposite, as they focus on expressing complicated experience in an organized way. Because every moment in our experience contains various paradoxical aspects, these poems rely very much on discursive, indirect, and circuitous forms of expression. yuan kejia, Footprints, 88–89

Thus, the new synthetic tradition Yuan strives to promote in his poetic theory involves a shift from linear to nonlinear temporal logic in the way in which poetic emotions and experiences are organized and expressed. To achieve such a change, Yuan contends, the intentions and emotions have to be transformed into poetic experience through dramatization in poetry, that is, to express the intentions and emotions in a dramatic way and avoid the tendencies toward the didactic and the sentimental (Yuan Kejia, Footprints, 68). In the essay “On Dramaticism” (“Tan xiju zhuyi” 䈸ᠿࢗѫѹ), Yuan draws from the theories of I. A. Richards, Coleridge, Eliot, and Kenneth Burke, and points out that the theory of dramatization in poetry is supported by the fijindings of psychology, aesthetics, and philology:



The truth of dramaticism is: experience of life is itself dramatic (which means that life demonstrates a dialectic in which there is a constant search for coherence despite the contradictions); imagination as the motivation for poetry is capable of synthesizing contradictory factors; and the language of poetry is symbolic and active. Thus, isn’t poetry an outright performance of drama? yuan kejia, Footprints, 77

Poetry can be considered “an outright performance of drama,” in Yuan’s opinion, not only because it is the representation of life experience that is itself dramatic, but also because poetry relies on imagination and symbolic language, both of which make the linear and simple release of emotions impossible and make poetic expression nonlinear and indirect. In his 1947 essay “Further Analysis of the Modernization of New Poetry” (“Xinshi xiandaihua de zai fenxi” ᯠ䈇⧠ԓॆⲴ޽࠶᷀), Yuan maintains that “with the discovery of the logic of imagination as a replacement of the logic of concept” ⴨ሩҾᾲᘥ䙫䗁Ⲵᜣ䊑 䙫䗁Ⲵਁ⧠, modern poetry no longer expresses feelings and emotions via one single logic or on one level, but makes possible a “multilevel” representation and an expression of sensibilities in a “circuitous” way. He writes: For a sensitive writer who has a rich inner life, the development of his emotions at any particular temporal-spatial point must be sinuous and constantly changing while never following a linear movement. Therefore, in order to be faithful to himself, this type of writer will defijinitely rely on the controlled indirectness, circuitousness, and suggestiveness of the poem as the ultimate way of poetic expression.15 There are several approaches that could contribute to the controlled “indirectness, circuitousness, and suggestiveness” in poetry that make poetic representation “multilevel” and nonlinear, Yuan Kejia claims. Four technical approaches are key to the dramatization in poetry: the use of image, the employment of “objective correlative,” the “sense of structure through the logic of imagination,” and the “malleability of language” by exploring novel expressions (Yuan Kejia, “Further Analysis,” 25–28). These technical approaches are heavily influenced by the poetic theory of T. S. Eliot. Unlike romantic poetry, which is a direct expression of personal feelings, modern poetry should be indirect and suggestive and make good use of “objective correlative,” as per Eliot’s term that Yuan borrows. Eliot, in his 1919 15 

Yuan Kejia, “Xinshi xiandaihua de zai fenxi,” 25.

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essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” writes: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by fijinding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”16 Yuan Kejia, following Eliot’s poetic criticism, insists that New Poetry should avoid “plain and linear narrative” and choose instead an internal dramatization. In “On the Expansion and Crystallization of the Poetic Realm” (“Lun shijing de guangzhan he jiejing” 䇪䈇ຳⲴᢙኅ઼㔃Ღ), Yuan points out: Since Eliot’s analysis of “objective correlative,” the expansion of the poetic realm has reached its apex. Eliot’s “objective correlative” denotes that if you want to express a thought or a feeling in poetry, you have to avoid direct narration or explanation. You need to be indirect and use concrete objects that correspond to the thoughts and feelings, and evoke rich imagination. The achievement that Eliot made in this respect cannot be denied by anyone who has read his poem “The Waste Land.”17 In the same article, Yuan Kejia argues that the expansion of the poetic realm also contributes to the dramatization in poetry, which breaks away from the traditional lyrical mode that follows the linear development of personal feelings and allows poems to incorporate a fusion of parallel or even contradictory feelings and to be organized by a series of related sensory modes. Yuan writes: The expansion of the poetic realm enhances the dramatization in poetry and makes human sensibility more complicated. In lyrical poems that feature linear narration or in those that are fijilled with moaning and angry shouting, because of the limitation of this particular poetic mode, we can only experience one mode of sensibility and be moved by one type of feeling. “Objective correlative” completely shatters this narrow and near suicidal mode, absorbs all possibly related sensibilities, and fuses parallel or even opposite feelings. If one has the ability to make this “fusion,” then the complexity of emotions and the depth and density of dramatization in the modernist poetry, which is equivalent to the complexity of human nature, will incomparably surpass those in the naive romantic poetry. yuan kejia, Modernization, 131

16  17 

T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, 100. Yuan Kejia, Lun xinshi xiandaihua, 131.



For Yuan Kejia, dramatization in poetry represents a fusion of all possibly related sensibilities, either complementary or contradictory, and rejects completely the linear mode of poetic diction. Thus, in response to the prevailing poetic trend that is dominated by “moaning and angry shouting” and infested with excessive emotions, Yuan proposes an “escape from emotion” in his theory of dramatization in poetry, following Eliot’s call for “impersonality” in poetry in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot writes, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”18 The “escape from emotion” and “escape from personality” that Eliot claims here implies not a complete erasure of emotion or personality but rather a dramatized representation of emotion and personality in poetry. As Eliot explains in this essay, the emotion in poetry is very much diffferent from the personal emotions of the poet. What is needed in poetry is artistic emotion, created by the combination of the structural emotion provided by the drama, for instance, “an intensely strong attraction toward beauty and an equally intense fascination by the ugliness which is contrasted with it and which destroys it,” and “a number of floating feelings” that are related to this contrasted emotion (T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, 57). The emphasis on the dramatic representation of emotions and feelings that Eliot advocates is also what Yuan Kejia proposes for the modernization of Chinese New Poetry. Drawing from I. A. Richards’s diffferentiation between “inclusive poetry” वਜ਼Ⲵ䈇 and “exclusive poetry” ᧂᯕⲴ䈇, Yuan argues that there is no dramatic element in the exclusive didactic or sentimental poems “because nothing that follows a linear progression can be dramatic,” and that only Shakespearean tragedy, Donne’s metaphysical poetry, and the modernist poetry since Eliot can be considered as “inclusive poetry” because they “include conflicts and contradictions that end in a higher level of harmony like tragedy” (Yuan Kejia, Footprints, 78). In his analysis of one of Mu Dan’s four poems titled “Current Reflections” (“Shigan” ᰦᝏ), partially quoted at the beginning of this chapter, Yuan Kejia further highlights the importance of conflicts and contradictions, which he calls “paradox,” in poetic diction for achieving the “synthetic efffect.” He writes: Two paradoxical strains of thought, “awaiting hope in despair, and revealing despair in hope” as the dominant themes of the poem, intertwine and interlock with each other in every stanza. Almost in every stanza, there are two lines that express “hope” while another two “despair,” so 18 

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 58.

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that “hope” seems more urgent, and “despair” more realistic…. The last line, “We only hope that we can have a hope as revenge” not only carries multiple levels of meaning, but also has a synthetic efffect, undoubtedly with a value of “crystallization” that I mentioned elsewhere. yuan kejia, “Modernization,” 19

The modernization of New Poetry, therefore, demands “inclusive poetry,” poetry like Mu Dan’s “Current Reflections” that operates on multiple levels and is organized through a fusion of contradictory emotions rather than following along the linear progression of one kind of emotion. The theory of dramatization in poetry aims precisely at refuting the “blind belief that poetry is only an outpouring of passion,” as Yuan Kejia believes that “no other theory in poetry is more harmful than completely unfettering emotions” (Footprints, 72). Poetry should exhibit an “intense fusion of feeling and thought” ᛵᝏᙍ ᜣᕪ⛸㔃ਸ (Yuan Kejia, “Further Analysis,” 27), or, in Eliot’s words, “a direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling.”19 This is the kind of poetry Yuan thinks best represents the efffective synthesis of “reality, symbolism, and metaphysics.” This synthesis is drama-tic, because it entails a nonlinear poetic structure, an indirect poetic expression through the use of “objective correlative,” and a dramatic representation whose essence lies precisely in the structuring of paradoxical emotions or fusing multidimensional feelings as well as thought into new wholes. The process of mediating contradictions or bringing dissimilar things together to produce a unifijied whole determines that the structure of the poems is never one-dimensional and entails an organizing logic that is nonlinear, or, in Joseph Frank’s words, spatial. The spatial logic that modernist poetry demonstrates represents ultimately what is “potentially a synthesis of all possible experience,” “the image of art holding transition and chaos, creation and de-creation” (Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, Modernism, 49). T. S. Eliot, as the most prominent modernist poet, recorded the modern experience of fragmentation and alienation in “The Waste Land” with jarring juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated, disconnected scenes. Eliot explains this poetic practice in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets”: [A] poet’s mind is … constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or smell of 19 

T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917–1932, 246.



cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes…. [P]oets in our civilization … must be difffijicult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity…. The poet must become more … comprehensive … allusive … indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. t. s. eliot, Selected Essays, 246–247

For Eliot, therefore, the poetic sensibility is reflected in the poet’s ability to fuse seemingly divergent experiences into a unity, and the way these diffferent experiences are put together and organized governs the structure of the poem. This structure, as it is intentionally aimed to be indirect and “to dislocate, if necessary, language into his meaning,” prioritizes what Joseph Frank calls the “spatial-logic” over the time-logic of language. Yuan Kejia’s thinking that “modern poetry is a new synthetic tradition of reality, symbolism, and metaphysics” reveals a vision toward poetry similar to that of Eliot. His vision of poetry as the dramatic synthesis of all modern experiences also entails a spatial logic, which contributes to the dramatized poetic expression as it fuses disparate experiences together. Yuan Kejia takes Du Yunxie’s “Moon” (“Yue” ᴸ) as an example and explains why he thinks that this poem represents his theory of dramatic synthesis. In the poem, the moon is what ties the disparate modern experiences together, which are described through the presentations of four apparently disconnected scenes, equally distributed in four stanzas. The poem puts great emphasis on the indirectness of poetic expression, according to Yuan Kejia, and the indirectness is reflected in the use of imagery and strengthened by “the metaphysical shock” the far-fetched images bring to the readers Ӿᯠཷਆ ᗇࡪ◰䈫㘵Ⲵ㜭࣋ (Yuan’s own translation in quotation), which in turn represent the characteristics of dramatic synthesis (“Further Analysis,” 26). The use of the indirectness of poetic expression is also reflected in the “sense of structure through logic of imagination” 䙊䗷ᜣ䊑䙫䗁ሩҾ‫ޘ‬䈇㔃ᶴⲴ⌘᜿ (Yuan’s own translation in quotation), which represents the modern poets’ capacity to “bring together various seemingly diffferent yet possibly coherent experiences” to expand and deepen the meaning of the poems (“Further Analysis,” 27–28). The logic of imagination, therefore, allows the juxtaposition of diffferent experiences and scenes and makes the poetic structure spatial rather than linear. This method of privileging the nonlinear, multilayered spatial logic and juxtaposing unrelated or fragmented scenes together in the poem to present a coherent poetic representation exemplifijies the characteristics of the dramatic synthesis that Yuan Kejia envisions for the modernization of New Poetry. Such synthesis can be found in many poetic works of the Nine Leaves school. “The Beauty of Life: Pain, Struggle, Endurance” (“Sheng de mei: Tongku,

Drama-tic Synthesis


douzheng, renshou” ⭏Ⲵ㖾˖Ⰻ㤖·ᯇҹ·ᗽਇ) by Zheng Min captures her philosophical contemplation of the essence of human life. Following the logic of imagination, Zheng juxtaposes three seemingly unrelated images—the woodpecker, the tsunami, and the tree—to represent three distinctive aspects of life: pain, struggle, and endurance. The dramatic synthesis the poem demonstrates lies precisely in Zheng’s indirect and multilayered exploration of human existence through the use and mediation of dissimilar images. Chen Jingrong’s poem “Prelude to Force (“Li de qianzou” ࣋Ⲵࡽཿ) follows a similar structure. The poem unfolds spatially through the introduction of three independent moments, and each moment is described through a different image. The seemingly disconnected images—the singer, the dancer, and the storm, all awaiting the advent of a perfect performance—are nicely linked to represent a singular moment, the moment of anticipation. This is a moment of “prelude to force,” as the title of the poem suggests, in which everything gathers to form a powerful force to prepare for the coming of an imminent future, be it the tremor in the voice of the singer, the perfect posture of the dancer, or the eruption of a great storm. The juxtaposition of these three moments also paves the way for a depiction of the fijinal moment of the poem, “The passion of all mankind merges, mingles / And waits in painful struggle / For a universal dawn” ‫ޘ‬Ӫ㊫Ⲵ✝ᛵ≷ਸӔ㶽ˋ൘Ⰻ㤖Ⲵᥓ᡾䟼ᆸ‫ˋى‬а њ‫Ⲵ਼ޡ‬哾᰾.20 Unlike the spatially arranged images in the fijirst three stanzas that do not bear reference to any specifijic historical moment, the “universal dawn” evoked in the last stanza is highly symbolic and calls for attention to the historical juncture it exemplifijies. Written in 1947, “Prelude to Force” represents an eager anticipation of the convergence of all forces to break completely from the darkness of civil war and welcome a better future. In addition to the works discussed already, Mu Dan’s poems pushed dramatization in poetry to new heights. Zhang Yanquan in his article on the lyrical mode of the Nine Leaves school argues that the Nine Leaves poetry is characterized by “dramatic lyricism” that accommodates multiple voices and dialogues.21 Mu Dan’s “Lyric in the Air Raid Shelter” (“Fangkongdong li de shuqing shi” 䱢オ ⍎䟼Ⲵᣂᛵ䈇) is a representative piece of dramatic lyricism as it features heteroglossia and polyphony, by introducing two sharply opposing voices—the voice of the crowd and the voice of “I”—to represent two completely opposite attitudes toward life. What further strengthens the nonlinear and dramatic structure of the poem is Mu Dan’s exploration of the psychological space of 20  21 

Chen Jingrong, “Lide qianzou,” 57. The English translation is taken from Shiu-Pang E Almberg, “The Poetry of Chen Jingrong,” 132. Zhang Yanquan, “Lun ‘Jiuye shipai’ de shuqing biaoda fangshi,” 30–35.



the “I,” making the poem at once a multiperspective representation of what happens within the air raid shelter and a dramatic exploration of the internal struggle of the individual. As the fijirst-person narrator wanders between the space of the air raid shelter and the space of imagination, the poem shifts from social criticism against the people in the shelter, who appear to be indiffferent to sociopolitical turmoil and plagued by the trivialities of life, to critical selfreflection. Resisting the force of conformity of the society in order to avoid the terrifying possibility of fijinding oneself “stained in black, like all the others” ḃкҶ唁㢢, ઼䘉ӋӪԜаṧ, the fijirst-person narrator seeks to fijight, making prophetic outcries in the space of imagination, “Destroy! Destroy!” ⇱⚝! ⇱⚝! This fijight is ultimately a violent struggle against oneself—the other self that is susceptible to social conformity. The last stanza of the poem makes it clear that the dramatic representation of the outer war through multiple voices in the earlier part of the poem paves the way for the dramatic exploration of the inner war of the individual later. It reads, “We won, he said, how many enemy planes were shot down? / I smiled, it was me” 㜌࡙ҶˈԆ䈤ˈᢃ лࠐᷦ᭼ᵪ˛ˋᡁㅁˈᱟᡁ. By stating, “It was me,” the narrator “I” acquires double meaning, both as the winner who won the war against himself and as the loser who was shot down like the enemy planes. The dramatic efffect of the poem reaches its highest moment in the last lines of the poem, as the split self is confronted with the sight of his own death. When people returned home to continue with their lives, “I was alone going up the stairs of the bombed building” ᡁᱟ⤜㠚䎠кҶ㻛⛨⇱Ⲵᾬ, and in the ruins of war and destruction, “I” discovered that “I was lying dead in there, / stifffened, with joy, tears, and sighs on my face” 㘼ਁ⧠ᡁ㠚ᐡ↫൘䛓‫ˈݯ‬ ˋ‫┑ˈⲴ⺜ܥ‬㝨кᱟ⅒ㅁˈ⵬ ⌚ˈ઼਩᚟.22 The poems of the Nine Leaves poets that we have examined so far demonstrate the drama-tic synthesis that Yuan Kejia envisioned. Through the use of imagery, irony, and the juxtaposition of multiple scenes, and the employment of heteroglossia and polyphony to enhance the indirectness and circuitousness of poetic expression, the Nine Leaves poets made conscious effforts to resist the linear logic in poetic diction and adopt instead a nonlinear and multilevel structure.


Mu Dan, Mu Dan shi quanji, 48–50.

Drama-tic Synthesis



Dramatic Rethinking of History

Yuan Kejia’s theory that Chinese New Poetry should be the synthesis of “reality, symbolism, and metaphysics” not only celebrates “dramatization in poetry,” but also implies a new notion of temporality and a new type of historical sense. Reasoning that “the modernization of New Poetry should be rooted in the fullest breath of consciousness of modern men, and accept the influence of Western modernist poetry led by Eliot,” Yuan observes that modern writers are writing under considerable pressure to organize the rather complex and disorienting experiences of the modern world. Therefore, the best way to organize such experiences through the “logic of imagination” is either through “extreme expansion” ᶱᓖⲴᢙኅ or “extreme condensation” ᶱᓖ Ⲵࠍ㕙, “the former represented by Joyce’s Ulysses that describes one ordinary day in 250,000 words, the latter by Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ that reflects the entire civilization, society, and human life in barely four hundred lines” (Yuan Kejia, “Further Analysis,” 21). Both techniques aim at “efffectively transmitting the fullest amount of experience” in a new kind of synthesis, as Yuan Kejia writes: The past is so multifaceted, the present is so complex, and the future is so full of possibilities. History, memory, wit, religion, the sensibilities toward the present world, the happiness and misery of all beings, and the love and hatred of any individual, all of them need to be explored in one way or another in the new synthetic structure. Leaving them behind is like giving up on life. yuan kejia, “Further Analysis,” 21

This “new synthetic structure” as proposed by Yuan Kejia is not only anchored in the present as it reflects “the sensibilities toward the present world,” but is also closely linked to the past and future as it incorporates “history, memory, wit, religion” as well as “the happiness and misery of all beings, and the love and hatred of any individual” across time. It reflects Yuan’s awareness of modern sensibilities that can be expressed only through a new type of temporality that does not insist on the rupture of past, present, and future and no longer follows linear temporal progression. What we see in the writings of the twentieth-century writers and thinkers, as James Longenbach states in his work on modernist poetics of history, is precisely the rejection of the positivist view of history and historical knowledge



that makes it impossible to construct any sort of teleological or linear history.23 This modernist critique of positivistic historiography takes on two forms. One follows the powerful ideology of Nietzschean antihistoricism that reflects in modernist literature a state of mind that Paul de Man defijines as “a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that could be called a pure present, a point of origin that marks a new departure” while at the same time the persistent efffect of the past is ultimately unavoidable. The other, however, urges us to acknowledge the past’s bearing on the present rather than reject it. Thus, history “is a living part of the present and cannot be destroyed” (James Longenbach, Modernist Poetics, 6–12). There is no strict rupture between past and present for modernist writers like Pound and Eliot. Eliot proposes his notion of temporality in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in the following passage: [T]he historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity. t. s. eliot, The Sacred Wood, 49

Past and present, according to Eliot, intersect and are closely intertwined. In promoting what he calls in Four Quartets the “intersection of the timeless with time,” Eliot juxtaposes the forces that persist from the past and those that are created from the present and insists on a new historical consciousness that pursues “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” a “mythical method” he outlines in his essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” on Joyce’s work.24 Such an understanding of history takes the form of what Fredric Jameson calls “existential historicism” which “does not involve the construction of this or that linear or evolutionary or genetic history, but rather designates something like a transhistorical event: the experience, rather, by which historicity as such is manifested, by means of the contact between

23  24 

James Longenbach, Modernist Poetics of History, 6. T. S. Eliot, The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, 177–178.

Drama-tic Synthesis


the historian’s mind in the present and a given synchronic cultural complex from the past” (James Longenbach, Modernist Poetics, 13).25 Rejecting linear temporality and stressing the simultaneity and contemporaneity of past and present, Eliot takes an opposite stance toward history from those who are influenced by Nietzschean antihistoricism, even though they share a common skepticism of the possibility of scientifijic and objective historical knowledge. For Eliot, the past is not at all a burden that needs to be lifted, but rather a source of inspiration. The past exists as “monuments” of an “ideal order,” but the past and the present are in constant interaction, as “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, 50). T. S. Eliot’s works and thought wielded great influence on the writing of the Nine Leaves poets and especially on Yuan Kejia’s poetic theory. However, even though the Nine Leaves poets, in Yuan’s reckoning, hoped to modernize New Poetry following the Western modernist tradition represented by Eliot, Eliot’s nostalgia for the past and the weight that he puts on the past as a source for inspiration and a force that informs the present yet also is altered by the present hardly resonated with the Nine Leaves poets. Although the Nine Leaves poets drew heavily from Eliot’s poetics, their own complex relationship to history and poetry is crucially distinct from Eliot’s. If Eliot performs in his poems “a transformation of the historical imagination into myth” that aims at the “abolition of time” (Joseph Frank, The Widening Gyre, 64), creating a “transhistorical event” in which the “timeless” past and tradition could interact with the “temporal” present, the Nine Leaves poets fijind it almost impossible to completely abolish time and take this transhistorical stance. As the new generation of poets writing during the wartime period, they are very much aware of their own historicity, of their time and position in history. In the preface of their journal Chinese New Poetry, they start fijirst and foremost with a statement that indicates their acute awareness of time: “What we are facing is a very serious moment” ᡁԜ䶒ሩ⵰Ⲵᱟањѕ㚳Ⲵᰦ䗠.”26 This “very serious moment” is a moment in the present that stands between 25 


Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory, 157. Jameson points out that the strength of existential historicism lies in its power to bring to the objects of its study immense “aesthetic appreciation and recreation,” but it also has its theoretical flaws as it may easily collapse into “the sheer mechanical and meaningless succession of facts of empiricist historiography” without any principle of unity. Despite Jameson’s criticism toward existential historicism, this term is nonetheless illuminating on the question of “historical sense” that I explore in the works of the Nine Leaves School. My examination of Nine Leaves Poets’ dramatic rethinking of history demonstrates that the Nine Leaves Poets share the insights of existential historicism but also depart from it. Tang Shi, “Women do huhuan (daixu),” 366.



the past and the future, a moment that is very much similar to the Nietzschean antihistorical moment characterized by the desire to break completely away from the past in the hope of taking a new departure from the present. They describe this moment in the preface in relation to the past: The molded house that we used to live in is shaking, the dark and stagnant time that we used to live in is collapsing, the white painted walls are crumbling down, and the beams with carved patterns and paintings are breaking up loudly; the fijire underground that has been growing silently for tens and thousands of years has broken through the earth of tradition. It is laughing, chewing on this world, as well as giving forth the sacred light and fijire for this world. Tang Shi, “Preface,” 366–367

Tradition and the past here are considered a burden that has to be shaken offf. This antihistorical and antitraditional stance can be traced back to May Fourth activists, who radically revolted against traditional Chinese cultural heritage and embraced a totalistic antitraditionalist attitude.27 The May Fourth iconoclastic antitraditional ideology, as Leo Ou-fan Lee has demonstrated, reflects a “new mode of historical consciousness” that departs from the traditional cyclical view of history and emphasizes instead the linear progression that entails an equation of newness with a new temporal continuum from present to future.28 The adoption of the linear temporal progression of the May Fourth generation reveals in their thinking a naive belief that defijining their own epoch as “new” and the previous period as “old” makes it possible to progress from the old to the new and cut ties with the past.29 However, in the writings of the Nine Leaves poets, as we have already discovered, time and history no longer follow the linear progressive logic. They have come to the realization that the past constantly haunts the present and that past and present are ultimately mixed together. Thus, their attitude toward the past is much more complex. On the one hand, they desire to create something new, and the past appears in their poems sometimes as a burden and a dark force from which they must break away. On the other hand, in some of their other poems, they acknowledge the persistent presence of the past and stress not only the simultaneity of the past and present but also the function of the past in the present as a defijining and determining force. Unlike Eliot, who 27  28  29 

Yusheng Lin, The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness, 6. Leo Ou-fan Lee, “Modernity and Its Discontents,” 158–159. Lin Yusheng reminds us that while the May Fourth iconoclasts wanted to reject their tradition completely on ideological grounds, their totalistic iconoclasm resulted in part from their inability to reject the influence of tradition.

Drama-tic Synthesis


considers the past “an ideal order,” the Nine Leaves poets view the past as both a deadening and a nurturing force. Understanding precisely the persistence of the past in the present, they situate themselves fijirmly in the present and envision the coming of the future. Implicit in this anticipation of the coming of a better future is a certain optimism that they share with their May Fourth predecessors about the movement of history toward progress based on the assumption of the possibility of change over time. Yet unlike the May Fourth generation, who think that the present has to break completely and abruptly from the past in order to move forward, the Nine Leaves poets do not see the present as a moment in which the past has ceased to be and the future has yet to come, but rather a moment that contains both the past and the future. It is a moment that is as much oriented toward the future as it is created by the past. The break from the past is not possible unless the present becomes the moment of transformation that is directed and shaped by the foreseeable future as well as prepared by the weight of the past for that very transformation. It is indeed the Nine Leaves poets’ awareness of their own time and position in history and their defijinition of the present as “a serious moment” that drive them to focus much of their attention on depicting the present yet at the same time to adopt “a transhistoric perspective” that allows them to transcend their own time and “seriously reflect on themselves, as well as their solemn connectedness to all historical life” (Tang Shi, “Preface,” 367).30 The present that is revealed in their poems often appears to be stifling. In Mu Dan’s “Love of Ocean” (“Hai lian” ⎧ᙻ), the reality in the present is described as a brutal force that suppresses everything. Mu Dan writes, “We have been tightly enclosed by the burdening reality” ᡁԜᐢѪ⊹䟽Ⲵ⧠ᇎ䰝㍗, in which “Dreams that are more realistic than reality, thoughts / That are more vital than water, wither” ∄⧠ᇎᴤⵏⲴỖˈ∄≤ˋᴤ⒯⏖Ⲵᙍᜣˈ൘䘉䟼ᷟ㨾 (Complete Poems, 186). The persistence of the past in the present is often considered to be what contributes to the brutality of the present reality. Thus, the reality of life is ultimately painful, and the source of the pain is our past and history. The present, in the opinion of the Nine Leaves poets, is a moment that contains both the past and the future, and a moment that stands for a new beginning, a moment on the threshold, and they consider themselves as standing on the threshold of history. Chen Jingrong, in a public letter in response to a reader’s unjust interpretation of her poem “Fresh Thirst” (“Xinxian de jiaoke” ᯠ勌Ⲵ❖⑤), speaks about the particular historical period in which she fijinds herself. As she states: We are in the midst of a grand epoch in which the old gives way to the new. We, the young of this generation, have to endure more hardship 30 

For a translation of an essential part of this preface, see Yip, Lyrics from Shelters, 30.



than any generation before us. Half of our bodies are buried in the tombs of the past, while the other half are growing anew from the earth. There is not a moment that we cease to dream of breaking away completely, like a cicada, from our old shells. Therefore, we have fresh thirst.31 This “fresh thirst,” the thirst for things that are fresh and new, is primarily a product of the era. Chen Jingrong presents this era as a threshold of history that is defijined by the coexistence of the past, present, and future through the vivid image of a body that is split in half, simultaneously residing in both the past and present and foreseeing the future. Driven by the hope to break away from the past and venture into the future, the “fresh thirst” that Chen describes is similar to Paul de Man’s description of the modernist state of mind marked by a desire to break completely away from the past in order to reach “a point of origin that marks a new departure.”32 The thirst refreshes itself every day in order to keep itself constantly new and fresh, as Chen writes in her poem: I thirst. Going through boundless joy and misery My soul burns ill at ease. I’m tired of today, Tired of the moment just past— I get tired even of my thirst If it’s not fresh enough.33 ᡁ❖⑤⵰DŽ䙊䗷Ҷ ཊቁ⅒Ҁˈཊቁᘗᛓˈ ᡁⲴ⚥兲нᆹൠ⚬✗˗ ᡁ়ٖӺᰕˈ ়ٖࡊࡊ䙍৫Ⲵⷜ䰤 ˉ ⭊㠣䘎ᡁⲴ❖⑤ᡁҏ㾱়ٖˈ ‫ٷ‬㤕ᆳᐢ㓿нཏᯠ勌DŽ 34

What Chen Jingrong terms “fresh thirst” in this poem represents perfectly the modernist desire to make everything new, as “I am tired of” almost everything that passes, “today,” “the moment just past,” or even “my thirst” if it is no longer fresh. Implicit in this desire to make everything new and fresh is the urge to 31  32  33  34 

Chen Jingrong, “Dafu yige mosheng duzhe de gongkaixin,” 225. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, 148. The English translation is taken from Almberg, “The Poetry of Chen Jingrong,” 82. Chen Jingrong, “Fresh Thirst,” 105–106.

Drama-tic Synthesis


wipe out everything that has happened earlier, the past and history, in order to reach a point of new departure. However, just as de Man notes, even though the concept of modernity implies the denial of history, it is impossible to escape history. Quoting Nietzsche, de Man writes, “History itself must resolve the problem of history,” therefore, despite the inherent contradiction between history and modernity, “to achieve something truly new, powerful, life-giving, and original” and to reject history, one must fijirst understand the past and have thorough historical knowledge (Blindness, 150). Although in the poems discussed here the past and history are depicted as a force of suppression and restriction from which Nine Leaves poets wish to escape, in other poems the poets reveal their ties to the past and history. History is no longer a deadening force, but rather what nurtures and creates the present. Mu Dan writes in his “Charm of the Forest” (“Senlin zhi mei” ἞᷇ѻ兵): “No one knows that history has passed here, / Leaving behind the spirits of heroes, growing as they transform into trees” ⋑ᴹӪ⸕䚃শਢ ᴮ൘↔䎠䗷ˈˋ⮉лҶ㤡⚥ॆ‫ޕ‬ṁᒢ㘼⓻⭏ (Complete Poems, 214). Du Yunxie writes in a similar vein in “Anonymous Hero” (“Wuming yingxiong” ᰐ਽㤡䳴): “Those who create history will be buried more deeply / In history, burning to bring warmth for the latecomers” ᔪ䙐শਢⲴ㾱ᴤ␡ൠ㻛෻൘ˋশਢ䟼ˈ㘼 ਾ⟳✗ˈ㔉ਾᶕ㘵ԕ⑙᳆.35 The past, thus, enriches the present. Even if it is fijilled with pain and sufffering, it is what makes life more meaningful. Just as Yuan Kejia writes in “Heavy Bell” (“Chen zhong” ⊹䫏): “Leave me silent in Time and Space, / Like a rusted green bell in an ancient temple, / Carrying three thousand years of weight, / Listening to the rushing wind and rain outside the window” 䇙ᡁ⊹唈Ҿᰦオˈˋྲਔሪ䬸㔯Ⲵ⍚䫏ˈˋ䍏䖭йॳ䖭 ⊹䟽ˈˋੜデཆ仾䴘शश; because “Life fruits from pain and misery, / Pain and misery intensify in dead silence, / I am a rusted green bell, / Collecting wild wind from all directions!” ⭏ભ㝡㪲Ҿ㤖Ⰻˈˋ㤖Ⰻԫ↫ᇲ❾✈ˈˋᡁᱟ 䬸㔯Ⲵ⍚䫏ˈ᭦ᇩ‫ޛ‬ᯩⲴ䟾仾ʽ(Footprints, 6).36 The Nine Leaves poets are willing to place the entire weight of the past on their shoulders, and it is only through the immersion in the past and in the pain that comes with it that life can truly bloom. What we see in the poems of the Nine Leaves poets is their particular sensibility toward time as well as their reflection of time and history. Understanding time as nonlinear, they demonstrate in their poems their acute awareness of their position in time and history and consider the past and history as something to reject as well as to embrace. On the contrary, recognizing their own position at the transitional historical period between the old and the new, 35  36 

Du Yunxie, “Wuming yingxiong,” 131. The English translation is taken from Yip, Lyrics from Shelters, 199, with minor revisions.



many of these writers also embrace an optimistic view of historical progress. Tang Qi’s “Time and the Banner” (“Shijian yu qi” ᰦ䰤оᰇ) exemplifijies the Nine Leaves poets’ sophisticated reflection of time and history. “Time and the Banner” is a long poem that is indebted to T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.” Leung Ping-kwan fijinds in this poem fragmented images, elliptical language, and uncommon syntax, all of which emphasize the temporal and rhetorical discontinuity of the poem. Comparing the treatment of time in “Time and the Banner” and Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” Leung adds that the diffference between the perceptions of time in these two poems is that while Eliot seeks “the timeless transcendence beyond temporal reality,” the moments in Tang Qi’s poem “show the impossibility of transcendence.” Thus, time is “moving toward a religious utopia of eternity” in “Burnt Norton,” but in Tang’s poem it is moving toward “a political utopia which promises social change” (Ping-kwan Leung, “Aesthetic Oppositions,” 115–118). What lies behind this diffference in the perceptions of time represented by these two poems is different views toward time and history. As stated earlier, for Eliot, the past exists as an “ideal order,” and his call for the “intersection between the timeless and temporal” aims at shaping and ordering the disintegrated present by bringing the idealized timeless past to the temporal present. For Tang Qi, however, as well as other Nine Leaves poets, under the influence of their May Fourth predecessors, it is almost impossible for them to regard the past as an ideal order so that they turn their attention to the future. Thus, with regard to the larger movement of history, Eliot seems to see history as cyclical while the Nine Leaves poets demonstrate in their poems optimism toward future progress. However, despite the optimism in historical progress, time in “Time and the Banner” is still represented as absolutely nonlinear. Leung discerns that time in this poem is represented as fragmented and disintegrated, and the temporal elements are usually spatialized through the collage and juxtaposition of images (“Aesthetic Oppositions,” 115). But the nonlinearity of time in this poem, as well as in many other poems of the Nine Leaves poets, is reflected not only from the representation of time as fragmented, but also, and more importantly, from the representation of time as simultaneity, a conception of time where past, present, and future coexist. What we discern in this poem is an obsession with the present moment, a moment that can be called, borrowing the titles that Tang Qi gives to his other poems, “A Serious Moment” (“Yansu de shichen” ѕ㚳Ⲵᰦ䗠) or “The Last Moment” (“Zuimo de shichen” ᴰᵛⲴ ᰦ䗠). This is a moment, as Jiang Dengke 㪻ⲫ、 writes, in which “the past, present, and future can be presented simultaneously on the same plane,” and

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in this poem, this plane (pingmian ᒣ䶒) can be represented through the image of the banner.37 The present is Janus-faced, inclined toward the past and future. It carries the entire weight of the past, as everything “[r]emains here permanently from the time past / In icy flame, as well as the white light of fading years / It is once again buried by the time of snow” Ӿ䗷৫Ⲵᰦ䰤ѵѵ䚇⮉ ൘䘉䟼ˈˋ൘ߠⲴ⚛❠ѝˈ൘ᒤ኱᳇␑Ⲵⲭᰕ‫ݹ‬ѝˋ৸㻛䴚Ⲵᰦ䰤෻ਸ ൘а䎧 (Tang Qi, “Time,” part 2, l.58–l.60).38 It also portends the future:

“At the last moment, taken back to the remote / territory where it belongs, it sees clearly / The complete end that will soon be coming” ൘ᴰᵛⲴᰦ䗠㻵 എࡠ䚕䘌ˋ኎Ҿ㠚ᐡⲴഭᓖˈҏⴻ␵Ҷˋа⅑ሶ㾱ᶕⲴᖫᓅ㔃ᶏ (Tang Qi, “Time,” part 4, l.77–l.79). Therefore, the present moment contains the unity of the past and future: Time past stays here, here is not entirely the past, the present is also expanding within and is always the future, encompassing everything.39 䗷৫Ⲵᰦ䰤⮉൘䘉䟼ˈ䘉䟼 нᆼ‫ޘ‬ᱟ䗷৫ˈ⧠൘ҏ൘޵㟘㛰ˈ ৸ᑨᱟሶᶕˈवᇩҶа࠷. tang QI, “Time,” part 1, l.18–l.20

However, in addition to the simultaneity of past, present, and future that Tang Qi demonstrates in the poem, we also see an obvious favoring of the present. The present is a moment of transformation, an explosive moment. Tang Qi prophesies: “The cruelty, atrocity, and dictatorship of thousands of years will / Explode at a decisive moment, / The whole landscape will change, emanating in blood the strongest flame / Shining on the glorious life and death” 䛓ᰦ仾ˈ ࠐॳᒤⲴ↻䞧ˈ᳤ᡮˈуࡦˋ㻲ᔰҾа⅑ߣᇊⲴᰦ䰤ѝˈˋ‫ޘ‬䜘൏ൠሶ ᭩ਈˈ⍱㹰Ⲵ䰚ࠪᴰᕪ⚛❠ˋ䖹➗⵰‫ݹ‬㦓Ⲵ⭏઼↫ (“Time,” part 6, l.8–l.11).

It is this explosive and “decisive moment” that the entire poem is stressing, and it is in this moment that we can reflect upon our past and anticipate the future. In the postscript of his poetry collection, Tang Qi writes, “Rilke says, 37  38  39 

Jiang Dengke, Jiuye shiren lungao, 179. Tang Qi, “Shijian yu qi,” 237–246. The English translation is quoted with minor modifijication from Leung, “Aesthetic Oppositions,” 115.



‘Time is shattered!’ I heard his witty voice hidden on the streets, on the lawn of the city hall, in the life of despair of any woman and child” (Jiang Dengke, Critical Essays, 177). The exclamation that “time is shattered” is taken from The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christophe Rilke, in which Rilke also gives primacy to the present, as there is “no yesterday, no morrow; for time is shattered. And they flower from its ruins.”40 Tang Qi fijinds himself also facing the ruins of time and history, which explains his point that Rilke’s assertion “time is shattered” can be heard in every hidden corner in the present reality. Yet it is also through the realization that time is shattered and there is no yesterday or tomorrow that he wants to emphasize the importance of the present and give primacy to the present. Only in the present can we revitalize and reinvent the past through our memory, imagination, and reinterpretation. And only in the present can we, by bringing the past back and integrating our past and present, conceive the possibility of future. Therefore, the present is truly a moment of transformation, in which we can flower from the ruins of time and history by reconnecting ourselves to time, to our past through memory and reimagination, and to our future through anticipation. The past, present, and future form a unity in this very moment, a moment that could be spatialized into the image of a banner. In Tang Qi’s words: “The future develops from this grand process, cruel / Yet benevolent time, gets fulfijilled in / The banner of people” ᵚᶕਁኅ Ҿ䘉њᐘབྷⲴ䗷〻䟼ˈ↻䞧Ⲵˋত৸ᱟӱ᝸Ⲵᰦ䰤ˈᆼᡀҾа䶒ˋӪ≁ᓅ ᰇ (“Time,” part 7, l.2–l.4).


Conclusion: “Chinese-Style Modernism” and Drama-tic Synthesis

The Nine Leaves poets made tremendous effforts in the 1940s to revolt against the dominant poetic trend and to construct a new poetic tradition, which Yuan Kejia, the poet and literary critic of the group, later characterized as “Chinese-style modernism.” The phrase “Chinese-style modernism” immediately calls attention to the synthetic nature of their poetic tradition. What they strived to achieve is what I term “drama-tic synthesis” in their poetic diction, aiming particularly at infusing the Western modernist poetics and sensibilities into their own writing. The poetic theories and the poems of the Nine Leaves poets reflect, on the one hand, a modernist sensibility of time they shared with their Western modernist counterparts, which is manifested as a nonlinear conception of time that shapes their poetic representation and makes it indirect and circuitous, multilayered, and polyphonic, like that of drama. On the other 40 

Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Weise von liebe und tod des cornets Christoph Rilke, 55.

Drama-tic Synthesis


hand, responding to their own position in time and history at the particular historical juncture in which they found themselves, they demonstrated in their poetry and poetic criticism a dramatic rethinking of time, memory, and history. Rejecting the Enlightenment’s homogenous linear temporal logic marked by abrupt disconnections between past, present, and future, the Nine Leaves poets privileged dynamic and fluid temporalities so that past, present, and future were often represented in their poems through a sense of simultaneity. They were also ambivalent toward the past and history, as at times they hoped to break away from the past completely while at other times they believed that future changes were possible only when the past was embraced. Concerned with the social reality of China at the time, many of the Nine Leaves poets adopted an optimistic view toward the future, hoping that China would eventually march toward a better and brighter tomorrow.

chapter 4

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism Dian Li

Shiyi 䈇᜿ [poetic-ness] is inexplicable. wang xiaoni ⦻ሿ࿞

… No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His signifijicance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. t. s. eliot

∵ “Don’t imitate the ancients” is the second of the eight proposals that Hu Shi 㜑䘲 outlined in his “Wenxue gailiang chuyi” ᮷ᆖ᭩㢟࠽䇞 (A modest proposal for literary reform), an essay that appeared in the journal Xin qingnian ᯠ䶂ᒤ (New youth) in 1917.1 Hu’s essay was the fijirst clarion call for a literary revolution that would give birth to Chinese vernacular poetry known as New Poetry (xinshi ᯠ䈇). The central argument behind Hu Shi’s proposal is the idea of the contemporaneity of literature, that is, literature must respond only to the time of its creation. The way new literature and particularly New Poetry responds to its time, Hu Shi believed, is a radical departure from classical Chinese poetry. This position not only motivated early experimental authors writing in the vernacular, but also was often repeated by later poets and critics of New Poetry. For example, Shi Zhecun ᯭ㴠ᆈ, editor of the influential literary journal Xiandai ⧠ԓ (Les contemporains) and a prominent proponent of modernism in the 1930s, defijined “modernist poetry” as poetry that “reflects a modern ethos that modern people experience from modern living, and as one poetic form of expression that is arranged with modern diction.”2 It is this 1  Hu Shi, “Wenxue gailiang chuyi.” 2  Quoted in Zhang Taozhou, Xiandai Hanyu de shixing kongjian, 120.

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 006

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


anxiety over contemporaneity that has been driving Chinese writers to build the tower of Chinese poetic modernism with mostly Western-inspired theories and aesthetic strategies. While the opposition between classical poetry and New Poetry has been an enduring topic in the history of modern Chinese literature, which is often fraught with political and ideological implications, it is a simplistic formation that New Poetry was a total rupture from Chinese literary tradition. That the new poem is what the classical poem is not may be good advocacy, but it has never proved to be the case in the real life of the new poem. My argument here is that the classical has existed, and in some cases has thrived, in the actual practice of poetic modernism throughout the twentieth century. Tradition has lost its luster, but it lives its “afterlife” as an echo offf the wall, a sort of aesthetic presence that is indispensable to our experiences with the modern and the vernacular poem.3 If we describe “the classical” as ideas of writing and reading poetry from China’s past, it not only has never disappeared from modern Chinese poetry, but also has often served as a stabilizing force in the latter’s search for legitimacy as a new literary genre. Evidence of the classical is found in many critical “building blocks” of Chinese poetic modernism such as yixiang ᜿䊑 (image), qihe ཱྀਸ (correspondences), huise Ზ⏙ (opacity), yinhua 丣⭫ (word-music/ picturesqueness), and shiyi 䈇᜿ (poetic-ness). These tropes all have Western origins ranging from the French Symbolists to English Modernism, yet they also show creative Chinese renderings infused with certain dimensions of classical poetics.4 Throughout the history of modern Chinese poetry, such infusions have happened in more tangible ways than critics have accounted for, in part because the genre identity of modern poetry has always been uncertain or even polemical. “Poetic-ness,” the last of the fijive tropes for aesthetic innovation in the New Poetry movement, is where we shall begin. Every poem must strive for its own “poetic-ness,” which defijines poetry as a legitimate form of literature that offfers a unique and substantive aesthetic experience. The question of “poetic-ness” 3  Perhaps it is worth pointing out that, although this chapter connects in spirit with the study of “old-style” poetry in modern China in the English language, which includes Jon Eugene von Kowallis’s groundbreaking study of Lu Xun’s poetry (The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse, 1996), Shengqing Wu’s thematic analysis of the genre in the early twentieth century (Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900–1937, 2013), and a few other translations and readings of individual poets including Mao Zedong, it also difffers substantially from such studies because of my diffferent treatment of the old-style form itself: I think the classical echo lingers despite a deliberate collective efffort by modern Chinese poets to abandon the old-style form, not because of it. 4  Zhang Xin, Ershi shiji Zhongguo xinshi shi, 102–129.



can be so small as to pertain to only a certain fijigure of speech that may or may not reach the level of poetic language, but it can also be so large as to encompass the very foundation of poetics, that is, what is poetry? In the context of New Poetry in China, this question bears particular urgency because poetry’s meaning has never been more volatile and undefijined. Every poem is an experiment that argues for its own raison d’être, and an exploration into something beyond the reach of vernacular language in its current state. The authors of New Poetry collectively, so it often seems, cannot rid themselves of the anxiety that “poetic-ness” will slip through their fijingers. For the expression of such anxiety, I offfer the case of the contemporary poet Wang Xiaoni ⦻ሿ࿞, not so much because she is singularly important in this regard but because the way she frames the issue connects well with the points that I will make later. I fijirst consider Wang Xiaoni’s essay “Jintian de shiyi” ӺཙⲴ䈇᜿ (The poetic-ness of today). The title suggests that Wang attempts to address the question of what poetry is, and its relevance to contemporary life in China. From the outset, Wang acknowledges that this question is one of the most puzzling and profound in the history of modern Chinese poetics, with implications deeply embedded in times past and in our cultural unconsciousness. Then she follows with a lengthy musing about shiyi in classical Chinese poetry. In a skilled reading of classical poems aided by spirited personal stories, Wang fijinds the existence of shiyi in classical poetry mainly in two areas: (1) the motif of shanhe ኡ⋣ (mountains and rivers); and (2) the poetic form, or what she more broadly terms moshi xing ⁑ᔿᙗ (paradigmatic form).5 These two perspectives have a great deal to do with the article’s title question, Wang indicates, but she maintains that modern people do not have the leisure or motivation to amble in the mountains or along rivers. Furthermore, New Poetry long ago said farewell to the last remnant of the classical form; she implies, if not states forcefully, that the very absence of these two perspectives in contemporary poetry make her question unanswerable. However, since poetry has not gone extinct and it is evident that people are still writing and reading poetry all the time, one has reason to believe that shiyi must exist, even if it is hard to locate. Therefore, she is not ready to admit defeat. Rather, in the typical manner of a poet, she declares: “Shiyi is inexplicable; it must be accidental, appearing only to those who happen upon it and who seize upon it; it is a sudden showing, a momentary flash” (Wang Xiaoni, “Poetic-ness,” 384). Intentionally or not, Wang Xiaoni has arrived at the heart of modern poetics. The ideas that she evokes go far beyond the intractable tension between form and content; they touch upon the fundamental question of what makes 5  Wang Xiaoni, “Jintian de shiyi,” 378–385.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


poetry poetry, a question to which we think we know the answer, but the answer is often unsatisfactory upon further scrutiny. To be fair, Wang does not act as though she knows the answer. She is genuinely troubled by the apparent lack of shiyi in our times. As the poet she is, she speaks from her heart. Intellectually, she knows, as do many progressive poets and critics of the day, that there is no return to the classical poem; yet, her heart feels the call of the classical poem in contrast to the worrying state of the modern poem. One may argue whether contemporary Chinese poetry has fijinally entered a “pure” poetic realm or has been in constant crisis mode,6 but that shiyi is abundant in the classical poem yet is hard to come by in the modern poem is a feeling one cannot easily dismiss. This is, perhaps, a case of unsettling nostalgia, if you will, in which one is nostalgic about something from which one wishes to break away. Wang Xiaoni is not the fijirst writer bitten by the nostalgia bug in the annals of modern Chinese poetry. The difffijicult birth of New Poetry in the beginning of the twentieth century, an avowed clean break from classical poetry, clearly has something to do with this feeling. It resembles the case of an infant’s identity formation in the language of Lacanian psychology: that the infant’s sense of self depends on autonomy from the parents’ watchful eyes and is wrought with an insatiable nostalgia for the mother’s womb. How to write poems in an unproven language? Where to construct a new kind of shiyi separate from its embodiment so apparently abundant in the classical poem? It seems that at every critical juncture where the New Poem sufffers from an identity crisis the classical tradition haunts. The New Poem entered a critical condition almost the moment it was born. Hu Shi’s emphasis on writing in the way we talk both in content and in form created the momentum for the initial flourishing of vernacular poetry. But advocacy could not disguise itself as poetics. Radicalism may be necessary to start a movement, but it can hardly sustain it. In the “anything goes” spirit typical of the May Fourth era, Zhou Zuoren ઘ֌Ӫ (1885–1967), Lu Xun’s 励䗵 (1881–1936) brother and an accomplished man of letters, thus responded to criticism of his poetry: “Someone asks me: What style is this poem? I don’t know myself; someone else says this doesn’t count as poetry, maybe so. My

6  Here I cannot help but point to a diffferent “echo” in the history of new or vernacular Chinese poetry—the consistent echo of naysayers among the thunder of approval for this genre. Such an echo often bounces offf spaces of private communications (such as Lu Xun’s famous negative assessment of New Poetry to the American reporter Edgar Snow in 1936) or from anecdotal evidence circulating by whisper (such as the classical-poem-only posters on Shanghai subway stations in the twenty-fijirst century).



response to them all: Who cares?”7 When such a total disregard for conventions and the past became apparent among early supporters of New Poetry, pushback was only a natural response, and the loosely associated Chinese “symbolist” poets such as Li Jinfa ᵾ䠁ਁ, Feng Naichao ߟѳ䎵, Wang Duqing ⦻⤜␵, and Mu Mutian ぶᵘཙ formed the fijirst organized rejoinder to Hu Shi’s poetics of vernacularism. They wrote poetry full of surprising and ambiguous symbols that often invite sensory and emotional responses. Li Jinfa even went so far as combining forcefully translated French phrases and classical Chinese linguistic expressions to create an alienating efffect that is both intimately sensual and frustratingly opaque. Take, for example, this “Sonnet” by Li: Ocean waves rush to the foot of the mountain, Intending to melt down the flatland, I will listen to this lifelong assault with my eyes closed, To fully enjoy the harmony with laziness. Our eyes have died, but our hearts are fresh, Roaming in désir divin [French original] I imagine going to somewhere away! The hell fijire is burning through the neck. Two palms together, kneeling down What are we praying for? The moon dances at the heart of the waves. The sea-god sings. He sings alone, Like you, your early sad chanting under the moon: Wanting to drink in the well of life.8 ⎧⎚ⴤߢࡠኡ㝊ˈ তᢺᒣൠ䬰䮅л৫ˈ ᡁሶ䰝ⴞੜ䘉∅⭏ѻ᭫ᢃˈ 価ਇ⛩ᜠᙗѻ䉀઼DŽ

7  Zhou Zuoren, “‘Xiaohe’ qianji,” 28. 8  Li Jinfa, “Sonnet 2,” quoted in Xu Ting and Lu Dejun, Zhongguo shisihang tishi xuan, 68. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


ᡁԜ⵬‫↫ݯ‬Ҷˈնᗳӽ␵ᯠˈ 㦑╮൘ desir divin 䟼 㙺ᜣࡠᴤ䘌ѻ䘌༴৫ʽ ൠ⤡ѻ⚛↓⟳✗亸亩DŽ ਸ⵰ᦼ‫ˈݯ‬䐚Ҷ㟍‫ˈݯ‬ ᡁԜⅢ⽸⾧Ӱ⋑˛ ᴸ‫ݯ‬䮯䐣㦑൘⌒ᗳˈ ⎧⾎ୡҶˈ⎧⾎⤜ୡˈ ྲ਼֐ˈࡍᵏˈᴸлⲴ૰੏˖ ⑤ᵋⰋ侞⭏ભѻ⋹DŽ

The English translation does not reflect the poet’s choice phrases from classical Chinese and his somewhat awkward vernacular grammar, but unconventional images remain intact, such as “the hell fijire,” “the well of life,” and the dancing moon. Although these images do convey the sense of a man tormented by his wants on the shore of a stormy ocean, the exact content of his pursuit remains obscure and inaccessible, which is perhaps an intended aesthetic efffect by Li Jinfa in accordance with the pursuit of the Chinese symbolists. While the works of the early Chinese symbolists were a sensation in the moment, the ideas about poetry coherently expressed by two of its members had a more lasting efffect on Chinese poetic modernism. In two long letters published in the inaugural issue of Chuangzao yuekan ࡋ䙐ᴸ࠺ (Creation monthly) on March 16, 1926, Mu Mutian and Wang Duqing fijirst used the term chunshi 㓟䈇 (pure poetry), which initiated the so-called chunshi xue yundong 㓟䈇ᆖ䘀ࣘ (pure poetry movement) that not only influenced most of the poetic debates well into the 1940s but also echoed through the Misty poetry controversy in the 1980s. Mu Mutian started by accusing Hu Shi of being “the biggest sinner,” singularly responsible for the oversupply of “prose in verse” at the moment. This kind of poetry, Mu insisted, must be replaced by “poesie pure.”9 The heart of “poesie pure” is the construction of shi de shijie 䈇Ⲵ ц⭼ (a poetic world), which is derived from our ordinary life but transcends it at the same time, and which approaches “the realm of the subconsciousness” that “harbors the hidden secret of life” in all its variations (Mu Mutian, “On Poetry,” 140). Wang Duqing contributed to the concept of “pure poetry” by restating the idea of the poetic form, which is based on both the expressive potential of the Chinese word and on regulated lineation. The expressive 9  Mu Mutian, “Tan shi,” 140.



potential element also includes Wang’s groundbreaking introduction of the yinhua 丣⭫ (music-picturesqueness) theory, in which poetic language depicts emotions by highlighting the musicality and picturesqueness of the subject matter. He composed a poem just to illustrate the efffect of this theory: Under this lamp of water-green color, I gaze at her I gaze at her yellowish hair, her deep blue eyes, her pale cheeks Oh, under this wondrous lamp of water-green color! ൘䘉≤㔯㢢Ⲵ⚟лˈᡁⰤⴻ⵰ྩˈ ᡁⰤⴻ⵰ྩ␑哴Ⲵཤਁˈ ྩ␡㬍Ⲵ⵬ⶋˈྩ㣽ⲭⲴ䶒人ˈ ୺ˈ䘉䘧ӪⲴ≤㔯㢢Ⲵ⚟л!10

In reading these lines, the reader “listens to the color” and “feels the picturesqueness,” thus experiencing the wonder of an artistic creation through ganjue de jiaocuo ᝏ㿹ⲴӔ䭉 (sensory correspondence).11 Wang’s idea of regulated lineation is noteworthy in that he does not emphasize the regularity of shape or arrangement, least of all the limited ways of arranging lines and stanzas. Instead, he focuses on a holistic feel of “formal completeness” (xingshi de wanzheng ᖒᔿⲴᆼᮤ) that is poem-specifijic and situation-dependent (Wang Duqing, “More Thoughts,” 9). On the surface, one can draw the easy conclusion about the “foreignness” in Mu Mutian’s and Wang Duqing’s poetic theories while traversing their “translatese-like” Chinese prose, not to mention the many original English and French works alluded to between the lines. On the other side, their indebtedness to classical Chinese poetics is also easy to see. While Mu and Wang dislike early vernacular poets, they refer frequently to writers and poets of the farther past. They oppose Hu Shi’s poetics of vernacularism because it is fei shi 䶎䈇 (un-poetic): direct and shallow in content, crude and undisciplined in form. They counter with “pure poetry,” a poetry of indirection and suggestiveness expressed in moderated regulation, all familiar echoes of classical poetics. Such echoes are amplifijied by poets of the Crescent Moon group (Xinyuepai ᯠᴸ⍮), also known as the school of modern lüshi ᖻ䈇 (regulated verse), of which Wen Yiduo 䰫аཊ (1899–1946) was the most influential member. His essay “Shi de gelü” 䈇ⲴṬᖻ (The poetic form), published in May 1926, was a 10  11 

Wang Duqing, “Meigui hua,” 285–286. Wang Duqing, “Zai tanshi—jigei Mutian and Bo Qi,” 6–9.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


defijining moment in the history of New Poetry, for it made the idea of regulation credible in the discourse of Chinese poetic modernism. His pronouncement that poetry has “three beauties”—music (word-syllable), picturesqueness (diction), and architecture (lineation and stanzaic arrangement)—became a foundation for any ensuing discussions on the poetic form among Chinese poets and scholars. Wen Yiduo explains the “three beauties” in great detail: musicality is the life of poetry, which relies on the construction of rhythm and beat. He invented the concept of “sound-foot” (yin chi 丣ቪ) to overcome the monosyllabic limitation of the Chinese language. Picturesqueness demands word choices privileging concreteness, color, and visuality, which produces word-paintings like those of the classical masters. Finally, architecture is an extension of the Chinese language as pictograph, which expands the possibility of “New Poetry as a form of spatial art.”12 Contemporaneous readers of Wen Yiduo’s essay must have been impressed with his abundant and yet efffortless references to Western sources, such as his quoting of Oscar Wilde to emphasize the diffference between life or nature and art so as to ridicule the excess of naturalism and romanticism in early vernacular poetry, or his examples of Shakespeare’s proclivity to use rhymed speeches at dramatic moments so as to prove that rhythm facilitates emotion rather than diminishes it. His scattered use of original English expressions such as repeating the word “form” may give the impression that Wen was domesticating foreign ideas to advance his particular version of New Poetry. There is no doubt that Western poetry was an inspiration to him and for his own poetic creation in particular. Upon close scrutiny, however, one discovers that, for his efffort to theorize poetic regulation for New Poetry, Wen was only using Western sources for its legitimatization, not for its substantiation. Not only were Chinese references just as numerous, but the language that he uses to describe his theories of the “three beauties” is loaded with classical implications. One may even argue that the very idea of poetic regulation is a gesture of paying respect to the long tradition of regulated verse in China. On more than one occasion Wen expressed his admiration for classical Chinese poetry in no uncertain terms. He says: “It [regulated verse] is the highest achievement of Chinese arts. It is a representative of pure arts in China. There is the presence of a Chinese personality in every regulated-verse poem.”13 This does not mean, of course, that Wen was calling for a return to the regulated verse of the past. On the contrary, he took pains to diffferentiate modern regulated verse from classical regulated verse: “[Classical] regulated verse has only one style, 12  13 

Wen Yiduo, Wen Yiduo lun xinshi, 82–85. Wen Yiduo, Wen Yiduo quanji, 159.



but regulation in New Poetry has unlimited variation…. Regulation in classical poetry has nothing to do with content, regulation in New Poetry is always content-dependent; in classical poetry, regulation is imposed on the poet, but in New Poetry, the poet makes regulation as he wishes” (Wen Yiduo, Complete Works, 85). This is akin to saying that you are free to regulate your poetry as long as you regulate it. Wen Yiduo was both a formidable poet and an original literary critic. His poetic practice proves that the paradox embedded in his theory of regulation is not as unmanageable as it fijirst appears. His poem “Dead Water” is widely recognized as a success for modern regulated-verse poetry: Here is a ditch of hopelessly dead water. No breeze can raise a single ripple on it. Might as well throw in rusty metal scraps Or even pour left-over food and soup in it. Perhaps the green on copper will become emeralds. Perhaps on tin cans peach blossoms will bloom. Then, let grease weave a layer of silky gauze, and germs brew patches of colorful spume. Let the dead water ferment into jade wine covered with floating pearls of white scum. Small pearls chuckle and become big pearls, only to burst as gnats come to steal this rum. And so this ditch of hopelessly dead water may still claim a touch of something bright. And if the frogs cannot bear the silence— the dead water will croak its song of delight. Here is a ditch of helplessly dead water— a region where beauty can never reside. Might as well let the devil cultivate it— And see what sorts of world it can provide.14


Wen Yiduo, “Dead Water,” translated by Kai-yu Hsu in Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, 502–503.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


䘉ᱟа⋏㔍ᵋⲴ↫≤ˈ ␵仾੩н䎧ॺ⛩╚⋖DŽ нྲཊӽӋ⹤䬌⛲䫱ˈ ⡭ᙗ⌬֐Ⲵ࢙㨌↻㗩DŽ ҏ䇨䬌Ⲵ㾱㔯ᡀ㘑㘐ˈ 䫱㖀к䬸ࠪࠐ⬓ṳ㣡˗ ޽䇙⋩㞫㓷аቲ㖇㔞ˈ 䴹㧼㔉Ԇ㫨ࠪӋӁ䵎DŽ 䇙↫≤䞥ࠪа⋏㔯䞂ˈ 伈┑Ҷ⧽⨐լⲴⲭ⋛˗ ሿ⨐ㅁа༠ਈᡀབྷ⨐ˈ ৸㻛‫ڧ‬䞂Ⲵ㣡㲺૜⹤DŽ 䛓Ѹа⋏㔍ᵋⲴ↫≤ˈ ҏቡཨᗇкࠐ࠶勌᰾DŽ ྲ᷌䶂㴉㙀нտᇲሎˈ ৸㇇↫≤ਛࠪҶⅼ༠DŽ 䘉ᱟа⋏㔍ᵋⲴ↫≤ˈ 䘉䟼ᯝнᱟ㖾Ⲵᡰ൘ˈ нྲ䇙㔉сᚦᶕᔰූˈ ⴻԆ䙐ࠪњӰѸц⭼DŽ 15

Much has been said about the structural regularity of this poem. Indeed, Wen Yiduo puts on a full display of regulating elements and devices that he lays out in the previously mentioned essay: sound-foot (four in each line), variable rhyme scheme, colorful and concrete diction, regimented line-length (nine Chinese characters each), and repeatable stanza shape, a feat that even the poet himself could not stop bragging about on occasion.16 Less has been said, however, about how Wen Yiduo constructs the image of “dead water” by using inventive imagination to transform an ordinary object. “Dead water” as a theme may have been inspired by the French Symbolists’ elevated use of symbols in a poetic context, and particularly Charles Baudelaire’s equation of decadence with artistic pleasure, but “dead water” as a centralizing image harks back to 15  16 

Wen Yiduo, Wen Yiduo shi, 224–225. Wen Yiduo says that the poem is his “most satisfying experiment in sound-syllable.” See his “Shi de gelü,” 85.



classical Chinese poetic image theories, a subject to which Wen devoted considerable scholarly attention throughout his career. From a familiar East-West comparative perspective, Wen Yiduo comments: The xiang 䊑 (image, pictograph) in the Book of Changes and the xing ‫( ޤ‬object-emotion interaction) in the Book of Poetry are of the same category, which is why later-generation scholars use xing xiang as one phrase. What Westerners call “image” or “symbol” means the same thing. To express it in Chinese lingo, they all refer to yin 䳀 (indirection, suggestiveness).17 The suggestive potential of “dead water” as an image is precisely what makes the poem an example of “Chinese symbolism.” The image is not merely self-referential—inviting a self-intoxicating adventure with decadence itself— but rather the image is a point of engagement with something beyond itself, a social satire and an expression of frustration with China’s stagnation. It is also no small matter that the poem displays an interventionist subjectivity yet lacks an identifijiable speaker. This is another case of modern poetic sensibility that is both enabled and constrained by classical regulation. It goes without saying that the New Poem was born free and the classical poem flourishes in regulation. Being free within regulation is a paradox residing at the heart of Chinese poetic modernism, where the intractable traces of shiyi, perhaps, can be captured and rearticulated. This is a paradox with which modern Chinese poets since Wen Yiduo have been advancing a constant dialogue, and nothing demonstrates the complexity of this dialogue better than the case of the sonnet in China. In contrast to another imported foreign poetic form, namely, the xiaoshi ሿ䈇 (little poetry), which had a meteoric rise and swift retreat in the poetic scene of the 1920s, the story of the sonnet is long and convoluted. With a limited number of practitioners and never gaining a wide acceptance, the sonnet always resides on the margins of New Poetry, where it flourishes because of its possibility of regulation. To Chinese poets in the vernacular, this “little song” of fourteen lines, translated simply as shisihangshi ॱഋ㹼䈇 (fourteen-line poem or sonnet),18 was the elegant poetic form associated with many of the greatest Western poets from Shakespeare and Browning to Auden and Rilke. Therefore, 17  18 

Wen Yiduo, “Shuo yü,” in his Gushi shenyun, 36. In 1920, Wen Yiduo coined the word shanglaiti ୶㉱փ for sonnet, which was a transliteration but with a classic touch. Very soon, shanglaiti was replaced with shisihangshi, which is a plain reference to the line numbers in the sonnet.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


the tradition of the sonnet in Western literature became an automatic rationale for experimentation with it in the Chinese setting. Such a “westward outlook,” of course, was the general attitude of many people in the early vernacular poetry movement. But the attraction of the sonnet, on a deeper level, was its perceived “afffijinity” to the aspects of discipline and regulation of classical Chinese poetry that, as we have discussed, were always present to counter the excesses of free verse. “The sonnet has a well-controlled structure and a most condensed form, which is conducive to giving rich emotions an integral framework.” Liang Shiqiu ằᇎ⿻ thus powerfully argued the case for the sonnet and concluded, “The sonnet is most identical to classical regulated verse in Chinese poetry.”19 While such “afffijinity” gave the sonnet a legitimate reason to exist in modern China, it also reflected the aesthetic inclinations of those critics and poets who “discovered” it. It is then not surprising to see the name of Wen Yiduo among the early advocates of the sonnet in China. In 1921, he translated Alexander Pope’s “To Aunt Hardy” and commented on the merits of the sonnet for the fijirst time.20 Initially, Wen Yiduo was not certain of its reception, worrying that most poets of New Poetry would doubt the wisdom of using such an alien poetic form, if not vigorously oppose it (Wen Yiduo on New Poetry, 6). Therefore, Wen took a cautious approach to his experimentation, writing his fijirst sonnet almost one year later, and hiding it away in his widely read collection, Hongzhu 㓒✋ (Red candle), published in 1923. Five years later, when he published his second book of poetry, Si shui ↫≤ (Dead water), he included nearly twenty sonnets. In general, Wen Yiduo’s sonnets strictly followed the Shakespearean pattern in meter and rhyme, as well as the rhetorical functions attributed to each stanza. With regards to rhetorical requirements, he was credited for the use of the traditional critical terms qi 䎧 (introduction), cheng ᢯ (continuation), zhuan 䖜 (transition), and he ਸ (conclusion) to establish a theory for the sonnet in Chinese (Wen Yiduo, Wen Yiduo on New Poetry, 104), which pushed the idea of an “afffijinity” with classical Chinese poetry to a new height in the defense of the sonnet form. Largely independent of Wen Yiduo’s ideas, Li Jinfa wrote sonnets in ways that weakened attention to the genre’s formal requirements instead of upholding them. One of the most prolifijic sonnet poets in China, he used the form most

19  20 

Liang Shiqiu, Pianjian ji, 28. There were some poems published earlier that resembled the form of the sonnet. For example, Zhen Boqi’s “Zeng Taiwan de pengyou” (To a friend from Taiwan), appeared in Shaonian Zhongguo [Youthful China] 2.2 (August 1920). These “unannounced” sonnets, however, did not arouse any interest in the form itself.



“naturally” and without the least concern over what this form might mean to his Chinese readers. Living and writing in Paris, Li Jinfa created poetry that in general lacked the tension with its own form present in many of the vernacular poems written in China. Except for one fourteen-line poem, his sonnets were unrhymed, mostly in uneven, enjambed lines, without a trace of rhetorical organization, as we can see from the poem discussed earlier. Such liberal approaches to the sonnet, if unpleasant to those most wedded to tradition— the Western tradition, that is—led the way to open experimentation with the sonnet for years to come. The most productive experiments, however, were still done within the framework of discipline and regulation, which was why the sonnet remained attractive primarily to poets interested in modern regulated verse. Thus, most of the well-known sonnet poets in the later 1920s and early 1930s such as Sun Dayu ᆉབྷ䴘 (1905–1997), Liang Zongdai ằᇇዡ (1903–1983), Rao Mengkan 侦Ỗֳ (1902–1967), Chen Mengjia 䱸Ỗᇦ (1911–1966), and Shao Xunmei 䛥⍥㖾 (1906–1968) were closely associated with Wen Yiduo and united around literary journals such as Xinyue ᯠᴸ (The crescent), known for their concern with regulation. The goal in writing the sonnet was, as Zhu Ziqing ᵡ㠚␵ (1898– 1948) explained, “to create from imitation, and turn one more foreign form to one of our own.”21 But it was precisely the question of the applicability of the sonnet to the cultural setting of New Poetry that was a point of continuous contention. The vernacular poem had just thrown away bondage from Chinese tradition; why should it import new bonds? Hu Shi once ridiculed the sonnet as “a piece of foreign foot-binding cloth.”22 The most severe criticism came from the Leftist writers who naturally opposed any form of writing that did not promote the social function of literature. About the sonnet, Qu Qiubai ⷯ⿻ⲭ (1899–1935) wrote, “The genre … is a pudding from the West, which is best for the play of some elitist men of letters. The Chinese masses have no need for it.”23 Despite such powerful charges, the Chinese sonnet sustained a surprisingly strong interest among Chinese poets for years to come. The story of Feng Zhi’s relationship with the sonnet may offfer a plausible explanation. One cannot talk about the Chinese sonnet without mentioning Feng Zhi, because the twenty-seven sonnets he wrote in the early 1940s were widely recognized as the best ever in this genre.24 Before his dabbling in the sonnet form, 21  22  23  24 

Zhu Ziqing, Xinshi zahua, 98. Hu Shi, Hu Shi wenji, 287. Qu Qiubai, Qu Qiubai xuanji, 58. These sonnets were fijirst published in a book form called Shisihang ji (Sonnets) in Guilin in 1942, and their popularity led to a second edition in Shanghai in 1949. Feng Zhi’s collection was also the fijirst to use “sonnet” as its book title.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


Feng Zhi was already an established young lyrical poet. His two widely praised collections, Zuori zhi ge ᱘ᰕѻⅼ (Songs of yesterday, 1927) and Beiyou ji qita े⑨৺ަԆ (Northern expedition and others, 1929), speak about frustration, loneliness, nature, love, and death in a romantic mood vested in the voices of the vagrant, the mythical, and the metaphysical. In these poems, there are plenty of examples demonstrating the poet’s attention to formal aspects of his prosody, his deliberation over rhetorical delivery, and his sensitive touches at verbal delicacy and vigorous imagery. In December 1930, Feng Zhi went to study in Germany. As he labored on the subjects of philosophy and art history with occasional readings of Goethe and Rilke, poetry seemed to be retreating further from his world of scholarship, but things would change when he returned to China in 1935 to begin his career in higher education, fijirst at Tongji University in Shanghai and then at the famous National Southwest Associated University in Kunming, a temporary institution for the northern universities that had fled the Japanese occupation. It was during these most “unpoetic” times that Feng Zhi found the calling of poetry again. He gave a detailed account about how the writing of the sonnet happened to him: In 1941, I was living in the mountains near Kunming, and I had to go to the city twice every week. It was a fijive mile or so round-trip that made up a good walk. Walking alone on the mountain paths and small roads in the country, I couldn’t help looking around me, more so than in ordinary times. It made me think harder and deeper than I normally did. I stopped writing poetry a long time ago … then one winter afternoon I saw several silver-colored airplanes up in the crystal-blue skies, and the image of the peng bird came to my mind. I began to say aloud some rhymed sentences, with the accompaniment of my walking pace. After I arrived home, I wrote them down, which turned into a sonnet variant.25 Previously inexperienced with the sonnet form, Feng Zhi would like the reader to believe that his use of this foreign form was incidental and that it naturally fijit describing this particular moment in wartime. In quoting the well-known critic Li Guangtian’s ᵾᒯ⭠ comment that the sonnet displays a multilayered structure that falls and rises with its rhymes, Feng Zhi fijinally concluded in the same account that the sonnet “gave an appropriate shape to the thought I wanted to convey” (“Preface,” 2) The tension between thought and its shape is the theme of this sonnet: 25 

Feng Zhi, “Gei yige qingnian shiren de shi feng xin yizhe xu,” 1–3.



From a pool of flowing, shapeless water, The water-carrier fijills his oval pitcher, Thus so much water takes on a defijinite shape. Look, how the vane flutters in the autumn wind Holding objects that can’t be held, And let the light, the dark night, the growth of woods far away, also the mind running toward the infijinite be preserved some on this vane. In vain we have listened to a night’s wind, And watched a day’s yellow grass and red leaves. Where shall we dispose our thoughts, where? Hope these poems will hold like a vane— some things that cannot be held.26 Ӿа⡷⌋┕ᰐᖒⲴ≤䟼ˈ ਆ≤ӪਆᶕὝശⲴа⬦ˈ 䘉⛩≤ቡᗇࡠањᇊᖒ˗ ⴻˈ൘⿻仾䟼伈ᢜⲴ仾ᰇˈ ᆳᢺտӋᢺнտⲴһփˈ 䇙䘌ᯩⲴ‫ݹ‬ǃ䘌ᯩⲴ唁ཌ ઼Ӌ䘌ᯩⲴ㥹ᵘⲴ㦓䉒ˈ 䘈ᴹњ྄ੁ䘌ᯩⲴᗳ᜿ˈ 䜭‫⮉؍‬аӋ൘䘉䶒ᰇкDŽ ᡁԜオオੜ䗷аཌ仾༠ˈ オⴻҶаཙⲴ㥹哴ਦ㓒ˈ ੁօ༴ᆹᧂᡁԜⲴᙍᜣ˛ նᝯ䘉Ӌ䈇䊑а䶒仾ᰇ ᢺտаӋᢺнտⲴһփDŽ


Feng Zhi, The Sonnets, 55–56. The English translation is largely taken from Dominic Cheung’s rendering of the poem in Lloyd Haft, A Selective Guide to Chinese Literature, 104–105. I have also consulted Kai-yu Hsu’s translation in Lau and Goldblatt, Columbia Anthology, 509.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


It may not be incidental that this is Sonnet 27, the last piece in Feng Zhi’s collection. In the poem, the well-chosen images of water, wind, and weather vane bring the reader right into the movement of the persona’s mind. Just as the vane, shifting in the wind, exists not to call attention to itself but to indicate the direction of the wind, the mind, always running toward the unknown and the infijinite, needs a vessel that will confijigure as well as articulate its perpetual movement. Facing the same shanhe (mountains and rivers) as the classical poet, Feng’s speaker has an internal conversation with the realm of nature. The inanimate objects are engendered to create a context of questioning the relationships between “I” and the world, between language and thought, and between the permanence and transience of things and ideas. The feeling of “smallness” of the self-projected in the poem recalls a familiarity going back to the heart of Chinese poetic tradition. Yet the poem is unmistakably “modern,” or shall we say “postmodern,” as it has been read by many critics.27 What is it that prompts such a reading? Is it because the topic of language, thought, and the self is the topic that defijines a modern aesthetic? And that the uncertainty of a defijinition bespeaks a modern sensibility with which we can easily identify? Is it because the “smallness” of the speaker in fact enlarges his subjective consciousness rather than reducing it? In other words, tianren heyi ཙӪਸа (harmony with nature) is evoked here not to make man disappear into an imagined and idealistic paradise but to centralize his subjectivity that is wrought with uncertainty and struggles in the real world. Alongside the speaker’s search for the “shape” of his self, Feng Zhi also makes a sophisticated argument for the power of the sonnet form, which seamlessly draws together his presence in contemplation of subjects of his interest, wherever his mind takes him. Thus his mind can travel from the eternal souls in history to the anonymous country children and farmers’ wives, from the mythical and the fijictional to the insects and grasses on a nearby hillside, and from a personal moment in memory to the common experience of all mankind. However, upon close scrutiny, Sonnet 27 also reveals some paradoxical elements that undermine Feng Zhi’s very faith in the form so skillfully adapted. There is a highlighted sense of ambiguity and uncertainty in the poet’s wordplays on “shape” and “shapeless,” “defijinite and indefijinite,” and “will hold” and “cannot be held.” The most paradoxical of all is, perhaps, the very act of creating a poem set in an easily identifijiable form that comments on the limitation of the form in relation to what it tries to contain. Feng Zhi’s persuasion comes from his purposeful abstraction of the form, giving it the double functions of signifijier and signifijied. In other words, the sonnet form for Feng Zhi is not just 27 

For example, Michelle Yeh, Modern Chinese Poetry, 90–92.



a time-tested poetic form but a literary sign of order and discipline needed to oppose the confusion and disorder of the present that the poet experiences at the very moment of writing. Perhaps we are now in a better position to understand why Feng Zhi “naturally” chose the sonnet as the form of his poetic speech. It is a case where the axiom “form as content” works perfectly at a moment of poetic epiphany about loss and nostalgia in search of shape and manifestation. In this connection, the particularity of a form becomes secondary, because it is the invested value of form as regulation that invigorates and inspires. Echoes of the classical, in other words, help defijine and describe poetry for the poet and his readers. As we all know, the classical presence has been a force of persuasion at all moments of theoretical debate and genre recalibration for New Poetry, such as the xin gelü shi ᯠṬᖻ䈇 (new regulated verse) in the 1930s, the Jiuye shipai ҍਦ䈇⍮ (Nine Leaves school) in the 1940s, the minge yundong ≁ⅼ䘀ࣘ (folk song campaign) in the 1950s, the xin gudian shi ᯠਔި䈇 (new-style classical poetry) in the 1960s and 1970s, the menglong shi ᵖ㜗䈇 (misty poetry) in the 1980s, and the minjian ≁䰤 versus zhishi fenzi ⸕䇶࠶ᆀ (populism versus intellectualism) debate in the 1990s, in which every position must start and end by elucidating its afffijinity to or distance from elements of classical poetic constraints. It would be simplistic and unpersuasive to suggest, however, that the classical presence is limited only to formal afffijinity or distance between classical and modern poems. As Feng Zhi’s fascination with the sonnet has shown, the classical has exerted a more haunting influence on the New Poem in that it helps to locate as well contextualize shiyi or the very meaning of poetry. In this sense, the classical may be expressed as a kind of search, radiating meanings such as ethos, stimulus, imagination, or lyricism. The theme of “the classical as search” is evident in many canonical poems of modernist poets in the fijirst half of the twentieth century, such as Xu Zhimo’s ᗀᘇ᪙ “Zaibie kangqiao” ޽࡛ᓧẕ (Second farewell to Cambridge), Dai Wangshu’s ᡤᵋ㡂 “Yu xiang” 䴘ᐧ (Rainy alley), and Bian Zhilin’s ঎ѻ⩣ “Duan zhang” ᯝㄐ (Fragment), in addition to Feng Zhi’s sonnet collection, where valid interpretations require not only an intertextual familiarity with classical poetics but also an acknowledgement of a modern sensibility rooted in nostalgia about lost time and space. Examples of “using” the classical in more recent Chinese poems are just as abundant, although they tend to appear more elusive, more intangible, and more variegated, in which interest in named regulating devices and stylistic constraints often yields to the way the classical serves as a contrast for modernist imaginations. Take, for example, the mainland poet Han Dong’s 丙ь (b. 1961) “Youguan da yan ta” ᴹ‫ޣ‬བྷ䳱ຄ (Concerning Giant Wild Goose Pagoda) and the Taiwanese poet Luo Fu’s ⍋ཛ (1928–2018) “Sui yusheng

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


rushan er bujian yu” 䲿䴘༠‫ޕ‬ኡ㘼н㿱䴘 (Following the sound of rain into the mountains: No rain). Here are the two poems: Concerning the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda concerning the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda what can we know many hurry here from afar climbing it to play the hero once still others come to play the hero twice or more times the disillusioned the overweight all climb up to play the hero then come down go out into the street and disappear. some daredevils take a jump making a red flower thus becoming a hero the hero of our times concerning the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda what can we know we climb up and look at the scenery then come down28 ᴹ‫ޣ‬བྷ䳱ຄ ᡁԜ৸㜭⸕䚃ӋӰѸ ᴹᖸཊӪӾ䘌ᯩ䎦ᶕ ѪҶ⡜к৫ ‫ڊ‬а⅑㤡䳴 ҏᴹⲴ䘈ᶕ‫ڊ‬ㅜҼ⅑ ᡆ㘵ᴤཊ 䛓Ӌнᗇ᜿ⲴӪԜ 䛓Ӌਁ⾿ⲴӪԜ 28 

Han Dong, “Youguan Da yan ta,” in Jin Hongyu and Peng Linxiang, Yisheng zhencang de 200 shou shi, 281.


Li 㔏㔏⡜к৫ ‫ڊ‬а‫ڊ‬㤡䳴 ❦ਾлᶕ 䎠䘋䘉ᶑབྷ㺇 䖜⵬н㿱Ҷ ҏᴹᴹ⿽Ⲵᖰл䐣 ൘ਠ䱦кᔰаᵥ㓒㣡 䛓ቡⵏⲴᡀҶ㤡䳴 ᖃԓ㤡䳴 ᴹ‫ޣ‬བྷ䳱ຄ ᡁԜ৸㜭⸕䚃ӰѸ ᡁԜ⡜к৫ ⴻⴻഋઘⲴ仾Ჟ ❦ਾ޽лᶕ

Following the Sound of Rain into the Mountains: No Rain Holding an oil-paper umbrella Humming “Sour is the Plum of March” In the mountains I am the pilgrim’s only pair of shoes Woodpeckers’ empty Echoes A tree revolves up in the pecking pain Into the mountains No rain The umbrella flaps over a blue rock On which a man sits, head in his arms Watching the cigarette stubs turn to ash Down the mountains Still, no rain Three bitter pinecones Roll along the road signs, toward me Pick them up A handful of chirping sound29 29 

Luo Fu, “Sui yusheng rushan er bujian yu,” in Lau and Goldblatt, Columbia Anthology, 541–542.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


᫁⵰аᢺ⋩㓨Վ ୡ⵰ “йᴸᵾᆀ䞨” Շኡѻѝ ᡁᱟୟаⲴаৼ㣂䶻 ୴ᵘ呏ǂオオ എ༠ǂ⍎⍎ аἥṁ൘୴Ⰻѝഎ᯻㘼к ‫ޕ‬ኡ н㿱䴘 Վ㔅⵰аඇ䶂⸣伎 䛓䟼඀⵰ањᣡཤⲴ⭧ᆀ ⴻ✏㪲ᡀ⚠ лኡ ӽн㿱䴘 й㋂㤖ᶮᆀ ⋯⵰䐟ḷаⴤ┊ࡠᡁⲴ㝊ࡽ ը᡻ᣃ䎧 ㄏᱟаᢺ呏༠

Han Dong’s signature poem was fijirst published in 1983 to great critical acclaim. Its theme is typically read as a rejection of high-mindedness and heroism, two prevailing values of China under Mao. It is a deconstruction of history and authority and an elevation of the ordinary and the mundane. This “correct” reading not only reflects the mood of skepticism and cynicism rampant in China of the 1980s but also confijirms the poet’s well-known anti-intellectualist poetics. On the other side, this reading seems to ignore the obvious evocation of the classical in its very title, Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, one of the most celebrated artifacts of history and tradition. That the speaker chooses such a symbol to rebel against in order to establish his ordinariness is itself a point to ponder. Does he know the symbolic meanings of the pagoda? Apparently, he does not. The lines “concerning Giant Wild Goose pagoda / what can we know” are repeated to suggest a disconnect between the climbers and the structure; furthermore, all the described actions by the visitors including jumping down from it are not in line with the intended functions of this symbolic structure—a library for Buddhist sutras during the days of old and a sightseeing tower at the present time. Han Dong’s speaker is not neutral in his description of what is happening at the pagoda: there is a detectable sense of ridicule that he metes out to the visitors who are so violently ignorant of this symbol. This



un-acknowledgement of the classical in our lives and this tension between the surface and the signifijicance, Han Dong seems to suggest, are what make this poem so powerfully expressive. One may say that the “misuse” of Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a gesture of irreverence, but its consequence does not bode well for those who commit it, an admonition, if you will, that the poet handed out to the generation of Chinese readers who had just lived through the rabid “anti-old” impulse of the Cultural Revolution. In perhaps the less politically charged environment in Taiwan of the 1970s, Luo Fu in his poem describes a moment of life’s true ordinariness: an outing to the mountains. From the outset, the speaker has all the props (his umbrella and tune) to relive a classic dream of entering into nature. Yet nothing turns out as expected: Rain does not fall, and an uninitiated man destroys whatever remains of the tableau with his cigarette’s ashes. The ending of the poem, however, suggests this classic dream has not been a nightmare because the speaker does at least have three pinecones to treasure and to savor. These three pinecones, which for some reason have escaped from the self-contained world of nature, have thus become indexes to the classic dream that constantly tempts us. If they are a reminder of the classical, it means we can experience it only serendipitously, in an unplanned way that is always delightfully appealing and yet frustratingly unsatisfactory. In theory, the discourse of modernism relies on a break with the past; to write in a manner that is wholly new is its very logic of operation. In practice, however, tradition has always exerted a variable and catalytic influence on the way modernism shapes itself in a particular cultural context. To T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), tradition is simply a constituent part of ourselves: he conceives of the poet’s mind as a “receptacle” designed to “form a new compound” from “numberless feelings, phrases, and images.”30 Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) believes in discovering the self by “think[ing] back through our mothers.”31 Ezra Pound’s (1885–1972) appropriation of the Chinese written word, an ostensibly “primitive” mode of speech, as a launching pad for his style of poetic modernism is the most persuasive evidence of modernists’ indebtedness to tradition. In modern China, tradition has been given a bad name by radicalisms of various strands. It seems that the “modernity project” could succeed only when tradition disappears. Nothing better illustrates such hostility toward tradition than the beginning of New Poetry. Once all the avant-garde gestures of the founders of the Literary Revolution ran their course, however, Chinese poets engaged in a serious and continuous dialogue with tradition that helped to 30  31 

T. S. Eliot, The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, 41. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 76.

The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetic Modernism


defijine Chinese poetic modernism for years to come. This is not an efffort to restore the past glories of classical poetry, but rather to use it to facilitate the discussion of the nature of poetry and the function of literature. Tradition is dead but it gets a second life as the classical, that is, the ideas of order and regulation and the intertext of afffijinity continue to spur poetic inspiration. In this connection, we should understand the classical as the crystallization of tradition minus some unappealing details as well as its reconfijiguration as a historical consciousness in the realm of aesthetics. What the Chinese modernist poets share is this consciousness of the classical with which they constantly experiment and innovate in poetic forms and expressions. The results of their experiments and innovations are not the rigidity and uniformity of the New Poem, but the elevation of individuality in the versifijication of the poet and her every poem, a celebrated aesthetic value dear to any form of modernism. This, ultimately, is the oft-heard classical echo in Chinese poetic modernism.

part 2 Modernist Poetry from Taiwan

chapter 5

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan Michelle Yeh

This chapter offfers a study of Xia Yu (Hsia Yü) ༿ᆷ (b. 1956), who many consider one of the most innovative poets writing in Chinese today. Beyond a textual analysis of her work, the chapter will contextualize her appearance on the scene in what I call the modernist tradition of Chinese poetry from the 1910s to the present. By situating Xia Yu in this tradition, I highlight two salient features of her work: relentless artistic experimentation and a distinctly modernist sensibility.


Modernisms in Chinese Poetry

To the extent that literary modernism is a revolt against tradition and a selfconscious quest for the new, modern poetry in the Chinese language is, by defijinition, “modernist” since its inception in the 1910s. Self-declared as New Poetry (xinshi ᯠ䂙), it rose against the millennia-long classical poetry, disparaged as old poetry (jiushi 㠺䂙), much like David taking on Goliath. The emphasis on newness is manifested in all aspects: language, form, imagery, use of allusion, and literary models, as laid out by Hu Shi 㜑䚙 (1891–1962) in his “Ba bu” ‫ޛ‬н (Eight don’ts).1 However, it is necessary for us to go beyond this broad defijinition of modernism since modern Chinese poetry did not develop in an exclusively Chinese context. From the beginning, it has drawn on world poetry, mainly from the United States, Europe, and Japan. As Hu Shi readily acknowledged, his own “experiments” were inspired by his translations of Anglo-American poetry, which he studied as an international student in the United States from 1910 to 1917.2 Hu’s case was representative rather than unique. When we look at the history of modern Chinese poetry as a whole, a large number of poets have either spent time abroad or engaged in translations of world poetry during their careers. What this means is that modern Chinese poetry is by nature 1  For a listing and brief discussion of Hu Shi’s “Eight Don’ts,” see Michelle Yeh’s introduction to Michelle Yeh and N. G. D. Malmqvist, Frontier Taiwan, 2–3. 2  For relevant passages, see Hu Shi riji quanji.

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transnational and transcultural. It is exposed to and often does appropriate models from a broad array of movements of global currency, from romanticism and symbolism to modernism and postmodernism. This fact complicates the way we discuss modernism in that the modernity of Chinese poetry is the umbrella under which diffferent strands of modernism may be discerned and studied. Historically, we may identify six distinct moments when modernism is embraced as a literary paradigm. The fijirst and earliest moment is the emergence of the group of writers revolving around two journals, Xiandai ⨮ԓ (Les contemporains, 1932–1935) and Xinshi ᯠ䂙 (New poetry, 1936), including such important poets as Dai Wangshu ᡤᵋ㡂 (1905– 1950), Bian Zhilin ঎ѻ⩣ (1910–2000), Liang Zongdai ằᇇዡ (1903–1983), Sun Dayu ᆛབྷ䴘 (1905–1997), and Feng Zhi 俞㠣 (1905–1993). Although these poets had afffijiliations with various groups at one time or another, their poetry and translations all exhibited a Symbolist-Modernist orientation.3 The second moment in Chinese modernism is the formation of Le Moulin Poetry Society (Fengche shishe 付䓺䂙⽮, 1935–1936) in Taiwan under Japanese occupation. Founded by Yang Chichang ὺ⟮᰼ (1908–1994), Le Moulin advocated French Surrealism as mediated by Japan. This group has received scant critical attention for several reasons: it was small, it was geographically marginal, and its aesthetic position ran counter to the mainstream at the time. Finally, it was short-lived. Although all the poetry was written in Japanese, I consider Le Moulin to be the fijirst in the history of modern Chinese poetry to advocate Surrealism as most of the members were Taiwanese.4 The third moment of modernism fijinds articulation by the young poets at the Southwest Associated University in Kunming during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). Under the tutelage of the preeminent British literary critic William Empson (1906–1984), they studied contemporary English poetry and were especially drawn to W. H. Auden, whose modernist poetry and social engagement inspired them. Among the students, Mu Dan ぶᰖ (1918–1977), Yuan Kejia 㺱ਟహ (1921–2008), Du Yunxie ᶌ䙻⠞ (1915–2002), and Zheng Min 䝝᭿ (b. 1920) were to be retroactively banded together with fijive other poets from the New Poetry group and dubbed the Nine Leaves school (Jiuyepai ҍ㩹⍮).5 In post-Mao China, the Nine Leaves, Mu Dan in particular, exerted a signifijicant influence on the new generations of poets. As an editor and

3  For critical studies, see Lloyd Haft, Pien Chih-lin; Gregory Lee, Dai Wangshu; Xiaojue Wang, Modernity with a Cold War Face, chapter 5 on Feng Zhi. 4  Michelle Yeh, “Ranshao yu feiyue,” 33–63. 5  Wai-lim Yip, Lyrics from Shelters.

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


translator of Anglophone literature, Yuan also contributed signifijicantly to the revived interest in Western modernism as a whole. The fourth moment of modernism occurred in postwar Taiwan in the 1950s when Ji Xian ㌰ᕖ (1913–2013) founded the Xiandaishi jikan ⨮ԓ䂙 ᆓ࠺ (Modern poetry quarterly) in 1953 and the Modernist school (Xiandaipai ⨮ԓ⍮) in 1956.6 The Modernist Movement inspired the young poets of the Epoch Poetry Society (Chuangshiji shishe ࢥц㌰䂙⽮), who singled out Surrealism as their model. The Epoch group not only produced arguably the fijinest Surrealist poet in modern Chinese poetry, Shang Qin ୶⿭ (1930–2010), but has also proved a lasting influence on several generations of poets in Taiwan.6 Closely related to the Modernist Movement in Taiwan is its counterpart in Hong Kong during the same period. Wenyi xinchao ᮷㰍ᯠ▞ (New trends in literature and arts), founded by Ma Lang 俜ᵇ (b. 1933) in the 1950s, was the fijirst journal in Hong Kong devoted to the introduction of international modernism. It was followed by several journals in the 1960s, such as Xinchao ᯠ▞ (New tide), Shiduo 䂙ᵥ (Flowers of poetry), and Haowangjiao ྭᵋ䀂 (Cape of good hope). Finally, after decades of “Revolutionary-Romantic poetry” dictated by the Chinese Communist Party, modernism came back with a vengeance in postMao China. As underground poetry rose to the surface and attracted national attention, such Modernists as Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941), T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), and W. H. Auden (1907–1973) became role models for the avant-garde in China in the 1970s–1990s era. These underground poets ushered in a renaissance and defijined contemporary poetry in China.7 These six moments in modern Chinese poetry suggest that there is a long history of receptions to, and appropriations of, modernism, which originated in the West but spread globally and underwent many transformations. We also fijind varying degrees of connectedness among them. Most obviously, the Modernist school and the Epoch Poetry Society in Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s were directly related to the Modernist Movement launched by Ji Xian. The fijirst tenet of the Modernist school states: “We are a group of Modernists who selectively promote and reject the spirits and constituents of all new schools of poetry from Baudelaire to the present.”8 Throughout the movement,

6  Ji Xian, “Xianshipai liu da xintiao shiyi,” 168. For a discussion of the historical signifijicance of the Modernists, see Michelle Yeh, “On Our Destitute Dinner Table,” 113–139. 7  Maghiel van Crevel, Language Shattered. 8  Translation by Paul Manfredi in Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, Michelle Yeh, and Ming-ju Fan, The Columbia Sourcebook of Literary Taiwan, 163.



poets in Taiwan also collaborated closely with poets in Hong Kong associated with the previously mentioned avant-garde journals. Through Ji Xian, an erstwhile contributor to Xiandai under the pen name Luyishi 䐟᱃༛ (“Louis”), the Modernist Movement in postwar Taiwan is connected to the one in Shanghai in the 1930s and less directly to the one in Kunming in the 1940s. Whether it was poetry from the Republican period or from post-1949 Taiwan, many of these poets and poetry groups were discovered or rediscovered in post-Mao China during the New Era. Less obvious is the connection between those groups and the Surrealists of the Le Moulin Poetry Society in the 1930s. However, even here, a link can be traced to Lin Hengtai ᷇Ә⌠ (b. 1924), a Taiwanese poet active in the later years of the Japanese occupation. He became a close ally to Ji Xian and a leading theorist of the Modernist school in postwar Taiwan. To outline the indigenous tradition of modernism in Chinese poetry is to emphasize the utmost importance of historicization. Historicization means more than pointing out the unique conditions and contingencies inherent in any literary development. More importantly, the historical specifijicity means that we must study modernism in Chinese poetry as a system in its own right, with its own internal logic underlying its trajectory from the 1910s to the present across multiple geopolitical sites. In other words, historicization is inseparable from naturalization and nativization. This becomes clearer when we compare the modernisms in Chinese and Anglo-European poetry. On the one hand, they share many common denominators, such as the critique of instrumentalism, expression of alienation of the moderns, and relentless pursuit of artistic originality. On the other hand, while Western modernism rose in reaction to the Romantic sublime and the Wordsworthian “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility,”9 Chinese modernism is arguably closer to romanticism rather than diametrically opposed to it. After all, romanticism was new to Chinese poets in the formative period; it thrived in the 1920s and 1930s and again in postwar Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s. Besides its relative newness, there was an additional reason why romanticism played a signifijicant role in modern poetry in Taiwan. During the White Terror period (roughly, 1950s–1980s), any author who stayed, voluntarily or not, on the mainland was, by defijinition, “leftist” or “communist,” and therefore was banned from publication and circulation. Only the few who had either passed away before 1949 or moved to Taiwan with the Nationalists were readily 9  Wordsworth’s full statement reads as follows: “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” (“Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” 21).

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


available. Under these political circumstances, Xu Zhimo ᗀᘇ᪙ (1897–1931) was “safe” in that, fijirst, he had passed away in 1931, and, second, he was a close friend of Hu Shi and Liang Shiqiu ằሖ⿻ (1903–1987), two major cultural fijigures in Taiwan with close ties to the Nationalist government. Moreover, Xu was a legendary fijigure for his romantic poetry as well as his scandalous and tragic love life.10 His poetry and prose were extremely well received in the 1950s and 1960s for their lyricism and musicality, which influenced many young poets, such as Zheng Chouyu 䝝ᜱҸ (b. 1933) and Yang Mu ὺ⢗ (b. 1940), who were to become major poets in their own right. Another illuminating angle on historicizing modernism in Taiwan is that in the early 1970s modernist poetry came under scathing attack by opponents who disparaged it as Westernized, solipsistic, escapist, and pretentiously obscure. The “modern poetry debate” (xiandaishi lunzhan ⨮ԓ䂙䄆ᡠ) reflected the larger legitimation crisis and identity crisis that were plaguing writers and intellectuals at the time, when Taiwan was sufffering a series of setbacks in the international arena, including the loss of membership in the United Nations and what were perceived as betrayals by the United States and Japan, who severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established new relations with the People’s Republic of China. In response, critics of modernist poetry called for a return to Chinese cultural roots and a social awareness grounded in Taiwanese reality. In poetry, two new trends set in: fijirst, a nativist realism that focused primarily on social ills and historical injustices; second, a neo-classicism that appropriated certain elements of traditional Chinese poetry and poetics. As the democracy movement in opposition to the Nationalist regime gained momentum in the second half of the 1970s and the fijirst half of the 1980s, nativist realism established itself as the mainstream in poetry as a means of exposé and empowerment.11


Xia Yu’s Emergence on the Poetry Scene

Does this mean that from the late 1970s and early 1980s onward, modernism ceased to be a force in the poetry of Taiwan? The answer is defijinitely no. Many poets of the younger generation had grown up under the influence of the Modernists. While some turned away from modernism toward nativist realism, some ingeniously combined modernist techniques with nativist concerns. 10  11 

Michelle Yeh, “Xiandai Hanshi de game-changer: Chonggu Xu Zhimo,” 27–61. On the modern poetry debate and the rise of nativism, see Michelle Yeh, “Frontier Taiwan: An Introduction,” 32–33.



Still others continued the modernist tradition and took it to a new height. It is in this literary-historical context that I propose to study Xia Yu, one of the most original and important poets to come out of Taiwan in the past three decades. Born in Taipei in 1956, Xia Yu emerged on the poetry scene in 1984 with her fijirst book Beiwanglu ‫ۉ‬ᘈ䤴 (Memoranda), which she printed herself, then reprinted two years later. Although self-publishing was nothing new when it came to poetry, the book made history not only for its contents but also for its design. Xia Yu designed it completely by herself, with an unusual size (approximately 5 by 7 inches), colors (dark brown covers with light brown paper inside), minimalist cover (with only fijive characters in large, childlike handwriting), and cartoonish illustrations. In content, Memoranda could not be more diffferent from the mainstream in subject matter, language, and tone. In contrast to the social-political-historical themes of nativist realism, almost all her poems deal with personal—especially romantic—relationships. The setting is almost always urban rather than rural or suburban. The omnipresent fijirst-person narrator “I” is identifijiable as a young woman thinking out loud as she goes through everyday life in the city. Most of what she describes is pedestrian: we see her eating, walking, watching, brooding, crying, writing, and remembering. Her language is colloquial and simple, yet at the same time whimsical and surprising. Although romantic relationships dominate the early poetry of Xia Yu, the diffferences from existing models are clear. It is probably the fijirst time such images as pimples, salted duck egg, and hemorrhoid appear in love poetry in Chinese. And titles like “Yuren teyou de shiye” ᝊӪ⢩ᴹⲴһᾝ (Special careers for stupid people), “Kaiguanqi” 䮻㖀ಘ (Can opener), and “Piyu shuqinghou de shuqing fangshi” ⯢ᯬᣂᛵᖼⲴᣂᛵᯩᔿ (Ways of being lyrical after getting tired of lyricism) are a far cry from what is considered “poetic,” much less “romantic.” Memoranda created a sensation on the poetry scene. In the highly politicized climate of 1980s Taiwan, it was a refreshing alternative to nativist writing concerned with social and political themes. The appearance of Xia Yu suggested an alternative. In the increasingly prosperous and urbanized society of the “Taiwan miracle” and one of the Four Little Dragons of Asia, there also existed a huge appetite for new representations of the personal and the urbane. The ingenuity of Xia Yu’s poetry both satisfijied that appetite and distinguished itself from the modernisms of earlier eras on the one hand, and from contemporary nativism on the other. In Memoranda and the next books of poetry throughout the 1990s, Xia Yu successfully created a persona that has been sustained all the

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


way to the present.12 The persona is an urban woman who is culturally cosmopolitan; endearingly childlike in her defijiance, vulnerability, and whimsical acts; and boldly and explicitly sexualized.


The Cosmopolitan, Urban Woman

The persona in Xia Yu’s poetry is sophisticated and cosmopolitan in cultural competency. The spectrum of allusions spans from high culture to pop, from traditional to contemporary, from local to international. She is just as comfortable quoting from the Shijing 䂙㏃ (Book of odes), Zhuangzi, and Buddhist sutras, as from “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (written and fijirst sung by John Denver in 1966 but made a hit by Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1967) and Bai Guang ⲭ‫ݹ‬ (1921–1999, one of the biggest stars of the 1940s and 1950s, fijirst in Shanghai and later in Hong Kong). We also see references to a wide range of cultural fijigures and forms: Western opera, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Qiu Jin ⿻⪮ (1875–1907, the Chinese revolutionary martyr), Paul Verlaine (French Symbolist poet, 1844– 1896), Paul Cézanne (the post-Impressionist painter, 1839–1906), and Jorge Luis Borges (the Argentinian fijiction writer, 1899–1986), among others. The eclectic list in many ways reflects the cultural trends in contemporary Taiwan, where Chinese classics are part of the standard curriculum in the educational system, world literature in translation regularly tops best-seller lists, and Western high culture and American pop are both readily available and well received. More importantly, the way Xia Yu uses cultural allusions is unconventional and unexpected. For example, yongwushi 䂐⢙䂙 (ode to an object) is a familiar genre in classical Chinese poetry. It arose in the Wei-Jin dynasties (220–420) and by Tang times was used extensively to depict objects both artifijicial (such as a woman’s accessories) and natural (such as birds and insects, trees and flowers), often with metaphorical or allegorical import. In Xia Yu’s poem, the object is a pen with which she inscribes her body: the body “carries all kinds of existential desires / gradually it decays / as to the pen, it’s a pretty good pen” (Ventriloquy, 7). The poet fijirst evokes the Buddhist notions of desire as


Since Memoranda (1984), Xia Yu has published these books of original poems: Fuyushu (1991); Moca. wuyi mingzhuang (1995); Salsa (1999); Fenhongse zaoyin (2007); and Shi liushishou (2011). She also has an offfijicial website: Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.



the cause of all sufffering in life and the impermanence of flesh. With a tinge of sadness, she then gives this concise self-portrait: Atheist and resigned to fate world-weary yet ready to Surrender to impulses at the moment she is perfectly quiet As she sips almond tea To her surprise She kinda likes it ❑⾎㘼фᇯભঢ়цফ৸ 㑡ឮ↔࡫ᆹᆹ䶌䶌 ்㪇ᵿӱ㥦 ት❦ 䚴ᴹа唎↑ௌ xia yu, Ventriloquy, 7

The key word here is juran ት❦ (“To her surprise”). It implies self-contradiction and her awareness of such. On the one hand, the narrator is “world-weary,” on the other hand, she easily succumbs to sensory experiences and relishes in sensual pleasures. Xia Yu’s ode, unlike its countless predecessors in classical Chinese poetry, is really not about the object it ostensibly depicts. As the poem unfolds, the pen recedes into the background; it is female subjectivity rather than the object that takes center stage. Self-contradiction is a constant undercurrent in Xia Yu’s work. It serves two purposes: characterizing the narrator and creating textual complexity. For a telling example of both theme and style, let us turn to “Shirenjie” 䂙Ӫㇰ (Poet’s day), written in 1982: Poet’s Day The only thing I don’t feel like doing Is writing a poem Should get a haircut Should put the winter clothes back in the chest I want to put my mind to writing a letter Thinking about whether I should get married Or better to take a nap The straw mat smells minty Should I have a baby? There’s a sweetness in the house Magnolia, almond

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan

L. Cohen A guitar ensemble: “Your enemy is sleeping Yet his woman is awake …” He helps me fijinish the dumpling wrapper And the white of salted duck egg He looks so handsome when he smokes And he loves telling jokes But there’s got to be a better reason Compassionate men and women I should not shed any more tears The earth is Seventy-percent oceans Besides the water in the pot is boiling I’ll make a cup of tea fijirst He phones “Hey, let’s do something brilliant.” Soft Delicious Easily digestible His lips The words he says But the water is boiling I’d better make a cup of tea fijirst “With red snapper from the Nile I’d rather be a woman in this life” But that’s just a commercial Besides I need to take a bath fijirst All in all Poetry seems like a luxury And Somewhat boring14 䂙Ӫㇰ ୟанᜣ‫Ⲵڊ‬һ ቡᱟማ䂙 九儞䂢࢚Ҷ ৊㺓ᴽ䂢᭦㇡Ҷ 㾱ྭྭማаሱؑ ᜣаᜣࡠᓅ㾱н㾱㎀ႊ



Yeh ᴰྭ㜭ⶑ‫ॸػ‬㿪 ᑝᆀᱟаぞ㮴㦧Ⲵ⏬ ᡆ㘵ᱟнᱟ䂢⭏а‫ػ‬ሿᆙ ቻᆀ㼑ᴹаぞ≓ણ ⦹㱝㣡ǃᵿӱ

L. Cohen ␧ਸਹԆ˖ ˬ֐ⲴᮥӪⶑ㪇Ҷ 㘼ԆⲴྣӪ䟂㪇….˭ Ԇᴳᒛᡁਲ਼ᆼ伳ᆀⳞ ԕ৺咩単㳻Ⲵ㳻ⲭ Ԇᣭ➉Ⲵ⁓ᆀᖸྭⴻ Ԇௌ↑䅋ㅁ䂡 ն៹䂢䚴ᴹᴤྭⲴ⨶⭡ ழ⭧ᆀ৺ழྣӪ ᡁн៹䂢޽ᦹ⵬␊Ҷ ᮤ‫ػ‬ൠ⨳ ᐢ㏃ᴹॱ࠶ѻгᱟ⎧≤ 㘼ф⡀㼑Ⲵ≤䮻Ҷ ‫⊿ݸ‬аᶟ㥦 Ԇֶ䴫䂡 ˬ౯ᡁ‫ڊֶف‬唎⠖⡋Ⲵһ੗DŽ ˭ 䔏 ਟਓ ᇩ᱃⎸ॆ ԆⲴ౤ଷ Ԇ䃚Ⲵ䂡 նᱟ≤䮻Ҷ ᗇ‫⊿ݸ‬аᶟ㥦 ˬᴹҶෳ৺ቬ㖵㌵冊 Ӻ⭏Ӻцሗ⛪ྣӪ˭ 䛓ਚᱟᔓ੺ 㘼фᡁᗵ丸‫ݸ‬⍇а‫◑ػ‬ 㑭㘼䀰ѻ 䂙亟ᗇཚྒָҶ 㘼ф ᴹ唎❑㙺13


Xia Yu, Memoranda, 75–78.

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


The poem opens with a list of what goes through the narrator’s mind from moment to moment, a mishmash of images and ideas that follow no other logic than that of the stream of consciousness. These opening lines immediately present a paradox: on Poet’s Day the last thing she wants to do is write a poem; but, this statement is made in the form of a poem. In Taiwan, Poet’s Day is celebrated on the same day as the Dragon Boat Festival, the fijifth day of the fijifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar in commemoration of the death of Qu Yuan ቸ৏ (340?–278? BCE), the fijirst fully identifijiable poet in China and a national symbol of loyalty and purity. On this day, it is common for literary supplements to newspapers to publish poems on Qu Yuan, and typically the poems are written in an elegiac mode and a serious tone. In contrast, Xia Yu’s “Poet’s Day” is neither topical nor elegiac. From the beginning, it focuses on the personal, ranging from something as trivial as getting a haircut or boiling water for tea to something as momentous as getting married and having a baby. The fact that she has not put away her winter clothes even though it is already summer—when a straw mat is often placed on the bed to make it cooler for the sleeper in Taiwan—reveals that the narrator is a procrastinator. This impression is confijirmed by another fact, that as she ruminates she is easily distracted by auditory, olfactory, and tactile sensations in her surroundings. Or more precisely, these sensual distractions temporarily take her mind offf the big questions and allow her to procrastinate further. The opening images set the stage for introducing “he” to readers, preceded by two lines based on the lyrics of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a 1971 song written by Leonard Cohen: “your enemy is sleeping, / yet his woman is awake …” (Xia Yu, Memoranda, 76). As Chen Boling 䲣᷿զ points out, Xia Yu has appropriated the Canadian poet–song writer’s lyrics in three of her poems: “Poet’s Day,” “Zai qiangshang liuxia yixie juzi” ൘⡶к⮉лаӋਕᆀ (Leaving some sentences on the wall), and “Ni jiu zaiye buxiang qu nali lüxing” ֐ቡ޽ҏнᜣ ৫䛓㼑᯵㹼 (You never ever want to travel there again).14 In “Poet’s Day,” the narrator names the source of the quote, Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”; however, the poem modifijies the original lyrics, which say: “I want you to know your enemy is sleeping / I want you to know your woman is free.” In the song, these lines are part of a letter that the male narrator writes to another man about the woman they both love. Chen Boling insightfully observes that the insertion of the modifijied lyrics echoes the letter the narrator contemplates writing earlier in the poem (Chen, Shoot First, 150). However, I disagree that Xia Yu’s rewrite takes a more “lighthearted” and “playful” approach to love. I would argue that there is much pain 14 

Chen Boling, “Xian she, zai hua shang quan,” 146–147.



in the poem. The poet’s rewrite of Leonard Cohen refers to the narrator herself, that she—“his woman”—is awake. What is less clear is whether “your enemy” and “he” are one and the same man. Given that the poem is about the narrator’s romantic relationship, it is plausible that the “you” and the “he” refer to the same man. The narrator is “awake”—that is, she cannot fall asleep—because she is caught in a dilemma, not knowing what to do about her relationship. Moreover, the narrator is obviously struggling because she cannot stop crying. “Compassionate men and women” is borrowed from Buddhism. Kulaputra in Sanskrit is a term for pious believers of the faith. The unexpected—almost incongruous—invocation of Buddhism reinforces the notion that she feels helpless and torn. She is attracted to the man for his good looks, wit, and sweet talk. “Soft / delicious / easily digestible” describe both his lips and his words. But is he husband and father material? Trying to be rational, the narrator concludes in dismay: “But there’s got to be a better reason.” The TV commercial about red snapper imported from Egypt only more acutely reminds her of her predicament: How easy would it be to be a woman if only she could be happy when her taste buds were satisfijied? In the end, the narrator gives up and decides it is time to take a bath. The conclusion about poetry being a luxury harks back to the opening lines. Just as the poet writes a poem despite her declared refusal to do so, so she afffijirms the raison d’être of poetry through negation. The two cases intimate that the same kind of equivocation underlies her indecision about her relationship. So, the cycle continues. In the fijinal analysis, “Poet’s Day” is related to Qu Yuan, albeit in a subtle and roundabout way. Caught in the choice between moral principles and survival, between loyalty and self-preservation, Qu chose the former and threw himself into the Miluo River. “Poet’s Day” teems with water images: boiling water, tea, tears, oceans, the Nile, a bath. This is not accidental. The concluding image of the narrator taking a bath to escape from her problem is a subtle and facetious reenactment of Qu’s suicide, a self-parody that is simultaneously lighthearted and sad. “Poet’s Day” epitomizes the language and style of Xia Yu’s poetry in many ways. The hybrid language that mixes the colloquial and the allusive; the musing, intimate, almost confessional tone; the whimsical images and the surprising transitions; and the creative appropriations of source materials all combine to construct a distinct, memorable persona. A major reason why this persona appeals to readers, I submit, is that she is both childlike and sexualized, both vulnerable and self-empowered. These two qualities defijine a modern woman who is simultaneously bold and self-conscious, which will be further discussed in what follows.

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan



The Child in the Woman

No fijigure comes across as more vulnerable than the child. In Xia Yu’s poetry, she clearly identifijies with children rather than adults. However, rather than picturing them as angelic, innocent, and carefree, she endows them with a great deal of complexity: they are strong-willed as well as frail, playful as well as lonely, creative as well as repressed. These qualities are depicted repeatedly in her representations of children throughout her poetry. To illustrate, let us turn to the two poems simply titled “Xiaohai” ሿᆙ (Children). I. None of them say a word On the revolving fijire engines Preoccupied with distant cares Suddenly I wish at this moment They would all die Instead of growing up Growing into identical postage stamps So someone could tear them apart forcefully So they would have fuzzy borders So they would have saw-toothed edges Ԇ‫ف‬䜭н䃚䂡 ൘᯻䕹ᮁ⚛䓺к ‫┯ݵ‬䚐ᯩⲴᗳһ ᡁケ❦予᜿↔࡫ Ԇ‫ف‬䜭↫৫ н㾱䮧བྷ 䮧ᡀа⁑а⁓Ⲵ䜥⾘ ᯬᱟ൘⁑㋺Ⲵཌ㻿 ᴹӪቡሷԆ‫࣋⭘ف‬᫅䮻 ቡᴹ㪇∋∋Ⲵ䚺 ቡ‫੸ޘ‬䤨喂⣰Ⲵ xia yu, Ventriloquy, 12

The reticence and the “distant cares” of the children suggest the complexity of their inner world. Contrary to the stereotype of the innocent, carefree child that adults subscribe to, children harbor anxiety about the future even though they may not be able to articulate it. The “revolving fijire engines” possibly refer



to a merry-go-round the children are riding on. While it is often associated with fun and games, here the continuing circular movement of the merry-go-round suggests that the private world of children is closed to the world of grown-ups. It echoes the poet’s epigraph to the 1977 section of Memoranda, in which she compares her world to a pair of compasses: Then I withdraw to the most private corner of myself, impervious to any voices. I begin to resemble a pair of compasses of endless repetition and self-indulgence. And you know how people love to satisfy their fetish for symbols with compasses. ᯬᱟᡁቡ䘰䳡ࡠ㠚䓛ᴰᴰ䳡ᇶⲴ䀂㩭৫ǃ䃠Ⲵ㚢丣䜭❑⌅䙢ֶˈᡁ䮻 ࿻‫ۿ‬а᭟ൃ㾿ˈнᯧⲴ䟽㼷઼䲧⓪ˈ㘼֐⸕䚃ˈӪ‫ف‬ᘾ⁓ԕа䳫ൃ㾿 ֶ┯䏣Ԇ‫ف‬䊑ᗥⲴⲆྭDŽ xia yu, Memoranda, 7

Like the movement of compasses, the ever revolving merry-go-round implies enclosure, but it also suggests status quo. The latter idea foreshadows the narrator’s wish expressed in the next eight lines: that the children die now instead of growing up into postage stamps. The image of sheets of stamps with identical miniature pictures drives home two notions. While the identical stamps evoke mindless conformity, the flatness of a sheet of stamps intimates onedimensionality of existence. If the “saw-toothed” borders of the stamps suggest strength or self-assertion, it is, in the end, a feeble and inefffectual gesture. Together they defijine the lives of adults who are stuck in a rut and live only for some utilitarian purposes. The dark “vagueness” of the night serves as a foil to the fate of the children by suggesting an erasure of identity reminiscent of the sameness of stamps. Moreover, the image of tearing stamps apart in the last three lines not only elaborates on the previously mentioned symbolism but also suggests violence and utter helplessness in the adult world. “Children I” clearly diffferentiates between the two worlds. This dichotomy is rendered in even more fantastic and surreal terms in the second poem of the pair. II. In the wolf-tooth-colored moonlight All the missing children form a secret society At last they own a pair of roller skates To catch up with the world that has forced them to grow up They own a common grave

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan

To bury all the clothes, shoes, and gloves they’ve outgrown With a spit they let go of the strings tied to the kites With wide-open mouths they often Laugh an uncanny and abrupt laugh They cut offf a fijinger to make a pledge Numerous left ring fijingers are abandoned In the beachside amusement park on a winter day When their short hair flaps in the wind at dawn they Will tell you with disdain that all this is because of A picnic on a Sunday morning long promised but Easily forgotten The day of their collective disappearance Is declared an annual festival All the children are dressed up as wild dogs and return To the street corner where they were last seen peering At the homes they can never return to picnics and Sleeplessness the night before Photos of missing children on milk cartons And the dicta for educating children The 100 mottoes ⤬⢉㢢Ⲵᴸ‫ݹ‬л ᡰᴹཡ䒔ሿᆙ㍴ᡀⲴ〈ᇶ㎀⽮ Ԇ‫ف‬㍲Ҿ䜭᫱ᴹа䴉䕚䶻 ⭘ֶ䘭䏅䘛֯Ԇ‫ف‬ᡀ䮧Ⲵц⭼ ᴹаᓗ‫Ⲵ਼ޡ‬໣ ෻㪇クнлⲴ㺓ᴽ䶻ᆀ઼᡻྇ ੀаਓਓ≤ᢺ付ㆿⲴ㐊᭮ᦹ ᕥབྷҶ౤Ԇ‫ف‬㏃ᑨ ཷ⮠ケ‫ݰ‬ൠㅁ㪇 ࠷лᤷ九・䃃 ❑ԕ䀸ᮨⲴᐖ᡻ᤷ❑਽ᤷᤷ九 яỴ൘ߜᰕⲴ⎧☡′ൂ ⮦⸝儞൘哾᰾Ⲵ付ѝ仴䎧ǂԆ‫ف‬ ᴳнኁൠ੺䁤֐ǂа࠷ǂਚᱟഐ⡢а‫ػ‬ 䁡䄮ᐢѵⲴ䚐䏣൘䙡ᰕ␵Ი 㻛䕅᱃ᘈ䁈



Yeh 䳶億ཡ䒔Ⲵ䛓аཙ䁝ᇊ⛪ ᒤᓖⲴㇰឦ ᡰᴹⲴሿᆙॆ࿍ᡀ䟾⤇എࡠ ᴰᖼ⎸ཡⲴ㺇ਓǂᕥᵋ㪇 എн৫ҶⲴ䛓‫ػ‬ᇦǂ䚐䏣઼ 䚐䏣ࡽⲴཡⵐ ⢋ྦⴂкⲴሻӪ➗⡷ ⡢Ҷ䮧བྷᡀӪ㘼अ⭘䙾Ⲵ 100 ọṬ䀰 xia yu, Ventriloquy, 25–26

The opening image of “wolf-tooth-colored moonlight” harks back to the vague night and the “saw-toothed edges” of stamps in “Children I.” The difference between the two poems is that the menacing atmosphere evoked here is positive rather than negative because it relates to the bravado of the children that is elaborated in the rest of the poem. In contrast to the lament over children’s inevitable transition to adulthood in “Children I,” “Children II” is a celebration of eternal childhood. In contrast to children’s passivity in “Children I,” “Children II” plays up their agency to dramatize how they defy the “world that forces them to grow up” with their newfound freedom described with these images: burying the clothes that remind them of their past, letting go of the strings attached to the kites, and forming a secret society by cutting offf the ring fijinger as pledge. The fantastic juxtaposition of the severed fijingers and the seaside amusement park accentuates the dichotomy between the children’s world and the adults’ world. Ring fijingers signify marriage, a major symbol of adulthood and something parents usually expect of their children. The drastic rejection of the social institution is set against the background of an amusement park, a place always associated with childhood, a place where the children in the poem would rather spend their time despite the cold weather. The carnivalesque atmosphere evoked by the image is consistent with the children’s declaration of the day of their disappearance as an annual holiday. In contrast to the world of grown-ups, it is the children who have the authority to create institutions and make offfijicial proclamations. “Disdain” is the key to understanding the children’s actions in the poem. It points to the cause of their defijiance: a broken promise by the parents. To the parents, breaking the promise of taking a child on a Sunday picnic may not be a big deal; but for the child who lost sleep the night before due to irrepressible excitement, it is not only disappointing but a devastating act of betrayal. Something seemingly trivial to the parents could very well be a child’s fijirst experience of being betrayed by someone he or she trusts. If it is “easily

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


forgotten” by the parents, for the child it is unforgettable. Hence, in running away from home, the children express their collective “disdain” for, and rejection of, the adult world. Disdain goes beyond the breaking of a promise, however; it extends to the entire social system in which children are raised. In Chinese society, there is no dearth of moral sayings and edifying aphorisms derived from Confucian classics. They are taught at home and at school with the goal of molding children’s character. In essence, they are but another form of discipline and control imposed by society. The “100 mottoes” thus represent the values and norms dictated by adults. From the children’s point of view, they are nothing but didactic platitudes that seem distant and meaningless to their lives. Ironically, photos of the missing children on milk cartons are placed side by side with the didactic mottoes that those same children reject. In the two poems discussed here, Xia Yu clearly identifijies with children not because they are innocent and carefree, but because they are vulnerable and rebellious. The images and settings she creates to depict the children are whimsical and surreal, tinged with conflict and violence. While her privileging of children over adults and, to a lesser extent, her depictions of children with natural images, align her with romanticism, it also contains an anti-romantic thrust in that children are not presented as a sublime symbol of innocence and redemption. In fact, we can argue that the image of enfants terribles in “Children II” is irrefutably modernist in reversing the romantic symbol.


The Sexualized Woman

Elsewhere, I have analyzed the feminist and deconstructive thrust of Xia Yu’s work in three ways. First, she parodies the patriarchal stereotype of the woman. “Yiban jianshi” а㡜㾻䆈 (Common knowledge), for example, employs hyperbole to challenge the “universal” perception of women as secretive, manipulative, and prone to tardiness. The so-called common knowledge is just another example of misogynist degradation of women. Second, Xia Yu reverses the traditional gender roles by empowering women. “Tianmi de fuchou” ⭌㵌Ⲵᗙӷ (Sweet revenge), probably the most quoted and anthologized of her poems, portrays the female narrator as sipping wine and enjoying her “revenge,” which rewrites the image of the poet-drinker traditionally reserved for the male, such as Tao Yuanming 䲦␥᰾ (365?–427), Li Bai ᵾⲭ (701–762), and Du Fu ᶌ⭛ (712–770). Finally, Xia Yu challenges the male chauvinism underlying the Chinese poetic tradition as a whole. “Yeshi qingfu” ҏᱟᛵ႖ (Also a mistress) is based on the poem “Qingfu” ᛵ႖ (Mistress) by one of the



most popular modern Chinese poets, Zheng Chouyu 䝝ᜱҸ (b. 1933), which employs the traditional trope of the languishing woman waiting for her man in the inner chamber. Xia Yu’s rewrite turns Zheng’s poems on its head by removing all the elements that are traditionally considered lyrical or “poetic.”15 These salient features of Xia Yu’s feminist poetics are not only interrelated but also manifest in another recurrent theme in her work, which is the struggle between body and mind, between flesh and soul. This struggle is predicated on an unabashed acknowledgment of the power—and pleasure—of sex. The narrator is completely uninhibited in talking about female sexual desire. In her early work, “Jiang Yuan” ဌჴ stands out. The poem appropriates the Chinese creation myth derived from the Book of Odes. In Xia Yu’s poem, Jiang Yuan is no longer the pious maiden who was impregnated by God and gave birth to Houji ਾで, who was to become the God of Millet and ancestor of the Zhou people. Instead, she expresses her instinctual need unabashedly: “Every time it rains, / I get the urge to mate … Like a beast / In a hidden cave / Every time we have a rainy day.”16 In “Zhongjinshu” 䟽䠁ኜ (Heavy metal), the poet uses three third-personal plural pronouns, each with a diffferent radical (the semantic component, hence the “root,” of a Chinese character) to designate the maleԆ, the female ྩ, and the nonhuman animal ⢐. The animal “they” refers to penises. Refuting the male—notably, the Freudian—view that women are obsessed with the penis due to their “penis envy,” the female narrator says: But no, women don’t often talk about “them” Only take pride in their soft, empty holes Where “they” in their private places Bear witness to the frailty of steel While pleasuring women. нˈྩ‫ف‬інᑨ䀾䄆⢐‫ف‬ ۵ԕḀぞḄ䔏オ⍎㠚ௌ ⮦⢐‫ف‬൘ྩ‫ف‬䳡ᇶⲴൠᯩ 㾻䅹аぞ䤬Ⲵ㜶ᕡ 㘼৸᜹ᚵҶྩ‫ف‬ xia yu, Ventriloquy, 56

15  16 

Michelle Yeh, “The Feminist Poetic of Xia Yu,” 33–60; for an expanded version in Chinese, see “Xia Yu de nüxing shixue,” 273–305. Translated by Steve Bradbury in Xia Yu, Fusion Kitsch, 117.

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


Paradoxically, the animalistic penis is both hard (“metal,” “steel”) and frail. From a woman’s point of view, it serves the sole purpose of giving her pleasure; otherwise, it is of no interest to her, contrary to what men think. We have seen in “Poet’s Day” that sensual pleasures get in the way of the narrator’s rational decision. Other poems speak explicitly of sexual pleasures in particular. For example, “Fuyou” 㴹㶓 (Mayfly) describe a backstage scene: He kisses her earlobes and breasts in a hurry Makes love to her amid the clutter of stage props Knocking over a newly made well Willpower yields to Rhythm expanding to The body शᘉⲴ੫ྩⲴ㙣඲㜨㝟 ൘߼ҲⲴ䚃ާ䯃‫ڊ‬ᝋ 䑒㘫аਓᯠ䙐ⲴӅ ᜿ᘇቸᴽᯬ ㇰཿ᭮བྷ⛪ 㚹億 xia yu, Ventriloquy, 153

There are plenty of sexual innuendos and carnal descriptions in Fuyushu 㞩䃎㺃 (Ventriloquy), Xia Yu’s second book of poetry, published in 1991. “Mouxie shuangrenwu” ḀӋ䴉Ӫ㡎 (Some partner dances) compares the Cuban dance Cha-cha-cha to lovemaking; the male partner is further compared to a Shaker, a member of the Protestant movement founded in eighteenth-century England: He shakes on top indiffferently Cha-cha-cha To prolong the so-called “Time” Cha-cha My Shaker believer She says sweetly she likes this game Cha-cha-cha She loves Cha-cha so much Ԇ൘к䶒ߧ␑Ⲵᬪअᚠᚠᚠ ᔦ䮧ᡰ䄲ˬᱲ䯃˭ᚠᚠ ᡁⲴ䴷ⴚᮉᗂ ྩ⭌㵌ൠ䃚ྩௌ↑䙉‫ػ‬䙺ᡢᚠᚠᚠ ྩௌ↑ᾥҶᚠᚠ xia yu, Ventriloquy, 8



Punning on the verb “shake,” the poet cleverly and mischievously conflates the religious and the carnal; the juxtaposition is both irreverent and sensuous. Similarly, the image of “group masturbation” appears in “Xiawucha” лॸ㥦 (Afternoon tea). The association of the elegant old-world social activity with the bizarre sexual act is so quirky that it is funny. In light of the struggle between mind and body, between soul and flesh, it is understandable how sexual topics are often couched in animalistic images in Xia Yu’s poetry as they suggest primitive impulses beyond control. Besides the beastly “Jiang Yuan,” the animal “they” in “Heavy Metal,” and the dinosaurs in “Afternoon Tea” mentioned earlier, “Yeshoupai” 䟾⦨⍮ (Fauvism) compares a young woman’s nipples to two animals. The unicorn in “Wo he wo de dujiaoshou” ᡁ઼ᡁⲴ⦘䀂⦨ (Me and my unicorn) is “hidden in the basement.” It “foams at the mouth” ⏼㪇ਓ⋛, yet That kind of mystic vulgarity still Arouses me. How do I explain The “mystical harmony in operatic style” A unicorn and I have achieved together? Let’s be degenerate once more for such perfection 䛓ぞ⾎〈Ⲵ㋇؇ӽ❦ ◰अ㪇ᡁDŽྲօ䀓䟻 㠷а⦘䀂⦨ᡰ‫਼ޡ‬䚄ᡀѻ ˬⅼࢷᔿⲴ⾎〈‫ޡ‬匤˭˛ 䇃ᡁ‫⛪ف‬䙉⁓Ⲵᆼ㖾޽ໞ㩭а⅑੗ xia yu, Ventriloquy, 8

The words used to describe sexual impulse are revealing; it is both repulsive and irresistible. The oxymoronic pairing of “downfall” and “perfection” points to the dichotomy between raw instinct and high culture (opera), thus reiterating the tug of war between mind and body in Xia Yu’s work. “Me and My Unicorn” also gives us these lines: She is going to publish a scholarly article on “From Lips to Labia” It discusses, yes, discusses the soul She is always just awake from sleep Ah soul All the prostitutes in the city put on their fijinest pantyhoses Waiting, “Ah soul!”

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


The loyal heart The rebelling body ྩ乀‫Ⲭۉ‬㺘аㇷˬᗎ౤ଷࡠ䲠ଷ˭Ⲵ䄆᮷ 䀾䄆ᱟⲴ䀾䄆䵸兲 ྩ㑭ᱟࢋⶑ䟂 ୺䵸兲 ‫ޘ‬෾Ⲵ࿃ྣクкྩ‫ف‬ᴰྭⲴ㎢㾚 ㅹ㪇ˬ୺䵸兲ʽ ˭ ᘐሖⲴᗳ ৽਋Ⲵ㚹億 xia yu, Ventriloquy, 63

The last two lines evoke the dilemma: the heart is “faithful,” but the body is not, because the latter obeys a diffferent kind of law: that of the animalistic appetite for sex. Just as the children claim victory in “Children II,” so flesh often comes out the winner in Xia Yu’s poetry. Given the case, it is inevitable that infijidelity becomes a source of conflict and guilt. We see how the narrator tries to deconstruct her guilt by turning it into a mathematical problem in the last poem in the sequence “Secret Conversations with Animals”: How wonderful! I’ve fijinally found a theme called infijidelity To be unfaithful to fijive individually because being unfaithful To all fijive at the same time sounds like a Mathematical problem involving complex calculation maybe this Is the only problem I can see with infijidelity Too little time, too little energy … … I believe infijidelity is a fijixed quantity; the quotient decreases When the divider increases. Therefore, the fijinal question is: How many partners do I have to be unfaithful to before I lose all feelings of infijidelity? ཊ哬ྭ୺ʽᡁ㍲ᯬ᢮ࡠа‫ػ‬ѫ乼ਛ‫ڊ‬нᘐ ࠶ࡕሽԆ‫ف‬ӄ‫ػ‬нᘐഐ⛪਼ᱲ ᘐᯬԆ‫ف‬ӄ‫ػ‬㚭䎧ֶ‫ۿ‬ᱟаぞ ᮨᆨભ乼ᴹ㪇㑱㼷Ⲵ╄㇇ਟ㜭䙉䙉 ቡᱟᡁ億ᴳࡠⲴнᘐୟаⲴ୿乼ᱟ ᱲ䯃нཐ䚴ᴹ億࣋н㒬 DŽDŽDŽ


Yeh DŽDŽDŽ ᡁ䂽⡢нᘐᴹаᇊⲴ䟿䳘ӪᮨⲴ໎࣐ 㘼⑋ቁሽ⇿а‫ػ‬ӪⲴ࠶䝽䛓哭୿乼ᴰᖼቡᱟ ࡠᓅ㾱ሽཊቁӪнᘐ᡽㜭 ᗩᓅൠнᝏ㿪нᘐ઒˛ xia yu, Ventriloquy, 26

As in many other poems by Xia Yu, the narrator veils her pain with distracting abstraction and whimsical ideas. In the fijinal analysis, the woman of animalistic sexual instinct is the other side of the vulnerable, defijiant child.


Xia Yu the Modernist or Postmodernist?

Critics have often regarded Xia Yu as a pioneer and exemplar of postmodern poetry in Taiwan.17 They have identifijied such postmodern features as deconstruction, incongruity, play, and indeterminacy in her work. No doubt these features do exist at the levels of language and theme. However, there has been little discussion of the relationship between modernism and postmodernism in the Taiwanese context. Just as modernism in Taiwan has a closer tie with romanticism than its Western counterpart, so postmodernism relates to modernism diffferently too. In a study of literary culture in contemporary Taiwan, Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang refers to the “family resemblance” between modernist and postmodern literature in Taiwan. While in the West Postmodernism is a radical rupture with the tradition of High Modernism, there is more continuity between them in Taiwan. Citing Zhu Tianwen’s 1994 novel Huangren shouji 㦂Ӫ᡻䁈 (Notes of a desolate man) as an example, Chang holds that its “acknowledgment of the redeeming power of literature is reminiscent of the hardcore aestheticism”18 of Taiwanese Modernism in the 1960s. In my view, “hardcore aestheticism” has indeed underscored Xia Yu’s poetry since the early 1980s. Beginning with Memoranda, each of her books engages in new experiments, which further expand her language, subject matter, and artistic vision. Even in design, each book breaks new ground. One of the central concerns for the poet is her persistent questioning of the nature of signifijication 17 


See, for example: Lin Yaode, “Jimu wantong—lun Xia Yu de shi,” 127–140; Chen Junrong, “Xia Yu de houxiandai yuyanshi,” 197–227. Two Master’s theses on the topic are Song Shuting, “Houxiandaishi zhi huwenxing,” and Li Youxuan, “Xia Yu shi de xiuci yixiang yu qi houxiandai fengge.” For a rebuttal, see Michelle Yeh, “Houxiandai de mizhang,” 203–226. Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, Literary Culture in Taiwan, 118.

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


itself, a questioning that is defijiantly apolitical, which distinguishes it from native realism in Taiwan on the one hand and postmodern poetry in the United States on the other. Xia Yu is interested in exploring the “yuyi de shenyuan” 䃎᜿Ⲵ␡␥ (abyss of signifijication).19 Pun, ambiguity, stream of consciousness, parody, and neologism are just some of the techniques she employs. As I have discussed elsewhere, the entire collection Fenhongse zaoyin ㊹㌵㢢ಚ丣 (Pink noise, 2007) is a bold experiment, integrating the design of the book, the bilingual format, and the method of composition by machine translation. By calling the poems “noises,” the poet pushes the limits of signifijication through words. Neither a postmodern parody nor a futurist celebration of modern technology, the ultimate concern of Pink Noise is the creation of art.20 In a rare interview, given in 1988, Xia Yu said, “The world I know is a secretive, infijinitely expanding, and deepening weblike or helical system. My work is the starting point of my relationship with this world, not the end, because there is no end.”21 For her, language “should have its own regulatory structure; every narrative device is ‘a possibility of a new world,’ giving the regulations a charm derived from the unique dictatorship against which there is infijinite challenge” (Wan, “Interview,” 110–111). Like all great Modernists, Xia Yu is a supreme wordsmith who melds form and content in an organic whole in new ways. A “baby boomer” born in the mid-1950s, Xia Yu grew up under the influence of the fijirst generation of Modernist masters in postwar Taiwan, most notably Shang Qin and Yang Mu. In the 1970s, she was friends with two rising stars of her generation, Yang Ze ὺ◔ (b. 1954) and Luo Zhicheng 㖵Ცᡀ (b. 1955), both of whom were students at National Taiwan University, where Yang Mu taught as a visiting professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature in 1976. In 1983, she sat in on Yang Mu’s class on English poetry when he visited NTU for the second time (Wan, “Interview,” 114). Association alone does not fully explain influence or afffijinity, of course. We need also to look in her poetry and poetics for evidence. Xia Yu’s earliest extant poem, collected in Memoranda, is “Xie” 䶻 (Shoes). It contains these lines: You laid your bare feet on the low table Unconcerned about The surging shadow of the sun

19  20 


Xia Yu, “Ventriloquy,” 57. Michelle Yeh, “Toward a Poetic of Noise,” 167–178. Also see Tong King Lee, “The Death of the Translator in Machine Translation,” 92–112; Andrea Bachner, Beyond Sinology: Chinese Writing and the Scripts of Culture, 199–203. Wan Xuting, “Bitan,” 99.



Floating me Like a Busy fijish ֐‫Ⲵݹݹ‬㞣ћᬡ൘ࠐк нӻ᜿ ᰕᖡᘾ⁓⍦⒗ ⋵ᡁ⛪ аቮ ᘉ⺼Ⲵ冊 xia yu, Memoranda, 4

The choice of the verb qiu ⋵, which means “swim” or “float,” is noteworthy. It is a classical word and typically functions as an intransitive verb instead of a transitive verb. Changing the part of speech serves an important purpose: the word shares the pronunciation and the phonetic component of the character meaning “to imprison” or “prisoner”: qiu ഊ. The association is central to the image of the narrator being swept along in the “surging” river of shadow. Given the context of the poem, “busy” takes on the connotations of being overwhelmed and losing control. While she is “busy” trying to keep her head above the water, he is taking it easy and oblivious to her difffijicult situation, a recurrent theme of flawed relationships in Xia Yu’s poetry. The complex syntax, the polysemy of the verb, and the fijigurative image are reminiscent of modernist poetry in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Xia Yu has been a phenomenal success in Taiwan since the 1980s. She has achieved the stature of an iconic fijigure with an ever-growing following in the Sinophone world via the Internet. While writers are inescapably the products of their time, great writers also transcend it. Xia Yu’s work embodies a creative response to the world in which it is written. By the same token, she also has a dynamic relationship with the literary tradition to which she belongs; her poetry is both shaped by it and at the same time shaping it through her relentless efffort to push the limits of language and form. In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising nativism and rapid democratization in Taiwan, Xia Yu’s work is distinctly apolitical aside from the feminist signifijicance of her work, which is political in a sense. Instead, it bespeaks the afffluent, cosmopolitan, and urban culture represented by Taipei. The intensely personal, almost confessional, voice; the sexualized yet vulnerable, childlike yet jaded persona; and the meticulous attention to language and form that we fijind in Xia Yu’s poetry were a refreshing alternative to the mainstream. Moreover, the poet’s original design and self-publication were

Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan


an act of resistance to the publishing industry and projected the image of an “underground poet.” The fact that she is an extremely private person who shies away from public attention has only added to the allure of the poet over the decades. If we were to fijind a counterpart in modern Chinese fijiction, it would possibly—albeit surprisingly—be Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing ᕥᝋ⧢), another Modernist icon.

chapter 6

Yu Guangzhong’s Modernist Spirit: from In Time of Cold War to Tug of War with Eternity Chen Fangming 䲣㣣᰾ Translated by Thomas Moran



The arrival of the Modernist Movement in Taiwan had a profound, widely felt impact. There isn’t a single Taiwan writer who made a name for himself during the 1960s and 1970s who wasn’t challenged and changed by modernism. After the 1977 debate over nativism, however, modernism became a target of criticism, even repudiation, and over time the tempestuous Taiwan modernist moment has increasingly been misconstrued and misunderstood. One by one, writers who had been infatuated with modernism broke with it completely, as if from a scourge. From the viewpoint of literary history, however, it is an incontrovertible fact that modernism brought something entirely new to Taiwan literature. Looking back and taking stock from the vantage point of the end of the century, we fijind that the Taiwan author who was most actively involved in the establishment and, more important, the transformation of modernism in Taiwan was, of course, Yu Guangzhong (Yu Kwang-chung) ։‫ݹ‬ ѝ (1928–2017). In this chapter, I undertake a reassessment of the role played by Yu in the Modernist Movement of the 1960s and offfer an answer to the question as to whether Yu merely copied the Western modernist aesthetic or whether he changed modernism through his deliberate, critical reception of it. This question is not yet answered in extant Taiwan literary histories, and it deserves careful consideration.


Transforming Modernism

Yu Guangzhong was one of the fijirst torchbearers of modernism in Taiwan during the post–Chinese Civil War era. Early in his career, influenced by the legacy of romanticism, including, in particular, the sensibility of the May Fourth–era Crescent Moon group, Yu completed the poetry collections Zhouzi de beige 㡏ᆀⲴᛢⅼ (Sailor’s sad songs, 1952), Lanse de yumao 㯽㢢Ⲵ

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Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


㗭∋ (A blue feather, 1954), Zhongrushi 䩈ң⸣ (Stalactites, 1960) and Tianguo de yeshi ཙ഻Ⲵཌᐲ (Night market of heaven, 1969), among other titles.

These four books are of great signifijicance when placed in the context of the time when they were published. Historians of Taiwan poetry have hitherto placed too great an emphasis on the role played by Ji Xian ㌰ᕖ (1913–2013) in promoting modern poetry in the 1950s and have overlooked the fact that during this decade, when anti-communist literature was reaching the point of its greatest flourishing, there was in Taiwan society also a latent romantic ideology. Yu Guangzhong, in his early poetry, was already demonstrating a rich imagination and great skill with metaphor; his early works also contain an intermingling of passionate feeling and cool analysis. Had Yu not been through this period of experimentation with romanticism, it would have been difffijicult for him to develop the modernist mind-set that eventually came to characterize his work. Yu was writing Stalactites just at the time that Wenxue zazhi ᮷ᆨ䴌䂼 (Literary review), under the guidance of editor-in-chief T. A. Hsia ༿☏ᆹ (1916–1965), was beginning to introduce Western literature to Taiwan. Yu’s nascent modernist tendencies are apparent in the four books mentioned above, which taken together thus give a very clear indication of the direction he would pursue in the years that followed. In the West, what we call modernism had its origins in the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the full development of capitalism. People in the urban middle class gradually came to the realization that they had been reduced to the status of cogs in the economic machinery, which gave rise in them to inexpressible feelings of anxiety and despair. Modernist literature endeavors to imagine how modern people might escape the social realities that constrain them; it aims to depict the flow of human consciousness; and it looks for the meaning of existence through an investigation of the self. This sort of modernism, however, underwent a signifijicant transformation after it reached Taiwan, and Yu Guangzhong played a major role during every step of the process of Taiwan’s remaking of modernism. In the late 1950s, the political authorities continued their large-scale interference in the ordinary afffairs of Taiwan society. If the hearts and minds of the Taiwan intelligentsia were troubled by anxiety and despair, it was certainly not because of capitalism but rather because of life under martial law. At a time when every aspect of life was influenced by the fijight against communism, Yu Guangzhong looked to modernism for poetic inspiration, and this was, of course, also a form of passive resistance to the dominant ideology that prioritized resistance to communism. An examination of Yu’s poems of that time, however, shows that he did not accept Western modernism totally and uncritically. He never had blind faith in every last feature of



modernism, and this is what made him diffferent from many other poets of the time. Yu Guangzhong’s transformation of modernism has great signifijicance in the history of Taiwan literature. If we consider global events in the twentieth century, then we might see the spread of modernism as simply part of Western colonialism. If we accept this idea, then we are sure to understand the shock that modernism delivered to Taiwan as a colonialist provocation. As the 1950s turned to the 1960s, many Taiwan poets surrendered to modernism, but Yu Guangzhong launched an unprecedented project of what I will call critical reception. While other poets were copying the Western modernist negative aesthetics of duanlie ᯧ㻲 (rupture), shuli ⮿䴒 (alienation), and so on, Yu Guangzhong was going in an opposite direction; he was using the techniques of modernism to xianjie 䣌᧕ (connect) and jiushu ᮁ䍆 (rescue and redeem). “Rupture” refers to the severing of the connection to tradition in the realm of aesthetics, which is followed by a search for new modes of feeling and new patterns of thought. As the 1960s wore on, there was talk in poetry circles of “automatic writing” and “pure experience,” which we may take as indicators of most poets’ complete acceptance and imitation of Western modernism. But in the poetry collections Wanshengjie 㩜㚆ㇰ (Halloween, 1960), Wuling shaonian ӄ䲥ቁᒤ (A youth of Tang, 1967), and Qiaodayue ᮢᢃ′ (Music percussive, 1969), and in the long poem “Tianlangxing” ཙ⤬ᱏ (Sirius, 1961), Yu both challenges classical aesthetics and takes inspiration from traditional Chinese literature. In these works, Yu was indulging himself in the use of imagery of endlessly deferred meaning and the exploration of his internal world, but nevertheless at the very same time he was resisting the modernist aesthetics of excessive iconoclasm and rebellion. This explains why when Yu Guangzhong joined the debates over the New Poetry, he both defended modernist poetry and also sometimes disagreed with poets who were in the same modernist camp that he was. That Yu battled on two fronts at once makes it clear that his approach to modernism was one of critical reception or critical adaptation. “Alienation” refers to the condition of fijinding oneself at a distance from mainstream cultural values or is the result of one making a conscious efffort to flee the mainstream. During the period of the fijight against communism in Taiwan, the stance of modernist alienation was, obviously, in part an ironic comment on life under martial law. As flight from the mainstream became the vogue, however, poets became completely disconnected from social reality. Yu Guangzhong refused to follow this fashion and instead confronted contemporary political repression, using metaphor, symbolism, and poetic pastiche to criticize a corrupt, conservative culture. Because of his critical attitude, Yu Guangzhong was able to reject what we can call self-alienation or self-exile.

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


Instead he appealed for the rescue and redeeming of the self. It was precisely because of Yu’s effforts in this direction that a fijierce debate broke out between Yu and the poet Luo Fu ⍋ཛ. Luo Fu was critical of Yu’s “Sirius,” saying of it that it had too much tradition and too little modernity. Most modernist poets would be insulted if you said their work was realistic and devoid of nihilism, but Yu Guangzhong instead responded with a fijirm defense of these qualities, leaving the matter for histories of poetry to debate. When we compare Yu’s early poem “Jiang Wu Si de banqi” 䱽ӄഋⲴॺᰇ (Lower the May Fourth banner) to “Zaijian, xuwu” ޽㾻ˈ㲋❑ (Farewell, nihilism), which he published a bit later, we come to understand that by the 1960s Yu Guangzhong’s mature poetic philosophy was already largely in place.


Refashioning the “Self”

If we wish to study the important change in Yu Guangzhong’s modernist poetry in the 1960s, then we must attend to two of his collections in particular: Lian de lianxiang 㬞Ⲵ㚟ᜣ (Associations of the lotus, 1964) and Zai lengzhan de shidai ൘ߧᡠⲴᱲԓ (In time of cold war, 1969). The former is a reordering of classical aesthetics; the latter is a refijiltering of the modern experience. Yu Guangzhong called Associations of the Lotus the product of his “new classicist” phase. Yu’s positioning of himself as a “new classicist” amounted to a direct, confijident response to the modernist fad. Yu openly drew on the essence of the aesthetics of Song dynasty ci ᆻ䂎 (song) poetry and quite boldly gave himself over to the use of traditional melodies and rhythms. The poems in this collection are not, of course, mere imitations of the art of Song ci, and neither do they use the formal features of twentieth-century romantic poetry. In the poems, Yu Guangzhong created a “linked triplet” form that was distinctly his own. He made use of a dialectical structure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis so that a reverberation of “mutual promotion and restraint,” to borrow a phrase from Chinese fijive elements theory, was established from line to line. The efffect was to create in the reader’s mind a free-flowing chain of misreadings that ended up producing by association endlessly multiplying ideas and images. Yu’s discovery of new classicism was an inspiring revelation not only to Yu but also to the entire fijield of Taiwan poetry. The unique phonetic, tonal, and synesthetic qualities of written Chinese had never before been exploited to such a great degree. With his acute powers of imagination, Yu Guangzhong was able to bring out the beauty of written Chinese in his poetry and release the language’s expressive power in his essays. He freely played with punctuation so as to distort and remold its semantic function, but he never completely abandoned the conventional



use of language as a vehicle for the conveyance of information. He had a good grasp of the fluidity and disjunctions of written language, but he never gave up its more straightforward, communicative attributes without good reason. Yu Guangzhong was offfering a serious challenge to the modernist emphasis on rupture. There is, however, much more that is worthy of discussion. In 1969 Yu published In Time of Cold War, and in it he formally dropped the attitude of alienation and instead threw himself into the study of history and a soul-searching investigation of China’s frustrations and defeats in the recent past. Yu Guangzhong has said, “In Time of Cold War marked a big change in my style, and had I not been through this change, I never could have written Baiyu kugua ⲭ⦹㤖⬌ (The white jade bitter gourd).” At a time when Taiwan was sunk in gloom, the large majority of poets avoided engagement with politics and history, turning instead to the avid exploration of the depths of their own conscious minds. They did this because there was much in history and politics that was strictly taboo, but the exploration of the self was freely permitted, giving poets a creative outlet. In those depressing days, however, this move amounted to intellectual and emotional self-exile. It was at this juncture that Yu Guangzhong chose engagement with reality, even if this engagement was, of necessity, limited because of the historical circumstance, and even if it appears in retrospect somewhat shallow. When we consider the cultural context of the time, however, we realize that Yu Guangzhong’s attitude was completely diffferent from that of other poets of his generation. Yu’s preface to the second edition of In Time of Cold War is very revealing of his thoughts on literature at the end of the 1960s: “When I was a young soul, coming into my maturity, it was a time of trouble for Taiwan both at home and abroad. Not only did I explore both the phenomenal world and existential metaphysics, but I also looked closely at the meaning of death. At the time, I seemed to be divided into two contradictory extremes, and a struggle was going on between the part of me that was timid and the part of me that was brave.”1 When Yu looked back at the person he was at this time and described this period of his life as that of his coming into “maturity,” he meant that his creative work was mature in comparison to his output in the years before. If we are reading Yu’s remarks correctly, then he seems to be implying that his poetry from before the late 1960s should be understood as largely experimental, which is to say that during his early foray into modernism his ideas were not fully formed or settled, and he was merely laying the foundation for his later, “mature” work. It was not until the completion of In Time of Cold War that the form and content of Yu’s poetry reached maturity. It is, however, 1  Yu Guangzhong, preface to the second edition of In Time of Cold War, 3.

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


worth attending to Yu’s understanding of the term ziwo 㠚ᡁ (the self), which was completely diffferent from that of the typical modernist poets of the 1960s. The arrival of modernism in Taiwan caused writers and poets to discover the existence of their inner worlds. By opening a window to their souls, the modern poets found an outlet for the free expression of their despair and anxiety. When they diligently set to uncovering the depths of their minds, these poets also conveniently found an excuse for refusing to deal with the helterskelter reality all around them. The biggest diffference in meaning between the English terms “self” and “ego,” both of which are rendered as ziwo in Chinese, is that the former refers to internal psychological processes, including those of consciousness at its deeper levels, while the latter usually refers to one’s position in the external world as a subject. The issue of subjectivity was not, of course, on the agenda of the modernism popular in Taiwan in the 1960s. In his poetry, Yu Guangzhong again and again poses the question, “Who am I?” In doing so, Yu was, in fact, already undertaking the project of creating the subject anew, which is not to claim that Yu Guangzhong anticipated the coming of postmodernism. What made Yu most diffferent from other poets of the time was that he was brave enough to be an engagé writer; he dared go against the contemporary literary fashion. Yu replaced the “egocentrism” that was common in the work of other poets with an emphasis on subjective consciousness. By “subject” I am referring to the product of the interaction of the self and the objective world. In the context of 1960s Taiwan, an emphasis on subjective consciousness meant establishing an identity for oneself in the midst of a desolate reality and then regarding this reality with one’s afffective and intellectual resources. In his modernist experiments, Yu had tried an exploration of a nihilistic ideology. For example, he wrote the following lines that convey absolute resignation and acceptance of death: Only on scattered, broken tombstones is still etched Some faded, faint writing, attracting passersby With the green of new mosses —Visiting Ruins2

ਚᴹ䴦ҲⲴᯧ⻁кӽ࡫㪇 аӋᯁࢍⲴ᮷ᆇˈ䃈㹼Ӫ ԕ㤄Ⲵᯠ㏐ —ᔒ໏Ⲵᐑ⿞ 2  Translation by Thomas Moran. For poems quoted in the text, Yu Guangzhong’s own translations are provided, with citation, when extant; otherwise, translation is by Moran.



“Visiting Ruins” is in Stalactites. In the poem, Yu writes in a naturalist manner and offfers no judgment or explanation of death. The poem is indiffferent to loss and uninterested in struggle; it is poem of submission and acceptance. Considered in this fashion, the attitude of the poem is, of course, nihilistic. The lines, “attracting passersby / With the green of new mosses” suggest that death has an appeal, which alone is enough to demonstrate that during the time of his fijirst engagement with modernism, Yu Guangzhong had not yet undertaken an examination of the positive meaning of life. In the early 1960s, which is when he was writing the poems in A Youth of Tang, Yu began to demonstrate an engagement with the positive meaning of life, even if the modernist tide of nihilism had yet to completely ebb from his work. The shadow of the self quite visibly falls across the following lines: In the middle of a thunderstorm, that’s the best time for walking alone Electricity will record the moment of death by lightening There is always a bloodstain, everywhere I go I will not disappear, that is for certain —The Wrath of Heaven

᳤付䴘ѻлˈᴰᇌ⦘㹼 䴫ᴳ䁈䤴䴧⇋Ⲵаⷜ ࠑᡁ䙾㲅ˈᗵᴹ㹰䐑 аᇊˈᡁнᴳཡ䒔 —ཙ䆤

The reference to “everywhere I go” marks the commencement of Yu’s imagining of the self during this period. The place occupied by the self is given particular emphasis in poems in Yu’s slightly later In Time of Cold War, including, for example, “Fan wo zhichu” ࠑᡁ㠣㲅 (Wherever I go) and “Xiong de dubai” ➺Ⲵ⦘ⲭ (Soliloquy of a bear). The declaration “I will not disappear” amounts to a foretelling of Yu’s engagement with the world and his refusal to flee reality. Yu took pains to inspect the life of the self as it was lived in society and in history. The dialogue between the self and reality became the subject of Yu’s work of this period. In general, three realities are addressed in In Time of Cold War: the Vietnam War; Chinese history; and the Chinese mainland. To a certain degree, Yu Guangzhong still managed quite skillfully to avoid dealing with Taiwan’s social reality. Of course, the larger political environment did not allow the poet much room in which he could maneuver. When we make a comparison of Yu with other poets of the time, we fijind that Yu demonstrated considerable courage of imagination. After the outbreak of the

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


Vietnam War, Yu took a clear anti-war stand. His poems “Shuangrenchuang” 䴉Ӫᒺ (The double bed) and “Ruguo yuanfang you zhanzheng” ྲ᷌䚐ᯩ ᴹᡠ⡝ (If there’s a war raging afar), which both caused controversy, are unmistakably the products of Yu’s opposition to the war. If there is merit to the modernist notion of alienation, then there is even more complex meaning to be uncovered in Yu’s anti-war poems. As was mentioned above, alienation is a form of resistance to mainstream values. But we may also take modernist shuli ⮿䴒 (alienation) to be specifijically Marxist yihua ⮠ॆ (alienation), which names the human condition after the Industrial Revolution, when people discovered that the new world they had made seemed utterly unfamiliar to them. This new world had new values, and these new values made life better, but people felt controlled and governed by them. This too is alienation in the Marxist sense. In the realm of modernist literary aesthetics, alienation is the sign of a passive critical stance and the sign of detachment and the loss of hope. The smoke of war hung over Taiwan in the 1960s, and mainstream society supported the Cold War, in part simply because of the influence of government propaganda. Yu Guangzhong was not a supporter of war, and his work did not echo mainstream values. In a satirical voice, he wrote of the diffference between making war and making love: On all sides let revolutions growl, Love at least is on our side. We’ll be safe at least before the dawn. When nothing is there to rely upon, On your supple warmth I can still depend. —The Double Bed3

䇃᭯䆺઼䶙ભ൘ഋઘ઀஺ 㠣ቁᝋᛵ൘ᡁ‫Ⲵف‬а䚺 㠣ቁ⹤᳹ࡽᡁ‫ف‬ᖸᆹ‫ޘ‬ ⮦а࠷䜭н޽ਟ䶐 䶐൘֐ᕸᙗⲴᯌඑк —䴉Ӫᒺ

The uncertainty of the times and the instability of society became the subjects of poetry. In essence, modernism reflects the instability and the uncertainty in the hearts of modern people, but Yu’s poem reverses things: there is certainty in the heart of the poet; he has made the certain choice for love. It is the world, 3  Translation by Yu Guangzhong, The Night Watchman, 44.



with all its enmity, that is unstable and unreliable. Several lines later in the poem, Yu writes that on the double bed, the lover is “Still so sleek, so soft, so fully alive / To kindle a wildness pure and fijine” ӽ━㟙ˈӽḄ䔏ˈӽਟԕ⠉⟡. These lines establish by contrast the barbarity and cruelty of an evil war. Yu’s style here is at quite a distance from modernist aesthetics. The rise of modernism in the West functioned to express the detachment felt by the urban middle class after they found themselves alienated and objectifijied. The quintessential modernist mode was, if not absurdity, then fragmentation and disorganization. There is an indistinctness and a vagueness to the depiction of what is going on in the hearts and minds of people in modernist literature; they are often isolated and morbid. This aesthetic had a large influence on a generation of Taiwan poets. Yu Guangzhong, however, remade modernism by replacing flight from reality with rescue and redemption. Beneath the storm clouds of war, Yu chose love as resistance to hate, and peace as a challenge war: We are in bed, and they’re in the fijield Sowing peace in acres of barbed wire, Shall I feel guilty or shall I feel glad, Glad I’m making, not war, but love And in my arms writhes your nakedness, not the foe’s? —If There’s a War Raging Afar4

ᡁ‫ف‬൘ᒺкˈԆ‫ف‬൘ᡠ๤ ൘䩥㎢㏢к᫝ぞ㪇઼ᒣ ᡁ៹䂢ᜦ ˈᡆᱟ䂢ឦᒨ ឦᒨᱟ‫ڊ‬ᝋˈнᱟ㚹ᨿ —ྲ᷌䚐ᯩᴹᡠ⡝

In this poem, Yu makes repeated use of interrogative sentences; he is deliberately adopting an irresolute attitude so as to mock the indecision and apprehension common during a time of war. The reference to “making, not war, but love,” or translated more literally, “making love” (zuo’ai ‫ڊ‬ᝋ), not “fijighting hand to hand” (roubo 㚹ᨿ), is a reference to two behaviors with something in common even though what they signify could not be more diffferent. Making love connotes the making of life, while reference to fijighting hand to hand raises the stench of death. “Barbed wire” symbolizes the divisions and confrontations among people, while the sowing of peace represents the pacifijic coexistence of people. War and peace and life and death appear repeatedly 4  Translation by Yu Guangzhong, The Night Watchman, 51.

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


in the poem in dialectical succession, which we may also understand as the linked progression of alienation and redemption. The last lines of the poem contain a somber critique of the evil of war: If afar there rages a war, and there we are— You a merciful angel, clad all in white And bent over the bed, with me in bed— Without hand or foot or eye or without sex In a fijield hospital that smells of blood. If a war O such a war is raging afar, My love, if right there we are.5 ྲ᷌䚐ᯩᴹᡠ⡝ˈ㘼ᡁ‫ف‬൘䚐ᯩ ֐ᱟ᝸ᛢⲴཙ֯ˈⲭ㗭❑⯥ ֐‫؟‬䓛൘⯵ᒺˈⴻᡁ൘ᒺк 㕪᡻ˈ㕪㞣ˈ㕪⵬ˈ㕪ѿᙗࡕ ൘аᡰ㹰㞕Ⲵᡠൠ䟛䲒 ྲ᷌䚐ᯩᴹᡠ⡝୺䙉⁓Ⲵᡠ⡝ ᛵӪˈྲ᷌ᡁ‫޽ف‬䚐ᯩ

Although the last seven lines of the poem, which are quoted above, are constructed around the hypothetical “if,” the poet’s criticism of war is, nevertheless, expressed defijinitively. In the middle of the conflagration of war, love appears as a doubled image. The lover ascends to the status of an angel, but the poet has fallen, becoming a hospital patient who is “without sex.” War always brings such destruction to love. Were Yu Guangzhong a pure modernist, he could have easily followed modernist conventions for writing about war and avoided having to work so hard to write against the grain. That is to say, he might have adhered to the modernist requirement that one focus on the calamities, nihilism, and despair that war brings. But Yu Guangzhong does not abide by these requirements. Instead, he undertakes a dialectical examination that puts the positive in contrast with the negative; he juxtaposes ascent and descent, highlighting the stark contrast between them. In his poetry, Yu never stops afffijirming the desire for life. Yu’s approach is the opposite of that of Yu’s contemporary Luo Fu in his poem on war, “Shishi zhi siwang” ⸣ᇔѻ↫ӑ (Death in the stone chamber). The question as to whether the self is, in the end, a product of society or exists autonomously is answered clearly in Yu Guangzhong’s work. Yu would 5  Translation by Yu Guangzhong, The Night Watchman, 52.



rather elucidate life’s pain and sorrow empirically than lose himself in abstract deductions. For the most part, modernism emphasizes the disappearance of a coherent human identity. Modernism, in other words, assumes that a human existence is simply a construction made from a variety of factors that have no logical relationship to one another. The prevalence of images of fragmentation in modern Taiwan poetry, which suggests that human life is inchoate, is owing to Taiwan poets’ overly faithful adherence to the precepts of modernism. Yu Guangzhong was challenged by modernism just like other poets, but in no way did he make a fetish of modernism the way other poets did. As Yu sculpted a self, he always held fijirmly to a transcendent ideal. Yu’s poem “Huo yu” ⚛⎤ (Bathing in fijire) reflects his refusal to accept the disintegration of the self. Water and fijire represent equally compelling desires to be cleansed and to be burned. Longing for cleansing in water comes from the West; desire for burning comes from the East. Critics have argued that this poem was influenced by American poet Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” Yu’s “Bathing in Fire,” however, not only conveys the contradictory desires arising out of the relationship of mutual promotion and restraint between hot and cold, but also has richer metaphorical imagery than the Frost poem. Water symbolizes the Western cultural practice of baptism; fijire stands for the bitter experience of the modern East. The resurrection of the Eastern Phoenix from fijire represents the fact that after living through disasters, Eastern peoples have still not given up their desire for life. The red-hot heat of the flames is, of course, also a metaphor for the poet’s own emotions and his fervent pursuit of his ideals. In the poem, water is ultimately abandoned and the scorching pain of fijire is sought out instead, which may be understood as an unequivocal afffijirmation of life. This poetic strategy goes against the strictures of modernism. The poem ends with a clear image of the self: My song is a kind of inextinguishable yearning My blood boils, to bathe my soul in fijire In the blue ink, listen, there are songs of fijire Rising up, even more distinct after death, and more resonant. —Bathing in Fire

ᡁⲴⅼᱟаぞн⓵Ⲵೞᖰ ᡁⲴ㹰⋨偠ˈ⛪⚛⎤䵸兲 㯽໘≤ѝˈ㚭ˈᴹ⚛Ⲵⅼ㚢 ᨊ䎧ˈ↫ᖼᴤ␵Რˈҏᴤ儈Ӓ —⚛⎤

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


In modernism, destruction can sometimes signify resistance. In Yu Guangzhong’s poetry, destruction is not necessarily destruction; it can have positive meaning. Destruction is transmigration; it is re-creation; it is endless growth and multiplication. The poems “Jiuming mao” ҍભ䋃 (A cat with nine lives), “Zisu” 㠚ກ (Self-sculpture), “Gouweicao” ⤇ቮ㥹 (Green bristlegrass), “Bai zai” ⲭ⚭ (The white curse), and “Wherever I Go” are all very concerned with the self. Yu Guangzhong never, however, disengages the self from the objective world; instead he always leaves the self in dialogue with social and historical reality. He consistently uses doubled fijigures that establish contrast and conflict before reaching harmony. Or when caught between two diffferent systems of values, he slows his pace and writes lines that hesitate and prevaricate before ultimately reaching a point of decision, at which moment a resolution arises spontaneously. The last few lines of Yu’s poems often conceal the destination toward which the reader moves by roundabout route at a pace dictated by the poet. Yu excels at posing equivocal questions in his poetry, and as an answer emerges, the poem’s subject is gradually revealed. The best example of this technique is in “Shouyeren” ᆸཌӪ (The night watchman): Does my pen at middle age suggest A daring sword or a pitying crutch? Am I the driver of the pen or the driven? Am I the giver of the blood or the given? —The Night Watchman6

༟ᒤԕᖼˈ᨞ㅶⲴု᝻ ᱟᤄࢽⲴࣷ༛ᡆᱟᣴᶆⲴۧ‫˛ޥ‬ ᱟᡁᢦᆳ䎠ᡆᱟᆳᢦᡁࡽ䙢˛ ᡁ䕨ᆳ㹰ᡆᱟᆳ䕨ᡁ㹰䕚˛ —ᆸཌӪ

“The Night Watchman” is included in The White Jade Bitter Gourd (1974) and is exemplary of Yu’s mode of thinking. Yu’s doubt is actually his conviction. The image of Yu with his pen in hand is quite clearly to be taken as symbolic of Yu and his soul. The self and the pen are in a dialectical relationship; they are two parts of a single life. The questions in the poem serve merely to highlight the resolution that is implicit in the dialectic. In another poem, Yu makes the same point in a diffferent fashion:

6  Translation by Yu Guangzhong, The Night Watchman, 78.



I do not know if time is flame or flow, I only know that through the fijingers it drips —Time and Eternity7

н⸕䚃ᱲ䯃ᱟ⚛❠ᡆ╙⑖ ਚ⸕䚃ᆳᗎᤷ䳉䯃⍱䎠 —ሿሿཙ୿

Here Yu once again has built a poem around a question, but the answer appears with solemnity at the same time the question is posed. The last four lines of this short poem reveal the subject that Yu has in mind: That a new phoenix may break its way Out, its trembling wings freedom-bound. Unknown if eternity is fijire or flood Or neither burns up nor whirls around.8 ⡢Ҷᴹа䳫䴋匣㾱伋 ࠪ৫ˈ些些Ⲵ㗵㞰ੁ㠚⭡ н⸕䚃≨ᚂᱟ⛸⚛ᡆ⍚≤ ᡆᱟн⟳⠂ҏн䘤⍱

Yu questions time because time moves on with no looking back. Time is an abstraction and can be grasped only through reference to concrete things; this is the only way we can conceive of the existence of time. Yu chooses fijire and flood as his metaphors for time, even though he knows that neither is very fijitting. Therefore, he adds the qualifying word “unknown,” which underscores the tone of deferral that runs through the whole poem. Yu again and again demonstrates that he is equal to the trials in life, equal to the torments of time. Whether the fijire burns or the flood whirls is not the true concern of the poem; these images serve merely to create the mood. Yu’s main concern is to write his unbreakable, inextinguishable will into every line.

7  Translation by Yu Guangzhong, The Night Watchman, 81, revised by Moran to match the line break of the original. 8  Translation by Yu Guangzhong, The Night Watchman, 81.

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit



Return Instead of Exile

Yu Guangzhong’s work remaking modernism took place at a time when other poets were fascinated with the aesthetics of qieduan ࠷ᯧ (disconnection), while Yu was disposed to reject exactly this. Rupture may be expressed in any number of ways in literature. In aesthetic theory, the modern is conceived of as a rejection of tradition. All that belongs to tradition is either deliberately overturned or at least becomes the subject of critique and resistance. In terms of sensibility and philosophical outlook, the modern subject usually positions itself as an exile or wanderer, exhausting its imagination in the search for ways to break with society, and in the process arriving at a condition of spiritual or psychological self-exile. Tradition and the local signify profound conservatism and isolation, while modernism aspires toward openness and innovation. In the efffort to create entirely new sensations, anything that is of tradition or the locality is seen as antiquated and corrupt. An even more thorough-going rupture takes place through the complete reworking of the written language and experimentation in the new realm opened to the imagination. All old modes of expression and all old rhetoric are made over. Opposition to the classics, critique of tradition, self-exile and other related ideas are all very apparent in Yu Guangzhong’s early works. We may take his two 1960 volumes of poetry, Stalactites and Halloween, as examples. In these books the mind-set of exile is faintly discernible. The preoccupation with exile in these works was not necessarily a response to modernist agitation, of course. In large part, it can be explained as a reaction to the depressing political environment. Nevertheless, faith in modernism is found in Yu’s earliest poetic philosophy, even though Yu never fetishized modernism or accepted it completely, as I have argued. As modernism reached the apex of its influence, however, Yu quite gladly opted for what I call huigui എ↨ (return). I have previously offfered the following comparatively simple analysis of the changes in Yu’s poetry in the 1960s: fijirst, Yu turned to ancient China, as in The Associations of the Lotus; second, he turned to China’s recent past, as in Music Percussive and In Time of Cold War; and third, he turned to contemporary China, as in his folksong-based poems that celebrate Taiwan’s native soil. I drew these conclusions in 1972, and they still seem valid. By a turn to “contemporary China,” I meant Taiwan, of course. The works by Yu that celebrate Taiwan were collected in The White Jade Bitter Gourd. Demarcating distinct periods in the creative career of a poet is often an exercise in arbitrariness, but looking at Yu’s career in this way has the virtue of calling attention to the fact that Yu put himself on a path



of return, which had him moving in a direction exactly opposite that of most poets of the time. If we wish to study Yu Guangzhong’s poetics of return, we may begin with two general observations. First, while most modernists were preoccupied with the subject of death, Yu answered by focusing on life. Second, while other poets lamented the severing of their cultural roots, Yu’s solution was to look to cultural China and the land of Taiwan. As is universally recognized, exile—or the émigré experience—is a guiding theme of modernism. There are two types of exile in modernist writing, with the fijirst being mental exile, symbolized by reference to homelessness, rootlessness, disordered psychological states, mortality, and so on. The second type of exile is physical exile, as in the depiction of a departure from home or the anguish of having no home to return to. Yu Guangzhong does not touch upon these things in his poetry. At a time when the shadow of death fell across the pages of books of modernist poetry, Yu’s poetry collections are fijilled with vitality and life. While rootless souls drifted through books by other poets, Yu’s thoughts were anchored in the soil of home. Death, you are not everything, you are not For it matters not so much What we give to the grave As what we give to the wind —Death Is Not Everything9

↫ӑˈ֐нᱟа࠷ˈ֐нᱟ ഐ⡢ᴰ䟽㾱Ⲵнᱟ ӔӰ哭㎖໣ໃˈ㘼ᱟ ӔӰ哭㎖↧ਢ —↫ӑˈᆳнᱟа࠷

This short poem is in In a Time of Cold War, and it was written in response to the poet Luo Fu. There is complex meaning in the claim that what we give to the grave does not matter as much as what we give to “history,” to translate Yu’s last line literally. Everyone dies; death is a single judgment. But poems live on after their authors and are subject to repeated judgments. With each new judgment, a poet’s work lives again. Death may end the life of the physical body, but it cannot end the life of literary works. There is certain dialectical logic to this reasoning, and it recalls something Yu wrote in his poem “Anquan gan” ᆹ‫ޘ‬ᝏ (Sense of security): “None dies of war who goes to war” ᮒᯬ៹ 9  Translation by Yu Guangzhong, Acres of Barbed Wire, 68.

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


ᡠⲴˈн↫ᯬᡠ⡝ (Yu Guangzhong, The Night Watchman, 55). In his poetry,

Yu returns again and again to moments of life and living. Yu uses the techniques of modernism to carry out a continual process of self-interrogation. This process is a monologue and also a dialogue; it is two parts of one self in debate, and the debate always ends with the discovery of meaning that is proactive and positive. Yu also engages the ancients in dialogue, and while these dialogues may be built around sharp contestation, each ends with an afffijirmative message about history and about life. The poems, “Shiren—he Chen Zi’ang taitaigang” 䂙Ӫ—઼䲣ᆀᰲᣜᣜ  (Poets—Arguing with Chen Zi’ang) and “Beiduofen” 䋍ཊ㣜 (Beethoven), both of which are in The White Jade Bitter Gourd, fijind a space of balance and harmony between classical allusion and modernity. The Tang dynasty poet Chen Zi’ang wrote, “Where are the sages of the past / And those of future years? / Sky and earth forever last, / Lonely I shed sad tears” ࡽн㾻ਔӪˈᖼн㾻ֶ㘵ˈᘥཙൠѻᛐᛐˈ ⦘ᝤ❦㘼⏅л.10 In his poem, Yu Guangzhong answers with the following lines: Everywhere you go, a swarm of ghosts will follow after, chattering away Why shed sad tears? You are in a footrace with the night Forever ahead by a nose Right up until you kick hard at the darkness, making a hole And becoming the sun —Poets

ࠑ֐䙾㲅ˈ㗔兾ᗵமம䘭䙀 օ丸ᝤ❦␊л ֐઼аᮤ३ཌ䌭䐁 ≨䚐֐么‫ݸ‬а㛙 ⴤࡠ֐⥋䑒唁᳇аハワ ᡀཚ䲭 —䂙Ӫ

This is yet another way of mocking death. There is in these lines defijiance of the loneliness that the passage of time brings, defijiance of the obscurity that history brings, and a declaration that a poet’s works will always stand the test of time and fijind sympathetic readers in every age. Loneliness and obscurity are irrelevant. The poem “Beethoven” targets the anti-intellectualism of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Beethoven was labelled a bourgeois 10 

Translation by Xu Yuanzhong, 300 Tang Poems, 8.



artist and, incredibly, became the target of a posthumous whipping from the crazed radicals of the time. Yu answered the din of the Cultural Revolution with the music of Beethoven: Whose heart is a mad drum, listen, who’s at the door? Fate’s fijirst phrase thundering four lightning claps, Who, after twenty-fijive years, who’s at the door? —Beethoven11

啃㚢ᱟᗳᛨˈ㚭ˈ䃠൘᫲䮰˛ ભ䙻ㅜаਕˈ䵩䵲ഋ‫ػ‬䟽丣 ҼॱӄᒤⲴ㏺䮹ᖼˈ䃠ˈ൘ᦦ䮰˛ —䋍ཊ㣜

The timelessness of art proves itself able to endure dark times of revolution and war. The “Symphony of Fate,” Beethoven’s Fifth, can never be silenced by a political movement. After political fervor has faded, the music will announce its own resurrection. The arresting question, “Who’s at the door?” is obviously meant to ridicule China for closing itself offf to the outside world. Beethoven is immortal; his music rises above the din of politics. Beethoven was, moreover, deaf and could not hear the din of the mundane world. Yu Guangzhong’s consistently fijirm belief in life is also apparent in his collection Yu yongheng bahe 㠷≨ᙶᤄ⋣ (Tug of war with eternity, 1979). The title poem, the poem “Ju song” 㧺丼 (Ode to the chrysanthemum), and other poems in the book seem to extend what was begun in “Bathing in Fire” and “Self-Sculpture,” and together with these earlier poems give expression to one of the most important aspects of Yu Guangzhong’s poetic philosophy. It is almost as if Yu had grown sick of the nihilism and passivity of modernism and made his theme the celebration of life, which during a long period of creativity became Yu’s trademark. It no long mattered if he was giving blood to poetry or if poetry was giving blood to him. Yu’s rejection of the theme of death changed the face of Taiwan modernism. The rejection of the theme of death is a rejection of exile. It makes sense, then, that Yu Guangzhong could not abide the abandonment of Chinese culture in favor of immersion in the literary fashions of the West. Yu Guangzhong continued to place particular emphasis on the argument that exile to the West was unnecessary. From In Time of Cold War through Tug of War with Eternity, Yu’s imagery become gradually ever more anchored in China and the home soil of Taiwan. When he published “Che guo Fangliao” 11 

Translation by Yu Guangzhong, The Night Watchman, 80.

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


䓺䙾ᶻሞ (Passing Fangliao) in the early 1970s, he was writing in the style of a

folk song. This poem is the fijirst of a series of poems about Taiwan that Yu wrote in the years that followed. Likewise, the publication of The White Jade Bitter Gourd was the fijirst in Yu’s slightly later series of poems of historical imagination. The appearance of these topics in Yu’s poetry meant that Yu had found a stronghold where he could establish his identity.


The Evolution of Modernism Was Also an Expansion of the Scope of Nativist Literature

Transforming modernism did not, by defijinition, require the wholesale rejection of modernism. Yu’s intent was to make the new afffective possibilities offfered by modernism less strange. His poems astonish, but this astonishment has aesthetic appeal. In the 1960s, modernist poets were most happy when they were creating surprising imagery. Yu had a fijirm grasp of contemporary reality, and therefore his imagery usually struck a sympathetic chord with readers. The modern techniques at which Yu Guangzhong most excels would seem to be precision—he always picks exactly the right image—and discernment—he notices and uses the best of the images available to him. After the scream of a 747 passes The setting sun fades, like an old Chinese chop Lowering to afffijix its seal to To an ink painting by an artist whose name has been forgotten —Upstairs

аᷦгഋгⲴબ౟䚐ᖼ 㩭ᰕ␑л৫ˈྲаᯩਔঠ վվ㫻൘ аᑵ֊਽∿Ⲵ⮛к —⁃九

The red leaves you sent in an airmail envelope Are covered with the marks of the frost’s teeth, printed in blood Those “Autumn Meditations” slipped into the poetry collection Have become today’s most majestic and inspirational Bookmark —Autumn Meditations


Chen ֐㡚オؑ㻿ᇴֶⲴ㌵㩹 ┯ᱟ䵌佈Ⲵ喂ঠˈ㹰ঠ ཮൘䂙䚨Ⲵˬ⿻㠸˭䛓ᒮ䶒 ‫ׯ‬ᡀ⡢Ӻᒤᴰ༟哇ᴰअӪ㚟ᜣⲴ аᕥᴨ㊔ —⿻㠸

The creation and manipulation of imagery need not rely on unusual language. The most ordinary language, when used in the most efffective manner, can spark the most bizarre associations. The lines from the two poems quoted above perfectly illustrate that while the major undertaking of Yu Guangzhong’s career after his middle age was the remaking of modernism, he remained able to make brilliant use of the techniques of modernism, which he used to open up space for his imagination. This is why, while other poets clung stubbornly to detachment and alienation, Yu’s poems were not only free of alienation but also full of the spirit of rescue and redemption. Similarly, while modernists embraced rupture, Yu chose reconnection. Rescue and redemption, along with reconnection, constituted Yu’s pushback against the tide of modernism. Yu was able to throw himself into this work because he had never cut himself offf from reality or history. Yu Guangzhong’s observations of the world around him ensured that two aspects of his writing continued: fijirst, his turn toward tradition and to the countryside; and second, his engagement with the Taiwan experience. For many years now, the works of Yu Guangzhong that have received praise but also criticism have for the most part been his works of nostalgia and praise for China. This trend in Yu’s work sparked particularly sharp debate after the launch of the nativist movement in the 1970s. One of the questions around which debate swirled was, “Is Yu Guangzhong a ‘nativist’ writer?” The origins of the nativist ideology are found in the historical circumstances of the disheartening decade of the 1970s, which was a time when what the government expected from literature was directly at odds with what the public wanted from literature. Yu Guangzhong was seen as a spokesman for the authorities ever since the publication of his essay “Lang laile” ⤬ֶҶ (The wolves are here). Therefore, his work was either regarded as belonging to the modernist camp or completely overlooked. The verdict as to what, if anything, the debate over nativism accomplished may be found on bookstore shelves. Yu has maintained a consistent silence on the question, but he must have his opinions. If we are to understand Yu Guangzhong’s artistic aspirations in the 1970s, we are better offf turning to the works themselves. The publication of the poetry collection The White Jade

Yu Guangzhong ’ s Modernist Spirit


Bitter Gourd in 1974 made Yu’s aesthetic trajectory quite clear. Several poems in this collection, including “Passing Fangliao,” “Wushe” 䵗⽮ (Wushe), and “Bihu” ⻗⒆ (Emerald lake), make it plain that Taiwan had become Yu’s main subject. It seems, however, that to the proponents of nativism, Yu’s poems were still not native enough. Yu’s attachment to China’s cultural legacy and his new take on traditional Chinese literature were apparently unacceptable to the theorists of nativism. Bentu wenxue ᵜ൏᮷ᆨ (Local literature) does not, of course, have only one, unchanging defijinition. The notion of the local took shape as a reaction to the fijictional representation of China and related notions promoted by the hegemonic discourse of Taiwan’s authoritarian era. After the end of martial law in 1987, however, the local could no longer be understood solely in political terms but needed to be understood more broadly from the standpoint of culture. Any work of literature that is produced in Taiwan should be considered as belonging to the category of local literature. And if we grant that local literature may encompass more than a single system of values, then we may acknowledge that works by writers who come from diffferent backgrounds will give expression to diffferent local aesthetics. Yu Guangzhong’s poems that are nostalgic for China and the countryside are integrally related to his life’s experience. It was the Taiwan soil that gave Yu the space to write the poetry that he did. If we cannot call Yu Guangzhong a local writer of Taiwan, then we will have to rewrite the entire literary history of Taiwan, and it will be difffijicult to know where to begin. A strong feeling of nostalgia has been a feature of Yu Guangzhong’s work from the start of his career. Gaps in space and time create in his work a structure of imagination that seems both within and beyond our reach. The books he fijinished in and after 1979, Tug of War with Eternity (1979), Geshui Guanyin 䳄≤㿰丣 (Kannon Bodhisattva across the sea, 1983), Zijing fu ㍛㥺䌖 (The Bauhinia, 1986), Meng yu dili དྷ㠷ൠ⨶ (Dream and geography, 1990), Anshiliu ᆹ⸣ῤ (Pomegranate, 1996), and Wuxing wuzu ӄ㹼❑䱫 (By all fijive elements, 1998), show the abundant maturity of his afffective capability. Yu is able to treat almost any topic in his poetry. He writes about his afffection for his family in great detail; he has written about his wife and children, including his daughter’s marriage, and about his grandson. In Pomegranate Yu seems to pour out his most heartfelt sentiment for Taiwan. In poems such as “Puli ganzhe” ค䟼⭈㭇 (The sugarcane in the shops) and “Tainan de muqin” ਠইⲴ⇽㿚 (The mothers of Tainan) we may hear in the flow of Yu’s language the pulse of the island. The creation of literature is, however, by no means just the baring of one’s heart and the airing of one’s opinions. If one were writing merely to confijirm some already agreed upon conventional truth, then what would



be the point of philosophical self-examination? Yu Guangzhong has participated in debates and himself has been the subject of debates. His career has stretched over more than half a century. He has published poetry, essays, criticism, and translations. Literary histories have fijirst and foremost afffijirmed Yu’s success as a modernist poet. Yu has said that if one is to become one of the most important poets of one’s time, then one has to live to an old age and be prolifijic. Yu has published seventeen books of poetry, which makes Yu look quite good in comparison to his peers when it comes to productivity. Most recently Yu has declared that he is in a contest with history and a tug of war with eternity, which is a testament to his indomitable will.

chapter 7

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal Ruan Meihui 䱞㖾ភ Translated by Yvonne Jia-Raye Yo and Paul Manfredi



During the 1950s in Taiwan three journals shared the fijield of poetic expression: Xiandai shi ⨮ԓ䂙 (Modern poetry), inaugurated by Ji Xian ㌰ᕖ (1913–2013) in 1953, Lan xing 㯽ᱏ (Blue stars), inaugurated by Qin Zihao 㾳ᆀ䊚 (1912–1963) and others in 1954, and Chuang shiji ࢥц㌰ (Epoch), inaugurated by Luo Fu ⍋ཛ (1928–2018), Zhang Mo ᕥ唈 (b. 1931), and Ya Xian ⰲᕖ (b. 1932), also in 1954. Thereafter, with the 1956 reformulation of Xiandai shi and Ji’s proposal of “horizontal transplantation,” and the 1959 expansion and surrealist redirection of Chuang shiji, modern poetry in postwar Taiwan moved away from “anticommunism” as a theme and ushered in a major wave of modernism.1 The development of “modernist” discourse, however, not only involved the mainland poets who arrived in Taiwan after the Civil War, but was also embraced by homegrown poets, such as Lin Hengtai ᷇Ә⌠ (b. 1924), Huan Fu ẃཛ (b. 1922), Jin Lian 䥖䙓 (b. 1928), Zhan Bing 䂩ߠ (b. 1921), and the like, who had overcome the language barriers of their education under the Japanese. These homegrown poets, who were translingual in multiple respects—whether through engagement with prewar Japanese materials or postwar translations—understood best the thinking that informed the development of Japanese modernism. The mainlander poets, on the contrary, had diffferent Western models from which they learned about modernism. The respective diffferences in their experience and education gave rise to the divergent emphases in their views on the methodology and aesthetic theory of modernism.

1  Editor’s note: Most of the literary historical nomenclature in this chapter, including the terms “modernism” and “surrealism,” appear in quotation marks in the original Chinese. The spirit of such diacritical marking is to alert the reader that simple use of the words has limited meaning unless specifijic contexts and even theories are thoroughly referenced. As Ruan’s chapter itself contains ample such contextualization, we have removed the quotation marks for ease of reading.

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 009



By the middle of the 1960s, when Xiandai shi and Lan xing were showing signs of decline, and only Chuang shiji was left advocating surrealism and pure experience as guiding ideologies for a poetic society, Li ㅐ (Bamboo hat) saw its fijirst publication, presenting a fresh poetic style. The signifijicance of the reform that it stood for should not be neglected.2 Li provided a new site for reflection and criticism in the literary world of 1960s Taiwan and afffords us a new perspective when exploring Taiwanese “modern poetry.” Li was a signature poetry journal during the reemergence of postwar local, or nativist, poetry in Taiwan. It was founded by twelve writers: Wu Yingtao ੣♋☔ (1916–1971), Zhan Bing, Huan Fu, Lin Hengtai, Jin Lian, Zhao Tianyi 䏉ཙܰ (b. 1935), Xue Bogu 㯋᷿䉧 (1935–1995), Bai Qiu ⲭ㩙 (b. 1937), Huang Hesheng 哳㦧⭏, Du Guoqing (Tu Kuo-ch’ing) ᶌ഻␵ (b. 1941), Gu Bei ਔ䋍 (b. 1938), and Wang Xianyang ⦻២䲭 (b. 1941).3 From the beginning, Li poets recognized that to create a poetry of the time, they needed to deepen their experience of real life, and extract from that experience essential elements that could be used in their poetry. The title, Li, in fact signifijies the spirit of the journal: “a bamboo hat perseveres even in the presence of a withering climate with purity, honesty, primeval beauty, and universality—this is exactly the symbol of the island people’s diligence, freedom, and determination.”4 Previous studies and discussions of Li have focused mainly on its local and realistic content, largely overlooking matters of technique, poetic form, or other aesthetic accomplishments. It heretofore has rarely been observed that, since its fijirst publication, Li has actually systematically introduced trendsetting views of Western and Japanese modern poetry, poets, and poetic theories to audiences in Taiwan. Additionally, some of the Li poets participated directly in the “Modernist Movement.” Bai Qiu, for instance, was active in all three camps—Xiandai shi, Lan xing, and Chuang shiji—while Lin Hengtai was one of the principal contributors to Ji Xian’s modernist theory. As Bai Qiu himself put it, “Li is a literary group that includes a modernist spirit within realism. It is more than nativist realism” (Chen Qianwu, “On the Establishment,” 306). The aim of this chapter is to revisit the founding history of Li, to explore and 2  On the establishment of Li, two messages were clear: (1) local Taiwan poets had overcome the language barrier and reasserted themselves in the realm of poetry; (2) they shattered the established trend of obscurity, pallor, and unintelligibility. Li advocated a style of toughness and intellectualism. The “new era” here refers to the historical signifijicance of a new aesthetic representation inaugurated with the founding of Li. 3  Although the list consists of twelve writers, a few of the members are less directly related. Xue had never written for the journal or participated in any activity, and Gu and Wang had, respectively, withdrawn from the group within a year of the journal’s establishment. 4  Quoted in Chen Qianwu (pen name Huan Fu), “Tan Li de chuang kan,” 382.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


analyze the advancement and practice of its modernism, to discuss the relationship between Li and modernism from an alternative perspective, and to examine a new possible form of modernism in Taiwan. It is worth noting that modernism, encompassing complex trends and qualities, has a vast scope, and it is certainly not merely a singular concept. In Bradbury and McFarlane’s description: Modernism is, clearly, more than an aesthetic event, and some of the conditions that lie behind it are discernible and clear. Yet it contains a highly aesthetic response, one which turns on the assumption that the registering of modern consciousness or experience was not a problem in representation but a profound cultural and aesthetic crux … a problem in the making of structures, the employment of language, the uniting of form, fijinally in the social meaning of the artist himself.5 Given the multidimensionality of modernism, I do not intend in this to limit the meaning of modernism or to investigate it on a microcosmic level. Rather, I wish to consider the modernism of Taiwan’s modern poetry in a much broader fashion using Li as a kind of case study. In other words, this chapter aims to explore which elements from the early Li group aided in the development of the journal’s identity, how those elements were put into the practice of creation in ways that distinguished what they did from other poetry societies, and how these diffferences crystallized the meaning of Li during the 1960s, signaling a new era of modern poetry in Taiwan. Furthermore, what we call the “founding history” refers to a poetry society’s development from the inaugural issue of its journal to the gradual establishment of a general style. It is difffijicult to divide such a development into distinct time periods. Broadly speaking, Li has been around for forty-four years. However, the period between its founding and the point by which it had established its own style was essentially 1964 to 1970. It was during this time that Li’s assimilation to and transformation of modernism allowed the journal to be known not only for its realism and localism but also for its modernist qualities. This enabled the journal to be recognized for opening new horizons and frontiers in modern poetry. With these aspects in mind, we can provide a more complete picture of the forging of poetic style in the history of modernist poetic development in Taiwan during the 1960s.

5  Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890– 1930, 28–29.

156 2


Reflections on Modernism during the 1950s and 1960s: From the Modern to the Surreal

In the literary world of the 1950s, the ideology of literature was so enveloped within anti-communist literary policies that the development of literature became greatly impeded by political censorship. Since modern poetry was subjected to a great amount of interference from the national literary policy, poets were not able to bring to light exterior social phenomena in their work. Instead, they turned toward the exploration of their own interior worlds. The writing of poetry was thus disconnected from the pulse of everyday social reality. In order to escape the sufffocating literary atmosphere of the 1950s, poets began to study and imitate the isolation and alienation characteristic of Western modernism, orienting themselves away from social realities of the time. This approach enabled modern poetry of the 1950s to appear both “anticommunist” and “modern” at the same time. Western modernism of course has its own historical trajectory through space and time. With the twin factors of rapidly expanding capitalist society and widespread devastation wrought by world war, people became alienated from one another on a spiritual level and as a consequence also psychologically barren. Naturally, people began to question the “absolute truths” on which their most basic beliefs were founded. They began to treat with suspicion any arguments supporting views of “external reality” and “objectivity,” turning instead inward toward the exploration of their own interior worlds, recognizing the expressions of their subconscious minds to be the best record of inner reality. On the literary level, modernist writers directly targeted rigid styles of tradition pursuing constant renewal through formal innovation. Spiritually, modernists exhibited a decidedly avant-garde quality and a highly subversive consciousness. Contrasting this with Taiwan modernism, we discover fijirst that Taiwan adopted the same bold formal experimentation as that of the West, but the internal spirit and consciousness was quite diffferent from that of its progenitors. The spiritual despair in Taiwan did not emerge from a view of industrialization and world war; rather, it by and large originated from political suppression. Modernism in Taiwan took formal experimentation as the conduit through which intellectuals could evade political oppression. On the surface, both were engaged in literary revolution and creating things anew. Underneath, however, they were diffferent. This is how modernism was rather “cleverly” introduced into postwar Taiwan and also how modernism in Taiwan became localized. The origin of postwar modernism in Taiwan can be traced specifijically to the founding of Xiandai shi (1953) by Ji Xian and, following, the Modernist

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


Movement (1956) inaugurated with Ji Xian’s heroic pledge “to lead the revolution in new poetry and to promote the modernization of new poetry.”6 As he proclaimed in his “Six Tenets of Modernists”: I.

We are a group of modernists who selectively either promote or reject the spirit and constituents of all new schools of poetry from Baudelaire to the present. II. We believe that New Poetry is a horizontal transplantation, not a vertical inheritance. This is a general view, a starting point for both theoretical development and creative practice. III. We advocate explorations of a new continent and the cultivation of virgin territory of poetry: expression of new content, creation of new poetic forms, discovery of new tools, and invention of new techniques. IV. We emphasize rationality. V. We pursue the purity of poetry. VI. We promote patriotism and anti-communism. We support freedom and democracy.7 The most controversial of these ideas were certainly the fijirst two: “We are a group of modernists who selectively either promote or reject the spirit and constituents of all new schools of poetry from Baudelaire to the present; We believe that New Poetry is a horizontal transplantation, not a vertical inheritance.” Taking Baudelaire as a rough starting point and enveloping a host of Western modernisms that flowed from there, Ji’s rather vague pronouncement should be understood as a function of a very particular place and time. Due to the government’s intention to eliminate socialism and repress local culture, literature of the 1950s in Taiwan was forcibly detached from any literary tradition before 1949, including the New Literature Movement from the May Fourth period and the Japanese occupation period. Expressed in opposition, Ji’s proclamation here proves the necessarily inseparable relationship between sociopolitical reality and any theory or practice of literature. One the one hand, Ji suggests a subversive “horizontal transplantation” while, on the other hand, by embracing patriotism and anti-communism as part of his modernist doctrine, he remains in careful compliance with an offfijicial political agenda.

6  Ji Xian, “Xiandaipai xiaoxi gongbao,” 4. 7  Ji Xian, “Xuan yan,” 163–164.



Focusing on the “horizontal transplantation” was Ji’s way of addressing the fact that Taiwanese modernism was clearly influenced by Western thinking, particularly the fijin-de-siècle modernist cultures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, the complexity of modernist thinking was further complicated by Taiwanese poets’ re-translations and re-appropriations. In the same essay, Ji remarks: Just as Paul Cézanne was regarded as the father of modern painting, the starting point of new poetry is Charles Baudelaire. None of the new rising poetry camps can deny their Baudelairian influences. These schools, including Symbolists in the nineteenth century, the Imagists, the Cubists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the New Sensationalists, the American Imagists, and every Western-origin movement of poetry, can be collectively brought under the term “modernism.”8 The passage here shows Ji actually had a limited understanding of modernism beyond the names of a few Western literary schools that he attempted to imitate and transplant without regard to their contents and meanings. It is not possible for us to clearly discern what Ji meant in the tenet “all new schools of poetry from Baudelaire to the present.” What is clear and what bears pointing out, however, is Ji’s rejection of the “sickly, fijin-de-siècle tendencies” and promotion of the “healthy, progressive and, uplifting” potential in modernist writing (Yang Mu, “Regarding Ji Xian’s Modern Poetry Society,” 388). Misuses and misappropriations aside, Ji undoubtedly refused the aspects of decadence and nihilism in modernist work, calling instead for particular attention to the social function of poetry: Poetry has its social function. In a new era of industrialization, most of our new poets cannot get away from their old bad habits, thinking of themselves highly as members of an elite group positioned high above reality. This is ridiculous! My friend, you need to industrialize your ideology fijirst, then become a proper man in an industrialized society, and fijinally you can write New Poetry and be a new poet in this industrialized time.9 Ji’s repeated reference to a “new era of industrialization” is in other words the contemporaneity of society, with particular emphasis on real emotions of 8  Quoted in Yang Mu et al., “Guanyu Ji Xian de xiandai shishe yu Xiandaipai,” 387. 9  Ji Xian, “Bianzhe tanhua”; emphasis in the original.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


the moment. Clearly, the import of the modernism that Ji advocated at the time was not obscurantism or depression, but instead a revolution against old habits using the active spirit of a new age. In his own theory of poetry, Baudelaire refers to the need for a similar type of revolution: “the sense of tragedy and cynicism among our modern men and widespread disafffection of the youth are both necessary forms of rebellion directed at authority structures of old society—such as God and so forth.”10 Clearly, whether we are speaking of Baudelaire or Ji Xian, it was acute dissatisfaction with their present reality that led them to a reform of poetry for a new age. Another signifijicant modernist poet, Lin Hengtai, used two of Ji’s poems— “Tong xiang” 䢵‫( ۿ‬Bronze statue) and “Shiren fenlei” 䂙Ӫ࠶于 (Category of poets) as models for the Modernist Movement as a whole, pointing out that they were both “fundamentally sarcastic and ironic, and … essentially antivulgar and critical.”11 For Lin, these qualities were the major qualities of modern poetry, and the aspect of “critical sense” was the most essential in determining a given poem’s relative modernity. In short, Taiwan modernism at this stage was critical and anti-vulgar in its essence, combating ideological rigidity of the time. In explaining the meaning of the early Modernist Movement in Taiwan, Lin remarks: “It is clear that the goal of the Modernist Movement in Taiwan in the 1950s to the 1960s was to overturn constructed epistemology. Although inspired by and learned from the two-hundred-year development of Western culture, its true goal was actually the total reformation of the most regressive parts of Taiwan poetry itself.”12 The early stage of the Modernist Movement in Taiwan was therefore a matter of using renovation of poetic form to subvert anti-communist ideology of the 1950s (Lin Hengtai, “Impact and Influence”).13 Ji’s modernism, in this light, helped Taiwanese literature to fijind an alternative path, lifting the shroud over the postwar modernism thereafter.

10  11 

12  13 

Quoted in Ge Lei and Liang Dong, Xiandai Faguo shige meixue miaoshu, 121. Lin references the following lines from Ji’s “Bronze Statue”: “Even if one spits on it, / it won’t erode; / cursing ‘bastard’ in its direction, / could that harm the iron-steel dignity? / Hundreds of thousands of years before, hundreds of thousands of years after, / the masses are noisy, the bronze statue makes no sound.” Lin’s other example, “Categorization of Poets,” contains the following lines: “The sort of great poetic demeanor, / you don’t have. / Because you can’t bear loneliness; / and you are prone to jealousy. / You don’t understand what it is to be hungry. / Only the starved are innocent. / Long live starvation!” See Lin Hengtai, “Xiandaipai yundongde shizhi yu yingxiang,” 121. Lin Hengtai, “Xiandaipai yundongde shizhi yu yingxiang,” 141. Lin divided the Modernist Movement into two phases in the essay: “From the January 1956 founding of Xiandai shi to March 1959 when the Xiandai shi journal ceased to publish is the early stage of the Modernist Movement. From April 1959, the transformed issue 11



About the same time that Ji founded Xiandai shi, another group of poets, led by Qin Zihao, founded Lan xing in 1954, and in October of the same year, Ya Xian, Zhang Mo, and Luo Fu founded Chuang shiji in Gaoxiong. Lin Hengtai’s summary of this moment in Taiwan’s literary history was that “Chuang shiji, at this early point in the development of the Modernist Movement, elected to stay outside of the fray, while Lan xing immediately took a position of strong opposition to Ji’s modernism, writing numerous articles of attack thereby initiating the major debate on modernism” (“Impact and Influence,” 121). In “The Seventeenth Birthday,” Yu Guangzhong ։‫ݹ‬ѝ (1928–2017) recalls the moment of Lan xing’s formation: “Generally, we were united in our collective opposition to Ji Xian. We strongly disagreed with Ji’s notion of transplanting Western poetry onto our Chinese soil. Though we did not ourselves take up the responsibility of continuing the Chinese tradition, we would not abide transplanting from the West in such a reckless way.”14 Qin Zihao from Lan xing was the fijirst poet to launch the attack by writing “Where Is New Poetry Going?,” which was published in Lan xing shixuan 㯽ᱏ䂙䚨 (Selected poems of Blue stars) in August 1957. That article was followed by two additional commentaries on the new modernism that appeared in the journal Bihui ㅶय़. Huang Yong 哳 ⭘ and Luo Men 㖵䮰 also published “From Modernism to New Modernism” and “On the Lyrical and Rationalities of Poetry” in the second issue of Lan xing shixuan in October 1957. In response to these comments, Ji Xian published fijive articles in Xiandai shi. They were: “From Modernism to New Modernism” (issue 19), “Response to the So-Called Criticism on Six Tenets” (issue 20), “Two Facts” (issue 21), “Unnecessary Questions and others” (issue 21), and “One Stale Question” (issue 22). These polemic exchanges indicated that the “transplantation” was severely questioned and criticized by Lan xing, which was endeavoring to continue the lyrical style of Xinyue ᯠᴸ (The crescent).15 United by a shared background in military service, where anti-communist doctrine overpowered all other ideologies, poets of Chuang shiji did not step into the quarrels at the early stage of the Taiwan modernism debate. This was evident from their early publications, as there was no direct challenge

14  15 

of Chuang shiji to January 1969, the end of the journal, is the late stage of the Modernist Movement.” Lin Hengtai, “Xiandaipai yundong de shizhi yu yingxiang,” 141. Yu Guangzhong, “Dishiqige danchen,” 359. The influence of Dai Wangshu and more generally the Crescent group on Qin Zihao are evident in his creative expression. In 1957, when Qin published “Where Goes the New Poetry?,” he emphasized that Chinese New Poetry should not be the tail of Western poetry nor an empty echo of Western poetry, but the voice of a new era of China, a real voice. It is thus clear that Qin and Lan xing paid much attention to national ethos and the continuity of the time, a tradition that could be traced to the Crescent group.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


to modernist associations. In the inaugural issue (October 1954), three points were made: “I. To ensure the establishment of New Poetry on the national frontier and to trigger a new wave of thinking in poetry; II. To construct poetry camps strong as steel, avoiding mutual assaults that would lead to division; III. To guide and support youths and to completely wash away the poisonous streams of red, yellow, and grey.”16 In the fourth issue (October 1955), Wang Yan ⦻ዙ (1916–1966) wrote “To Talk about the New National Poetry Format,” and opened up a “Special Issue on Struggle Poetry.” In the fijifth issue, March 1956, Wang published “Draft on Establishing a New Format of National Poetry,” in the sixth issue “Again on a New National Poetry Format,” and in the seventh issue, October 1956, he set up a special edition on “Discussions on the Format of a New National Poetry.”17 Remaining outside the Modernist Movement from its fijirst through its tenth issues, Chuang shiji was advertised as “A New Form of National Poetry,” but up until this point it was not be able to move beyond the structure of anti-communism. The journal, however, took a drastic turn in the eleventh issue (April 1959), moving from “A New Form of National Poetry” to celebration of the poetics of surrealism. This turn prompted another culmination of the Modernist Movement, called by Lin Hengtai the “Late Period Modernist Movement.” Emphasizing the surrealist aesthetic representations of “‘worldliness,’ ‘surreality,’ ‘authenticity,’ and ‘purity,’” Chuang shiji moved from social reality to formal structure and focused in terms of content on the alienation between individuals. The overemphasis on intuition, subconscious, and unconscious expression in their “automatic writing” led them to a style of writing “pure mind without consciousness.” “The Lamp of Fetish” by Bi Guo ⻗᷌ (b. 1932) is a good example: A deep green Stillness. A sprout of boisterousness has already withered. (This little street has no one.) As blue smoke escapes from your eye The breath of long hair comes from a white flower Tender pistils wrap on a spring night of the little street

16  17 

Zhang Mo, “Chuang shiji de fazhan luxian ji qi jiantao,” 426. This issue includes Ya Din’s “My Opinion on the ‘New National Poetic Form,’” Zhong Lei and Shangguan Yu’s “An Attempted Discussion on the ‘New National Poetic Form,’” Wu Yingtao’s “The Developments Poetry Theory Should Have,” Wang Yan’s “Content of ‘New National Poetic Form,’” and Sha Mo’s “Appropriate Tendencies for Poetry.”



Spring of my reproduction thus the reproduction of the reproduction of spring I want to ask you for a person whose intersections compose time and space (This little street has no one.) Oh it is a naked virgin bathing A kind of white It is a head-twining little hierarch A kind of white (This little street has no one.) It is you flapped by a wing A kind of white I will be killed by you (This little street has no one.) As blue smoke escapes your eye … Noise and movement a bud silent and motionless has grown (This little street has no one.) A deep green18 а૱␡㏐ 䶌→DŽ а㣭偧अᐢᷟDŽ ˄䙉ọሿ㺇❑ӪDŽ˅ ྲ䶂➉䙱ࠪ֐Ⲵ䴉⵨ 䮧儞ѻબ੨䎧㠚аᵥⲭ㣡ѻѝ ᄙ㭺൘ᮢ㪇䛓ọሿ㺇Ⲵ᱕ཌ ⋹ѻ㑱⇆ѻᡁѳ⋹ѻ㑱⇆ѻ㑱⇆ѻ⋹ ᡁⅢੁ֐㍒ਆаս⭡Ӕ䥟㘼ΏᡀⲴᱲオ ˄䙉ọሿ㺇❑ӪDŽ˅ ಒᱟа㼨⎤Ⲵ㲅ྣаぞⲭ㢢 ᱟа㒿九എⲴሿᮉѫаぞⲭ㢢 ˄䙉ọሿ㺇❑ӪDŽ˅ ᱟа㗵᣽अ㪇Ⲵ֐‫ف‬аぞⲭ㢢 ᡁሷ㻛֐‫ف‬㎎⇪ ˄䙉ọሿ㺇❑ӪDŽ˅ ྲ䶂➉䙱ࠪ֐Ⲵ䳫⵨DŽDŽDŽ 偧अа㣭䶌→ᐢ㤱 ˄䙉ọሿ㺇❑ӪDŽ˅ а૱␡㏐

In Taiwan, the practice of surrealism was limited to such superfijicial characteristics as automatic writing, irrationality, and anti-logical expression, so 18 

Extract from Zhang Mo, Luo Fu, and Ya Xian, Selected Poetry from the 1970s, 274.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


that deeper poetic elements became fewer and fewer. Here, the poem never achieves coherence due to irregular rhythms and sudden transitions appearing in irrational fragments. Surrealism in the context of Western cultural development was not an interiorization and exploration of the personal inner experience of the poet, but a revolution in aesthetics that actively engaged with society. The subversive force of Western surrealism as a radical cultural movement disappeared in its Taiwanese counterpart in such a way that Taiwan surrealism became merely an emblem of “pure literature.”


The Rise of the Li Journal and the Pivot of Taiwan “Modern Poetry”

From Chuang shiji’s initial clarion call of surrealism, the course of postwar modern Taiwan poetry was steered into an overly experimental and eccentric direction, which, rather than opening new possibilities for modern poetry, instead laid out more predicaments and limitations in terms of language and form. Yu Guangzhong, a poet and witness of the time, sharply criticized the obscurity of poetry: With the introduction of some of the new ideas of surrealism into our poetry, the space for poetry writing has seemingly enlarged into infijinity and the techniques of representation also seem to have vastly increased. In truth, though, the pursuit of such individual or insular experience produces problematic obscurity…. It casts out rationality, cuts offf connections, and kills grammar. As a consequence, the realm of poetry becomes the realm of dream; the language of poetry becomes meaningless talk during sleep or even delusional ranting. yu guanzhong, “The Seventeenth Birthday,” 406

This passage points out that excessive Western influence resulted in only the use of writing techniques, spurring poets to a kind of mindless spontaneity that severely reduced the overall quality of the poetry they composed. The major reason behind this phenomenon was the poets’ attempt to search for a liberation of language in a politically oppressed society. Such an attempt encouraged novel ways of expression that produced a defamiliarization from reality, disruption of tradition, and obscurity of images. Poets indulged in writing new forms and languages for the sake of being new, and neglected the true meaning of poetry that must also include some form of profound thinking. The development of Taiwanese surrealism was on a very diffferent trajectory from its Western counterpart, as it was more or less a combination of a



response to Taiwan’s particular literary policy and a defamiliarization from the environment of daily life, a distanciation so extreme that it resulted in a complete divorce of writers from their actual experience. This was particularly manifest in the realm of language, as poetic language in Taiwan served as the essential ground on which to extend the distance between reality and writing, demonstrating writers’ detachment from daily life and expressing only inner anxiety and depression. Thus, while surrealist literature in Taiwan during the 1950s to 1960s was seemingly similar to Western surrealist work, actually the two present very diffferent spiritual landscapes. The crucial distinction between Taiwanese surrealism and its Western progenitor is that it lacked a sensibility of social engagement, as Michelle Yeh puts it: The major diffference between Taiwanese surrealism during the mid twentieth century and the French surrealism is that the former lacked the ambition to reform society through literary reformation. Yet it would be unjust to blame such a shortcoming on the Taiwanese surrealists. It was, rather, that Taiwan society was one far less capable of being reformed through literary means.19 The advent of modernism in Taiwan generally amounted to a passive response to the acute pressure of an anti-communist policy imposed by the government. As such, Taiwan modernism was actually quite unlike the response to unbridled capitalism and concomitant alienation prevalent in the West. Taiwan modernism therefore dispensed with substantive social engagement of Western modernism and resided instead in a superfijicial formalism, delving ever more deeply into the poets’ inner worlds, thus in time losing a deeper meaning of poetry as it drove itself away from literature of socially engaged feeling. Disconnected from the society, land, and life, poetry became highly degraded, vulnerable, and tenebrous. In March 1964, motivated by the establishment of Wu Zhuoliu’s ੣◱⍱ (1900–1976) Taiwan wenyi ਠ⚓᮷㰍 (Taiwan literature and art), nativist poets began contemplating the formation of a poetry group that would be truly their own and would serve to counter many of the defijiciencies they found widespread in poetry of the time. The Li poetry society announcement read: Although the poetry circles are very active, many poetry journals remain dissatisfactory. First, submission reviews often depend on personal connections that neglect the honorable creeds of an editor. Second, proper 19 

Michelle Yeh, “Bianyuan, qianwei, chaoxianshi,” 162.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


criticism is largely replaced by simple cheering and booing that would in no way help our development in poetry. Due to the above reasons, our colleagues have decided to found a poetry journal with quality and determination to improve this decadent state of afffairs.20 The Li editors explained in their inaugural issue in June: “what we desire is a poetry of this time and generation, written in a manner befijitting this time and generation.”21 The goal of the poetry journal was, therefore, to simultaneously stave offf quarrels between camps and also the stagnation caused by poor communication. At the beginning of the establishment of Li, it fought against the excesses in poetic language, searching instead for the roots of poetry in real life and authentic feelings. At the same time, Li authors were determined to go beyond poetry’s obscurity and immature form, pointing the way to an optimistic and healthy style, touching a real social pulse, particularly in terms of people’s resistance to political oppression. The journal, as implied in its title—a bamboo hat—aimed to be both humble and practical. In terms of content, in addition to poetic writing, translations, and commentaries, Li also ran numerous columns, such as “Shadows under a Bamboo Hat,” “Historical Documents of Poetry,” “Ying Tao’s Notes on Poetry,” and “Literary Works Review,” collectively indicative of, on the one hand, the authors’ ambition to enhance the quality of poetry by translating and introducing new poems and criticisms, and, on the other, clarifying an indigenous quality by carefully collecting and organizing historical materials. In the “Inaugural Note,” Li asserted: What is poetry belonging to this age? In other words, what poetry has this age produced? Where is its place in our time? What are its characteristics? Such disciplined reflection is mandatory for the genuine preservation of our national culture and for promoting a truly discriminating readership. However, only very few have devoted themselves to this job. Despite our weak abilities, our journal aims to accomplish such a mission. lin hengtai, “Bamboo Broom,” 3

Given the commonality of purpose among Li’s various elements and strong sense of camaraderie, the journal was able to tap efffectively into the social zeitgeist, reflecting a more collective consciousness than any of the other poetry journals active at the time. With the construction of strong bonds linking 20  21 

Chen Mingtai, “Li shizhi wunianji,” 121. Lin Hengtai, “Guchade zhusao.”



aesthetics with social milieu, the core members of Li were able to convey a consistent approach to new members, thereby accomplishing uncommon longevity for the journal. The early membership of Li included those poets who shared a background of the Japanese colonial period and translingual experience, as well as second-generation poets such as Bai Qiu, Zhao Tianyi, Li Kuixian ᵾ共䌒 (b. 1937), and Du Guoqing, many of whom began with journals such as Xiandai shi and Chuang shiji, but they all moved away from previous postures of postwar modernism and horizontal transplantation, coming to a single, unifijied position under Li. In this way, the Li authors continued a tradition of Taiwan modern poetry but also advanced a new poetics with strengthened poetry practice and poetic theory.


Li’s Responses to and Representations of Modernism

The founding of Li signifijied the unifijication of Western-oriented modern poetry and native consciousness. The meaning of this unifijication is twofold: First, it continued the Japanese literary tradition. Second, it offfered a new possibility in poetics that distinguished itself from the arcane surrealism of the 1950s and 1960s. Largely translating theories from Japanese modernists, Li was not only promoting social issues in plain language manifest in poetic form, but also took modernism seriously in its subversive spirit and artistic representation. The relationship between Li and modernism will be examined in three parts below. 4.1 The Pivot to Modernism In the 1960s, Zhao Tianyi 䏉ཙܰ published “Reefs of Modern Poetry” in the third issue of Li, regarding the problematic alienation between poetry and the essence of literature: “Nowadays, poetry circles in Free China are facing several counter-currents and several destructive tendencies. The reason we need to thoroughly dissect these problems is to thoroughly rectify their mistakes. It is our hope to have real modern poetry that belongs to this time, instead of some forgeries that offfend reality.”22 Zhao also identifijied four specifijic “reefs” in modern poetry. These were (a) the current of mass culture, (b) the return of classical poetry, (c) the flood of pseudo-modern poetry, and (d) the loss of truth. In Wu Yingtao’s ੣♋☔ article “The Establishment of Poetic Spirit—How to Eliminate Insular Modern Poetry,” he argued that the “shallowness in poets’ thoughts and narrowness in poetry” and the “perplexity 22 

Zhao Tianyi, “Xiandaishi de anjiao,” 9.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


in representing issues of modernity” were the major factors for poetry’s becoming isolated from society and difffijicult to understand.23 With the increasingly negative appraisal of modernist poetry during the 1960s, Ji Xian wrote “An Open Letter to Mr. Zhao Tianyi” in August 1966. In the letter, he openly admitted that the “new formalism” and “new nihilist” styles were steering Taiwanese poetry onto the course of game-playing and self-detachment from reality: Today, we have a group of blind young poets, neglecting the art of satire, detaching from reality, despising life, having no target for the revolution, and losing their own standings. They are just a swarm of bees flying around like a nervous disorder, I don’t even know what words I can use to describe it. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it: “new nihilism.”24 As one of the earliest advocates for modernist poetry in postwar Taiwan, Ji used criticism to demonstrate the degree to which the problems in poetic composition during the 1960s were deserving of serious discussion. In Ji’s description, this “new nihilism” was defijined as poems that were formally inventive but devoid of actual content. According to Ji, to cure such illness one must allow the “content to decide the form and the quality to determine the style” (“An Open Letter,” 6). Ultimately, Ji went so far as to urge the abolition of the name “modern poetry” itself to avoid further distortion of poetry. There were, in fact, two diffferent routes that appeared in the late 1960s for Taiwanese modern poetry. The fijirst was the surrealism introduced by Chuang shiji, but this came to an end when, in 1969 (issue 29), the journal ceased publication. The other was Li and its proposal of a poetry that demonstrated a sense of the times and sincerity. The fortunes of these routes are both of historical importance and proceeded in inverse parallel; the moment of Chuang shiji’s decline intersected with that of Li’s rise. The change took place at the conclusion of the 1960s and going into the 1970s, demonstrating a wide shift from the poetics of the remote and arcane to that rooted in the local and concerned with present-day reality. Lin Hengtai, who had played a signifijicant role in the Modernist Movement, published theoretical essays in Xiandai shi during his early stage, including: “About Modernists” 䰌ᯬ⨮ԓ⍮ (1957), “On Symbols” ㅖ㲏䄆 (1957), “Traditions of Chinese Poetry” ѝ഻䂙Ⲵۣ㎡ (1957), “On Cognition and Emotion” 䃷ѫ⸕㠷ᣂᛵ (1958), and “The Salty Poem” 咩ણⲴ䂙 (1958). In Xiandai shi he

23  24 

Wu Yingtao, “Shijingshende jianli,” 2. Ji Xian, “Gei Zhao Tianyi xiansheng de yifeng gongkaixin,” 5.



also published numerous experimental symbolist poems.25 In Chuang shiji, he published a substantial amount of literary criticism and poetry, such as his famous “Two Landscape Poems” 付Ჟ‫ޙ‬俆 (1959) and a series poem, “Songs of No Emotions” 䶎ᛵѻⅼ (1964), which contained fijifty-one sections. During the Modernist Movement, Lin was a rational theorist as well as a passionate experimentalist, who furnished modernism with new interpretations and fortifijied the notion of modernism with solid form. The shift in poetry to obscurity caused Lin to rethink poetry and, as a result, in 1964 he founded Li with Chen Qianwu, Jin Lian, Wu Yingtao, Bai Qiu, and Zhao Tianyi. In the inaugural issue, Lin proclaimed their intention to “talk about poetry that breathes in this time in a tone that corresponds with this time” (“Bamboo Broom”). The emphasis on the “poetry of this time” indicates the focus of the journal—to interact with reality and to reject the ambiguity and emptiness caused by Westernization. Winning the fijirst award of New Poetry, Bai Qiu, a rising star in poetry, demonstrated a similar trajectory.26 Bai participated in the Modernists group led by Ji and joined Chuang shiji in 1959. By 1964, however, he became one of the twelve founding fijigures of Li. His poems, from “The Death of a Moth” (1959) to “Roses of the Wind” (1965) also spearheaded a process of change from simply experimental to sincere. In the postscript to his own poetry anthology, Feng de qiangwei 付Ⲵ㯄㮷 (Roses of the wind; 1965), Bai writes: “For the past seven years, the poetry circle was shrouded in an atmosphere I hate. It seems that some people can yearn all day without actual feeling and itemize knowledge without any real experience. Sincerity disappeared before us all of sudden. There is hardly any poetry I read now that does not have vacuous ornamentation.”27 The unsuccessful transplantation of Western modernism in Taiwan resulted in an empty and false sophistication that itself triggered the search for a new way to challenge the pre-existing Taiwanese modernism. Bai Qiu’s “Symbols of the Sky” (1969) in the series “The World of A-Huo” is a good example to contrast with his earlier works, showing the distinct change in poetry language from sculpted syntactical beauty to genuine reflection of social reality. Moreover, Jin Lian’s early works of poetry and translation were often published in Xiandai shi and Chuang shiji and demonstrated, in cases 25 

26  27 

The symbolist poems included “Wheels” (issue 13), “House” (issue 13), “The Twentieth Picture” (issue 14), “Romance” (issue 14), “Sound of Chaos” (issue 14), “Car Accident” (issue 15), “Flower Garden” (issue 15), “Group of Buddhism Pilgrims” (issue 17), “Background in the Movie” (issue 17), “The City Infected with Trachoma” (issue 18), and “Gymnastics” (issue 18). On June 24, 1955, Poet’s Day, the fijirst Chinese Art and Literature Association Poet Award was issued. Bai Qiu was only eighteen years old and also the only homegrown poet. Bai Qiu, Feng de qiangwei.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


such as “Women’s Documentary” and “Run Over,” both of which appeared in Xiandai shi 16, the new “cinematic” style. Jin though also was absorbed into the Li camp, and he became a poet of high critical awareness. In this vein, he published “Tracks” (Li 5, February 1965), and “Excavation” (Li 6, April 1965), and more, all works exhibiting powerful critique of real-life circumstances. The examples of the various poets mentioned earlier collectively demonstrate the way in which writers moved away from Xiandai shi–style modernism, as that style, owing to its total inability to reflect current reality, was unable to grow roots and develop in Taiwan society. The particular shift from the Western-transplanted modernism to a focus on poetry-writing technique coupled with attention to the inner spirit of poetry and its social context was best achieved through the influence of the journal Li. In other words, Li opened up a new page for Taiwanese modernism to fijinally move away from the influences of emptiness and obscurity. 4.2 The Reconstruction of Taiwanese Modernism Given the native backgrounds of the poets, Li was often understood only through the notions of “nativism,” “Japanese influence,” “realistic spirit,” or “new objectivism,” characteristics that, though not complete misrepresentations, are at least limited and undervalued Li’s accomplishments. In the preface to Zhongguo xiandai wenxue daxi ѝ഻⨮ԓ᮷ᆨབྷ㌫ (Grand anthology of Chinese modern literature), Luo Fu ⍋ཛ makes the following observation about Li’s poets: “Although they have not declared themselves with any particular literary ideology in poetry writing, they were influenced by Japanese poetry. A portion of their work has the objectivist tendency with nativist touches and strong critical attitude.”28 Regarding the notion of “new objectivism,” Luo observes: The term was used initially in the realm of aesthetics to describe architectural structures that focused on the beauty of functionality and usefulness. In literature, the idea excludes human historicism and the social, representational, or subjective dimensions of perception. New objectivism aims to depict an object as it is, in the manner of reportage…. Poets who believe this ideology usually are highly sceptical and ironic. They try to eliminate illusions and write practical poems. luo fu, Preface to Grand anthology of Chinese modern literature, 20


Luo Fu, Preface to Zhongguo xiandai wenxue daxi, 7.



In early issues, Li published many innovative and avant-garde works. For example, in the fijirst issue is Zhan Bing’s “May”: May In the transparent veins Green blood cells swim— Such living creature is May. May walks by naked. On the hills, breathes with golden hairs. In the wilderness, sings with silver light. But May walks sleeplessly.29 … 䘿᰾Ⲵ㹰㇑ѝˈ ㏐㹰⨳൘⑨⌣㪇— ӄᴸቡᱟ䙉⁓Ⲵ⭏⢙DŽ ӄᴸᱟԕ㼨億䎠䐟DŽ൘ш䲥ˈԕ䠁∋બ੨DŽ ൘ᴐ䟾ˈԕ䢰‫ݹ‬ⅼୡDŽ ❦㘼ˈӄᴸнⵐൠ䎠䐟DŽ DŽDŽDŽ

Early poems by Zhan were witty, intelligent, and full of beautiful images. In his postscript for Lü xueqiu ㏐㹰⨳ (Green blood cells), he wrote: “When in search of beauty, my veins are full of green blood cells. When fulfijilled by love, my veins are full of red blood cells…. On writing poetry, I prefer the performance of green blood cells” (Zhan Bing, Green Blood Cells). Chen Qianwu commented: “Zhan Bing is the fijirst poet to bring the avant-garde spirit from before the retrocession of Taiwan to the post-retrocession period” (The Rise of Taiwan Spirit, 124). During this early stage of Li, the journal ventured out into polyvalent writings in themes and techniques that showed more care for what was written than how it was written. These works included: Du Guoqing’s “Focus of Lines” (February 1964), Gu Bei’s “Toy Shop” (December 1964), Zhan Bing’s “Perspectives” (December 1964), Rui Tui’s “Landscape” (February 1965), Bi Jia’s ⮒࣐ “Black Street” (June 1965), and Qiao Lin’s ௜᷇ (b. 1943) “Write a Music Note” (June 1965). Alongside poetry creations, Li started rebuilding and redefijining modernist theory by translating theoretical and poetic works from the West and Japan. These works included, among others: Huan Fu’s translations of Tatsuji Miyoshi’s “On the Camel’s Hump” (June 1964), Katsue 29 

Zhan Bing, Lü xueqiu, 6.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


Kitasona’s “Key Elements of Night” (August 1964), Junzaburo Nishiwaki’s “No Return of the Traveler” (October 1964), Toshio Ueta and Chiruu Yamanaka’s “The Dusk Man” (February 1965), Ukio Haruyama’s “ALBUM” (April 1966), Bai Di’s translations of modern American poetry, Hyam Plutzik’s work (June 1966), Zhao Tianyi’s translation of Edith Sitwell (August 1966), Hu Pinqing’s 㜑૱␵ (1921–2006) translations of Paul Éluard (October 1966), and Li Kuixian’s translation of Gottfried Benn (December 1966). These translations extended the poetic horizon of poets, established a solid ground of modernism, and helped in the construction of a modernist theory thoroughly infused with influential knowledge from world literature. Li also started a new column on “Historical Documents” in its seventh issue, attempting to restore the foundational texts of modernism. These historical documents included Ye Di’s 㩹ㅋ (1931–2006) translations of Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto” (June 1965) and F. T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” (August 1965), as well as Zhang Tianyi’s translation of Richard Aldington’s [sic] “Imagist Manifesto” (October 1965). Li also published historical reviews such as Wu Yingtao’s “History of Modern Japanese Poetry” (December 1964) and Ye Di’s “History of French Poetry” (April and June 1967). On this account, Zhang Mo remarked in the fijifth-anniversary essay: “Li plays a signifijicant role in poetry translations. Li was the fijirst journal that systematically translated Japanese modern poetry. Translations from German poetry have also exerted great influence on Taiwan poets.”30 In the development of Taiwanese modernism, the revisiting of historical documents provided literary circles with multifaceted textual basis for constructing an objective appropriation of modernism and surrealism. Endeavoring to establish a rational theory for modern literature, Li reoriented literary discourse of the 1960s back toward a more essential form of literary theory. Questions of reader reception and the role of the poem were addressed, for instance, by Shi Qiu ⸣⒛ (pen name of Du Guoqing), who published “Poetry and the Creative Stance of Modern Poets”: It is without doubt that moving from the state of an objective poet to a subjective one, a poet must fijirst become fully enlightened. This means walking out from the romantic era and from the ivory tower of fantasy and facing the world as it exists. Such poets are no longer mere praise singers, but actual critics, no longer observers, but visionary.31

30  31 

Zhang Mo, “Wo suo qiwang de Li,” 17. Shi Qiu, “Shi yu xiandai shiren chuangzuo de lichang,” 46–47; emphasis in the original.



It is clear from the previous statement that the poetics of Li intended not to have poets situated outside of their social context, but instead to have them fully immersed in the world around them, fathoming the depths of an absolute spirit. In this way, Li’s poetics were akin to those of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, in which he advocates “the sane and sober evil consciousness, the courage to face, to know and to delineate evilness, the will to excavate for beauty, to search for good through evil.”32 A poet should be a social analyst instead of a praise singer, one who focuses not on inner feelings but instead sets his or her gaze on the “evil” of reality and its contenders. 4.3 “Sincerity” and “Modernity” in Poetry In sum, it is clear that, from both the points of view of modernist theory and practice, Li did not object to the attention to the technical craft of poetry. Li poets objected to a kind of perversion of language, an overconstructed quality that risked abandoning the poetic content resident in genuine poetic experience. These fake poems or “un-poems” obscured what was actual poetic quality, particularly in their disregard for a genuine social context. Their poems, even if they did not pursue rarefijied techniques, were striving for new linguistic forms to achieve a better approach, sincere and in the spirit of their age. In the ninth issue, Zhao Qihong 䏉ஏᆿ explained his views in “On Sincerity in Poetry”: Sincerity in poetry arises from the sincerity of the poet’s life experience combined with a genuine attitude toward the craft of writing. If there is a so-called poor-quality poet, then that poet must take responsibility both on the level of expression, and also on the level of life experience—a one-to-one ratio of experience to expression. Poets must not lazily take other people’s experience as a substitute for their own; must not take another writer’s imagery to fijill in for their own lack of imagination. If we proceed with a sincere poetry, all manner of imitation and conventionality will be swept away at once.33 In other words, poetry is something that arises from the poet’s actual circumstances and daily life experience. Poetry is not remote ideas and private murmuring, or an imitation of the writings of others. Writing with those qualities was diagnosed by Li poets as “paralyzed poetry.”34 Poetry should display the “vivid daily life where creativity surges” (Zhao Qihong, “Sincerity,” 11). Li’s 32  33  34 

Ye Tingfang and Huang Zhuoyue, Cong dianfu dao jingdian, 290. Zhao Qihong, “Lun shi de zhenjixing,” 11. Huan Fu (Chen Qianwu), “Shi, shiren, yu lishi,” 11.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


aesthetic program, therefore, was based on acute consciousness of their reality, an awareness they had inherited on the one hand from Japanese colonial literary tradition, and, on the other hand, had grown out of their native land. The “sense of reality,” however, was not limited to meaning simply native or local. It refers to a creative process that transforms personal experience and feeling into a poetic representation of sincere and fundamental emotions that can resonate with readers. The prevailing theme of the Li group can be epitomized as “sincerity,” “writing a poetry of our time that disdains hypocrisy.”35 The poems of Li were genuinely the praxis of their theory, a practice that redirected the discourse of modernity toward a poetry of its time and place. One passage in issue 37 (June 1970) best exemplifijies this motif: “Diffferent generations perceive diffferent feelings. Diffferent poetic worlds manifest diffferent characteristics. We of our time have our particular experience, and we of our poetic world have our flourishing performances. The rise of young poets indicates the vitality of a changing age” (Lin Hengtai, “Essence,” 1). Change in literature can be based upon the emergence of new aesthetics and poetics as well as in the revision of the preexisting literary value or paradigm. In this case, Li demonstrated its power to bring about change through unceasing collective attention to Taiwanese reality, a change that led to reinvigoration of the tradition as well as the modernity of literature. In pursuing modernity, therefore, poets of Li also shed light on sincerity, aiming at a revolution and innovation from within Taiwanese modern poetry and offfering new possibilities in terms of how one thinks about poetry. Huan Fu ẃཛ and Bai Qiu ⲭ㩙 had a conversation published in issue 6 (December 1966): Huan Fu: Recently our poetry circles demonstrated a tendency toward imagism and surrealism, a kind of style that has become like a superstition, with the belief that the ultimate goal for poetry is its pictorial aspect. This is a very wrong idea. The ultimate goal of poetry is not the pictorial, just as the musical aspect is not its ultimate goal. These are merely among the many expressive methods available to a writer. Bai Qiu: We can say, then, that the idea of believing only in a pictorial aspect as the ultimate goal of poetry is not unlike believing in music as the ultimate goal—both are wrong ideas. An expressive method of poetry is not the same as an ultimate goal of poetry. Where, then, exists the


Lin Hengtai, “Shi de benzhi,” 2.



poetry? This seems to depend on the location of the spiritual activity of the poet; spiritual activity will be our goal of poetry.36 This conversation demonstrates that beyond the painterly and musical properties of a poem, Li poets were keenly investigating the inner spirit of the poet. Without rich inner spirit, poetry would be reduced to its mere formal features. In the works of Li poets, we can fijind experimental images that are nonetheless rooted deeply in daily life, a reconnection of images through the use of language that allows them to manifest a common or shared experience and feelings that are tangible in reality. Zhan Bing’s “Picture of a Water Bufffalo” (October 1966) is a good example: Horn Black Horn swinging black-character-shaped face ripples of concentric circle spreading outward in waves onto the horizon Leaves of the summer sun are dancing the Twist the water bufffalo soaks in the water but does not understand the principle of Archimedes horns bracketed in parenthesis bufffeted by a constant wind of thought the water bufffalo uses its eyeballs submerged in tears to look skyward at passing clouds uses compound stomachs to ruminate solitude listening to songs, cicada chirps, and silent dance, the water bufffalo forgets about the scorching and time itself and waiting in silence for things that would never come but only waiting waiting and waiting!! Typographically arrayed as a concrete image, the poem delineates a twohorned, dark-faced, and tail-down water bufffalo. Within such visual form, however, the poet did not abandon the poetic content of his lines; from “Horn” to “waiting, waiting, and waiting!,” the image of a water bufffalo is vivid and full while at the same time the poem retains a strong sense of humor but also is refijined in its language. The water bufffalo is a metaphor for the meaning of life. 36 

Bai Qiu and Huan Fu, “Shi de jiben zhisu (yi),” 11.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


figure 7.1 Picture of Water Bufffalo ≤⢋െ

Through the metaphor, our poet, who “does not understand the principle of Archimedes,” is pondering the question of existence in the hot season when “leaves of the summer are dancing the Twist.” But life is never something to be expected. Life is woven by contingencies and inevitabilities, and, here, the only thing one can do is to wait. By the last line of the poem, “waiting, waiting, and waiting,” the poem evinces a complacent view of life when one decides to accept his or her destiny. Written in 1966, Zhan’s “Water Bufffalo” displayed a common scene in the countryside of Taiwan at the time. The poem references the material conditions of farm life, embodied in the image of the bufffalo, thus causing content and form to dissolve into one another, attaining a rarely achieved poetic fullness. Bai Qiu is one of the few signifijicant poets who joined many journals led by mainland poets, such as Xiandai shi, Lan xing, and Chuang shiji, before fijinally joining Li. After his arrival at Li, his writing demonstrated an increased consciousness of reality even as he kept his precise terms and brilliant use of form. The images of trees in his poetic series “Root Consciousness” are an excellent example.37 For example, in “The Viscera-Bursting Tree,” Bai lays out an eyecatching arrangement in form to present the sorrow of life: 3 saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw we stand before him as silent and indiffferent as a mountain without begging without retreat walking into this fijinal battle for unshakable reasons, at last in peals of throat-rending thunder becoming these resentful torn-apart scraps


Wu Qiancheng once observed: “The local identity of native poets is best manifest in the image of trees rooted in the earth. ‘Mixed Sound Choirs,’ for instance, is a poem entirely devoted to depicting the image of trees’ (and other plants’) rooting. Following, it became one of the major themes in Taiwan literature. Bai Di’s ‘Trees’ is also a good representation of this category” (quoted in Zheng Mingli, Dangdai Taiwan zhengzhe wenxue lun, 408).



4 and the sky opens its blind eyes no cloud cover, no moving image, no event 3 䤨喂䤨喂䤨喂䤨喂䤨喂䤨喂䤨喂䤨喂䤨喂 ᡁ‫ف‬ԕаᓗኡⲴ䶌═‫・ڌ‬൘ԆⲴ䶒ࡽ ⋂ᴹ૰≲⋂ᴹ䘰㑞 ԕнᤄⲴ⨶⭡䎠ੁ䙉ᴰᖼⲴᡠ⡝ˈ൘ᴰᖼ ԕаѢ᳤䴧Ⲵ⣲੬ᙘᚘ䙉㻛᫅㻲Ⲵ㊹ኁ

4 㘼ཙオⶌ㪇ⴢⴞ ❑䴢㘣ˈ❑ᖡ‫❑ˈۿ‬һԦ38

The repetition of “saw,” one by one, exhibits a stage for the movement of sawing trees and the sound of sawing a tree. The trees, however, present themselves “as a silent and indiffferent mountain,” “without begging without retreat.” The contrast between the violent, dominating saw and silent trees brings out the metaphor of “the oppressor” and “the oppressed,” in which the rooted trees are standing in elegant refusal to yield. In section 4, the poet elevates the image of land to a universal sorrow of humanity about which heaven remains quiet and indiffferent. The precise parallel in the last line, “no cloud, no image, no event,” echoes the poet’s eternal loneliness. A broad horizon of modern poetry is therefore demonstrated in Bai’s poem with a fusion of creative form and historical Taiwanese consciousness.



Taiwan modernism’s developmental backdrop was none other than “horizontal transplantation,” which is to say wholesale borrowing from Western modernist theories. Such borrowing, though, was based for the most part on at best partial knowledge, thus resulting in widespread misuse and wrong application. At the time, most of the poets relied on their own imaginations to “construct” a “modernist” poetics, and their results often completely overlooked the actual spirit and content of Western modernism. As Suzi Gablik 38 

Bai Qiu, “Baolie ducang de shu,” 328–329.

Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal


observes: “The intention of such works has been to remain relatively free from the realm of consumerism, the exigencies of the market, and fluctuations of supply and demand. In changing the very nature of art, however, [modernists] have exacted a fundamental adjustment in our ideas about structure, permanence, durability and boundaries.”39 In other words, modern alienation from the traditional form only happens when artists realize the limitations in real life, practicing these limitations as a force to challenge and break through the pre-existing, constructed concepts toward a future of polyvalent developments. Modern Taiwan poetry, however, from Xiandai shi in 1956 to Chuang shiji in 1959, was a mere exposé of poets’ inner worlds. In their writing, they eschewed all social reality, indulged in sentimental expressions that demonstrated no sense of social responsibility. The establishment of Li in such a historical context in the mid-1960s was carried out in order to transform and rectify the misguided styles in poetry, proposing a new poetics that would be of the time, reconnecting poetry with the framework of reality. In terms of poetic expression, Li maintained that language must convey real feelings as well as attain artistry and innovation in terms of style or technique. At the same time, translations of theories and works from the West and Japan greatly strengthened the texture of Taiwan poetry and established a more solid poetics of Taiwan modernism. Moreover, Li re-established the continuity of the poetry tradition extending from the colonial period to postwar literature, extricating poetry from a decadent, arcane style and bringing about a poetic practice and theory that was completely of its time. In broad view of the relationship between Li and Taiwan modernism, Li was responsible for liberating poetry from the meaningless obsession with the inner emotional experience of the poet that had typifijied Taiwan’s poetic modernism up to that time. Li resolutely and constructively developed a poetry that was more sincere and connected to an experientially based world, setting Taiwan poetry on a path of thoughtful and yet defijiantly self-aware development. For this reason, Li deserves scholarly attention and focus.


Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, 36.

part 3 Bridging Borders in Contemporary Poetry

chapter 8

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao Nikky Lin

“Exile” is a recurring theme in modernist poetry in both Taiwan and mainland China. For writers in these geographical locations, exile has come to mean leaving one’s homeland under duress, either by literal force or as one bad option among many. Though nostalgia, alienation, and marginalization are feelings evoked by exile, for many writers the relationship between exile and writing is far more complex and dialectical than mere struggle between anguish and transcendence, confijinement and creativity. Wai-lim Yip 㩹㏝ᓹ (b. 1937), who himself played an important role in Taiwan’s Modernist Movement, compared the modernist poetry of postwar Taiwan and China, suggesting that it was the shared sense of exile that had driven the poets to question and probe their own existence. This is because exile is not only a recurring motif in modernist literary works, but also the actual life experience of the genre’s writers. Major modernist poets such as Ji Xian ㌰ᕖ (1913–2013), Luo Fu ⍋ཛ (1928–2018), Ya Xian ⰲᕖ (b. 1932), Zhang Mo ᕥ唈 (b. 1931), Yu Guangzhong ։‫ݹ‬ѝ (1928– 2017), and Shang Qin ୶⿭ (b. 1930) shared similar life stories of being forced to leave their mainland hometowns during the Chinese Civil War. In China, most of the Obscure poets spent their youth during the Cultural Revolution, and they were forced out of their homes and sent to remote areas. In the 1980s, after winning recognition from the public, many of the Obscure poets, including Bei Dao ेጦ (b. 1949), Duo Duo ཊཊ (b. 1951), Gu Cheng 亗෾ (b. 1956), and Yang Lian ὺ❹ (b. 1955) found themselves in self-imposed exile abroad for different reasons. Wai-lim Yip’s observation on the connection between exile and the creativity of modernist poets echoes Edward Said’s point of view. Said, in his essay “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals,” makes the point that exile is not only an actual condition derived from the social and political history of dislocation, but also a metaphorical condition in which the intellectuals never feel at home, are always restless, and may even unsettle others. To Said, such uneasiness is essential for intellectuals’ creativity. He gives exile positive meaning and asserts that exile is to “move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins,” where one can be liberated from the conventional

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 010



and see things that are usually lost on others’ minds.1 In this sense, Said suggests that even if one is not in physical exile, it is still possible to think as a person in exile. In this chapter, I investigate how the signifijicant concept of exile is expressed in modernist poetry. By applying Edward Said’s perspectives on exile as both an actual and metaphorical condition, I will focus on two modernist poets who both experienced physical exile—Shang Qin and Bei Dao, Taiwanese and Chinese respectively.2 I will examine how the poets’ descriptions of “exile” are not only the reflections of their own personal experiences caused by particular historical circumstances, but also serve as models to explore the universality of the human condition. Herein lies the poets’ challenge to what poetry ought to be.


The Experiences of Exile: Shang Qin and the Dialectics of Existence

Born in 1930, in Sichuan Province of southwestern China, Shang Qin grew up in a tumultuous time of modern Chinese history. He joined the Guomindang (GMD) army at the age of fijifteen, but deserted several times. While on the run, he roamed about in the southwest provinces of China and started collecting folk songs. Although he escaped from the army many times, he was always caught in the end and placed in captivity as punishment. Shang Qin’s experience of repeated desertion and imprisonment in his early life is one he shared with many people who were forced to leave their homes during the Chinese Civil War. Shang Qin once said that, ironically, those who caught and imprisoned him ended up in exile as well.3 After losing control of the mainland to the Chinese Communists, the GMD fled to Taiwan with thousands of soldiers, among whom were Shang Qin and others who later became influential modernist poets. For those young servicemen, Taiwan, a tropical island, was no diffferent from a foreign land. Not long after landing in Taiwan, Shang Qin started writing poems for Xiandai shi ⨮ԓ䂙 (Modern poetry) founded and edited by Ji Xian. Unlike other modernist poets who began by writing patriotic poetry or received public recognition by winning poetry contests sponsored by government authorities, Shang Qin wrote poems that were nonconformist from the very beginning. 1  Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual, 63. 2  Shang Qin arrived in Taiwan at the age of twenty and resided there until his death. His poetic activities were mainly in Taiwan; therefore, this chapter treats him as a Taiwanese poet. 3  Shang Qin, Meng huozhe liming ji qita, 2.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


“Jiguan” ㉽䋛 (Family registry) is one of his earliest works, and in it Shang Qin expressed his inclination toward dispensing with national boundaries.4 The blood-red sun has set, but the silvery white moon has yet to rise. The clouds are drifting, and the fog is thick. In this foreign sunset, I heard a voice amidst the rustling leaves of the Persian silk tree. The voice was light, asking: “Where are you from?” I have always been afraid to tell others of the obscure rustic village where I was born, so I answered, “Sichuan.” It turned out that my carefully chosen answer had become a burden to my acquaintance. So, I added another well-known accolade: “It is a place known as the Country of Heaven.” “Country of Heaven? Hah! Does that mean you believe in Heaven as well?” Now this reply was confusing. How can a person not know where Sichuan is? I gave him another answer: “I’m from China!” This answer should have been clear enough. “China?” As it turned out, even this answer sounded surprising to him. I was growing impatient. I said: “Foreigners called my country China. It covers an area of over eleven million square kilometers and has a population of four hundred and fijifty million souls. We boast of a history of over fijive thousand years and one of the fijive greatest civilizations in the world …” “World? Please don’t use such a restrictive term.” So, I replied, “Earth. That’s where I am from.” “Earth. That sounds like a place. Can you be more specifijic?” “The Solar System!” I was furious, so I asked him a question as well, “So, where are you from?” Lightly, like a rainbow playing the cello’s E-string of sunlight, he replied: “The Universe.”5 ⚛㌵Ⲵཚ䲭⊹⋂Ҷˈ䧣ⲭⲴᴸӞ䚴⋂ᴹк᰷ˈ䴢൘䙺䴒ˈ䵗൘⌋ ☛DŽ ᯬ⮠ൠⲴ哳᰿ˈᯬཌਸ↑Ⲵ㩹䳉ᬐ㩭Ⲵ付㚢㼑ˈᡁ㚭㾻а‫ػ‬㚢 丣ˈ䳡㌴ൠˈ൘ੁᡁ䂒୿˖ˬ֐ᱟଚ㻿Ӫ˛˭ᡁᑨᙅ䃚ࠪ㠚ᐡ⭏䮧Ⲵሿ ൠ਽ԔӪഠᜁˈᡰԕᡁㆄ䃚˖ˬഋᐍDŽ ˭䛓᳹ᗇᡁྲ↔㋮ᗳⲴㆄṸሽԆ լѾᡀ⛪аぞ䋐ᬄDŽᡁ䳘ণ䱴࣐Ҷа‫ػ‬丯ӞⲴ䃚᰾˖ˬቡ ᱟ䛓ਛ‫ڊ‬ཙ ᓌѻ഻ⲴൠᯩDŽ˭ˬཙᓌѻ഻˛૸૸ˈ䴓䚃֐ҏ⴨ؑཙ഻哬˛˭䙉ቡཚ ԔӪഠᜡҶˈ䙓ഋᐍ䜭н⸕䚃ʽ䛓哬ˈᡁ䃚˖ˬѝ഻DŽ˭䙉㑭н㠣ᯬ н⸕䚃Ҷ੗˛ˬѝ഻˛˭լѾ䙓䙉䜭䏣ᕅ䎧ԆⲴ傊ᝅDŽᡁᐢ㏃ᴹӋн 4  Liu Zhengzhong, “Junlü shiren de yiduan xingge,” 105–106. 5  My translation. All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.


Lin 㙀➙ҶDŽᡁ䃚˖ˬཆ഻Ӫਛྩ‫ ڊ‬CHINA ˈ䶒ぽаॳаⲮ佈㩜ᒣᯩ‫ޜ‬ 䟼ˈӪਓഋ㩜㩜ӄॳ㩜ˈᴹӄॳᒤ↧ਢ᮷ॆˈᱟц⭼ӄབྷ᮷᰾ਔ഻ѻ аDŽDŽDŽ ˭ˬц⭼˛䃻֐н㾱⭘䛓⁓⤩㗙Ⲵᆇ⵬ྭ௾˛˭ˈˬൠ⨳ˈ ˭ġ ᡁ 䃚DŽˬൠ⨳ˈ䙉‫ࣹق‬ᕧ‫ۿ‬а‫ػ‬ൠᯩ˗֐㜭޽ާ億唎௾˛ ˭ˬཚ䲭㌫ʽ ˭ġ ᡁ㉑ⴤ⭏≓ҶDŽᡁབྷ㚢ൠ৽୿䚃˖ˬ䛓哬ˈ֐Ⲵ㉽䋛઒˛˭ 䕅䕅ൠˈ‫ۿ‬㲩Ⲵᕃᬖ䙾䲭‫Ⲵݹ‬བྷᨀ⩤Ⲵˡᕖа⁓Ⲵ䕅䕅ൠˈԆ䃚˖ ˬᆷũᇉDŽ  ˭ġ6

The word jiguan generally has two meanings. One is “ancestral home,” which does not necessarily mean someone’s birthplace, but refers more to the original place of his/her paternal ancestors; the other is “hometown registration,” for people who went to Taiwan after the Civil War and their descendants. This system was adopted by the GMD as an important means of state governance over individuals and to categorize certain Taiwan residents as mainland Chinese. Regardless of the term’s cultural and political connotations, jiguan strongly connotes someone’s state-imposed identifijication. However, in this prose poem, the poet employs the dialogic form to lay out two sets of vocabularies with diffferent attributes: those related to nature, such as the sun, moon, clouds, fog, rainbows, Earth, solar system, and universe; the other was associated with “the nation-state,” such as jiguan, Sichuan, the Heavenly Country, China, ancient civilization, and others. Through the interlocutor’s indiffferent attitude toward the narrator’s description of his identity defijined by the nation/state, the poet reveals his doubt and disdain for the invented identity, and further tries to break down the artifijicial boundaries to restore the relationship between humans and nature. Considering the political climate of Taiwan in the 1950s, when the GMD government was devoting itself to establishing the legitimate status of China and the myth of nation-building, Shang Qin’s dispelling of the cultural and national boundaries was a reflection of his own personal state of exile. But alternatively, this could be just a whimsical fantasy as beautiful as when the poet says, “a rainbow playing the cello of sunlight.” As a low-ranking military serviceman, Shang Qin was subjected daily to scenes of violence. His poetry intimates an inner conflict between state violence and human sensitivity. “Gezi” 卯ᆀ (The pigeons) expresses the poet’s conflicted position:

6  Shang Qin, Shang Qin shi quanji, 49–50.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


I held my loosening right fijist tightly in my left hand. The fijingers slowly relaxed in my palm, but could not be straightened completely, managing only slight twists. Sigh! The innocent hands forced to work after having worked, to kill after having killed. What a poor state you’ve ended up in, like a wounded sparrow. In the hazy skies, a group of pigeons flew past. Do they fly alone or in pairs? No sparrows were left in the bleeding skies. They lie against each other, trembling; yet workers must keep working, killers could end up killed. My innocent hands, now I shall hold you high. How I wish to let you both loose from the shackles of my arms like a pair of birds nursing injury! ᡁ⭘ᐖ᡻䟽䟽Ⲵᨑ㪇䙀╨儞ᮓ䮻ֶⲴਣᤣˈ᡻ᤷ㐙㐙൘ᦼѝ㡂ኅ㘼৸ н㜭ॱ࠶Ⲵըⴤˈਚ乫乫Ⲵ䕹‫֐ˈ୺˗ڤ‬䙉ᐕ֌䙾㘼ӽ㾱ᐕ֌Ⲵˈ⇪ ᡞ䙾㍲ҏ㾱㻛⇪ᡞⲴˈ❑䗌Ⲵ᡻ˈ⨮൘ˈ֐ᱟཊ哬‫ۿ‬а䳫ਇۧҶⲴ䳰 匕DŽ㘼൘ᲸⵙⲴཙオѝˈᴹа㗔卯ᆀ伋䙾˖ᱟᡀ௞Ⲵᡆᱟᡀ䴉Ⲵ઒˛ ൘ཡ㹰Ⲵཙオѝˈа䳫䳰匕ҏ⋂ᴹDŽ⴨ӂ‫ي‬䶐㘼ᣆ些㪇Ⲵˈᐕ֌䙾 ӽ㾱ᐕ֌ˈ⇪ᡞ䙾㍲ҏ㾱㻛⇪ᡞⲴˈ❑䗌Ⲵ᡻୺ˈ⨮൘ˈᡁሷ֐‫ف‬儈 㠹ˈᡁᱟཊ哬ᜣ—ྲ਼᭮ᦹаሽۧⲂⲴ䳰匕а⁓—ሷ֐‫ف‬ᗎᡁ䴉㟲䟻 ᭮୺ʽ shang qin, Complete Poems, 78–79

With a technique similar to the one shown in “Jiguan,” Shang Qin uses two sets of images, which keep reappearing in the poem: the “hand” and the “bird.” The fijirst stanza shows a tension between two hands that are aggressive and violent toward each other. But in the second and the third stanza, they gradually release the tension and the hands start caressing each other after realizing that they are in fact both “the innocent hands forced to work after having worked, to kill after having killed.” As for the images of the “birds,” they transform from an eagle, to a sparrow, to a pigeon, which symbolize aggressiveness, fragility, and peace, respectively. The “hand” and “bird” are on parallel narrative lines in the fijirst three stanzas, and are fijinally combined in the last part of the poem in which the upraised hands and flying birds indicate the poet’s desire to free himself from the imprisonment of violence created by the state. The question is how can the hands be released from the arms to fly freely like birds? Here the poet has no intention of offfering any resolution to this question. However, through the images of the “hands” and the “birds,” the poet shows a dialectical process regarding violence, fragility, and peace, shifting from constraint, imprisonment, and exile to liberty, which exists not only in the relationship between the individual and the nation, but also between the



individual and the natural world. As Li Guiyun (Kuei-yun Lee) ᵾⲨ䴢 suggests, Shang Qin’s frequent writing on the subject of escape and imprisonment was for the purpose of exploring spiritual freedom.7 Shang Qin often uses everyday imagery to bring to light the reality of the human condition, and weaves daily details into his narrations to expose the existential absurdity of life, for instance in the poem “Jie” ⭼ (Boundary): There is a rumor of war in a distant region. And then, in the late hours of the night, a night watchman is obstructed at a certain spot in the street where there is not a single obstacle. After a little while he walks on, with great strides, hands on his back and with lowered head, he seeks to understand, seeks to fijind out where the “boundary” is and this one wish sculptures his frame. But it was a stray dog that caught sight of it, a boundary woven together by the staring looks of those who get up and rinse out their mouths and wash their faces in the morning, by the consciousness of the tendencies emanating from the dreams of yesterday, and by the echoes of the glass splinter hairstyles of walls made of bricks and cement.8 ᬊ䃚ᴹᡠ⡝൘䚐ᯩDŽ ᯬ↔ˈᗞ᰾ᱲⲴབྷ㺇DŽᴹᐑ䆖㻛䱫ᯬа∛❑䳌⽉ѻḀ㲅DŽ❑օˈѳ 䋐᡻ˈ඲九ˈ䑡㪇ᯩ↕˗ᜣ䀓䟻ˈᜣሻࠪ˖ˬ⭼˭൘ଚ㼑˗ഐ㘼⛪↔ а ᜿െᡰ䴅ກDŽ 㘼⛪а䳫䟾⤇ᡰⴞⶩⲴˈаọ⭼ˈѳ⭡Ი䎧Ⲵ╡⍇㘵ࠍ㿆Ⲵⴞ‫ˈݹ‬ ᡰሴࠪ᱘ཌདྷຳ䏘ऒѻ㿪㠷ᣈ㠚аᑦ≤⌕⼊⡶串Ⲵ⧫⪳九儞Ⲵഎ㚢 ᡰ㒄 ᡀDŽ shang qin, Complete Poems, 74

The poem begins with a rumor of “war” but as the narration goes on, the “war” is not mentioned a second time. Instead, what follows are a confused police patrolman, a dog, an invisible boundary, and an early riser. The “war” can be seen as the conflict caused by the maintenance or invasion of the established boundaries. However, where the narrator talks of “here,” it is described as a peaceful land far away from the war, at least on the surface, where the boundary is invisible. While the duty of a police patrolman is to keep society in order, the early riser may just be an ordinary person who is following his 7  Li Guiyun, “Zhanzheng. qiujin. taowang,” 265. 8  Shang Qin, The Frozen Torch, 32.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


or her daily routine. According to the narration, the invisible boundary that annoys the police patrolman is in fact woven by the “gaze” of the early riser’s previous night’s dream with the “echoes” bouncing offf fragmented mirrors. In other words, the police patrolman appears to be trapped in someone else’s dream and the reflections do not refer to daily life itself but to a re-creation of that reality. The boundary cannot be seen by the human who created it. Only the stray dog can see through the secret. What is ironic here is that the duty of the police patrolman is to keep society under surveillance, but he is not able to penetrate the individual’s dream, imagination, and reflection. If we take the monitored society of 1950s Taiwan into account, the boundary can be construed not only as a barrier of self-confijinement, but also a protection to keep the internal world intact. For the exile who has no way of returning home, nostalgia has no escape. Shang Qin’s early poems did not often directly discuss the topic of nostalgia, and it was not until his later works that he gradually began to bring out this theme in symbolic way; for example, “Touqi” 九г (The fijirst week of mourning): She was almost home It had been her habit of half a century, since she was a girl, to lean over that creek and wash her clothes. She discovered she could not lift up even a bit of the coolness with her two hands. And the water that was as flat as a mirror could not reflect even the slightest trace of her form. Then she thought that her son and daughter-in-law had started going to church and there was nobody to recite the sutras for her. She didn’t even have a spirit tablet. A peach blossom petal drifted over a crescent moon, and grandmother almost cried out. She had almost forgotten that she had returned by stepping on the waves of sogon grass, the waves of reed blossoms, the waves of the Taiwan Strait, stepping on the waves of Dongting Lake. ⍎ᓝ⒆DŽ 䜭ᘛࡠᇦҶDŽ ⮦ྩԕॺц㌰ࡽⲴ㘂នˈ‫؟‬䓛൘䙉ọቁྣᱲԓ⎓㺓Ⲵⓚ⮄ˈⲬ⨮䴉 ᡻ㄏ❦ᦗн䎧ॺ唎Ⲵ␵⏬ˈ㘼ᒣྲ᰾䨑Ⲵ≤䶒➗нࠪྩ㎢∛Ⲵᖒ ᖡ˗䙉᡽ᜣ䎧‫ނ‬უ‫ف‬䜭֌㠸кᮉาˈ⋂Ӫ⛪ྩ୨㏃ˈྩ䙓а๺䵸⡼䜭 ⋂ᴹDŽ а⬓ṳ㣡ᗎᴸ⢉к⍱䙾ˈཆၶᐞ唎ଝࠪ㚢ֶDŽྩᒮѾᘈҶ㠚ᐡᱟ䐿 㪇㤵㥹Ⲵ⌒⎚䐿㪇㰶㣡Ⲵ⌒⎚䐿㪇ਠ⚓⎧ጭⲴ⌒⎚䐿㪇⍎ᓝ⒆Ⲵ⌒⎚ എֶⲴDŽ shang qin, Complete Poems, 214–215



On the surface, it seems that the poem recounts the life story of a grandmother, but on another level of meaning, the poem tells of Shang Qin and his generation’s exile from mainland China to Taiwan. This poem was written in 1987, when communication between the straits had become more frequent. However, even though returning home became a possibility, time had already changed all. The poem expresses two concepts of time. The fijirst is a personal life history, that is, the story of the passing of time in the grandmother’s life from childhood until becoming a ghost after death. The second is cultural transformation, the cultural break that occurred from “reciting the sutras” to “going to church.” In this scene, the peach blossom symbolizes youth, while the crescent moon represents an endless succession of change and transformation. The flowing water is thus a time to which one can never return. Therefore, even if the grandmother were able to cross the Taiwan Strait to Dongting Lake of her hometown, times had changed and her life and body had already faded away. The pain of nostalgia can never be alleviated.


Bei Dao: between Freedom and Imprisonment

Bei Dao is, without any doubt, a leading fijigure of contemporary Chinese poetry. He was coeditor of Today (Jintian Ӻཙ), one of the fijirst unofffijicial literary journals in the history of the People’s Republic of China. His key role in the emergence of the avant-garde poetry scene, and the furious compelling voice with which he speaks in his early works, garnered him much attention in China. Additionally, his association with the violent suppression of the 1989 Protest Movement (known variously as the June Fourth Incident or the Tiananmen Square Massacre), and his reputation as an exiled poet, also marked him as a dissident and earned him great popularity abroad. The emergence of Today in 1978, shortly after the Cultural Revolution, triggered a prolonged debate.9 Whereas the poetry of Today was considered to be “a bad influence from the West,” and the authors were criticized for their “obscurity in expression” by detractors, some saw the work of these authors as “the rise of a new aesthetic principle” and clearly identifijied the new trend as “modernism.” Indeed, instead of following the offfijicial view that art and literature should serve the worker, peasant, and soldier, they turned to focus on introspective thoughts. As a new, trending movement, the poets from Today, or the Obscure poets as they were later called, in some cases intentionally 9  According to the articles included in Collected Articles on the Polemic over Obscure Poetry, the Today journal was published from 1979 to 1988.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


and others unconsciously, kept their distance from the mainstream socialist realism. The “obscurity” of Obscure poetry, in large part, derives from the frequent use of images and metaphors. Certainly, the use of this strategy of “obscurity” is to avoid the direct expression of emotions, using instead a subtle and indirect method to express the complexities of one’s inner world. This represents a signifijicant change and “inward turn” of poetry. However, “obscurity” is also a relative perception. Compared to the later works of most of the Obscure poets, the poems published in Today or written around that time are not considered by some critics to be obscure or difffijicult to understand from a contemporary perspective. The diffference between the early Obscure poets and their preceding literary movement was not a quantum leap. Early Obscure poetry, to a large degree, was a mix of straightforward romanticist and revolutionary tones. Bei Dao’s poetry is no exception. In his early poems, such as “Nihao, Baihuashan” ֐ྭˈⲮ㣡ኡ (Hello, Baihua mountain), “Zhende” ⵏⲴ (True), and “Weixiao, xuehua, xingxing” ᗞㅁǃ䴚 㣡ǃᱏᱏ (Smile, snowflakes, stars), he often relates images of nature to his state of mind. This “nature” occupies a central position in Bei Dao’s poetry, in which, as Bonnie McDougall notes, the poet fijinds shelter for the oppressed and the fatigued.10 True (1972) True, this is spring Pounding hearts disturb the clouds in water Spring has no nationality Clouds are citizens of the world Become friends again with mankind My song11 ⵏⲴˈ䘉ቡᱟ᱕ཙથˈ ⣲䐣Ⲵᗳᨵҡ≤ѝⲴ⎞ӁDŽ ᱕ཙᱟ⋑ᴹഭ㉽Ⲵˈ ⲭӁᱟц⭼Ⲵ‫≁ޜ‬DŽ ઼Ӫ㊫䀰ᖂҾྭ੗ˈ ᡁⲴⅼ༠DŽ 12

10  11  12 

Bonnie McDougall, “Bei Dao’s Poetry,” 225–252. Bei Dao, The August Sleepwalker, 22. Bei Dao, Bei Dao shi xuanji, 7–8.



This is one of Bei Dao’s earliest poems, written before Today. There is no ambiguous analogy or highly personal metaphor in this poem. It depicts the dawn after dark, the spring thawing of ice on the river, and the poet’s yearning for liberation. Like in his other early works, Bei Dao here expresses his inner world through the images of nature. That Bei Dao chooses to link the spring with “no nationality” (stateless-ness), and the floating clouds with “citizens of the world,” is not surprising. However, considering the social and political background in which literature was demanded as a means of serving the proletariat, Bei Dao’s longing for a boundary-free identity augurs a new direction for literary creation. The desire in this poem to transcend national boundary is in a sense similar to Shang Qin’s “Jiguan,” despite the fact that the latter deconstructs the national discourse in a more sensitive and conscious way. The last two lines, “Become friends again with mankind / My song,” imply an underlying harmony, or at least an aspiration for a world without confrontation. However, we see a rift appearing in this harmony in the last stanza of Bei Dao’s “Yishu” аᶏ (A bouquet): Between me and the world You are a chasm, a pool An abyss plunging down You are the balustrade, a wall A shield’s eternal pattern bei dao, The August Sleepwalker, 40

൘ᡁ઼ц⭼ѻ䰤 ֐ᱟ呯⋏ˈᱟ⊐⋬ ᱟ↓൘л䲧Ⲵ␡␺ ֐ᱟḵḿˈᱟ້ී ᱟ⴮⡼к≨ѵⲴമṸ13

The relationship between “me” and “the world” is described as a sinking abyss, and the boundary between “I” and “you” is as permanent (unchangeable) as the pattern engraved on the shield. The rupture between “I” and “the world” seems to have widened, and this is one of the major themes in Bei Dao’s works. This disruptive relationship can also be seen in his most well-known poetry, such as “Let me tell you, world, / I-do-not-believe!” ੺䇹֐੗ˈц⭼ˈ/ ᡁн ⴨ؑʽ (Bei Dao, The August Sleepwalker, 33), and “The still horizon / Divides the ranks of the living and the dead / I can only choose the sky / I will not kneel 13 

Hong Zicheng and Cheng Guangwei, Menglongshi xinbian, 6.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


on the ground / Allowing the executioners to look tall / The better to obstruct the wind of freedom” ᆹ䶉Ⲵൠᒣ㓯࠶ᔰҶ⭏㘵о↫㘵Ⲵ㹼ࡇᡁਚ㜭 䘹ᤙཙオ㔍н䐚൘ൠкԕᱮᗇ࡭ᆀ᡻ԜⲴ儈བྷྭ䱫ᥑ䛓㠚⭡Ⲵ仾

(Bei Dao, The August Sleepwalker, 62). The unbridgeable chasm separating “I” and the outside world creates a space of imprisonment that reflects the poet’s profound sense of disconnection and alienation. Even so, Bei Dao’s attempts to cross over barriers are occasionally expressed in his poems, for instance in “Jie xian” ⭼䲀 (The boundary): I want to go to the other bank The river water alters the sky’s color and alters me I am in the current my shadow stands by the river bank like a tree struck by lightning I want to go to the other bank In the trees on the other bank a solitary startled wood pigeon flies towards me bei dao, The August Sleepwalker, 69

ᡁ㾱ࡠሩየ৫ ⋣≤⎲᭩⵰ཙオⲴ仌㢢 ҏ⎲᭩⵰ᡁ ᡁ൘⍱ࣘ ᡁⲴᖡᆀㄉ൘የ䗩 䊑аἥ㻛䴧⭥✗❖Ⲵṁ ᡁ㾱ࡠሩየ৫ ሩየⲴṁыѝ ᧐䗷аਚᆔ⤜Ⲵ䟾呭 ੁᡁ伎ᶕ14


Bei Dao, Shouye: Shige zixuan ji, 1972–2008, 32.



This poem shares a title and motif with Shang Qin’s “Jie.” The diffference is that, unlike in the latter, the boundary in Bei Dao’s poem is visible. In this case, the boundary is clearly visible in the form of a river, which physically separates the protagonist “I,” standing on one side of the river, from the other side that appears to the poet to be more desirable. The river is formidable and even dangerous, for it has the force to change the color of the sky and to “alter me” (literally, “write over me”). The powerful images of the river contrast with “my shadow” that is portrayed as a tree hit and burnt by lightning. Images of trees often appear in Bei Dao’s poetry, and they usually stand for solitude and loneliness, and in this poem this is true to an even greater extent. The description of “hit and burnt” vividly conveys a sense of anxiety and helplessness. Thus far, the hostile river and the inability of the protagonist to cross the river indicate that he is confijined. However, with the image of the wild dove flying from the opposite side of the river to “me,” the last stanza suggests some hope and a desire for interaction. The outside world is often described as hostile and confrontational. Bei Dao consciously draws a boundary in order to build an internal world that, in his own words, is “a world of its own, a genuine and independent world, a world of justice and humanity.”15 This internal world can be viewed as Bei Dao’s ideal of literary autonomy. In this sense, it is no exaggeration to say that imprisonment is the chief motif of Bei Dao’s early poetry. In this imprisoned world, he is forced to confront his resentment, but that also offfers him a chance to look inward and attempt to fijind the self. However, as Chinese society gradually gained more relative freedom, the anger toward power and authority often expressed in his early works seems to have diminished. As Bei Dao developed more sophisticated techniques of writing, he made use of more bizarre and surreal imagery to express his themes of imprisonment and exile. Untitled Rancor turns a drop of water muddy I am worn out, the storm has run around upon the beach the sun pierced by the mast is my heart’s prisoner, but I am banished by the world it shines on nothing is left to sacrifijice 15 

Bei Dao, “Women meitian de taiyang,” 90.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


on the reef, this dark and pagan altar except myself, as I go to close or open the clamorous book 〟ᙘ֯а┤≤ਈᗇ␧⍺ ᡁ⯢ٖҶˈ仾᳤ ᨱ⍵൘⋉┙к 䛓ṵᵶሴѝⲴཚ䱣 ᱟᡁ޵ᗳⲴഊᗂˈ㘼ᡁ ত㻛ᆳ➗㘰Ⲵц⭼ᡰ᭮䙀 ⼱⸣ˈ䘉ᔲᮉᗂⲴ唁㢢⾝උ ޽ҏ⋑ᴹӰѸਟ‫ཹ׋‬ 䲔Ҷ㠚ᐡˈ৫ᢃᔰᡆਸк 䛓ᵜௗ೓ⲴҖ bei dao, “Our Everyday Sun,” 88

If the image of the “sun” symbolizes the mainstream, conventional world, then the “I” can be seen as a pagan, a stranger to normal society. Unlike the antagonistic position in which Bei Dao used to place himself in his early work, here we see the more complicated relationship between “I” and the world, imprisonment and exile. When he says, “the sun is my heart’s prisoner / but I am banished by the world it shines on,” he illustrates how the poet considers himself to be on the one hand part of this world but on the other hand separate. This may sound paradoxical; however, it involves the existential idea that human beings exist within the world from which they simultaneously keep their distance, and, by doing so, they are able to project meaning into their disinterested inner world. The relationship between Bei Dao and the nation takes a similar trajectory. Bei Dao did not write much about “my country” before his exile.16 There are sentences in Taiyang cheng zhaji ཚ䱣෾ᵝ䇠 (Notes from the City of the Sun) written before 1978 that read, “She is engraved on the bronze shield / leaning against the blackened wall.” Although with a slight tone of irony, “my country” appears to be fijixed and concrete, for “she” is inscribed on the metal like a totem. Interestingly, and perhaps sadly, Bei Dao’s images of “my country” seemed to change as he spent time drifting around foreign countries away from his roots.


Yiping, “Guli zhi jing,” 156.



My Country The young woman under the black umbrella Sways like a pendulum I slip quietly into the forest Hearing a noise I turn round The deer has already vanished Moonlight spreads a vanishing Over the rough winter Under the cracks in the floorboards Sea water surges restlessly and now I bid farewell To what I have restored Your dignity and honor17 唁ՎлⲴቁྣ 䫏㠼㡜᩶ࣘ ᡁᚴᚴൠ▌‫ޕ‬἞᷇ ੜ㿱༠૽ᰦഎཤ 䛓䳫咯ᐢ⎸ཡ ᴸ‫ݹ‬Ѫ㋇㌉Ⲵߜཙ ⎲⵰␵┶ ൘ൠᶯⲴ㕍䳉л ⎧≤◰ⴚнᆹ ᡁ↓൘઼ᡁ ‫؞‬ᗙҶⲴ֐Ⲵሺѕ ੺࡛

From the mid-1980s, Bei Dao was frequently invited for literary activities abroad. Before the June Fourth Incident, he could travel abroad relatively freely. But after the foment of 1989, he was blacklisted by Chinese authorities, partly because he wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping on behalf of thirtythree other writers and artists and also because during the Protest Movement students used his poems as a slogan.18 Although he was lucky enough to leave China before June Fourth, he soon found himself denied re-entry to China. Following that time, Bei Dao began his life of exile. During the fijirst

17  18 

Bei Dao, Old Snow, 73. Maghiel van Crevel, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem, and Money, 149–150.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


six years of the period, he moved at least fijifteen times and to seven diffferent countries.19 “My Country” was written while he was staying in Stockholm. In this poem, there are no explicit images in relation to “country,” notwithstanding that the title is “My Country.” In the fijirst stanza, there is a young woman with a blurred fijigure and a deer disappearing in the deep forest. In the second stanza, there is a description of moonlight on a cold winter night and waves on the ocean. Although the connection between the fijirst and the second stanza is unclear, the emotion of uncertainty is a palpable continuity. The verbs he uses, such as “sways,” “slip quietly into,” “vanished,” and “surges restlessly,” give rise to the feeling of vacillation, bewilderment, and disquiet. For Bei Dao, the idea of country is no longer as clear as the pattern inscribed in the bronze shield of his earlier work, but as elusive as the young lady under the black umbrella, as the deer vanishing into the forest, and as formless as the moonlight of a winter night. Here, for instance, in “Xiang yin” ґ丣 (Local accent): I speak Chinese to the mirror A park has its own winter I put on music Winter is free of flies I make cofffee unhurriedly Flies don’t understand what’s meant by a native land I add a little sugar A native land is a kind of local accent I hear my fright On the other end of a phone line bei dao, Old Snow, 50

ᡁሩ⵰䮌ᆀ䈤ѝ᮷ ањ‫ޜ‬ഝᴹ㠚ᐡⲴߜཙ ᡁ᭮к丣Ҁ ߜཙ⋑ᴹ㣽㵷 ᡁᛐ䰢ൠ➞⵰૆஑ 㣽㵷н៲ᗇӰѸᱟ⾆ഭ ᡁ࣐Ҷ⛩‫ݯ‬㌆ ⾆ഭᱟа⿽ґ丣 ᡁ൘⭥䈍㓯Ⲵਖаㄟ ੜ㿱ҶᡁⲴ ᜗ bei dao, Night Watchman, 82 19 

Bei Dao, Lan fangzi, 203.



As mentioned previously, Bei Dao borrows the exquisite images of spring and floating clouds to express his longing to be a “citizen of the world” who has “no nationality.” But here it reads, “Flies don’t understand what’s meant by a native land.” When the poem was written, Bei Dao was in exile and living in Oslo. As an exile, traveling between states and literally a “citizen of the world,” Bei Dao found that the reality did not match his expectations and was not as beautiful as he envisaged. As Van Crevel points out, this poem has a two-tier structure, one that is “carefree” and “cozy,” connected to parks, music, cofffee, and sugar; while the other is one of “fear” and the feeling of “rupture,” reflected in the images of the “mirror” and “the other end of a phone line” (Van Crevel, Chinese Poetry, 173–174). Although Bei Dao is living in a free country, he fijinds himself trapped in the fear of a “local accent,” which he carries with him all the time as a mark of cultural identity. The existence of “fear” and “coziness” together mirrors Bei Dao’s situation of dislocation, in which he is in a state of flux, neither fully integrated into the new setting, nor cut offf completely from the old. However, this is by no means to say that the feeling of dislocation and instability is insignifijicant. Rather, it creates what Said has described as a “double perspective.” As Said puts it, “the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actually here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation” (Representations of the Intellectual, 60). Said further afffijirmed that the double perspective allows the exile to see a diffferent approach, as a kind of vision, through which things sometimes appear in a new and unpredictable light. In this sense, the two-tier structure of this poem can be viewed as a reflection of Bei Dao’s double perspective of his experience of exile. This double perspective allowed Bei Dao to open what could be described as his “third eye,” also known as the inner eye, and the title of one of his most-quoted poems on exile, which I will discuss in the last section.


The Aesthetics of Dislocation

Both Shang Qin and Bei Dao are considered poets with surrealist leanings largely due to their particular ways of employing imagery. Although it is debatable whether the styles of the two poets can be precisely defijined as surrealism in the strict sense, there is no doubt that they were inspired by Western modernist literature. Not only did Shang Qin learn French without formal training, but from the late 1950s he also enthusiastically collected Chinese translations of French surrealists such as André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Henri Michaux,

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


when sources of foreign literature and language were still scarce in Taiwan.20 Bei Dao, while discussing his poetic techniques in the early 1980s, mentioned that he often used the method of montage that enabled ordinary images to stand out vividly by placing them in unusual combinations with each other (see “Our Everyday Sun,” 90–91). One distinguishing feature of modernism or surrealism in the West can be seen in the challenges to conventional language, which emerged from a crisis of language itself. A similar situation can be observed in both Taiwan and mainland China. While the Taiwanese GMD government mobilized its social and educational resources to enforce the “Guoyu yundong” ഻䃎䙻अ (National language movement) from 1950 onward, the communist government of the PRC started to impose a policy of “Tuiguang Putonghua” ᧘ᔓᲞ䙊䂡 (Promoting the common language) from 1956. Offfijicial language, whether it is called the national language or the common language, is often inextricably bound up with the state’s interests. However, promotion of the offfijicial language is not limited simply to linguistic or verbal aspects. As Pierre Bourdieu argues, while the offfijicial language is fijixed and codifijied by grammarians and teachers who are charged with the task of inculcating its mastery, the offfijicial language is also produced by (literary) authors who have the authority to write.21 Therefore, it is no surprise to see that the promotion of the offfijicial language goes hand-inhand with the promulgation of literary policy. The anti-communist literature sponsored by the GMD government in the 1950s, and the strengthened literary orientation pitched by Mao’s 1942 “Yan’an Talks” after 1949, can be viewed as parallel results of the necessity of nation-building and the Cold War threat faced mutually by the two camps. Under such circumstances, language, verbal and written, inevitably carries ideologies imposed by the state. This may have the efffect of dulling or obstructing the most profound expression of the individual. If a poet hopes to recapture energy from language overloaded with ideology, radical change is necessary. The only way to make this alteration is to commit linguistic heresy, that is, to estrange or to intentionally transform the established language and the conventional ways of narration. Modernism, with its emphasis on the renovation of language and form, provides poets with a creative perspective to explore new possibilities for literary creation. In what follows, I will discuss how Shang Qin and Bei Dao sought to radically change and enliven language, and how this aesthetic pursuit related to their positions of dislocation. I will further illustrate that metamorphosis (for 20  21 

Ya Xian, “Caichulai de shixiang,” 48–49. Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, 45.



Shang Qin) and interruption (for Bei Dao) were the primary impulses that inspired their literary creations.


Shang Qin’s Poetics of Metamorphosis

Although Shang Qin has been identifijied as the most important surrealist poet in Taiwan,22 his works seem to have no trace of writing that is carried out “in the absence of all control exercised by reason,” as French Surrealists claimed in their manifesto. Instead, Shang Qin tends to use deliberate and realistic language to create a poetic world that is just too bizarre to happen in reality. As Silvia Marijnissen observes, the sentences of Shang Qin’s work may sometimes appear to be long and winding but they normally have regular syntax, following the subject-verb-object order.23 Michelle Yeh further points out that two semantic planes of literal and fijigurative meaning often coexist in a poem, and yet these two meanings neither cancel out nor replace each other. Instead, the simultaneous presence of these two meanings produces a strange and absurd world.24 In other words, the “surreal-ness” or the surrealistic efffect in Shang Qin’s poetry does not derive from the syntactic nature of the language, but rather it works on the semantic level; for example, in Shang Qin’s autobiographical poem “Chitang” ⊐ຈ (Pond): I joined the army at a young age. I have taken all responsibilities for my wrongdoings from the age of fijifteen. This is so-called existence. Not much hun nor po is left. I stand upside down on the cloud from afar, appreciating my image on the water. In late fall, a lone withered lotus was on the pond. ቁሿᗎ䓽ˈॱӄ↢䎧‫⛪ׯ‬㠚ᐢⲴа࠷㖚㹼䋐ᆼ‫Ⲵޘ‬䋜ԫҶDŽ䙉ቡᱟᡰ 䄲Ⲵˬᆈ൘˭DŽ۵佈лቁᮨⲴ兲ǃቁᮨⲴ兴ǃф‫・ق‬൘䚐䚐Ⲵ䴢ㄟ⅓ 䌎㠚ᐡ൘≤ѝⲴ䓛ᖡDŽ␡⿻ᖼ⊐ຈ㼑ᆁ❦Ⲵа᭟⇈㦧DŽ shang qin, Complete Poems, 205

Shang Qin fijirst describes himself as a social being who is fulfijilling his duties as a soldier. In the following line, this social being abruptly turns into the hunpo 22  23  24 

Wai-lim Yip, “At Once Beyond and Within Reality and History,” 74. Silvia Marijnissen, “From Transparency to Artifijiciality,” 116–119. Michelle Yeh, “‘Variant Keys’ and ‘Omni-Vision,’” 340.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


兲兴, the two diffferent dimensions of the soul in Chinese philosophy and reli-

gion. And then, as we follow the perspective of the hunpo standing upside down from the cloud, looking at the water, it transforms again, into “a lone withered lotus” on the pond. Here, we encounter a frequently used technique of Shang Qin— metamorphosis, by which the “social I” is transmuted into the hunpo and ultimately replaced by the “lotus.” The “social I,” hunpo, and “lotus” represent three separate, independent entities, each of them an interruption and dislocation of the previous form. By violating and crossing the boundaries of form (or reality), metamorphosis challenges the conventional way of viewing things. The idea of the poet looking at the world “upside down on the clouds from afar” becomes possible. Meanwhile, although the form has changed, the inner congruity referring to the “self” has not been lost. Therefore, metamorphosis also functions as a metaphor, by which the “lotus” signals the poet’s solitude, weariness, and purity of heart. There are essentially two types of metamorphosis in Shang Qin’s poetry: one is that the hunpo is out of body or in the form of a ghost; the other is the transmutation of one being into diffferent forms. This fijirst type, the hunpo out of body, often provides the poet a way of escape, escape from the physical restriction of the human body. In the poem “Xing” 䟂 (Waking), Shang Qin depicts a defenseless victim, his hunpo escaping from the body because his oppression and torture have become unbearable. By transforming the sufffering physical body into the state of hunpo, the poet unfolds the victim’s forty-years’-worth of life stories in front of us, fijirst from his childhood, to his falling in love, to his career as a low-ranking soldier, then to his life drama, which is colored with sweetness and grief, joy and fear. The last scene of this poem depicts the hunpo embracing its own deformed body. At this point in the poem, the poet demonstrates a striking protest without any scathing words or accusation. It is by way of metamorphosis that Shang Qin has achieved the most difffijicult reconciliation with man’s merciless destiny and reveals the most profound understanding of life itself. In this sense, the escape and arguably the exile of hunpo, therefore, acquire their full weight of meaning. Besides the technique of portraying the hunpo outside of the body, Shang Qin also adopts the technique of narrating the poem through the form of a ghost to create a series of surreal poems embedded in concrete historical context. “Touqi,” for instance, describes a grandmother’s exile from mainland China to Taiwan, and her confusion at the ways of modern times; “Sanqi” йг (The third week of mourning) and “Wuqi” ӄг (The fijifth week of mourning) are about a spy and a GMD general in the Cold War era. Through metamorphosis,



transforming the physical body into the state of hunpo, or ghost, Shang Qin is able to break the limitation of time and space, piecing together life fragments into a compressed poetic space. Another type of metamorphosis in Shang Qin’s poetry is, however, the transformation of forms, where an entity is replaced by something totally diffferent. For example, in “Changjinglu” 䮧乨咯 (Girafffe), by transforming prisoners into girafffes, the abstract concept of “time” becomes visible. In “A-Lian,” a being is sometimes a sweetheart of the poet, sometimes a fijish, or even a town. In “Amiba didi” 䱯㊣ᐤᕏᕏ (Kid Brother Amoeba), we see a naughty, out-ofcontrol child constantly changing from an amoeba into a beast, an anteater, and then a raccoon. Metamorphosis is one of the principal means of Shang Qin’s art. By breaking down these categories, the poet destabilizes our perceptions of the world, revealing its fluidity and uncertainty.


Bei Dao’s Aesthetics of Disruption

There has been a remarkable transformation in the stylistic development of Bei Dao’s poetry. While most critics tend to divide Bei Dao’s writing career into two main phases—before and after 1989, when his exile began—few of them draw another line at the year of 1980, demarking the fijirst phase of his writing from the second (Yiping, “Predicament,” 144–163). This latter distinction and interpretation of another phase of his writing from 1980 to 1989 is justifijied, because we fijind a change is manifested in his usage of language, evidenced, for instance, in the poem “Yu ye” 䴘ཌ (Rainy night): Even if tomorrow morning the muzzle and the bleeding sun make me surrender freedom, youth and pen I will never surrender this evening I will never surrender you let walls stop my mouth let iron bars divide my sky as long as my heart keeps pounding the blood will ebb and flow and your smile will be imprinted on the crimson moon rising each night outside my small window recalling memories bei dao, The August Sleepwalker, 51

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


ণ֯᰾ཙᰙк ´ਓ઼㹰⏻⏻Ⲵཚ䲭 䇃ᡁӔࠪ㠚⭡ǃ䶂᱕઼ㅶ ᡁҏ㎅нӔࠪ䙉‫ػ‬ཌᲊ ᡁҏ㎅нӔࠪ֐ 䇃⡶໱๥տᡁⲴ౤ଷ੗ 䇃䩥ọ࠶ࢢᡁⲴཙオ੗ ਚ㾱ᗳ൘䐣अˈቡᴹ㹰Ⲵ▞⊀ 㘼֐Ⲵᗞㅁሷঠ൘㌵㢢ⲴᴸӞк ⇿ཌॷ䎧൘ᡁⲴሿデࡽ ொ䟂䁈៦ bei dao, Night Watchman, 19–20

Although Bei Dao’s works are generally categorized as Obscure poetry, in this poem the message is clear, and the language is communicable. Here, unlike the defenseless victim depicted in Shang Qin’s poetry, Bei Dao portrays a hero who is willing to bear the suffferings of others, and ready to take a fijirm position against any harsh oppression. Several metaphors are used in the poem, but the connections between signifijier and signifijied are still recognizable to most readers. This clarity, without doubt, has greatly contributed to the broad popularity of Bei Dao’s early poems. In other words, it is the accessibility of his language, and the social meaning inherent in his language, that strikes a chord with a wide audience. In lines such as those from “Huida” എㆄ (Answer), “Debasement is the passport of the base, / Nobility the epitaph of the noble. / See how the gilded sky covered / With the drifting twisted shadows of the dead,” we can easily project our own social imageries onto these binary oppositional terms and fijind a meaning or interpretation of our own. This also makes Bei Dao’s early poems a powerful tool for such occasions as student protest movements. However, in the early 1980s, Bei Dao started reflecting on his own views and became skeptical about his previous aesthetic attitude. This change is evident in the following poem, “Lüli” ንশ (Résumé): Once I goose-stepped across the square my head shaved bare the better to seek the sun but in that season of madness seeing the cold-faced goats on the other side …



believing I had found the only way to express the truth, like a baked fijish dreaming of the sea Long live …! I shouted only once, damn it then sprouted a beard … lighting a silent cigarette it was a gun bringing death at midnight when heaven and earth change places I hung upside down on an old tree that looked like a mop gazing into the distance bei dao, The August Sleepwalker, 87

ᴮ↓↕䎠䗷ᒯ൪ ࡳ‫ݹ‬㝁㺻 ѪҶᴤྭൠራ᢮ཚ䱣 ত൘⯟⣲Ⲵᆓ㢲䟼 䖜Ҷੁˈ䳄⵰ḵḿ DŽDŽDŽ 㠚ԕѪ᢮ࡠҶ㺘䗮ⵏ⨶Ⲵ ୟаᯩᔿˈྲ਼ ✈✔⵰Ⲵ劬Ỗ㿱⎧⌻ з኱ʽᡁਚԆྸ஺Ҷа༠ 㜑ᆀቡ䮯ࠪᶕҶ DŽDŽDŽ ⛩⵰ᰐ༠Ⲵ✏ধ ᱟ㔉䘉ॸཌ㠤ભⲴаᷚ ᖃཙൠ㘫䖜䗷ᶕ ᡁ㻛‫ᤲق‬൘ аἥ໙ᐳլⲴ㘱ṁк ⵪ᵋ bei dao, Night Watchman, 36–37

As the title “Résumé” suggests, this poem can be seen as Bei Dao’s retrospection on his poetry writing and aesthetic attitude. What distinguishes this poem from his previous poems is, however, that the connections between images and lines are no longer explicit, even though the skeptical tone throughout the poem is discernible. Bei Dao links up the posture of expressing the truth with “a baked fijish dreaming of the sea,” which is clearly a paradox, functioning to

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


negate his belief in the relationship between truth seeking and poetry writing. For the very fijirst time, Bei Dao manifests his doubt about the meaning and the purpose of poetry itself. Therefore, instead of attempting to “seek the sun” and “express the truth,” Bei Dao, like Shang Qin, chooses to look at the world upside down, meaning that he takes a heretical position of distancing and dislocating himself from the “normal” world. The poem begins with the line “once I goose-stepped across the square,” in which “square” indicates a social space shared by the public. By the end of the poem, however, we see that “I hung upside down / on an old tree that looked like a mop / gazing into the distance,” at midnight, refers to the poet taking an introspective turn. This transition foreshadows Bei Dao’s “conversion” from socially oriented language to an individualized poetic style. Besides this attitude of self-reflection, what makes this poem signifijicant is, as already mentioned, the polyvalent, elusive connections between the images. The images and their implied messages in Bei Dao’s early poems are recognizable and can be shared by the audience. Words such as “sun,” “moon,” “sky,” “river,” “window,” and “sea” are still within the range of common understanding. But in “Résumé,” despite the explicit verbal quality, some of the analogies appear to be frustratingly unclear. For example, the logical relationship between “Long live …! I shouted only once, damn it” and “then sprouted a beard” is hard to grasp, and the images in “among piles of endlessly bickering books / calmly we divided into equal shares / the few coins we made from selling offf each star” seem to be inexplicable. As we will see, this obscurity of language and images is a continuing and escalating tendency from the mid1980s onward. The Art of Poetry In the great house to which I belong only a table remains, surrounded by boundless marshland the moon shines on me from diffferent corners the skeleton’s fragile dream still stands in the distance, like an undismantled scafffold … bei dao, The August Sleepwalker, 113

ᡁᡰӾ኎Ⲵ䛓ᓗᐘབྷⲴᡯ㠽 ਚ࢙лṼᆀˈઘത ᱟᰐ䗩Ⲵ⋬⌭ൠ ᰾ᴸӾн਼Ⲵ䀂ᓖ➗Ӟᡁ


Lin 僘僬ᶮ㜶ⲴỖ‫׍‬ᰗ・൘ 䘌ᯩˈྲቊᵚ᣶䲔Ⲵ㝊᡻ᷦ DŽDŽDŽ bei dao, Night Watchman, 45

This poem portrays a surrealistic scene where we fijind a table and a poet oddly standing in the middle of marshland, a moon shifting across the sky and a dream tenuously resting somewhere remote. The passionate voice that used to resound in the “public square” has now been replaced by an uncanny silence. The scene seems to exist nowhere but the poet’s inner world. Considering the title of “The Art of Poetry,” this poem can be construed as a parable evincing Bei Dao’s conceptualization of the aesthetics of poetry. What is noteworthy in this poem is the sharp contrast between the “great house” and the “marshland.” The house used to be an immense and unifijied entity but is now just ruins in a wasteland. If we boldly take the image of the “house” as a metaphor for poetic language, the house being originally a place of meeting and communication, we now see it as fragmented and lying in ruins. It may suggest that the poet no longer relies on language that is based on that which is understood and shared by a wide range of society. In fact, Bei Dao’s reflection and distrust of language is voiced in many of his other later poems, among which is “Composition,” written after his exile began. Open the book The words have decomposed, the ruins Have imperial integrity bei dao, The August Sleepwalker, 75

ᢃᔰ䛓ᵜҖ 䇽ᐢ⼘ᦏˈᓏ໏ ᴹ⵰ᑍഭⲴᆼᮤ bei dao, Night Watchman, 85

Language, as an integral part of social establishment and the building of the nation, is inevitably embedded within the social norms or the ideologies deriving from a bounded, holistic worldview. Perhaps it is under such a realization that the language used by the poet has lost its innocence. The poet, in order to compose poems, fijirst has to “decompose” or break down the language grounded in the “imperial integrity.” That is to say, in order to prevent the replication of ideology and return to the language its true weight, it is necessary

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


for the poet to withdraw himself from the normative, communicative language that is based on common social understandings. This is reminiscent of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory in which he argues that modern art is an attempt to turn communicative language into mimetic language. Adorno believed that while communicative language functions as a vehicle to represent and duplicate existing social norms, mimetic language refuses to subordinate itself for practical communicative purposes, and resists losing its character in the process of expression.25 Mimetic language rejects replicating social collective memories but bears the mark of the artist’s personal experience and inner landscape. Mimetic language can be distinguished from communicative language. While the latter is concerned with the overall message of the words, the former is focused on the language and specifijic choice of words itself. Language is thereby treated as an end in its own right. We can see the increasing tendency of Bei Dao to use more “mimetic language,” in Adorno’s sense, in his work written after the mid-1980s and especially after his exile began. By removing himself from socially communicable language, Bei Dao sought to explore his inner world and his own personal use of language. In an interview with Zha Jianying ḕᔪ㤡, Bei Dao mentioned that one of the benefijits of exile is that it provided him with the chance to go beyond the simplistic binary opposition of mimetic and communicative language and to look at the world with a more nuanced view. He further emphasized that mimetic language helped him to adjust his standpoint and keep alert to all shifts in power and ideologies.26 According to this interview, Bei Dao was keen to prevent his poetry from becoming a carrier of ideology. He therefore intentionally distanced himself from systematic, rationalized, and transparent language, and this is reflected in the way his poetry displays fragmentation and interruption. A good example of Bei Dao’s tendency to do this can be seen in the following poem, “Wuti” ᰐ仈 (Untitled): He opens wide a third eye the star above his head warm currents from both east and west have formed an archway the expressway passes through the setting sun two mountain peaks have ridden the camel to collapse its skeleton has been pressed deep down 25  26 

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 112. Zha Jianying, Bashi niandai fangtanlu, 78.



into a layer of coal He sits in the narrow cabin under water calm as ballast schools of fijish around him flash and gleam freedom, that golden cofffijin lid hangs high above the prison the people queuing behind the giant rock are waiting to enter the emperor’s memory The exile of words has begun bei dao, Old Snow, 25

Ԇ⵱ᔰㅜйਚ⵬ⶋ 䛓仇ཤкⲴᱏ䗠 ᶕ㠚ь㾯ᯩੁⲴ᳆⍱ ᶴᡀҶᤡ䰘 儈䙏‫ޜ‬䐟ク䗷㩭ᰕ єᓗኡጠ僁ෞҶ傶催 僘ᷦ㻛঻䘋␡␡Ⲵ ➔ቲ Ԇ඀൘≤л⤝ሿⲴ㡡ᡯ䟼 ঻㡡⸣㡜䭷ᇊ ઘതⲴ劬㗔‫ݹ‬㣂ഋሴ 㠚⭡䛓哴䠁ⲴἪⴆ 儈ᛜ൘ⴁ⤡кᯩ ൘ᐘ⸣ਾ䶒ᧂ䱏ⲴӪԜ ㅹᖵ⵰䘋‫ޕ‬ᑍ⦻Ⲵ䇠ᗶ 䇽Ⲵ⍱ӑᔰ࿻Ҷ bei dao, Night Watchman, 75

It is futile to search for any concrete meaning in this poem. Nor can we put the images together to form a picture that makes conventional “sense.” This poem may just come from the fragments of the poet’s travel experiences, a vision flashing into his mind or the memory of a dream from the previous night. The poem is made up of images that are not intended to adhere to one another. The light of meaning cannot pass through the words. The poet’s posture of rejecting the transparency of language and escaping from communication is unequivocal. The word “freedom,” in this sense, may no longer be understood in either the existentialist or political sense. The word “freedom” is like a coffijin made from a gold, gilded exterior, and the meaning inside is death itself.

The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao


Therefore, words and language embark on the journey of exile and dislocate themselves from the place to which they once belonged.


Conclusion: Exile and Modernism

“Exile” is a recurring theme in modernist poetry in both Taiwan and mainland China. However, the relation between exile and writing is far more complex and dialectical in its struggles between anguish and transcendence, confijinement and creativity. Therefore, it is not difffijicult to observe that the characteristics of modernist literature and the state of exile have a certain internal similarity. Both move away from the “center” and become the “other” of the establishment and convention. Applying Said’s perspectives on exile as both an actual and metaphorical condition, this chapter focuses on two modernist poets who experienced physical exile—Shang Qin and Bei Dao. For Shang Qin, exile was a real experience in life. But at the same time, it also was an important inspiration for his poetic creation. He turned writing into an extension of this escape from the body, such that exile becomes a never-ending inner exploration. Shang Qin’s writings of exile were a dynamic process that achieved transcendence from the dichotomies of self and nation, flight and imprisonment, time and space, life and death. In Shang Qin’s writings, there are no heroes and no sense of majesty or awe. There are only alternative observations on life and society from a person on the margins. Beyond this, there is also another layer of exile in Shang Qin’s writings: a sense of “metamorphosis” in his poetic language and imagination. Shang Qin broke down limitations of the physical world and through this found escape from the conventional way of viewing things. Through recurring dislocation and metamorphosis, he enabled the readers to perceive diffferent aspects of existence, as well as life’s eternal transformation. The poems of Bei Dao went through various phases of transition. From his early romantic writing to poems like “Today,” we see a transition to a more modernist style. Bei Dao’s exile in 1989 was also a turning point for his poetic creation. During this period of exile, Bei Dao began exploring the theme of nostalgia. However, his form of nostalgia was diffferent from that of Shang Qin, who wrote of nostalgia’s unbearable longing and impossibility of return. Instead, Bei Dao presented this theme with a tone of coldness and indiffference. He explored his feelings of nostalgia carefully, purposefully distancing himself from nationalist ideologies. In his later writings, Bei Dao’s poetic language had an even more obvious sense of “dislocation.” Although his country



no longer directly repressed poetic expression, language was still the primary medium for expressing societal norms. As such, his works attempt to distance themselves from the traces of totalitarian language. Thus, in a similar way to Shang Qin, Bei Dao had developed another means of exploring self-exile. In his language, we see a shift from dignity and wholeness to fragmentation and misplacement, from communicative to mimetic language. Through this, the poet creates new possibilities of language. Through comparison and analysis of Shang Qin’s and Bei Dao’s poetic works, one can see that their modernist poems are not alienated from the real world. Instead, their explorations of life and art are reflections of the times and of their own experiences of survival.

chapter 9

National Myth and Global Aesthetics: Reading Yeats alongside Chinese Poetic Modernism Christopher Lupke


Introduction: Yeats’s Modernism from the Margins

One of the conundrums of modern Chinese literary studies is how to navigate the tortuous road through the particular cultural heritage from which it arises, global trends such as modernism, and the individual creative voice. Some scholars take the position that indigenous cultures and Westernization are mutually exclusive. Others emphasize the need to view Chinese modernism as part of a global trend in which cultural and national specifijicities are at best superfijicial, cosmetic, and incidental. In carrying out such discussions, scholars in the fijirst camp tend to eschew comparative discussions of Chinese and Western authors. Scholars who are more internationalist in their approach embrace such comparisons. Underlying the broad assumption is the subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, attitude that those who readily adopt from the West are not authentically Chinese, and that those who exclusively tap their own tradition for creative inspiration must be antagonistic to modernism. In investigating this problem, it helps to look at the one true model from English poetic modernism who blended the broad panoply of images from the mainstream European cultural reservoir with the more particular and idiosyncratic mythic lore of his Irish homeland: William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). Of the three towering fijigures of modernism in English poetry—William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound (1885–1972), and T. S. Eliot (1888–1965)—it was not solely years that separated Yeats from the latter two. Of course, as the one who preceded the others by about a generation, Yeats indeed was diffferent from Pound and Eliot in terms of age. As such, he served not quite like a contemporary but as more of a transitional fijigure between the Victorian era (he actually referred to himself as one of the last Romantics) and the Modernist era. But what really distinguished him was his country of origin and the way the vexing relationship between his Irish national identity and his residence in the more cosmopolitan, and politically powerful, London, still the seat in the early twentieth century of a vast empire, weighed upon him. Yeats’s Ireland may have been fertile ground for the poetry of myth and richly bucolic scenery. It was

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close to a third world entity, however, existing in the shadow of the wealthy and militarized British empire. Pound and Eliot, despite whatever disappointment or contempt they may have held for the United States, perceived at the time as devoid of the kind of cultural sophistication that Europe held, were fleeing a rising political power that was on the threshold of global dominance. Yeats could legitimately argue that he hailed from a politically weak and, in fact, colonized state, and several scholars in the past generation have remarked upon this. Yeats’s insecurity with respect to national identity in the face of the transnational literary phenomenon that modernism came to be is much closer to the experience of non-Western poets such as Aimé Cesaire, Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, Pablo Neruda, and Mahmoud Darwish than to that of Pound and Eliot.1 I argue here that the same can be said of modern Chinese poets: the sense of the abject in the face of an expanding global, Western/capitalist social envelopment that paralleled modernism, and the resultant paradoxical and confused relationship with “the tradition” that this genuinely new phenomenon forced upon Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth century had some afffijinities on both the thematic and formal level with William Butler Yeats. From the beginning, Yeats was preoccupied with fijine technique, and it could well have been this fact that prompted Pound to opine that Yeats was the only poet in London of interest when he arrived there. “Adam’s Curse,” published in 1904 as part of a collection of poems generally thought to mark the transition between his early and middle poetry, chooses the Biblical allusion of Adam’s fall as a metaphor for the labor one must undertake in order to bring beauty to poetic expression. It is not exactly clear why that allusion worked for Yeats, but perhaps it is because bestowing knowledge on humans, as the Biblical story goes, became a burden for them. The toil the craft of poetry presents, which Yeats laments in the lines “I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’,” is “certain,” because “‘there is no fijine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring’.”2 All fijine things are begotten from the hard work of forging them, and poetry is no exception. Helen Vendler, one of the most prolifijic scholars of poetic form in recent decades, invokes this poem to illustrate how “the poet’s sedulous stitching and unstitching” became a blueprint for Yeats’s development over the balance of his career: “It is in the later poetry [of Yeats] that the verse that seems but a moment’s thought becomes 1  See in particular Martin McKinsey, “Classicism and Colonial Retrenchment in W. B. Yeats’s ‘No Second Troy,’” 181. 2  Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, 204–205.

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


sovereign.”3 Anticipating this comment, Sonjoy Dutta-Roy averred that it was out of this “laborious ‘stitching’ and ‘unstitching’…[that] true beauty is born, and the sorrow inherent in love.”4 The transition from human experience to poetry, transporting the corporeal to language, requires an arduous “distillation” (Dutta-Roy, “‘Adam’s Curse,’” 185) that allows us as readers to regard the “temporal” in “a higher, timeless, and impersonal order” (187). But if Yeats were merely a wordsmith, he might not have garnered the attention of serious poets and may have been relegated to the larger grouping of good, but not great, poets, of whom there were many contemporaries. The critical quality that epitomized the Yeatsian imprint was the “Janus face,” as David Lloyd describes it, a “combination of modernization and archaism, its condensations of political within sexual desire.”5 I would add that Yeats expertly wedded the topical problems of Ireland’s political destiny with the tightly wrought verse he created, verse that displayed precise word choice, wonderful rhythm, clever melding of classical, Irish mythic, and historical references, and other exemplary forms of poetic technique. Merging artful technique with expressions of the insecure and unstable status of his native Ireland is what “puts him in the company of other poets of decolonization” (David Lloyd, “Nationalism and Postcolonialism,” 181). The overriding tone, Lloyd continues, is one of “ambivalence,” and most crucially the image “of an object that remains unattainable and leaves the desiring subject perpetually unsatisfijied” (“Nationalism and Postcolonialism,” 186). One can see this ambivalence and frustration inherent in the embroidered myth of Yeats’s short narratives featuring Red Hanrahan, and in the related poem “Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland,” written in 1894. The “unappeased desire” that Lloyd detects in these tales binds together the visceral and sexual with the political. As Elizabeth Butler Cullingford proposes in an essay on Yeats and gender: “By rendering masculine erotic abjection indistinguishable from religious and political devotion, ‘Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland’ taps into a powerful psychological force fijield in which masochism provides the major afffective thrust.”6 Red Hanrahan embodies several things at once: he is a country schoolmaster, a middling poet, and a “doomed” wanderer, to use Edward Hirsch’s description.7 Yeats, in the persona of Red Hanrahan, presents the reader with 3  Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline, 108–109. 4  Sonjoy Dutta-Roy, “‘Adam’s Curse,’” 182–183. 5  David Lloyd, “Nationalism and Postcolonialism,” 181. 6  Elisabeth Cullingford, “Yeats and Gender,” 171. 7  As Hirsch states, the emergence of the notion of an “original author” who “owns his own text” is a problem for one who wishes to tap into his native folkloric tradition. “One response to this problem is for the writer to attempt to situate his work in the world by supposedly



vivid and tempestuous images of the Irish landscape, with such phrases as “old brown thorn-trees break in two,” “bitter black wind,” “the thunder on the stones,” “noisy clouds,” “the wet winds are blowing out of the clinging air,” and “heavy flooded waters our bodies and our blood” (Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach, Variorum, 207–208). Yeats’s penchant for synesthesia, evidenced by such images as “noisy clouds” and “black winds,” creates a foreboding mood that is only relieved, and then only in part, by the appeal to the mythic fijigure of Cathleen, “the daughter of Houlihan,” and perhaps the deliverer of Ireland from its woeful condition as a subservient state. Referring to this state of mind as a sort of “masochism,” Cullingford pinpoints a governing mood of weakness and abjection that pervades the early and mid-career Yeats, a mood that best epitomizes his sentiments regarding his native land (see especially Cullingford, “Yeats,” 179–182). Sharon Gallagher, in turn, sees Hanrahan as “the voice of Ireland’s past calling out in the present to rejuvenate a nation and let her take pride in herself again.”8 Rather than an indulgence in that past, though, she concludes that Hanrahan is “a new hero for a nation on the brink of independence created out of the old tales but allowing space for creating a new, distinctive literature” (Sharon Gallagher, “Yeats’s ‘Red Hanrahan,’” 40). Thus, what Cullingford calls “abject,” “weakness,” “masochism,” is precisely the emotional impetus required by Yeats and his national brethren to see the colony and subsequent fledgling state through to independence and strength. By the time we get to “No Second Troy” (1908), Yeats has begun to shift his mood and adopt, in Martin McKinsey’s words, “the characteristic high Modernist move into the ‘masculine’” (“Classicism,” 184). According to McKinsey, the “fijighting poetry” that is better “suited to the skirmishes and standofffs of a nation being born” (“Classicism,” 184), “for the fijirst time brings ancient Greece into an important poetic dialogue with Modern Ireland” (174– 175). The lesson from the classical allusion is that Ireland will not end up like Troy did at the hands of the Greeks. Although in this poem what becomes of the “misery” that “fijilled my days” and the femme fatale who “would of late have taught ignorant men most violent ways, / Or hurled the little streets upon the great” is not disclosed, we still have the rhetorical question at the end, “Was there another Troy for her to burn?,” and the title “No Second Troy” to indicate the distinction that Yeats draws between classical source and contemporary situation. It is not that Ireland is similar to the classical example, but precisely that it is dissimilar. As Yeats moved forward in his poetry, and as the political status of Ireland edged closer toward the Irish state, Yeats grew more assertive rooting it in the communal oral literature of an empirical folk.” See Hirsch’s “And I Myself Created Hanrahan,’” 880–893, esp. 881 (for quote) and 890. 8  Sharon Gallager, “Yeats’s ‘Red Hanrahan,’” 40.

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


in the political undertones of his poetry. But despite the shift, the “interplay between politics and poetic form” (Martin McKinsey, “Classicism,” 175), in this case the appropriation of classical allusion, never dissipated. Politics and poetic expression can never be too far apart for William Butler Yeats, despite the decidedly highly aesthetic nature of his verse. What we see in him as a colossal fijigure of English (language) modernism is a poet painfully and persistently aware of his national identity in the otherwise cosmopolitan world of the global urban nexus at a time when the particularities of national identity were not supposed to matter much anymore. Despite his status as vaguely fijirst world, in a sense, because after all he was a well-educated, white male living a comfortable life mainly in London, his resultant afffijinity with the poets who could not so easily shed the tincture of their national identity is highly revealing. As Chinese poetry made its epochal conversion from the classical poetry that, in its various prosodic forms, would eventually become the free verse of vernacular, modern Mandarin, it too had to confront notions of national weakness, humiliation, and abjection. In this essay, by providing a discussion of such Chinese poets as Wu Xinghua ੣㠸㨟 (1921–1966), Luo Fu ⍋ཛ (1928–2018), and Xiao Kaiyu 㩗ᔰᝊ (b. 1960),9 each representing a diffferent generation, I advance the view that it is precisely the ability to mine the native landscape, transforming it into the rejuvenated imagery of a modern form, combined with the self-conscious anxiety of the new nation(s), that makes at least some contemporary Chinese poets modernist in style and outlook. Yeats shows us that it is not only Asian authors who bridle against the converging trends of modernization and Western imperialism. Facing a predicament similar to Yeats in the second half of the twentieth century, some Chinese poets similarly have turned to the Chinese tradition with its history, legends, and stories and used it as a reservoir for their artistic endeavors as well as core national beliefs. Of course, one clear distinction and a caution against too forced a comparison is that with Yeats there is a big diffference between the dredging of local myth from Irish lore and the appropriation of classical allusion. Though certainly disparities in the status of myth and historical references exist in the Chinese tradition, due to more demonstrable linguistic continuities between early and modern China, there is more overarching unity between them than there is between Ireland and Greece, or at least so we are expected to think.

9  Wu Xinghua flourished in the late Republican period; Luo Fu, though born in mainland China, lived most of his adult life in Taiwan and is associated with poetic activities there; Xiao Kaiyu is a mainland poet of the post-Mao era. Xiao’s name often appears as 㛆ᔰᝊ in China, even though the correct writing of his surname is 㩗.

214 2


The Lonely Road of Mid-Century Classical and Western Amalgams: Wu Xinghua’s “Xi Shi”

Poems of Wu Xinghua, such as “Xi Shi” 㾯ᯭ (1941), bespeak the multilayered and multivalent sentiments of the modern author in China. Wu Xinghua was nearly unique in mid-century Chinese poetry as an advocate and practitioner of modernist poetry, or, more precisely, highly dense yet innovative and vernacular verse that appropriated from early Chinese myth and displayed the influence of Western Modernist poets such as Yeats and Eliot. Wu Xinghua translated some Yeats into Chinese, and in his time was arguably better known for his literary scholarship than for his poetry. Wu was one of the fijirst poets to borrow freely from the Western literary tradition while still working to craft a new poetic idiom in China, mainly out of free verse. His poetry in some ways was indebted to the ancient style (gushi ਔ䂙) of Chinese poetry, a somewhat looser idiom than the tight prosodic laws of recent style ( jintishi 䘁億䂙). He also was not afraid to employ allusion. Wu’s poem “Xi Shi,” invoking the classic Chinese beauty, crystallizes the problem of refashioning Chinese poetry into a new form both with respect to stylistic and thematic issues: Immersed in thought, the universe was too small; At the corner of her lips hung the fates of Wu and Yue. Oblivious to success and failure, human emotions Would only generate cold response from her. She sought for things that were long lasting and More mysterious—or nonexistent at all. Curious people often ask: after the fall of Gusu, Xi Shi and Fan Li, where did they drift to? Only beauty undisturbed could count as complete. A word spoken would lessen her manifold charm. Since she was not born from this heavy Earth, Why should she be concerned about changes in roles? From the lofty Queen to the wife of a drifting Commoner, she kept her silence, accepted A diffferent embrace with the same sad mood. Daily she breathed the foreign air of this world. Not once did she not feel to be a passer-by.10 10 

This is Ping-kwan Leung’s translation, based in part on an early rendering by Wai-lim Yip. See Leung, “Modern Hong Kong Poetry,” 225. I have made some slight adjustments primarily to emphasize the literal meaning of the original Chinese.

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


⊹߼൘ᙍ㏝㼑ˈᆷᇉㇴഽ䚴ཚሿˈ ഐ⛪ቡ൘ྩଷ䀂䰌‫⵰ײ‬੣઼䎺DŽ ᡀᮇቡ൘ྩᡰ═❦ⲴˈӪцⲴᛵᝏ ᗇࡠྩߧ␑Ⲵ৽丯㘼ԕ⛪┯䏣˗ ྩⲴ䵸兲ᡰ䘭䙀Ⲵতᱟᴤѵ䚐 ᴤ⾎〈Ⲵһ⢙ũũᡆ䁡ṩᵜнᆈ൘DŽ ྭཷⲴӪ‫ف‬ᱲᑨ㾱䘭୿˖൘ခ㰷 䲧㩭ਾˈྩ઼㤳㹑ࡠօ㲅৫⍱⎚˛ нਇᬮҲⲴ䶌㖾᡽㇇ᱟᴰᆹ‫ˈޘ‬ аਕ䂡ቡᴳ⑋ቁྩ㩜࠶Ⲵᄼ䊄DŽ ᰒ❦нᱟᗎ⊹䟽Ⲵབྷൠ㼑⭏ࠪˈ ྩ৸օᗵ䴰䰌ᗳҾ䆺ᨋⲴ䓛ц˛ ᗎ੣ᇞ亠ⴹⲴ⦻ਾ䱽㩭⛪䋸Ӫ ԕ㡩⛪ᇦⲴ࿫ᆀˈྩ‫؍‬ᤱ䶌唈ˈ ᧕ਇн਼Ⲵ᫱ᣡԕ਼⁓Ⲵᜱᇩˈ ᰕᰕબ੨㪇䙉Ӫ䯃⭏⮿Ⲵオ≓ˈ ྩ❑ᱲн㿪ᗇ㠚ᐡᱟа‫ػ‬䙾ᇒDŽ

The legend of Xi Shi, an astounding beauty given by the State of Yue 䎺 to the stronger State of Wu ੣ as a tribute, but actually a sort of Trojan horse because she and others served to beguile King Fuchai of Wu ੣⦻ཛᐞ (r. 495–473 BCE), should be known to all Chinese. The poem thus obviously invokes the legendary story of the famous Chinese beauty from the fijifth century BCE who was sadly given away by the Yue kingdom to ensure peaceful relations with a more powerful rival. The question is why Wu Xinghua would write a poem about Xi Shi in Republican China? There are several possible explanations for this. First, as a proponent of “neoclassicism,” as Edward Gunn explains, Wu’s expressed desire was to reintroduce the web of intertextual relationships of classical poetic allusion for which Chinese literature was well known, and which in the early part of the twentieth century were purged as anathema to a modern vernacular literature by such reformers as Hu Shi 㜑 䚙 (1891–1962).11 Wu was “unimpressed by his elders in the new poetry movements” and only “credit[ed] Bian Zhilin ঎ѻ⩣ (1910–2000) and He Qifang օ ަ㣣 (1912–1977) with respectable verse,” disdaining the others as “scholars or fools who don’t understand Chinese” (Edward Gunn, Unwelcome Muse, 194).


Gunn places Wu Xinghua in the context of war-era writers from Beijing and Shanghai, the latter of which were hostile to the previous generations’ efffulgent expressions of romanticism. Writers like Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), and Wu Xinghua were more tempered and inventive in their portrayal of Chinese social problems. See Edward Gunn, Unwelcome Muse, 193–198.



Although many of his poems, in particular the early ones, link to a “classical world,” which “was in many instances obscure to all but the most highly educated Chinese” (Edward Gunn, Unwelcome Muse, 195), poems such as this one were at least on a superfijicial level accessible to the ordinary reader. Wu sought to reconstitute modern Chinese verse in the vernacular, but in a manner that brought it back into the literary tradition of China. Examining this excerpt from the poem in more detail, we discover several things about Wu’s depiction of Xi Shi, all of which must have been invented by the author: her beauty of course gave her power and the status of a femme fatale, whether she liked it or not; she put no stock in success and failure (ᡀᮇ), human emotions (ӪцⲴᛵᝏ), or other such emblems of the mundane world that did not interest her; but there was a longing, a yearning for something beyond the corporeal and beyond immediate gratifijication. The poem also comments on the fate of Xi Shi, a ravishing beauty who enjoyed (one could question whether it was “enjoyable”) the position of a queen but whose outcome was as “the wife of a drifting commoner” (䋸Ӫԕ㡩⛪ᇦ Ⲵ࿫ᆀ). The fall from such a height, according to Wu, did not matter to her. She simply accepted it with the same “melancholy” (my word; ਼⁓Ⲵᜱᇩ). This indicates that Wu Xinghua saw Xi Shi as a stoic soul whose fate was not in her own hands, someone who was blessed with great beauty but was always the object of the political machinations of men. She experienced wealth and luxury, but “drifted offf” (so the legend goes and so the poem indicates) on a boat with her lover Fan Li 㤳㹑 (517 BCE–?), never to be heard from again. She dealt with her circumstances with a sense of sad resignation and equanimity. The last two lines of the poem suggest she lived the life of an exile, one of the crucial signposts of Western modernism: “She forever felt herself a passer-by” (ྩ❑ᱲн㿪ᗇ㠚ᐡᱟа‫ػ‬䙾ᇒ). But why would Wu Xinghua, writing in the early 1940s, wish to use this well-worn classical legend as a way to convey a sense of exile and drifting? Wu Xinghua was writing in war-torn China when Chinese throughout the country were experiencing great upheaval, forced evacuations, and migrations. “Xi Shi” could easily function as a far-flung allegory for the internal diaspora of Chinese during the dangerous and heady times of warlord China, divided between radically opposed political factions and carved into separate power bases, as well as China besieged by Japanese incursion. Wu’s highly literary experimentations inhabited the calm center of this political maelstrom. Like Yeats, Wu employs the image of the woman as a fijigure related to national identity. She may not stand in for the nation, but she is absolutely closely connected with it. The ubiquity of the Xi Shi allusion guarantees that there is no mistaking the identity of this reference for literate Chinese. Xi Shi is not a fijigure

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


whom many Westerners would know. She is part of the Chinese legendary lexicon. Wu is busy reconstituting Chinese poetry in the modern age in such a way that it may employ its own classical allusions but more or less according to the principles put in place by Western modernism: the complication of classical images for the purpose of a contemporary world. Linguistically, we see that Wu certainly did not wish to ingratiate himself back into the traditional Chinese poetic in the same way as such poets as Wang Guowei ⦻഻㏝ (1877–1927), who was famous for his Song ci ᆻ䂎 lyrics. Wu was committed to using the modern vernacular in new, poetic ways, but fusing the language of expression in his poems with classical images native to China. Reading this poem is like reading the evolution of modern Chinese poetry in flux: it is an unfijinished project. The poetry is admittedly carefully crafted and tightly worded. The images are sagaciously chosen and are assembled in a very specifijic way. The idea of the dispassionate woman is carried throughout the section. But the language is spoken Chinese, and there is no identifijiable rhyme scheme to it or consistent rhythm, except that the lines are generally close in length (though there are not exactly the same number of characters per line). Most important, the feeling of exile, alienation, rootlessness, drifting, and diaspora at the end is precisely the feeling of Chinese intellectuals such as Wu during the turmoil in which they lived. Wu had no idea what the future would hold, and it turned out that for him it was tragic, as he was one of the fijirst victims of the Cultural Revolution. But the “fusion of Chinese and Western elements,” as Michel Hockx calls it, is something that would be irreversible for Chinese poets going forward.12 This “binary opposition” of “traditional vs. modern, Chinese vs. Western, wenyan ᮷䀰 vs. baihua ⲭ䂡, form vs. content, regulation vs. freedom, collective vs. individual” would not recede (Hockx, “Wu Xinghua,” 323). Wu’s rendering of the Xi Shi legend, in contrast to that of Li Bo, Su Dongpo, or other classical poets, was unmistakably modern: “The modernity of Wu’s poem lies not so much in the description of modern topics or in formal innovations as in its psychological insight, unusual perspective on characterization, the device of defamiliarization of well-known subject matter, and the subtle variations within a moderate form” (Leung, “Modern Hong Kong Poetry,” 226). I would extend that list of modern attributes to include the sense of exile, alienation, and even abjectness. While Xi Shi herself was controlled by politically very powerful men, in turn the power she held was used by men against men. But even as this callous instrumentality worked, Xi Shi, in Wu’s imagination, was unmoved and untarnished. She maintained a certain


Michel Hockx, “Wu Xinghua,” 321.



inaccessible emotional interior that even those from her native land of Yue could not touch, could not tap, and could not change.


Transience, Timelessness, and Tragedy in Luo Fu’s Intertextual Poems

A generation after Wu Xinghua, writing mainly in Taiwan but not originally from Taiwan, the Modernist poet Luo Fu ⍋ཛ (also spelled Lo Fu) was appropriating generously from the classical tradition as well. In addition, he was breaking up the lines of modern Chinese poetry to form something that was essentially unprecedented in the modern vernacular. Although richly allusive, like Wu Xinghua’s, Luo Fu’s poetry was far more slender and limber. While the isolation, alienation, and sense of the wandering exile present within Wu Xinghua’s “Xi Shi” is equally or more prominent in the work of Luo Fu, in the latter poet it is as something that has already occurred. Although some have called him a “Taiwanese Modernist,”13 Luo Fu in fact was born in mainland China, and his pining for the homeland is a leitmotif in his poetry. Like several of Luo Fu’s poems, “Changhen ge” 䮧ᚘⅼ (Song of everlasting sorrow) is both a conjuring of a historic event in ancient China of monumental proportions and a dialogue with a poet. This one, of course, is with the Tang poet Bo Juyi, but others are with Li He, Li Bo, and Wang Wei. “Everlasting Sorrow” is a reprise of Bo Juyi’s narrative poem of Empress Consort Yang Guifei ὺ䋤ླ (719–756), companion to Tang Xuanzong ୀ⦴ᇇ (685–762), noted for her tragic fate in the wake of the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763). Bo Juyi’s original poem is remarkable for readability, and it is still often memorized by schoolchildren. Luo Fu’s poem of the same name is even more limpid in its diction and syntax, but what Luo does with the language is reduce it to its most descriptive elements: She is the White flesh On the fijirst page Of the Yang genealogy A rose in a mirror


This is the general characterization that Au Chung-to uses in her book on modernist aesthetics in 1950s Taiwan, although all the poets with whom she deals were born in mainland China. To characterize Luo Fu and the others as “Taiwanese” is to conflate location with ethnicity, and it also obscures one of the critical creative features of his poetry: exile in an alien land.

National Myth and Global Aesthetics

Blossoming under the most tender caresses Heaven-sent beauty Bubbles On the Flower Pure Pool Waiting to be raised up In two hands Music of the immortals Drifts from Li Palace Mingled with wine and bodily perfume After imbibing, the lips Just moan And the bodies on the ivory bed Are mountains And rivers One river sleeping soundly in another The subterranean flow Rolls Across ten thousand miles Till a white song Sprouts, breaking the soil ྩᱟ ὺ∿ᇦ䆌ѝ 㘫䮻ㅜа丱‫ׯ‬Ԡ൘䛓㼑Ⲵ а⡷ⲭ㚹 аṚ䨑ᆀ㼑Ⲵ㯄㮷 ⴋ䮻൘䕅ḄⲴᣲᤝѝ ᡰ䄲ཙ⭏哇䌚 а㋂ 㨟␵⊐ѝ ㅹᖵ䴉᡻ᦗ䎧Ⲵ ⌑⋛ ԉ′㲅㲅 傚ᇞѝ 䞂俉⍱㠚億俉 ౤ଷˈ⥋࣋੨ਫ਼ѻᖼ ቡᱟફ੏ 㘼䊑⢉ᒺкըኅⲴ㛒億 ᱟኡ ҏᱟ≤



Lupke а䚃⋣⟏ⶑ൘ਖа䚃⋣ѝ ൠኔлⲴ◰⍱ ⒗ੁ ⊏ኡ㩜䟼 ৺㠣а᭟ⲭ㢢ⅼ䅐 ⹤൏㘼ࠪ14

This contemporary retelling of the Tang Xuanzong and Yang Guifei tragedy is more sensuous and suggestive than Bo Juyi’s from the Tang dynasty. Perusing the modern poem and reading the classical Chinese one naturally elicit fundamentally diffferent reactions from the reader. With the modern one, we are all too aware of what happened: the sexual excess of the emperor, the political vulnerability and decay, the attempt to overthrow the dynasty, the execution of Yang Guifei, and the ultimate crushing of the rebellion. All this is understood in the modern era and allows Luo Fu to proceed in a far more elliptical fashion. This oblique style is not solely an issue of subject matter. Luo Fu’s lines are short, light, and evocative. This depiction is a sketch of the delicate beauty of Yang, nothing more. Luo Fu pares back the narrative to its basic elements, taking advantage of the fact that the story of “Everlasting Sorrow” is known to almost all Chinese. Such an allusive poem would have been scorned during the May Fourth period, but for Luo Fu the relationship between the modern poet and the classical is a challenge, something to meet head on, and to flaunt. His ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with his classical predecessor hinges completely on his ability to summon a creative version of the story. He does this through the use of highly sensuous imagery and by doing such radical things as eliminating punctuation. The result is a truly lyrical rendition, despite the poem’s length. Politics is important, but it is fused together with the passion of the two in highly explicit instances in the poem, such as this: “Rivers / Still burn between two thighs / War must be fought / It was a national afffair” ⋣ᐍ ˋ ӽ൘‫ޙ‬㛑ѻ䯃⟳⠂ ˋ н㜭нᢃ ˋ ᖱᡠ഻ѻབྷһ. The doubling of double entendre in these lines—“thighs” (㛑) could also suggest a geographical formation and “burn” (⟳⠂) could refer to battle or to sexual passion—is a neat marriage between the personal and the political, most likely unimaginable to Bo Juyi. This fusion is echoed later in the poem in the lines “A war in her flesh A small, unbrewed storm / in her hands” (а๤ᡠ⡝൘ྩⲴ億‫ ˋ ޗ‬а‫ػ‬ ⥦ᵚ䟰ᡀⲴሿሿ付᳤ˋ൘ྩᦼ㼑. By now, the personal feeling in her body is one of foreboding, for like the reader she can sense the inevitable. She will be 14 

I have used John Balcom’s exquisite translation in Luo Fu, Stone Cell, 95–100. The original Chinese is found in Luo Fu, Luo Fu shige quanji, 341–353.

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


executed. The not yet “brewing” small storm is both the feeling in her heart and the act of violence that awaits her. For Luo Fu, we have to ask: What is the motivation for engaging such a famous poem and seeking to recast it for the modern audience? Luo Fu is a prolifijic poet who does not shy away from classical subject matter. Along with his close friends with whom he came of age in 1950s Taiwan, he was an exile from mainland China living in Taiwan, a place of unstable national identity where at least Mandarin Chinese was the main medium for communication. As a political subject, he was highly marginalized, even if the Mainlanders in Taiwan controlled the political reins for several decades. The literary fijigures, by and large, were ignored by those who ran the government. On the one hand, this turned out to be fortunate for them, as it allowed them to ply their literary trade with little interference. On the other, it made an overtly political poetry from the 1950s to the early 1980s almost entirely impossible, and it led to rifts between themselves and the local population of intellectuals and literary fijigures (a complicated issue best left for a separate essay). But on the level of national allegory, the tragedy of Yang Guifei was still something that reverberated in the marrow of the exiled Mainlander poets in Taiwan in the Chiang Kai-shek era. In Taiwan, they had no political voice; however, they could see what was happening not too far offf across the Taiwan Straits in the People’s Republic of China. In Mao’s China, they defijinitely would not have fared well. Leaving aside the fact that many of them were retired members of the Nationalist military, an inconvenient truth in mainland China, many also were landowners or at least from a fairly comfortable middle-class upbringing that included a college education. Any literary effforts in which they may have engaged in the PRC in the 1950s and 1960s would have been pressed into the service of the Chinese Communist Party. Cultural or literary allusion to such things as the An Lushan Rebellion of the Tang dynasty or to Tang poets like Bo Juyi would have been untouchable. What we have with Luo Fu and his peers, then, are those who have the freedom to engage political issues in an allegorical fashion, the ability and latitude to reimagine the structure and parameters of modern Chinese verse, and the basic economic security to pursue nearly pure literary endeavors. The regrettable aspect of this relative freedom, though, was not the need to steer clear of explicit political issues alone. Flourishing in Taiwan carried with it a certain tincture in the larger scheme of the Chinese literary tradition that is as muddled as it is unfair. There is nothing at all wrong with coming from Taiwan. In fact, it is in many ways a model society that supports culture and the arts. But, the Mainlander generation of poets had their formative experience in mainland China. Few of them, if any, learned to speak the local Hoklo ⾿֜



language. They initially were unfamiliar with the history and culture of Taiwan, and the fact that the ancestors of the majority population of bensheng ᵜⴱ (native) Taiwanese originally came from Fujian Province and were ethnically Han Chinese actually masked the fact that in critical ways they were quite diffferent from these recent émigrés. The result was a profound sense of exile and alienation. One way to assuage that sense of alienation was through the discursive means of suturing their work into the broader tradition of Chinese literature by ignoring the specifijicities of their life in Taiwan, with some notable exceptions, and the political vagaries of mainland China under Mao Zedong.15 Considered in this regard, the elliptical quality of a poem like “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” which requires reader participation, actually was a way for Luo Fu to weave his work together with that of the tradition and mollify his feelings of exile. Allusion, in other words, became a remedy for political exile. “Luo Fu is concerned with the abstract and metaphysical,” as John Balcom states in his analysis of Luo’s “Yu Li He gongyin” 㠷ᵾ䋰‫ޡ‬伢 (Sharing a drink with Li He), “but more so with Chinese literary tradition and history as well as his personal history and how it represents that of China.”16 It is poems such as this modern meditation upon Yang Guifei that make Luo Fu “fairly certain … of his place in modern Chinese letters” (Balcom, “To the Heart of Exile,” 78).


Ancient Peregrinations and Lost Friends of Old: Xiao Kaiyu’s Ironic Invocations of the Chinese Past

This discussion of nationalism, diffference, and poetic expression brings us to the restless, sinuous poetry of Xiao Kaiyu, one of the leading poets in the past two decades in what might be called, for lack of a better term, a new intellectualism.17 Xiao’s poetry is made difffijicult by three fundamental features: the diction is unusual and often displays catachresis; the syntax is frequently 15 



Although I have some quibbles with the way Au Chung-to situates the poetry of Luo Fu and other Mainlander Modernists who settled in Taiwan after the war, her notion of “imagined literary community” is similar to what I am stating here with respect to the fact that Luo Fu uses allusion as a method of installing himself in the Chinese literary tradition. See Au Chung-to, Modernist Aesthetics in Taiwanese Poetry since the 1950s, 141–192. As the authoritative translator of Luo Fu’s verse, Balcom’s succinct treatment is the best. He surveys the career of Luo Fu from the early years until around 2007. See his “To the Heart of Exile,” 77. Many terms have been used for the poetry that emerged in the post-Obscure era in China, by poets who in general are well educated and write difffijicult, challenging work: academic poetry; intellectual poetry; elevated poetry. None of these monikers quite captures what

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


disjointed or convoluted; and the subject matter often exhibits a collision of the banal with classical or historical references. Dissatisfijied with what he considered the naive transparency of the poetry in the immediate post-Mao era, Xiao began writing in the late 1980s. But it is his poetry from the 1990s, after the Tiananmen crackdown, that has gained the most attention. Poems of this era have left readers puzzled but beguiled, as Xiao and some of his associates began to rebuild Chinese poetry into a more difffijicult, challenging, and allusive frame from that of his immediate predecessors in mainland China. One of the most extreme examples of this is “Xi’an fujin” 㾯ᆹ䱴䘁 (On the outskirts of Xi’an), a poem that buckles under the weight of interminable layers of historical allusion.18 Reading the poem in Chinese is an exhausting exercise, and in English the poem is opaque to all but the most conversant in Chinese history. One can scarcely think that the goal could have been anything but to repel the reader. Why, then, would Xiao write such an obscure poem? The simple answer is that in exhausting the reader with multilayered historical allusion, Xiao creates an ironic efffect that performs for the reader the burden of China’s history. As the title denotes, the description basically remains close to Xi’an and its general vicinity, one of the most historically leavened places on earth. The poem appears to depict a trip through the Wei River Valley, as it also makes reference to the various historical sites in ancient China such as prehistoric Banpo ॺඑ (6700–5600 BP), to cultural icons such as the Tang poet Bo Juyi ⲭት᱃ (772–846), and practically everything in between. The poem begins deceptively, reading almost like a guidebook: On the way from Banpo to the Qin tombs, We arrived in the era promised by the oracle bone inscriptions. This deep, dark forest epitomizes China, Its beauty and starvation, spurred people to mount the back of Lions and elephants, from east to west, from east to west, Dropped offf in the bland and antiquated evening, The tribal chieftains, fresh blood and a carved staircase. 㠚ॺඑ৫〖䲥Ⲵѝ䙄ˈ ᡁԜࡠ䗮⭢僘᮷‫ݱ‬䈪ⲴᰦԓDŽ 唁᳇Ⲵы᷇᧿㔈⵰ѝഭˈ 㢣ᛵˈ侕侯ˈۜӪк⤞


they are doing, and, in any event, they are not necessarily as unifijied as it would seem. I asked Xiao Kaiyu about it, and he resisted all of the general descriptions. Xiao Kaiyu, Xiao Kaiyu de shi, 191–196.


Lupke ઼བྷ䊑Ⲵ㛼㜺ˈӾь ࡠ㾯ˈӾьࡠ㾯ˈ ๅ‫ޕ‬অ䈳㘼ਔ㘱Ⲵཌᲊˈ 䝻䮯ˈ勌㹰઼䴅㣡ᾬởDŽ xiao kaiyu, The Poetry, 191

From the most ancient times of China’s prehistoric past to the earliest times of its written history, there is a “promise” made to the traveler, a promise that is dark and beautiful, but bloody and containing the starving souls of those who attempted to tame nature but in the course of establishing a civilization were from the beginning violent. Images of war, destruction, military fijigures, invasions, conflict between Han Chinese and “barbarians,” and the harnessing of animals crowd the poem; the cascading historical images create an alienating efffect. No narrative other than the historical narrative to which the poem refers is possible. The poem is a concatenation of events and historical fijigures, enough material from which to write a textbook of Chinese history. But the tone is not a proud one. At times, there is the hint of contemplation: How do the fijierce and atrocious from the west transform Into the supple and slick from the west, how did Cao Cao transform The west into the north? This city, The vacancy after its loss, is an answer to the sojourner. … Don’t repair the temple anymore, hastily become a monk. The grey tombs plucking the golden caps of the western people, Shining the leisure of the dead, the salt merchants And those who have moved the capital linger on the exhausted road. The people here are surrounded by grave mounds, Festooned with wreathes of flowers, and they submerge The baked buns into mutton stew. The rainbow shirt from the northwest wind Brings with it a belt. Intense desire gives both the poor And the wealthy cases of sciatica. ᶕ㠚㾯ᯩⲴေ㛱ᘾṧਈᡀҶ ᶕ㠚㾯ᯩⲴ⓻⏖ˈᴩ᫽ᘾṧ ਈ㾯ᯩѪेᯩˈ䘉ᓗ෾ᐲ ⎸ཡਾⲴオ㲊എㆄ⵰⑨ᇒDŽ DŽDŽDŽ

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


н޽‫؞‬ᓉˈशशᖃ઼ቊDŽ ⚠㢢䲥ໃ᪈л㾯ᯩӪⲴ䠁ߐˈ ⛛⽪↫㘵Ⲵᛐ䰢ˈⴀ୶ ৺䗱䜭Ӫ⮉൘⯢ࣣⲴ䐟䙄ˈ 䘉䟼ӪԜ㻛儈儈൏ш ᡾Ⲵ㣡സ⧟㔅ˈᢺ㖺㚹⊔ ⌑✗侬⺾DŽ㾯े仾ᆇ䵃㼣 䙂ᶕ㼉ᑖ˗ᕪ⛸Ⲵᝯᵋ ֯ェӪ઼ᇼӪ䜭ᇣк㞠⯵DŽ xiao, The Poetry, 195–196

Here, “the west” is not to be mistaken for Western civilization. Rather, it means west of Xi’an, presumably the wild and “barbaric” regions against which the Chinese fought. The sojourner’s only answer to the question of how China’s civilization evolved, “transforming” “the fijierce and atrocious” from the west into “the supple and slick,” Cao Cao’s conversion of “the west into the north,” seems to indicate the progression of history. That supposition is supported by the general fact that the poem begins in prehistoric China and the references move more or less chronologically. But the answer to this question of transformation is found only in the “vacancy” after the loss of the city, a lament that so-called historical progress in China was made possible only by the destruction of cities and civilizations. The fijinal stanza intimating that it is useless to continue to repair the old temples and that one should merely “hastily” become a monk supports the notion that society hardly progresses in its movement through history. Rather, it may become more hopeless with each passing historical epoch. By the end of the poem, “leisure” is found only in death, and those who move the capital (China’s capitals were often moved with the shifts in political power) “linger on the exhausted road.” The “intense desire” mentioned in the penultimate line of the poem cuts across class lines and leads only to a bad case of sciatica, a sort of back ailment. The burden that is China’s history with load upon load of war, court intrigue, betrayal, arrogance, famine, flood, and so on is quite reasonably met with a painful condition to the lower lumbar region. Like the writer of this poem, contemporary Chinese people are overburdened and weighed down by their history. Given that the structure of the poem is free verse, with no discernible rhyme scheme, lines that are somewhat of a similar length but not rigidly so, and stanzas that are roughly equivalent to each other but, again, not uniform, the poem is clearly modern. The historical references may all be to dynastic



Chinese history, but the “sojourner” seems unmistakably rooted in the present. The syntax is that of modern Mandarin Chinese. Although there are no references to Western civilization, the form of the poem itself implies an indebtedness to the West. It could be that the overriding tone of violence, destruction, and death, the crucible out of which the history of Chinese civilization was forged, is only possible in the face of Western civilization, which for Chinese intellectuals coming of age in the post-Mao era carries its own burden. Xiao Kaiyu is somewhat coy on this point. Some of his poems are situated in the West, particularly in Germany. But this could be attributed to the coincidental fact that he was living in Germany at the time that he wrote those poems. He seldom brings images of the West together with images of China. But that he is influenced by Western modernism is clear from the way he formulates his poems. The most sustained example of Xiao’s articulation of the burden of history, but in particular the stresses of contemporary life in China, is his tour de force “Xiang Du Fu zhijing” ੁᶌ⭛㠤ᮜ (Homage to Du Fu). This poem of about fijifty pages is almost as opaque as “On the Outskirts of Xi’an,” but it is in no way as laden with historical allusion. Rather, the poem is obsessed with the crowded present of contemporary China: This is another China. For what does it exist? Nobody answered, not even an echo of an answer either. This is another China. It’s the same, three generations to a room, living in reduced privacy amounts to a performance; the next generation is fashioned from a certain measured cruelty. Dozing is a much-appreciated shared time for mother and father to learn the skill of pleasure, but it’s like a teacher reciting from the textbook in a string of bellows; Alas, it’s the same, people and oxen in the fijield pulling the plow, tilling the land. Life is like enduring.

National Myth and Global Aesthetics

This is another China. To speak Chinese only to be ashamed. When we are like beer, with ancient words frothing up, it’s just that there’s no sense of humiliation, and no honor either. Toothpaste, meat pie, the text of new words and the essence of humanity are idiotic titles just to swap out the taste in the mouth. Who can say for sure that this is not just a cheap trick? 䘉ᱟਖањѝഭ ѪҶӰѸ㘼ᆈ൘˛ ⋑ᴹӪഎㆄˈҏ⋑ ޽⭘എ༠എㆄ 䘉ᱟਖањѝഭDŽ аṧˈ⾆ᆉйԓ਼ትаᇔ ߿ቁҶ⿱⭏⍫ ㅹҾ㺘╄˗лаᑖ ⭡ቪᓖⲴ↻ᗽກ䙐ࠪᶕ ‫ٷ‬ልᱟੁ⇽Ӣ ઼⡦ӢᝏᚙⲴ਼ᰦ ᆖҐਆҀⲴᵜ亶ˈնྲ਼䈮ᵜ 䟽༽㘱ᐸаѢਸ਼்; ୺ˈаṧӪ઼⢋ ൘⭠䟼᣹⵰⢱䬗㙅㙉 ⭏⍫⣩ྲᗽ㙀˗ 䘉ᱟਖањѝഭ 䇢≹䈝ӵӵѪҶ㗎㙫ˈ ᖃᡁԜ‫ۿ‬ஔ䞂ˈⓒࠪ ਔ㘱䈝䀰Ⲵ⌑⋛ˈቡᱟ ⋑ᴹቸ䗡ᝏˈҏ⋑ᴹ㦓㘰DŽ ⢉㞿ˈ侵侬ˈᯠ਽䇽 ᕅ᮷઼Ӫ㊫㋮㤡 ѻ㊫㹒ཤ㹽ᦒᦹҶ౤ᐤⲴ ણ㿹ˈ䈱㛟ᇊ઒ˈ 䘉нᱟम䐥Ⲵ䈑䇑˛ xiao, The Poetry, 197–201




Firmly ensconced in the present, “Homage to Du Fu” causes one to wonder what exactly the poem has to do with the renowned Tang poet. Du Fu, it must be remembered, was one of the great social satirists of his day. Du Fu’s poetry was fijilled with political commentary intermingled with lamentations of the severe personal reversals that beset him. Xiao’s “Homage” is not an homage in the sense that he writes of his precursor’s life or accomplishments themselves. Rather, Xiao seeks to emulate Du Fu in his exposure of the things wrong in his own contemporary world. But it is not a world parallel to premodern China. This is “another China”: a China that brings with it, according to the poet, shame and cruelty. With people living practically stacked upon one another, the contemporary China is not considered to be any better than the glory days of the empire. What might be viewed as cultural heritage is not something that is delicately nurtured and passed down from generation to generation. Rather, it is like “beer,” “with ancient words frothing up.” This unusually quotidian, almost humorous image of the Chinese language and its storied past is a source of neither humiliation nor pride. The stress of overpopulation, the lack of privacy, the denuding of civilization, have deadened the senses to both pride and humiliation. It is difffijicult to think of this view toward China without implicit reference to Western civilization and the inferiority complex that infects non-Western intellectuals, including some Chinese. Xiao Kaiyu goes on in such poems as “Women de shirenmen” ᡁԜⲴ䈇ӪԜ (Our poets) to situate Chinese intellectuals as the analysand, discursively eviscerating themselves in full view of those whose profession it is to analyze them (namely, Sinologists). He even has an acerbic poem titled “Hanxue jia” ≹ᆖᇦ (The Chinese studies specialist) that shines the light of his critique upon the analyst. In fact, critique of all kinds pervades Xiao’s poetry. His sense of history is highly complex and fraught with contradictory emotions. In a fijinal poem of Xiao’s that we will consider, “Zhongjiang xian” ѝ⊏৯ (Zhongjiang County), we see him mix references to ancient China, the historical iconography of Maoist China, and the contemporary era, all in one poem that is set in his home county: Zhongjiang County (1991) 1 The county seat is waiting for the holiday to transform the street. It used to be a battleground, a theater of heroes prostrating and dead,

National Myth and Global Aesthetics

their bodies inlaid with bullets, just like Huang Jiguang, Red martyrs of 1968. The stylish lady understands the value of the times. She arranges her youth in middle school. She invites her art teacher to dinner; She invites him to use his magical powers to preserve her glamour. The moon shines through the window illuminating her nude body. 2 The Kai River greets the dawn and the wizened washing ladies through the fijissures between willow branches and leaves. The river absorbs the most beautiful women. They ask their sons to retreat from humiliation, until glory overlaps. When the riverbed cracks, displaying long scrolls of silk-screen artworks, when the population mongers die under the locust trees, when desire struggles free from the shackles of propriety, the county magistrate from Dujiangyan buys water to be used for the boat races of the Dragon Boat Festival. 3 The highway from Chengdu goes all the way to Santai. The highway from Deyang goes all the way to Suining. There’s also a highway that goes to Mianyang, but no travelers linger. At night the local men and women engage in amorous fun. The population increases, but dreams decrease. The youth retold their elders’ yearnings, “Mechanization, ah, mechanization.” The storm of famine swept away the makeup table and the beauty of youth. The earth and the people are preparing for the next storm.



Lupke ѝ⊏৯ (1991)

1 䘉ᓗ৯෾ㅹᖵ⵰ 㢲ᰕ᭩䙐㺇䚃DŽ ৏ᶕቡᱟаᓗᡈ൪ˈ ࢗ൪䟼ᒣ䓪⵰↫৫Ⲵࣷ༛DŽ 䓛փ፼┑ᆀᕩˈ‫ۿ‬哴㔗‫ˈݹ‬ 1968ᒤⲴ㓒㢢⛸༛DŽ ᰦ儖ྣ༛៲ᗇᰦ‫Ⲵݹ‬ԧ٬ˈ ᢺ䶂᱕ᆹᧂ൘ѝᆖDŽ 䚰䈧㖾ᵟᮉᐸਲ਼佀ˈ 䚰䈧ԆⲴ冄࣋⮉տྩⲴ兵࣋ˈ ᴸӞӾデᡧ➗㘰㼨փDŽ

2 ࠟ⊏Ӿḣṁ᷍ਦⲴ㕍䳉 䗾ᶕ哾᰾઼㣽㘱Ⲵ⍇㺓ྷˈ 䘉ᶑ⊏᧕㓣Ҷ ᴰ㖾ྭⲴྣᙗDŽ ྩԜ䈧≲‫ݯ‬ᆀӾቸᴽ 䘰তˈⴤࡠо㦓䂹䟽ਐDŽ ᖃ⋣ᒺᒢ㻲ኅ⽪ࠪ䮯ধ э㖁㣡ˈᖃӪਓ䍙ᆀ ൘ ṁᯱុભˈᖃⅢᵋ ᥓ㝡⽬䊼Ⲵ᥶ᶏˈ ৯䮯Ӿ䜭⊏๠Ҡ≤ ᶕ䎋㡏ᒶㄟॸDŽ

3 ᶕ㠚ᡀ䜭Ⲵ‫ޜ‬䐟䙊ᖰйਠˈ ᶕ㠚ᗧ䱣Ⲵ‫ޜ‬䐟䙊ᖰ䙲ᆱˈ ਖᴹаᶑ‫ޜ‬䐟䙊ᖰ㔥䱣ˈ ն⋑ᴹ᯵ᇒ䙇⮉ˈ ཌ䰤ᵜൠ⭧ྣ⅒⡡DŽ Ӫਓ໎࣐ˈỖᜣ߿ቁDŽ 䶂ᒤ䟽䇹ࡽ䖸Ⲵៗៜˈ

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


“ᵪỠॆˈથˈᵪỠॆʽ” 侕侯Ⲵ仾᳤࡞䎠Ҷ ợྶਠˈ઼᱕㢢DŽ ൏ൠ઼Ӫ≁Ѫл⅑仾᳤㘼߶༷⵰DŽ xiao, The Poems, 79–8119

The poem references four historical moments, including the present time of “highways,” when “population increases” lead to the “decrease” in “dreams.” The contemporary, post-Mao era of this poem does not profffer the sort of economic comfort and sustenance that the propaganda of the Deng Xiaoping regime touted. The poem is not simply set in contemporary times, and certainly not arbitrarily. It is, to an extent, a meditation on the 1990s, insinuating that although progress is the governing ideology of the times, China’s past burdens weigh heavily now and hinder it from moving forward. The poem moves between references to the ancient times of Qu Yuan, the poet-statesmen who legend has it committed suicide in the face of bureaucratic neglect, and the Maoist era hero. Qu Yuan’s birthday is commemorated during the Dragon Boat Festival, the occasion for the poem’s writing. But in the fijirst stanza, the poet arguably takes some risks by raising the issue of both the Cultural Revolution and the crowd gathering for the holiday festivities on the street, once a battlefijield of dead “Red Martyrs” from 1968. Clearly, in the center of this town from which the poet hails, there was some sort of violent confrontation, likely between the military and the Red Guard, who eventually were deemed too unwieldy even for the Maoists. Adding a level of ambiguity, the poet compares these dead “Red Martyrs” to the bona fijide “revolutionary” martyr Huang Jiguang (1931–1952), who died fijighting against the “Imperialists,” the Americans and their South Korean proxies during the Korean War. To Chinese, the Korean War is viewed as part of the 19 

It may only be a coincidence, but the Communist-era poet and political apparatchik He Jingzhi alluded to the heroism in a poem of his own called “Lei Feng zhi ge” 䴧䬻 ѻⅼ (The song of Lei Feng). In this 1963 poem, revolutionary martyrs such as Lei Feng and Huang Jiguang were lauded for their ability to embody the spirit of Mao Zedong. Certainly, the tone of Xiao Kaiyu’s poem is far removed from that. As I suggest, part of the reason he would select Huang Jiguang as a subject is because he comes from the same hometown. Additionally, choosing a revolutionary era icon underscores the irony of the consumerism depicted in Xiao’s poem. Published two years later, another poem by He Jingzhi 䍪ᮜѻ (b. 1924), “Huida jinri de shijie: Du Wang Jie riji” എㆄӺᰕⲴц⭼˖䈫⦻ ᶠᰕ䇠 (Answering today’s world: Reading Wang Jie’s diary) also alludes to Lei Feng and Huang Jiguang, as well as Wang Jie ⦻ᶠ, all iconic fijigures of the Maoist period. For “The Song of Lei Feng,” see He Jingzhi, He Jingzhi shixuan, 351–398; for “Answering Today’s World,” see also He Jingzhi, He Jingzhi shixuan, 407–412.



continuing revolution against imperialism, not as a border dispute or fijight for regional dominance. The Korean War is the major sore spot, historically speaking, between the PRC and the United States, as the casualties from this war are viewed as heroes who fought against the encroaching global power that the United States was and still is. In recent decades, China and the United States have had a more nuanced relationship, particularly complicated by the status of North Korea, China’s bufffer from the West but also an embarrassment and nuisance for China. Chinese much prefer now to vacation in and do business with South Korea, but they remain steadfast in their alliance with the North. Huang Jiguang was one of a few notable soldiers who gave his life in the war and secured a battle victory for the Chinese. Unknown in the West, the artistic renderings of him are part of the pantheon of martyrs from the “War against American Aggression,” and a memorial was built for him in Zhongjiang on the thirty-fijifth anniversary of his death. But mixing the image of this revolutionary martyr, someone clearly to be revered, with the Red Guards and the death and destruction associated with them, on top of the classical antecedent of Qu Yuan, all together in a self-conscious meditation on the present condition of China makes these historical allusions enigmatic and their signifijicance underspecifijied and subject to interpretation. The signifijicance of the “stylish lady” in the second stanza is equally unclear, but the fact that she values the way she looks and is made up, and is entertaining her former teacher at dinner, does seem at variance both with the notion of heroism from the fijirst stanza, and from the implied critique of social unrest as embodied in the Red Guard. Perhaps she is a person of the times, since in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s, the contemporary in the poem was a period of consolidation for the Dengist regime after ten years of profound economic change and one season of intellectual dissent in 1989. The early 1990s was a moment when Chinese people turned inward, because they knew that outward protest would land them in prison. The dominant trend in the 1990s was to accentuate the unthreatening vacuity of material gain and acquisitiveness: for the fijirst time in decades, people were able to buy large televisions, stereos, refrigerators, and even cars. Although China still has profound economic disparity today, especially geographically, it was in the 1990s that Chinese in the cities at least began to become accustomed to a modicum of luxury. In this stanza, teachers are now used not to bestow knowledge but to help the attractive woman preserve her glamour. Highways are built everywhere, but “no one lingers.” People are too busy in their hectic lives, existing in a new world of free market values; they do not have the leisure time to linger. The economic modernization of the Deng Xiaoping era did not necessarily lead to a better life for people in countryside settings like Zhongjiang County. Of

National Myth and Global Aesthetics


course, Xiao Kaiyu had to be careful in applying any critique to the Chinese State, particularly in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown. So, instead of using the word for “modernization” (xiandaihua ⧠ԓॆ), he uses “mechanization” ( jixiehua ᵪỠॆ). “Mechanization” could be a veiled critique of Dengist modernization, since so much of the reform era was invested in industrialization and the creation of a factory economy of inexpensive labor from which China could undercut other manufacturing economies and establish a strong foothold in the global economic system. “Mechanization” could also indicate a kind of Weberian routinization, or even a Marxian reifijication of human behavior and consciousness, in the contemporary capitalist world where profijit motive and an assembly-line social structure have replaced the collectivist ideal of the Maoist era. But whatever the case is, one thing is certain: the future is not necessarily sanguine. The conflicts that take place on the town square and lead to carnage, along with the wars ostensibly against imperialism, and, in fact, even the protests of neglected offfijicials in ancient China, all seem to channel into a violent end. History, in this poem, is a series of turbulent events, and “the earth and the people are preparing for the next storm.” There is no question another storm will come. We may not know what form it will take. But what is a certainty, or at least an expectation on the part of the people— and even the earth—is that there will be a “next storm.” “Zhongjiang County” does not present an optimistic view of the Chinese future. The reform era in China has its own challenges, and the author indicates that only the surface structure of the conflicts changes. That there will be continued conflict down the line, essentially a dystopian view, is a foregone conclusion.


Conclusion: Yeats, Modern Chinese Poets, and Modernism beyond the West

Like W. B. Yeats, Chinese poets of the twentieth century endeavored to bring their own verse into the global light by intersecting with themes of interest in modernism, such as urban culture, the vagaries of war, ambivalent attitudes toward sexuality, ambiguity in religious and ethical values, and, in their cases, hesitancy toward their own statuses in the face of a long and illustrious literary tradition. They were not alone in this. Many other distinguished Chinese poets of the twentieth century sought to do the same, most of whom are discussed in this volume of essays in diffferent ways by the other contributors. Thus, Wu Xinghua, Luo Fu, and Xiao Kaiyu are not diffferent from them; they typify this trend. But that does not mean the poetry of these various artists was interchangeable. Each forged his or her own style. Yeats made ample use



of his own folkloric tradition from Ireland, largely unknown in mainstream English-speaking circles, to distinguish his own work and to write himself back into his native tradition while simultaneously ensuring himself a place in the broader English tradition. Wu, Luo, and Xiao also have dealt extensively with the past, through allusive dialogues with major cultural and historical fijigures, geographical artifacts, and often elliptical, enigmatic, and yet lovely, lyrical phrasings that capture the original images and cast them anew. The “Janus face” nature of their work, to borrow once again from David Lloyd, provides us with a complex, multifaceted articulation of each of their own situations in the modern world, and it is not without its insecurity or frustration. The portrait that develops from this reading of three modern Chinese poets is one of entangled, even conflicted, feelings toward the modern predicament that are best articulated through a hybrid style that, without foreswearing the indigenous past, is still receptive to the innovations, circumstances, and conditions of a modern, global social milieu. The implications for this micro-reading resonate beyond the specifijic poets whom I discuss. It is an efffort, nevertheless, to reveal fruitful points of comparison between the modern Chinese poets and the self-conscious, exilic status of W. B. Yeats. Rather than asserting a simplistic thesis that the latter group of Chinese authors are influenced by the Western bard in a schematically causal sense, I believe that in some ways their situations were similar, their grievances were shared, and their thoughts resounding with a certain amount of afffijinity. They all possess a desire to express themselves in the somewhat controlled linguistic idiom of verse rather than in a more expansive narrative mode. Thus, I have not engaged in a taxonomic efffort to delimit those Chinese poets who are most tightly grouped with a Yeatsean style. Nor have I been interested in arguing that they are part of a unifijied movement. Least of all have I been intent on perforce proving empirically that Yeats directly influenced them in concrete ways. I merely have hoped to illustrate how certain echoes of Yeats’s work, preoccupations, and methods of resolving his troubles in writing have some kinship with those of these three modern Chinese poets.

chapter 10

Measure Words Not for Measure: a Linguistic Experiment in Modern Chinese Poetry Lisa Lai-ming Wong

To many modern poets, the key to modernism is nonconformism in the use of language. As exemplifijied by the French surrealists’ practice, words can be a springboard to upset the mind and unveil its inadequacy. Many linguists also consider the use of language to be vital in defijining poets and poetry. For example, to Roman Jakobson, “a poet is a conscious enthusiast for language,” and Habel (one of Jakobsen’s interlocutors) sees the very nature of poetry in its relation to the structure of language, for “it is only the application of the verbal material, not the content found in it, that constitutes the diffference between poetry and prose.”1 Taking an interdisciplinary approach, this chapter will investigate how modern Chinese poets have experimented with a specifijic linguistic component, measure words, and in what ways their innovative use of it has contributed to Chinese modernism. The issue of the verbal medium is of prime importance to the Chinese literary scene because it posed a double challenge, both linguistic and literary, to early twentieth-century China. Hu Shi’s eight tenets in “Wenxue gailiang chuyi” ᮷ᆨ᭩㢟㣫䆠 (Some modest proposals for the reform of literature), published in 1917, can be summarized as a quest for a new written-colloquial medium and a living literature in the vernacular.2 Although the use of the spoken language for writing is not brand new, it was unprecedented that Chinese intellectuals saw language reform and literary revolution as part of a nationbuilding project. Their aim of adopting a living tongue in the writing system 1  Roman Jakobson, “On Poetic Intentions and Linguistic Devices in Poetry,” 93. 2  Hu Shi’s essay was published in Xin qingnian ᯠ䶂ᒤ [New youth] 2.5 (January 1917). The eight tenets are “1. Writing should have substance; 2. Do not imitate the ancients; 3. Emphasize the technique of writing; 4. Do not moan without an illness; 5. Eliminate hackneyed and formal language; 6. Do not use allusions; 7. Do not use parallelism; [and] 8. Do not avoid vulgar diction,” as quoted in Denton, Modern Chinese Literary Thought, 123–124. In April 1918, Hu further elucidated his ideas in an essay titled “On the Building of a Literary Revolution”: “Our aim in the literary revolution is merely to create in China a literature in the national language. A national language may be established only after we have produced a literature in the national language.” For a discussion, see Tse-tsung Chow, The May Fourth Movement, 277.

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and thereby fueling the progress toward freedom of expression and democratization of education demonstrates the social and political implications of the movement. In 1921 and 1922, the Ministry of Education decreed the introduction of textbooks written in the vernacular to primary and secondary schools.3 Intellectuals committed to the literary revolution hoped that the vernacular would become an efffective medium for the development of a new literature that was accessible to the public, and, through popular education and a raised level of literacy, people would be enlightened and develop a modern worldview.4 After the advent of language reform, linguistic studies of the Chinese vernacular developed rapidly in the fijirst few decades of the twentieth century. Wang Li ⦻࣋ (1900–1986) admitted that the early formulation of the Chinese grammar system was largely influenced by Western models. From Ma Jianzhong’s 俜ᔪᘐ (1845–1900) Mashi wentong 俜∿᮷䙊 (Ma’s basic principles for writing clearly; 1898) to Wang Li’s Zhongguo xiandai yufa ѝ഻⨮ԓ䃎⌅ (Modern Chinese grammar; 1943, rpt. 1949), for half a century Chinese grammar studies was circumscribed by ten parts-of-speech categories shared by Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan languages. Confijined by this Western framework, early grammar studies overlooked a signifijicant element of the Chinese language— “measure words.”5 This study of modern poets’ experiments with the verbal medium will center on measure words, a specifijic part of speech commonly found in spoken Chinese that actually falls outside the ten-category model borrowed from the West. According to He Jie’s օᶠ research, measure words did not play a signifijicant role in Chinese writing before the vernacular movement of 1919.6 There was a substantial increase in the number of measure words in written Chinese when intellectuals began to experiment with “my hand writes as my

3  Franz H. Michael and George E. Taylor, The Far East in the Modern World. 4  This goal of the new literature and new thought movements was fijirst proposed by Huang Yuanyong 哳䚐ᓨ (1885–1915) in 1915. In his letter to the editor of the Tiger monthly in Tokyo, he writes: “As to the fundamental salvation [of China], I believe its beginning must be sought in the promotion of a new literature. In short, we must endeavor to bring Chinese thought into direct contact with the contemporary thought of the world, thereby to accelerate its radical awakening” (Tse-tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement, 272). Hu Shi translated the letter into English in his essay “The Literary Renaissance” (Tse-tsung Chow, The May Fourth Movement, 440). 5  Wang Li ⦻࣋, Zhongguo xiandai yufa. 6  For an overview of the early defijinitions of measure words, see He Jie’s Xiandai Hanyu liangci yanjiu, 1–10.

Measure Words Not for Measure


mouth speaks.”7 In Chinese grammar studies, the use of classifijiers gradually gained offfijicial recognition in the twentieth century, and in 1940 classifijiers were defijined as danwei ci ௞ս䂎 (unit words) that express a quantity. In 1954, liang ci 䟿䂎 (measure words) became the generally accepted name for classifijiers in China, an offfijicial recognition that was most welcome not only because this eleventh category completes the Chinese linguistics system but also and more importantly because measure words exhibit the unique nature of the Sino-Tibetan languages, in that they do not exist in Indo-European languages.8 Apart from being a linguistic category characteristic of Chinese, measure words are also a distinctive feature of the spoken language in vernacular writing. Studies of the early use of classifijiers in the Tang dynasty have shown that measure words, which are normally taken as a feature of the spoken language, rarely appeared in classical Chinese writing. In poetry, they are found only in a few works from the Tang and Song dynasties, for instance, the use of ge ‫ػ‬ in “Two [ge of] yellow orioles sing amid the emerald willows / a row of white egrets fly to the azure sky” ‫ػޙ‬哳呍匤㘐ḣ  а㹼ⲭ吪к䶂ཙ in Du Fu’s poem “Jue ju” ㎅ਕ (A quatrain) and “Seven to eight [ge of] stars up in the sky / Two to three drops of rain before the mountain” г‫ػޛ‬ᱏཙཆ  ‫ޙ‬й唎䴘 ኡࡽ in Xin Qiji’s 䗋Ỵ⯮ (1140–1207) song lyric “Xijiang yue: Ye xing Huangsha dao zhong” 㾯⊏ᴸ˖ཌ㹼哳⋉䚃ѝ (The moon on the West River: On the yellow sand ridge at night). In a chapter titled “Fei bai” 伋ⲭ (Ellipsis), Huang Qingxuan 哳ឦ㩡 (b. 1932) discusses the functions of dialect and slang in literary language and sees their rhetorical use as a means to create literary efffects: “for those who speak the dialect, it creates a sense of intimacy; for those who do not, it creates a sense of wonder.”9 Analyzing the appearance of measure words in poetry, he cites Huang Che’s comment on Du Fu’s use of ge in regulated verse, including the instance quoted earlier, and criticizes the adoption 7  The famous adage “my hand writes as my mouth speaks” was proposed by Huang Zunxian 哳 䚥២ (1848–1905), a Chinese offfijicial, scholar, and poet. It served to encourage free expression of one’s thoughts and feelings. Huang played a crucial role in liberating writers from sterile classical Chinese and promoting the use of colloquial vocabulary and syntax to explore new themes and styles in late nineteenth-century China. 8  The use of measure words is one of the fundamental diffferences between English and Chinese. For example, in English there are classifijiers that function as units of measurement, such as two cups of cofffee, and collective nouns that are used with plural nouns to indicate lump categories, like a flock of birds, but the use of measure words after a modifijier (such as an article, “a,” “an,” or “the”) or a numeral is not obligatory. By contrast, articles are absent in Chinese. The insertion of a measure word between a numeral and a noun is mandatory. In the vernacular, measure words are widely used and are mostly grammatical particles that do not have any specifijic lexical defijinitions. 9  Huang Qingxuan, Xiuci xue, 137.



of slang in literary language: “To count things by ge … is a rather low and crude way of writing; only Du Fu used it frequently” (Huang, Rhetorics, 138). Thus, the presence of measure words in classical poetic writing is undesirable, evidence of a departure from the received tradition. The diversity of measure words and the complexity of their use in spoken and written vernacular Chinese have made them a unique feature of the modern Chinese language. Zhao Yuanren’s 䏉‫ݳ‬ԫ (1892–1982) Grammar of Spoken Chinese (1968) laid the foundation for the linguistic study of measure words in the vernacular. According to Zhao’s defijinition, “a measure is a bound morpheme that forms a D-M compound” and “[a] determinative (D) and a measure (M) normally make a compound with unlimited versatility, forming a transient word of no lexical import.”10 Zhao divided measures into nine categories: classifijiers (Mc), classifijiers with V-O constructions (Mc’), group measures (Mg), partitive measures (Mp), container measures (Mo), temporary measures (Mt), standard measures (Mm), quasi-measures (Mq), and measures for verbs (Mv). Many classifijiers began as full nouns, and each has a meaning of its own, such as ye 㩹 (leaf), tou 九 (head), and wei ቮ (tail) (Zhao, Collected Works, 595). Once a noun is combined with a number to be used as a classifijier, it takes on the meaning of the object it measures. In the course of development, some nouns were gradually emptied of meaning until their only use was as classifijiers. This is why in Zhao’s opinion a measure is a D-M compound that forms a transient word of no lexical import (i.e., a functional unit of almost no semantic signifijicance). Among the determinatives, the most common type is numerals. This discussion will focus on one numeral and two categories of measure words. The numeral is yi а, which means “one” or “all” as a quantitative determinative. The categories of measure words are classifijiers (Mc) and container measures (Mo). Hence, the syntactic pattern of the D-M compound is normally one/all + Mc/Mo + noun. For example, a boat is “one [leaf of] boat” а㩹㡏, a pig is “one [head of] pig” а九䊜, and a fijish is “one [tail of] fijish” аቮ冊. Wang Li argues that the use of this D-M compound in the vernacular shows the importation of indefijinite articles from English to modern Chinese grammar. Hence, Wang’s observation supports Zhao’s view that the measure word in a D-M compound carries little meaning (Modern Chinese Grammar, 377–381). Since measure words are mandatory and used extensively with nouns, the sheer volume of this linguistic component makes it almost transparent in everyday language. In the middle of the twentieth century, when Chinese language meant the vernacular and modernism was almost a synonym for modern poetry, critical 10 

Zhao Yuanren, Zhao Yuanren quanji, 595 and 404; emphasis mine.

Measure Words Not for Measure


attention was to a large extent directed toward literary forms and devices. The attempts to promote Chinese modernist poetry in Taiwan and Hong Kong were marked by Ji Xian’s ㌰ᕖ (1913–2013) launch of Xiandai shi ⨮ԓ䂙 (Modern poetry) in 1953 and Ronald Mar’s 俜ᵇ (b. 1933) inauguration of Wenyi xinchao ᮷㰍ᯠ▞ (New trends in literature and the arts) in 1956. Both Ji and Mar called for a continuation of the May Fourth generation’s incomplete project of literary reform and promoted the development of modernist poetry. One of their emphases was the verbal medium in poetry writing, and they both regarded French Surrealism as the main model for literary innovation. Mar, almost half a century after his manifesto on Chinese modernism, revisited the subject when he was asked to speak to a North American audience in celebration of the May Fourth Movement in 2002. In his talk, titled “Why Choose Modernism?,” he aligned the language experiment in modernist poetry with the literary reform promoted by Hu Shi and his generation: Rimbaud’s breakthrough in subverting linguistic rules for poetic language has largely laid down the defijinition of modernism. Such a breakthrough also underlines the objectives of the May Fourth Movement in China, and Hu Shi’s campaign for the vernacular…. I am not saying that the May Fourth Movement is modernism, but to me, both carry the same meaning.11 Of course, when Hu Shi proposed the adoption of the vernacular in literary writing, the verbal medium he desired was yet to be systematically established. By contrast, when Ji Xian stresses the importance of creating “new forms, new tools, and new methods” and highlights the “pursuit of purity in poetry,” he actually echoes Paul Valery’s (1871–1945) promotion of a poetic transformation of verbal material, suggesting a conscious and subversive use of a received language.12 From Mar’s perspective, such emphasis on experimenting with the verbal medium in poetry writing is an integral part of Chinese modernist poetics. Although measure words are a feature of spoken Chinese, early modern poets tended to omit them in their writing. As Chen Qiyou observes, the language of some famous poets such as Ji Xian, Yang Lingye 㖺Ԕ䟾 (1923–1994), and Zheng Chouyu 䝝ᜱҸ (b. 1933) remains classical and literary despite the 11  12 

Ronald Mar, Jiangshan mengyu, 149. The Modernist School was founded by Ji Xian. Six tenets were proclaimed in its manifesto published in Xiandai shi ⨮ԓ䂙 [Modern poetry] 13 (1 February 1956). The two ideas quoted here come from the third and fijifth tenets.



poets being representatives of the Modernist School in Taiwan.13 Even when the numeral one is used, measures are often omitted in their lines, so the syntax is simply: one + adjective + noun. In comparison, Yu Guangzhong ։‫ݹ‬ѝ (1928–2017) used measure words more often, but the actual measure words he chooses, such as que 䰅for enumerating songs, are actually drawn from classical literary Chinese and difffer signifijicantly from their counterparts, in this case shou 俆, in spoken Chinese. Perhaps to many poets this linguistic component in the vernacular is anything but poetic. Modernist writers stress the art and technique of seeing things anew through a twisting of one’s vision. One way to convey a peculiar vision is by alienating the viewer from the language of received tradition. Modernist poetry exemplifijies such a rebellion against the established culture in its verbal form. By comparing the conventional syntax and pairing in the linguistic system of the vernacular with its modernist usage in poetry writing, I will illustrate how modern poets have used measure words—an almost invisible part of speech that has no lexical import—to achieve a desired suddenness through ungrammatical usage and unfamiliar collocation. Their creative use of measure words shifts this part of speech from its normal function of measurement to a new performative role as the vehicle for a twist in vision. A distinct worldview, especially of the city and urban experiences captured by the quotidian (colloquialism, dialect, and everyday life), is efffectively conveyed by the innovation of measure words in the vernacular. Regarding the relationship between language and worldview, Wai-lim Yip has a rather conservative agenda for modern Chinese poetry. To answer his own question posed in the essay “The Pai-hua and Modern Chinese Poetry,” “With a medium so deviated from literary Chinese, to what extent can the modern Chinese poets … still retain their identity with the classical Chinese mode?,” he contends that modernist poets such as Shang Qin and Ya Xian have retained the potentialities of classical Chinese by using ellipsis to disrupt the discursiveness in the vernacular syntax.14 Yip appraises the poets’ attempts to arrive at equilibrium and to devise a fijinal scheme for contemporary experiences, and concludes that modernist poetry is “a dynamic poetry … of all-inclusiveness.” He highly values the sense of totality in modernist poetry, which still bears the characteristics of the Daoist orientation in the Chinese worldview. However, 13  14 

Chen Qiyou, “Wushi niandai Xiandaipai zhong de gudian,” 142–144. A comparative linguistic approach is pertinent to the study of modern Chinese poetry, but not many scholars have taken this path. Wai-lim Yip was among the fijirst. In “The Pai-hua and Modern Chinese Poetry” (xvii), Yip’s emphasis on colloquialism and Westernized grammatical structure in the vernacular coincides with the views of many linguists. See Yip, “The Pai-hua and Modern Chinese Poetry.”

Measure Words Not for Measure


many modernist poets’ perceptions of the world difffer signifijicantly from the traditional holistic vision, and some of them have expressed their new experience of disintegration by inserting a large number of measure words into a single poem. Listing and juxtaposition are by no means new techniques in Chinese poetry. A comparative reading of a famous classical song lyric, Ma Zhiyuan’s 俜㠤䚐 (1260–1305) “Tian jing sha” ཙ␘⋉ (Heaven pure sand), with two modern Chinese poems—Liang Bingjun’s ằ⿹䡎 (Leung Ping-kwan; pen name Ye Si; 1949–2013) “Russell Street” (Luosu jie 㖵㍐㺇) and Huai Yuan’s ␞䚐 (b. 1952) “Ciwai” ↔ཆ (Apart from these)—illustrates the marked diffference in aesthetic perceptions. “Tian jing sha” is well known for its verbal montage: Withered vines, old trees, twilight crows. Small bridge, flowing water, people’s homes. Ancient road, the west wind, gaunt horse. The evening sun sinks westward. A man, heart-broken, on a far horizon.15 ᷟ┅㘱⁩᰿匹 ሿ⁻⍱≤Ӫᇦ ਔ䚃㾯付ⱖ俜 ཅ䲭㾯лᯧ㞨Ӫ൘ཙ⏟

The listing of the twelve images is plain in syntax, with each image formed by a two-character or three-character unit composed of an adjective and a noun. The only verb is “sinks,” for the setting sun brings out the mood of the heartbroken person. The things on the list are generic in nature and the quantity of them is of little importance. In the reader’s mental picture, vines, trees, crows, and homes are all probably in the plural. Amid them there may be only one bridge, one river, and one pathway where the man and his horse are seen at the horizon against the sinking sun. The absence of numerals and measure words focuses the reader’s attention on the images themselves. There is a sense of detachment, and the reading experience is like appreciating a scroll painting as it unrolls, with a sudden revelation of a human fijigure at the end. The juxtaposition of images builds up an overall picture that freezes the mood of sorrow and loneliness. This is typical of the classical aesthetics of totality. Liang Bingjun’s poem “Russell Street” also works by listing things, but the experience of walking through the street is unfolded from a traveler’s point of 15 

Ma Zhiyuan in Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, 740.



view. Russell Street is now a busy and expensive shopping area in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. In the 1970s, it was a side street particularly crowded in the morning when people went to the stalls and the fresh food market there to buy food. The reader follows a passerby in a rush to get through the street: The road is muddy and damp as always A [one ge of] passerby hurrying on his way fijinds it difffijicult to inch forward among the congested rows of stalls 䐟к≨䚐Ⲵ▞★઼⌕⊑ ֯а‫ػ‬ᙡᘉⲴ䐟Ӫ 䴓൘ℋ∄Ⲵሿ᭔ᯱ〫ࡽ16

What follows is a list of objects phrased in a D-M compound in the pattern of one + Mc + noun: a [one] row of salted fijish аࡇ咩冊, a [one duo (stem) of] yellow chrysanthemum аᵥ哳㧺, a [one ge of] bamboo basket а‫ػ‬ㄩ㊞, a [one ge of] crimson tomato а‫ػ‬凞㌵Ⲵ㭳㤴, a [one tail of] tiny yellow-fijin fijish аቮ哳剝Ⲵሿ冊, a [one ge of] morning а‫ػ‬ᰙᲘ, and a bunch [one chuan] of black grapes аѢ唁㢢Ⲵ㪑㨴. In addition, an [one ge of] iron stove of fijire а ‫ػ‬䩥㕿Ⲵ⚛ is put in the D-M compound of one + Mo + noun. The poem ends with a concluding image that conveys an epiphany, which is close to the efffect of the ending in “Tian jing sha”: At the end of the street Facing him ahead lies an overpass It is where a [one dao (path) of] ditch was in the past. ࡠҶ㺇ቮ 䗾䶒ᱟₛ๥Ⲵཙ⁻ 䛓㻿᱄ᰕ৏ᱟа䚃≤⑐ ping-kwan leung, Selected Works, 42

The poem, like the street, is fully packed with all kinds of food and containers. The variety of measure words reflects the variety of goods available in the fresh food market. The colorful picture provides a concrete sense of the place. Luo Guixiang (Lo Kwai-cheung) highly commends the poem’s vivid depiction of the quotidian experiences of Hong Kong people.17 The D-M compound of 16  17 

Ping-kwan Leung, Liang Bingjun juan, 41. Luo Guixiang, “Jingyan yu gainian de maodun,” 135–138.

Measure Words Not for Measure


“one” and a measure word serves to magnify the noun. Like a camera zooming in on an image, the syntax forces the reader to look at each object, one by one, as if picking the best one to buy. Like the passerby stranded in the crowd, the reader undergoes the shopping experience with the people around him. The ending is a sudden awareness of change amid the seemingly unchanging routine of everyday life. As Rey Chow suggests in her discussion of Liang Bingjun’s “poetics of discovery,” in writing about the ordinary, the poet captures something poetic and richly evocative in the quotidian moment.18 The ditch and the overpass sketch a cityscape—the overpass’s dominant presence marks the speed of urbanization, while the ditch might have gone underground and thus disappeared from sight. The prosaic aspect of modernity expressed in the tempo of change here is distinctly diffferent from the pastoral timelessness in “Tian jing sha.” Furthermore, in contrast to the totalistic aesthetic vision in “Tian jing sha,” the measure words of the vernacular have pointedly detailed the concrete locality and the sense of place—the vernacular of space—Hong Kong’s Russell Street. While Liang Bingjun captures a facet of Hong Kongers’ world by describing a fresh food market, Huai Yuan itemizes the essence of a citizen’s life with a checklist of “Must Do’s” at the historical juncture of the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. The background of Huai’s poem “Ciwai” is the brain drain during the decade before 1997. Prompted by the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents sought refuge in foreign countries, such as the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia. This major wave of emigration saw an annual average of 55,000 residents leaving Hong Kong between 1989 and 1997, many of them well-educated professionals. They cashed out all of their assets and left with their wealth. In Huai Yuan’s poem, the persona’s preoccupations and concerns are typical of those who are on the move: I have a [one ge of] lover To let go I have a piece of land to sell A [one tiao of] dog to fijind a home for A pond of carp to change hands A [one zuo of] nuclear plant To move away from … 18 

Rey Chow, “An Ethics of Consumption,” 26.



I still have, apart from these, I still have a [one ge of] Sicilian Pen pal to pursue; to pursue A [one tong (block) of] Toronto House To invest in A [one ben of] Mauritian Passport, to engage In a fake American marriage To join A [one ge of] farewell tour to Beijing—to sign up for ᡁᴹа‫ػ‬ᛵӪ 㾱ࢢᝋ ᡁᴹа๺ൠ㾱䌓 аọ⤇㾱ᆹ㖞 а⊐䥖凹㾱䕹᡻ аᓗṨ䴫ᔐ 㾱䚐䴒 DŽDŽDŽ ᡁ䚴ᴹ↔ཆ ᡁ䚴ᴹа‫ػ‬㾯㾯䟼 ㅶ৻㾱䘭≲䘭≲ аᾍཊٛཊ ᡯᆀ 㾱ᣅ䋷 аᵜ∋䟼㼈ᯟ 䆧➗㾱䀲 а⅑㖾഻‫ٷ‬ႊ 㾱㎀ а‫ेػ‬Ӝ䗝㹼ൈ—㾱๡਽19

Michelle Yeh remarks that in contrast to the earlier stanzas, the juxtaposition of images in the last stanza appears loose and incoherent, without any logical link. From Sicily to Toronto to Mauritius to the United States and back to Beijing, the persona seems to have lost his sense of direction and intends to rush blindly to other places. To Yeh, this cluster of places is a 19 

These lines are quoted from stanzas 1 and 3 of Huai Yuan’s poem “Ciwai.” See Hu Guoxing, Xianggang jin wushi nian xinshi chuangzuo xuan, 399–400.

Measure Words Not for Measure


metaphor for Hong Kongers’ unsettled response to the anxiety provoked by the 1997 Handover.20 In modern poetry, images in a persona’s mental picture often invite a psychoanalytical reading. One example is Ji Xian’s early poem titled “Chi banyan de jingshen fenxi xue” ௛ᶯ➉Ⲵ㋮⾎࠶᷀ᆨ (The psychoanalysis of pipe smoking), in which the persona lists the images rising from his pipe: Slowly rising from my pipe Are a [one duo of] mushroom cloud A [one tiao of] snake A [one zhi of] life buoy And a [one ge of] woman’s naked body She is dancing and singing She sings of the flood of a [one dao of] dried-up river And the annihilation of a [one ge of] dream’s allied troops. ᗎᡁⲴ➉ᯇ㻿޹޹кॷⲴ ᱟаᵥ㭸⣰Ⲵ䴢‚ аọ㳷, а䳫ᮁ⭏സ, ઼а‫ྣػ‬ӪⲴ㼨億DŽ ྩ㡎⵰㘼фⅼ⵰; ྩୡⲴᱟа䚃Ү⏨ҶⲴ⋣⍱Ⲵ≮☛, ઼а‫ػ‬དྷⲴ㚟䲺Ⲵ㾶⓵DŽ 21

The surrealist grouping of images is a poetic practice of free association. It is common to interpret images that appear at random in the persona’s mind as a reflection of the unconscious. Huai Yuan’s checklist of “Must Do’s,” however, is markedly diffferent from Ji Xian’s free association. Emigration at that historical juncture meant severing one’s roots in Hong Kong and denying one’s Chinese nationality. The persona is rather clear about what to give up, even though these things have already formed part of his life. The things to acquire that are listed in the last stanza, such as new relationships, a dwelling place, an identity, and a nationality, are part of a plan but may not be within his reach. It is true that the four places—Sicily, Canada, Mauritius, and the United States—in which he seeks new connections by diffferent means are not logically linked, but this only shows the persona’s desperate attempt to fijind a new home, wherever it 20  21 

Michelle Yeh, Taiwan xiandai shilun, 338. Yang Mu and Zheng Shusen, Xiandai Zhongguo shixuan, 267.



may be. Illogical as his plan may seem, it is realistic and strategic. The United States and Canada are ideal destinations, but these countries are popular for émigrés, so the chance of successfully settling in them is dim. Therefore, to enhance the opportunity to move there, he might try investing in Canada or engaging in a fake marriage with an American woman. Other possible targets are countries in Europe or small republican states such as the Republic of Mauritius. In contrast to these uncertainties, mainland China (the sovereign state represented by the capital city, Beijing, and the nuclear plant in Canton, which is close to Hong Kong) is the place the persona will defijinitely avoid. The use of measure words systematically organizes the actions to be taken one by one. The poem presents an itinerary and a schedule, with a sense of urgency. That the title “Ciwai” appears in the last stanza indicates that stanza’s central importance to the poem. It not only documents Hong Kongers’ practical concerns and strategies for coping with political change but also vividly captures their helpless and pathetic situation. Although the frequent use of measure words in Liang Bingjun’s poem helps to convey the flux and density of modern city life in the 1970s, and in Huai Yuan’s poem expresses the Hong Kongers’ dilemma in the 1980s, neither poet took issue with the grammar of the verbal medium. Similarly, measures in modern Taiwan poetry are largely empty of meaning, but there are a number of exceptional cases that demonstrate an artistic application of this linguistic feature. One example is Luo Fu’s “Sui yusheng ru shan er bu jian yu” 䳘䴘㚢‫ޕ‬ ኡ㘼н㾻䴘 (Following the sound of rain into a mountain but rain is nowhere to be seen): Holding an [one ba of] oiled-paper umbrella singing, “Plums are sour in the third month” Against the mountains I am a pair of straw sandals, the only one Woodpeckers Kung-kung—empty Echoes Tung-tung—empty Bearing the pecking pain, a [one ke of] tree surges spirally upward I walk into a mountain but see no rain An umbrella flies swirling around a [one piece of] green boulder There sits a [one ge of] man covering his head with his arms watching cigarette butts burning to ashes

Measure Words Not for Measure


I walk down the mountain and still see no rain Three pinecones roll all the way down from a road sign to my feet I reach down to grab them They turn out to be [one ba of] birds’ chatter instead ᫀ㪇аᢺ⋩㍉‫ۈ‬ ୡ㪇ˬйᴸᵾᆀ䞨˭ ⵮ኡѻѝ ᡁᱟୟаⲴа䴉㣂䶻 ୴ᵘ匕 オオ എ㚢 ⍎⍎ аἥ⁩൘୴Ⰻѝ䘤᯻㘼к ‫ޕ‬ኡ н㾻䴘 ‫ۈ‬㒎㪇а๺䶂⸣伋 䛓㻿඀㪇а‫ػ‬ᣡ九Ⲵ⭧ᆀ ⴻ➉㪲ᡀ⚠ лኡ ӽн㾻䴘 й㋂㤖ᶮᆀ ⋯㪇䐟⁉аⴤ┮ࡠᡁⲴ㞣ࡽ ը᡻ᣃ䎧 ㄏᱟаᢺ匕㚢 yang mu and zheng shusen, Anthology, 1:388–389

The persona’s journey is initiated by the sound of rain, but he is frustrated by not seeing the rain on his way. Apart from the echoes of sounds made by woodpeckers, the trip is marked mainly by the sight of objects: an umbrella, a pair of straw sandals, a tree, a green boulder, a man, cigarette butts, three pinecones, and so on. What arrests the reader’s attention is the measure word ba that appears in the opening and concluding lines of the poem. The fijirst use of ba (Mc, something that takes the shape of a handle that one can hold) in “one ba of oiled-paper umbrella” seems to establish a rainy setting that aligns with the poem’s title. Near the end of the poem the persona bends to pick up



the pinecones, and naturally the reader expects to see “one ba of pinecones” in his hands (implying the second use of ba as Mp, which means a handful of), yet by a surrealist twist the pinecones turn out to be “one ba of birds’ chatter” in the last line (the third use of ba here is a standard measure, Mm, for voice or sound). The paradox of hearing the rain but not seeing it is rendered by the diffferent meanings of the same measure word, which is subject to the interchangeable contexts of sight and sound—an object (pinecone) that falls, perhaps owing to the rain, suddenly changes into a sound (birds’ chatter)— which may suggest that the rain is over, and yet like the rain, the birds are audible but not visible in the scene. Given that the use of ba with an umbrella, pinecones, and sound is a received practice in vernacular Chinese, Luo Fu’s repetition of it highlights its emptiness while simultaneously reinforcing the poetic theme by the arbitrary nature of Chinese measure words. In the ten-line poem “No. 62” of Luo Fu’s Shishi zhi siwang ⸣ᇔѻ↫ӑ (Death of a stone cell), the numeral “one” appears eleven times, and there are eight diffferent measure words. Diffferent parts of the human body, such as the abdomen, upper and lower jaws, teeth, eyes, spine, tongue, and a hand are mentioned. The human subject is compartmentalized into a composite picture: That a woman breaks a [one ge of] teacup implies some possibilities in the morning Including fijitness exercise, squeezing a [one sound of] sob out of the lower abdomen Putting a [one (dot/little) of] chastity between the upper and lower jaws Because of this, you all get as thin as a [one ba of] comb —left with only teeth and a spine Including a tongue that sticks out but does not go in, eyes that glitter green and bright Including a part of the body that becomes a [one zuo of] public plaza overnight When the sun lights up a [one ji (stalk) of] sunflower Taking a step back, I see a [one zhi (one of a pair) of] hand stretching out from the mirror Thrusting to you a [one mei of] key ႖Ӫ᪄⹤а䳫㥦ᶟ↓᳇⽪ᰙᲘⲴḀӋਟ㜭 ਟ㜭वᤜ‫ڕ‬䓛᫽‚ ൘ሿ㞩кᢝࠪа㚢ఊ૭ वᤜ᭮а唎䋎▄൘кл乾ѻ䯃

Measure Words Not for Measure


ഐ㘼֐‫ⱖف‬ᗇⲴⲴ⻪⻪ᡀаᢺợᆀ — ۵佈⢉喂㠷㛼㜺 वᤜ㠼九ࠪ㘼н䙢‚ ⴞ‫ݹ‬㏐㘼фӞ वᤜ䓛億Ḁ䜘ԭаཌѻ䯃ᡀ⛪аᓗᔓ๤ ⮦ཚ䲭ഊ⟳唎ᯬа᷍㪥㣡 ⥋䘰а↕‚ ᡁ㾻䨑ѝըࠪа䳫᡻ ຎ㎖֐‫ف‬а᷊䪠ॉ22

Instead of being an organic whole, the human body is segmented into concrete images in space. Even an emotive word (sob) and an abstract idea (chastity) fijind their measure words and are placed in the designated positions in the abdomen and between the jaws, respectively. The body dwindles into a skeletal frame. A flux of location and dislocation is at play in the poem. The tongue does not stay in the mouth and a fraction of the body becomes a plaza, open for public use. Amid the sense of dismemberment and decay, anguish and uncertainty are further reinforced when at the end of the poem, the persona “sees a hand stretching out from the mirror / thrusting to you [plural] a key.” The offfer of a key sounds like an afffijirmative ending for a poem, but what it stands for is uncertain. Is it a direction or a solution to the phenomenal world? A key assures access to some place; could it be the mirror, the human body, or a further escape from mundane reality? The frequent use of “one” and measures makes the breaking down of the organic body visible (like breaking a teacup into pieces) and marks the fragmentation and disconnection of human experiences. In addition to employing measures to visualize the plight of modern life in space, some modernist poets are more conscious and innovative in their linguistic manipulation of this special part of speech. Zheng Chouyu plays with container measures in “Chuangwai de nünu” デཆⲴྣྤ (The female slave outside the window) when he forces the sky into the shape of a window box: “[One square of] the nocturnal sky” аᯩཌオ in “Fang chuang” ᯩデ (Square window) and “[One ring of] the sunny sky” а⫠Ფオ in “Yuan chuang” ൃデ (Round window).23 Thus, like cutting paper, the container is fijigured by use of measure words into a “square” and a “ring,” cutting up the sky into diffferent shapes that can be quantifijied. Similarly, Luo Fu contains the moon in a basin and trivializes the traditional image of moonlight in his poem “Wufei” ❑䶎 (It is but …): “It is but [one basin of] the sinking moon / 22  23 

Hou Jiliang, Luo Fu Shishi zhi siwang ji xiangguan zhongyao pinglun, 69. Zheng Chouyu, Zheng Chouyu shiji, 126.



Pouring down from the window” ❑䶎а⳶㩭ᴸᗎデਓ‫☹ۮ‬㘼л (Yang Mu and Zheng Shusen, Anthology, 1:383). In the poem “Beijiao zhi ye” े䀂ѻཌ (A night at North Point), Ronald Mar mixes classical literary language with urban sensibility in “[one catkin of]… neon light” а㎞Ă䵃㲩, making the intangible tangible, the cold commercial light soft and sentimental like willow catkins.24 Another afffective use of measures is found in Huang Yong’s love poem “Jing ye” 䶌ཌ (A quiet night), in which diffferent objects are employed to hold his imagery for love. The poet turns the stars into grapes and the night into wine: Let me bring home a basket of stars to brew a pot of sparkling night for you During the starless seasons, please pour it into your lonesome cup … 䇃ᡁᑦаㆀᱏᆀഎᇦ 䟰а༪ᯁᯅⲴཌ䘱֐ 䃻൘❑ᱏⲴᱲㇰ ⌘‫֐ޕ‬ᇲሎⲴᶟ㻿DŽDŽDŽ yang mu and zheng shusen, Anthology, 2:538

The use of container measures in the modern experiments here serves two functions: reconfijiguring the traditional poetic image by shaping it in a technical or trivial way and offfering a romantic portrayal of urban experiences through a literary, analogical twist of measures. Measures are efffective not only in polishing a phrase or developing a metaphor but also in structural roles. For example, Shang Qin’s strategic allocation of fijifteen measure words in his two-stanza prose poem “Shui hulu” ≤㪛㰶 (Water hyacinth) distinguishes a world of darkness from a world of light. A moonless night. The lights in a [one liang of] coach speeding on the highway are pushed by the passengers’ heated debate into trembling simmers. Their discourse includes: how a [one tiao of] rusty steel wire was pulled out of the heroine’s throat in an [one chu of] opera and how a certain male bass in a singing club delivered a [one head of] calf in a miscarriage; how two [tiao of] legs look like three and how a [one ge of] cup is cut from a [one xi (set) of] brassiere; another person talks about the paper wreath, and mentions the smile of the dead; “… hence a [one ge 24 

Huang Canran, Xianggang xinshi mingpian, 48.

Measure Words Not for Measure


of] month’s sweat is dried,” a [one ge of] person thus ends his speech; yet one other [one ge of] person says he has seen seven suns…. When the coach passes the crossroad, all of a sudden, the lights go offf owing to a shock, then darkness compresses the human voices into a (piece of) ginger candy—in it sweetness, bitterness, and spiciness all crowd together. However, a [one ge of] passenger loudly declares to his neighbor, “That’s fake! That’s fake!…” No one knows what they have been discussing, but I understand the meaning of his scream because I see his glowing voice, and because of it I can see people’s poker faces, and their ignited eyes. His voice shines through the coach’s windows and lights up the empty, silent wilderness of night, which now dazzles like (a pond of) blooming lavender water hyacinth flowers. ᴸ唁ཌDŽ⯮俣൘䜹ᶁ‫ޜ‬䐟кⲴа䕋ᇒ䙻⊭䓺ѝⲴ⟸‫ݹ‬㻛҈ᇒ‫Ⲵ⟡Ⲭف‬ 䂡䃎ᬐ䘛ᗇ些些⭿㑞 䛓ᱟ䰌ᯬа喓ᒣࢷ㻿ᰖ䀂ஹѝྲօ᣹ࠪаọ㏡ ㎢ᑦ䣩ԕ৺Ḁⅼ๤ѝվ丣ⅼ⭧䴓⭒Ҷа九ሿ⢋‚ 䚴ᴹ‚ ᘾ哬‫ޙ‬ọ㞯ⴻ䎧 ֶᱟйọ‚ ᘾ哬а㾢ң㖙㻛࢚৫а‫ػ‬৸ᴹӪ䅋䎧㍉‫Ⲵڊ‬㣡⫠і䅋䎧↫ ӪⲴᗞㅁˬDŽDŽDŽᯬᱟ‚а‫ػ‬ᴸⲴ⊇ቡҮҶDŽ ˭а‫ػ‬Ӫ䙉⁓㎀ᶏҶԆⲴ 䂡‚ նᱟਖཆа‫ػ‬Ӫ䃚Ԇⴻ㾻䙾г‫ػ‬ཚ䲭DŽDŽDŽDŽ ケ❦‚ ⊭䓺൘䙾ᒣӔ䚃ᱲ傊⓵Ҷ䓺‫‚⟸Ⲵޗ‬唁᳇ቡሷӪ‫Ⲵف‬㚢丣༃ ᡀа๺㯁㌆—⭌㵌઼䗋䗓൘㻿䶒᫱ᬐDŽնᱟ‚ а‫҈ػ‬ᇒབྷ㚢੺䁤ԆⲴ 䝠ᓗˬ䛓ᱟ‫!Ⲵٷ‬䛓ᱟ‫ !Ⲵٷ‬DŽDŽDŽ˭❑Ӫ⸕䚃Ԇ‫ف‬൘䀾䄆Ӱ哬‚ ᡁত៲ ᗇԆᡰԕ౦஺Ⲵ⭘᜿ ഐ⛪ᡁᐢ㏃ⴻ㾻ҶԆⲬ‫Ⲵݹ‬㚢丣 іഐѻ㘼ⴻ 㾻Ӫ‫Ⲵⴤܥف‬䶒ᆄ‚ 㻛唎⟳ҶⲴ⵬ⶋ фク䘿䓺デ➗ӞオᇲⲴཌ䟾‚ ᚠ լⴞⵙᯬаຈⴋ䮻Ⲵ␑㍛㢢≤㪛㰶㣡DŽ 25

The fijirst stanza begins with the light in the coach being dimmed by a mix of ordinary talk from the passengers. The fragments of their conversation are predominantly D-M compounds composed of numerals, measure words, and random nouns that are woven into rumors and tall tales. Like Russell Street in Liang Bingjun’s poem, the coach here is an overloaded vehicle, packed not with objects but with noises and hearsay that evade genuine communication. In the second stanza, the lights go offf and the passengers are engulfed in darkness. Voices congeal and are compressed into a piece of dark, sticky ginger candy—sweet, bitter, and hot. When one passenger shouts in objection, “That’s fake!,” the lyric persona sees light—a glimmer of hope in a world of deceit. The random objects vanish, the lies subside, and the poem ends with “a pond of blooming lavender water hyacinth flowers.” In the last D-M compound, the 25 

Shang Qin, Meng huozhe liming ji qita, 29–30.



numeral “one” means “all” (all over the pond) instead of “one single object,” as it does in the earlier part of the poem. This conveys, however briefly, a beautiful world where truth triumphs over lies and light over darkness. Interestingly, what concludes the poem is close to Yip’s vision of aesthetic totality in classical Chinese poetry. Critics may be skeptical about the use of measure words, which requires inserting a specifijic part of speech into a syntactic pattern thus expanding the lines, making them unpoetic. Yet some poets intentionally draw the reader’s attention to the performance of the verbal medium by creating their own matches of measures and nouns that unsettle the established pairings. In a seemingly conventional syntax, the poets restore meaning to the measures in an innovative way. For example, in Ya Xian’s poem “Shen yuan” ␡␥ (Abyss), the poet portrays women in quantitative terms: “Enigmatic and beautiful, they (female) are yours—a [one duo of] flower, a pot of wine, a [one bed of] flirtatious laughter, a [one ge of] date” ࿆ᄸ㘼㖾哇‚ྩ‫ف‬ᱟ֐Ⲵ  аᵥ㣡ǃа ༪䞂ǃа⡰䃯ㅁǃа‫ػ‬ᰕᵏ (Yang Mu and Zheng Shusen, Anthology, 2:489). The noun “bed” is rarely used as a container measure, and if it were, it would refer to the furniture where blankets and pillows are placed. Ya Xian’s diction here carries both erotic implications and a conscious synaesthetic mixing of senses. The highly sensuous images of a flower (sight and smell), wine (smell and taste), and laughter (hearing and touch) evoked by these women are circumscribed by a date that defijines the temporary, superfijicial relationship. The matching of measures to nouns was arbitrary in the beginning; the repeated use of pairings over time has turned the examples into linguistic rules. Convention is no fun. For this reason, Xi Xi wrote a poem, “Ke bu keyi shuo?” ਟ нਟԕ䃚? (Can I say?), a language game to dismantle the rigid pairings so that the reader can rediscover the irrationality, and perhaps social discrimination and cultural prejudice too, inherent in linguistic practices. Can I say One mei of cabbage One piece of egg One zhi of onion One unit of ground pepper? Can I say One airplane of bird One tube of coconut tree One cap of sun One basket of sudden downpour? Can I say

Measure Words Not for Measure


One tree of lemon tea One pair of Popeyes One session of ice cream soda One acre of Ovaltine? Can I say One stem of umbrella One bouquet of snowflakes One bottle of Milky Way One gourd of cosmos? Can I say One sir of ant One mister of cockroach One family of swine One pack of heroes? Can I say One head of discipline master One beast of inspector-general of seven provinces One horse of general One tail of emperor? Can I say May our majesty dragon eye be blessed Long live, long live, long live our majesty dragon beard candy forever?26 ਟнਟԕ䃚 а᷊ⲭ㨌 а๺叴㳻 а䳫㭕 а‫ػ‬㜑ὂ㊹˛ ਟнਟԕ䃚 аᷦ伋匕 а㇑ὠᆀ⁩ а串ཚ䲭 аᐤᯇ傏䴘˛ ਟнਟԕ䃚 аṚ⃨⃜㥦 а䴉བྷ࣋≤᡻ а乃䴚㌅ợᢃ а⮍䱯㨟⭠˛ 26 

Xi Xi, Shiqing, 4–6.


Wong ਟнਟԕ䃚 аᵥ䴘‫ۈ‬ аᶏ䴚㣡 а⬦䢰⋣ а㪛㰶ᆷᇉ˛ ਟнਟԕ䃚 аս㷎㸫 а਽ᴡ⭤ аᇦ䊜⦰ аベ㤡䳴˛ ਟнਟԕ䃚 а九䁃ሾѫԫ а䳫гⴱᐑ᤹ а३ሷ䓽 аቮⲷᑍ˛ ਟнਟԕ䃚 喽⵬ਹ⾕ 喽兊㌆㩜↢㩜↢㩜㩜↢?

The question in the title, “Can I say?,” is repeated seven times in the poem. Each mention is illustrated by four unconventional uses of measure words, except the last, which is illustrated by two secular uses of “dragon,” a Chinese emblem of royal majesty.27 In lines 2 and 8, Xi Xi pairs a measure word that indicates the shape of the noun (an object), despite the fact that it does not conventionally go with the noun given, for instance, “A [one mei (piece) of] Chinese cabbage” а᷊ⲭ㨌 and “A [one guan (tube) of] coconut tree” а㇑ ὠᆀ⁩. Mei usually refers to a round item, such as one mei of coin, but it is now paired with a vegetable, which is indeed incongruous. However, one guan (tube) of coconut tree, ungrammatical though it is, is a surprisingly apt measure word for featuring the shape of the tree. In lines 17, 18, and 19, Xi Xi adds a new dimension to conceiving of an object by assigning a measure word to it in a creative way: “One stem of umbrella” аᵥ䴘‫ۈ‬, “One bouquet of snowflakes” аᵯ䴚㣡, and “One bottle of Milky Way” а⬦䢰⋣. An umbrella is pictured as a flower, and “snowflakes” in Chinese is literally “snow flowers,” so a


Most of the measure words in the poem are untranslatable. For example, mei ᷊and zhi 䳫 are presented by romanization and ge ‫ػ‬is simply rendered as “unit.” Some are replaced by the objects commonly used with them. For example, jia ᷦ is the measure word for vehicles like airplanes, ding 串 for caps, zhu Ṛ for trees, pi ३ for horses, and zhi 䳫 for various nouns such as eggs, animals, or one of a pair, like a shoe.

Measure Words Not for Measure


bouquet of them is a beautiful image. To contain the Milky Way (literally, “the silver river” in Chinese) in a bottle is an original idea applicable to both the English and Chinese terms. The poet’s pairings certainly introduce an imaginative and childlike playfulness that encourages the reader to see the objects in a new way. In lines 13, 14, and 15, Xi Xi plays with the well-received Chinese translations of Western products, Popeye བྷ࣋≤᡻, ice cream soda 䴚㌅ợᢃ, and Ovaltine 䱯㨟⭠, which are used exclusively in Hong Kong. These examples combine Chinese translation of the meaning and a Cantonese transliteration of the sound, which are commonly found in popular culture and everyday experience among the local people. Popeye, a cartoon fijigure, is translated into dali shuishou བྷ࣋≤᡻ (powerful sailor). “Sailor” in Chinese is ≤᡻, and the characters mean, literally, “water” and “hand.” The Chinese noun shou (hand), when used as a sufffijix to another noun, suggests an expert or a skillful person in a particular fijield. For instance, a sailor (water-hand) is a professional member of a ship’s crew, a qiangshou ´᡻ (gun-hand) is a gunman or an expert in using guns, and a paoshou 䐁᡻ (run-hand) is an athlete or a skillful runner. The measure word shuang 䴉 (a pair of) that Xi Xi uses here applies only to the last word in the translation, “hand” (i.e., a pair of hands), and does not mean two Popeyes. Nonetheless, an English classifijier might work in a similar way in the translation if one shifts the subject to “eyes” in “a pair of Popeyes.” The ice cream soda is translated into xuegao shuda 䴚㌅ợᢃ in Chinese. While the meaning of “ice cream” is translated literally, “soda” is rendered by a Cantonese transliteration, “so1daa2” ợᢃ, which has little lexical meaning in written Chinese.28 Xi Xi further separates the two characters ợ and ᢃ and focuses on the latter, which as an action verb means hitting or spanking and is measured by dun 乃 (session). Hence, an ice cream soda is measured by time, a session, which sounds ridiculous and funny when back translated into English: “a session of ice cream soda.” Ovaltine, the brand name of a malted drink, is commonly known by its Cantonese transliteration, “o1waa4tin4” 䱯㨟⭠, in Hong Kong. Xi Xi again plays on the last character, tian ⭠, which means fijield, and measures Ovaltine by the number of acres, not by the glass, bottle, or jar. In this stanza, the measure word, instead of taking on the meaning of the object it measures by sacrifijicing its own, turns the table and defijines the meaning of the object. Furthermore, Xi Xi interrogates the attitudinal attributes of measure words such as those assigned to formal address or with commendatory or derogatory implications. In lines 22 and 23, the formal measure words wei ս and ming ਽ that refer to a person, usually with a formal rank or status, are here used 28 

Note: numbers are used here to designate tones.



for insects such as “an [one wei of] ant” аս㷎㸫 and “a [one ming of] cockroach” а਽ᴡ⭤, whereas in lines 27, 29, and 30 measure words for animals and fijish such as tou 九, pi ३, and wei ቮ are paired with people in respectable professional positions or those with royal standing, such as “A [one tou of] discipline master” а九䁃ሾѫԫ, “A [one pei of] general” а३ሷ䓽, and “An [one wei of] emperor” аቮⲷᑍ.29 An emperor is demoted to a fijish by the measure word. This is why when the question “Can I say?” is asked the seventh time, the two examples given are longyan 喽⵬ (a fruit whose name literally means dragon eye) and longxu tang 喽兊㌆ (dragon beard candy). Dragon 喽 (long), an emblem of the Chinese race, often carries connotations of the imperial in premodern China and the national in the modern world. Cited by Xi Xi here are two kinds of food: the longyan and dragon beard candy, a popular sweet in Hong Kong. The poem “Can I Say?” concludes by addressing the fruit with a respectful, auspicious greeting, “Longyan jixiang” 喽⵬ਹ⾕ (May our majesty dragon eye be blessed), and hailing the longevity of dragon beard candy: “longxu tang wansui wansui wanwansui” 喽兊㌆㩜↢㩜↢㩜㩜↢ (Long live, long live, long live our majesty dragon beard candy forever). The funny collocation of dedicating a formal greeting to the ruler to a fruit and a kind of candy reveals the common mindlessness of attaching honor and respect to the character long. With a sense of humor, Xi Xi also suggests a delicious dessert, a blessing to those who have a sweet tooth, truly deserving the honor. Throughout the poem, the celebration of the vernacular in everyday life is mainly achieved by measure words. The challenge “Can I say?,” posed in a naive, childlike tone, makes the inquiry a playful one, presenting a vision of an innocent world without a sense of distinction or hierarchy but full of imaginative alternatives. The mischievous mismatching of measures and nouns efffectively forges the alienation from the language of received tradition. Guan Mengnan and Ye Hui call the poem “a collocation game” by which Xi Xi subverts the conventional use of measure 29 

In Hong Kong, the Education Bureau issues guidelines that outline the principles and policy on student discipline. The aim is to help students develop self-discipline, a sense of responsibility, positive attitudes, and respect for others. The discipline master/mistress is the leader of the school discipline team. In the eyes of naughty students, the discipline master is fijierce and to be feared. The measure word tou is neutral, but when it is matched with the discipline master, it implies a derogatory attitude of seeing him or her as beastly. The collocation here is Xi Xi’s invention. Attitudinal attributes of measure words may sometimes work in a similar way as English collective nouns when they are employed to indicate a special attitude assigned to the plural nouns they modify. For example, “gaggle” in a gaggle of geese is used in “a gaggle of social critics,” but the collocation is a received practice.

Measure Words Not for Measure


words.30 To describe the rebelliousness in Xi Xi’s artistic expression, He Furen coined the term “urchin style,” which highlights the humor and at times irreverence in her writing.31 Like a blow to the established mind-set about the routine practice of matching measure words to nouns, Xi Xi’s pairings dismantle the hierarchy of the superior and the subservient. From being disturbed by the incongruity, then coming to realize the twist of vision in the game, the reader is gradually amazed by the possibilities generated by the poet’s creative exercise. Xi Xi’s poem is the most direct and focused examination of the arbitrariness of measure words in the vernacular, and also an extremely rebellious method for energizing the performance of this part of speech in the Chinese linguistics system. If the gist of modernism is to present the lived experience of modernity, the use of measure words, as illustrated in the poems discussed here, enriches the temporal discourse of progress with a spatial discourse of the concrete vernacular, referring to both the modern Chinese language and the colloquialism of dialect and everyday life. The investigation into the vernacular reveals a drastic transition from a timeless, holistic, aesthetic vision of life to a modern worldview that is a collage of trivial, discontinuous, and pluralistic fragments. Rapidly changing urban experiences are rendered by objects and space reshaped by measure words, an often neglected but unique linguistic feature of the modern Chinese language. A measure word, which is supposed to be transient and has no lexical import, can be invested with semantic signifijicance in a poet’s hand. The prevalent themes in modernist poetry can be achieved either by manipulating measure words in the syntax of the vernacular or by rearranging the pairing of measures and nouns to subvert linguistic rules. These experiments with the verbal medium are what pioneering literary reformers such as Hu Shi, Ji Xian, and Ronald Mar have called for, and they constitute a distinctive feature of modernism exclusive to modern Chinese poetry.

30  31 

Guan Mengnan and Ye Hui, Xianggang xinshi xuandu, 35. Quoted in Jennifer Feeley’s introduction to Xi Xi’s poems; see Xi Xi, Not Written Words, xvii.

part 4 Reconceptualizations of Poetry in the Post-Mao Era

chapter 11

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention: the Case of Chinese Poetry Readings Nick Admussen

Recently, a substantial number of literary scholars have turned their attention to the use of network analysis and new computational methodologies in order to understand literature from new perspectives and, potentially, for new purposes.1 These effforts are being undertaken on a global scale, analyzing literary scenes and discourses that lie outside the Euro-American space that has, for too long, limited the research supported by literature and comparative literature departments. The products of these inquiries sometimes make these two undertakings—the analysis of large data sets and the globalizing of literary reading—seem to be intimately interrelated, a set of zoomed-out, theoretical analytical structures that can be applied across cultural and linguistic boundaries.2 According to Franco Moretti’s metaphor, when one reads from the distance of aggregate data, one “sees” a wider geographic and cultural fijield. This essay takes the opposite position, arguing that no method of large-data analysis can be a culturally neutral and transparent hermeneutic.3 Network analysis in particular actively performs modernization and globalization on its objects, deforming nonmodern and local materials into parts of a modernist narrative. However, large-scale data analysis in general does not require us to reproduce the modernist, globalizing ideologies of network theory: we can shape our data analysis using the ideological and cultural techniques of the materials we intend to study.4 In this essay, recent scholarship on 1  The core of this community is at the Chicago Text Lab’s Global Literary Networks project, directed by Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So, but it spans from Franco Moretti’s literary study Distant Reading to Hilde de Weerdt, Information, Territory, and Networks, a monograph on imperial informatics in the Song dynasty, to several forthcoming monographs and dissertations. 2  “That’s the point: world literature is not an object, it’s a problem, and a problem that asks for a new critical method: and no one has ever found a method by just reading more texts.” Distant reading is his hypothesized answer to that question. See Franco Moretti, Distant Reading, 46. 3  This is true as well for small-data hermeneutics, but their ideological content has been the subject of much debate. 4  This is meaningfully diffferent from the way Moretti thinks about the novel: “when a culture starts moving towards the modern novel, it’s always as a compromise between foreign form

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 013



networks in contemporary and premodern China will serve as a corpus from which to point out real and potential lacunae in network analytical criticism. Recent works of literary anthropology about Chinese poetry events will then point toward potential revisions and rethinkings of literary networks, and disaggregate data-driven scholarship from implicit cultural imperialism in a way that will allow it to flourish.


What Is a Network?

The word “network” fijirst appeared in the English language in the Tyndale Bible in 1530, used to describe an altar grating, a “work (esp. manufactured work) in which threads, wires, etc. are crossed or interlaced in the fashion of a net” (OED Online, 2015, “network”); long before there was a sense of a social or biological network, networks were commodities. This sense of the word is what lent itself to our more recent extension of the term into a name for physical constructs that take the shape of a net, like railroads, telephone systems, and electrical circuits. So described, these constructs gain a ghostly second valence: not only are they the results of work that take the shape of a net, they are now netshaped systems of objects that themselves aid in the performance of work. This sense of the word requires the network to be viewed conceptually, from above: an electrical network of any size cannot be viewed in the way an altar screen can; it can only be imagined as if seen from the air.5 Most recently, the term has gained force as a verb, such that “to network” now means to do the work of bringing commodities or people into relationships to one another, to attach a computer to a network, or to organize abstractions into an interlinked system. Yoked together by the historical metaphorical logic of the term, these three valences, commodity, tool, and action, are simultaneously experienced when we use the word “network” today. No matter how abstract the materials at hand—invisible electrons, digital bits, or theoretical constructs—when we network them, we think of them metaphorically as physical commodities undergoing circulation, and when we say that they are networked, we refer implicitly to some human work that put them into that relationship. and local materials” (Distant Reading, 52). I read this as an implicitly imperialist position in which the international influence shapes local raw material: we must also attend to local form, culturally situated hermeneutics and ways of knowing, and the way local form shapes foreign materials. 5  It is worth mentioning that this perspective is usually fijictive: once one is high enough offf the ground to see a substantial part of the power network, individual lines are too small to be distinguishable.

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


This triple valence is deeply culturally contingent. Chinese renders “network analysis” as wangluo fenxi 㖁㔌࠶᷀, with wangluo representing the English “network”; like many modern Chinese words, wangluo is assembled from two separate, older words that both mean “net,” and its modern assemblage lacks many of the connotations of its component characters.6 It also lacks some of the connotations of the foreign term it renders: it has no connection to work or any verbal use, although it can be turned into a verb with the sufffijix –hua ॆ. Contemporary uses for wangluo largely describe transnational or conceptually imported phenomena; in the People’s Republic of China today, it is most often used for computer networks, including the Internet. A network is therefore a fundamentally English and European (because of the term’s origins in Biblical translation, similar words appear in other European languages) metaphor that is centrally materialist and commercial, which cares very much about the movements of people and things from one place to another, and which has also evolved to accept a top-down, imaginative imposition of order onto a variety of experiences. Network analysis applies these methodologies to a variety of literary texts, literary actors, and literary institutions. It chooses elements that it defijines as nodes, often represented visually by geometric shapes. Nodes participate most strongly in the oldest stratum of the network metaphor, that of the object; they are inert and evaluable items that provoke or manage the net-shaped interrelation. In the trade network, they are markets; in a digital network, they are computers or processors; in a social network, they are people. These nodes are connected by edges, which most often take the form of straight lines. Edges are visual representations of exchange between nodes, whether those of commerce, data, or interpersonal relationships. These lines are the metaphoric pathways along which work takes place, implicitly conceptualized as the motion of objects. Nodes are homogeneous and separate. Although their diffferent sizes allow them to have varying weight, and color coding can divide them into categories, they must be simultaneously distinct from one another and meaningfully identical to one another; this resonates powerfully with modern concepts of individuals as equal under the law, independent and isolate. At the very least, nodes must be identical in the way they receive and transmit edges. Edges compress space and time: in terms of computer networks, for example, they replace the physical distances between machines with a shorter

6  For example, the Han dynasty Shuowen 䃚᮷ dictionary defijines wang as crossed ropes for fijishing and claims they were invented by the legendary emperor Fuxi Կ㗢; the modern term wangluo completely lacks this valence.



metaphorical distance, and transform occasional, temporary, narrative flows of data into a stable and persistent structure.7 The use of digital computing to analyze networks reinforces the power of the network metaphor, because computers themselves are fijigured as networks, and are constructed and used in close allegiance to the logics of networks. Tara McPherson describes the ideologies of early software design as dominated by encapsulation (segments of a program should be independent of other programs), modularity, simplicity, and connection; she then demonstrates that these ideologies match the social politics of race in the twentieth century.8 Contrary ideologies of deep interdependence (there can be no white race without the black race), mutual indistinguishability (there is no bright line between white and black), and complex resistances were all difffijicult to express in the twentieth-century United States; likewise, they are difffijicult, though not impossible, to express in twentieth-century American digital code. McPherson’s overarching contention is that “the difffijiculties we encounter in knitting together our discussions of race (or other modes of diffference) with our technological productions within the digital humanities (or in our studies of code) are actually an efffect of the very designs of our technological systems” (“Digital Humanities,” 140).9 Systems of analysis have ideologies; systems of network analysis have Euro-American, white, twentieth-century modernist ideologies. Analysis through networks necessarily reduces complexity, as do all metaphors and all hermeneutics. To interpret a piece of text is always to ignore some other text or some other perspective, and in this way the limitations of the network metaphor are not categorically diffferent from other metaphors of reading. Whether one reads through metaphors of transportation, envelopment, closeness, or distance, all hermeneutic inventions elide particular political, temporal, and linguistic diffferences between the text and the reader in order to allow readers to place themselves in relationship to the text. Richard Jean So and Hoyt Long are responsibly cognizant of this: they say the purpose of their network analysis “is not to capture social relations in all their dynamism and complexity but to isolate and abstract specifijic dimensions of this complexity … in order to identify broader structural patterns” (“Network Analysis and the Sociology of Modernity,” 156). However, the method of the isolation and abstraction is itself a cultural product, perhaps the cultural product 7  This is a heavily transformed and quite partisan interpretation of the “Explanation of Method” in Richard Jean So and Hoyt Long, “Network Analysis and the Sociology of Modernity,” 156. 8  Tara McPherson, “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?,” 145. 9  All italics in quotations are in the original text unless otherwise noted.

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


par excellence: in deciding what to leave out and what to conceptualize, network analysis performs transformative and generative cultural work.


Network Analysis as Modernist Globalization

Arif Dirlik writes: [Modernization discourse] has a great deal to do with the political economy of a globalized capitalism, which for its own survival depends at once on a valorization of diffference, and the convergence of diffference into homogeneity through techniques of representation that carefully assign equivalence only to those practices that accord with the logic of ongoing capitalist expansion.10 This description of capitalist global modernity closely matches the methodologies of network analysis as described in the fijirst section. The enforced separateness of nodes—the way in which geometric shapes in a network diagram cannot easily overlap or share identities—valorizes diffference, and the requirement for nodes to be connected in identical fashion by edges is a straightforward “convergence of diffference into homogeneity.” The data that is excluded from the standard network diagram is exactly that which does not fijit into metaphors of work, possession, commerce, and transfer. We often lose, for example, the ability to see a human node’s level of consent to participation in a social or economic network: as Anna Tsing says, “A focus on circulation shows us the movement of people, things, ideas, or institutions but it does not show us how this movement depends on defijining tracks and grounds or scales and units of agency.”11 Visualize a network diagram of the flows of global trade: which nodes determine the rules of the network? Which region’s workers are helplessly subjected to it? These are not the questions asked by the standard network diagram, and this exclusion is analogous to narratives of capitalist globalization that either assert or ignore the consent of the globalized. The political shape of the isolation of variables here inscribes a partisan position into data-driven literary analysis: when it is shaped by the 10  11 

Arif Dirlik, “Modernity as History,” 21. Anna Tsing, “The Global Situation,” 337. I do not hold that this is necessarily or always true, but it is true for all the network analysis mentioned in this chapter, for example the publication interactions that So and Long study: they cannot (and do not claim) to be able to distinguish between the poet who chooses to print in a specifijic set of journals and a poet who is forced to do so by exclusion from other outlets.



metaphor of network analysis, large-data assessment represents an increase in the size of the network that very closely accords “with the logic of ongoing capitalist expansion.” Network analysis also matches the ideologies of modernization and globalization at a basic conceptual level. Eric Hayot argues that “the modern world-view, the feeling of modernity, is perhaps most simply the feeling that the rules governing history, physics, economy, communication, culture, space, and time, are the same everywhere and for all time: a general geometrization of the various measures of the universe.”12 We can see, in this description of modernity, the history of the word network as it sweeps up into the sky, looking down on the electrical system as a set of timeless, simultaneous geometric abstractions; the description also echoes the dream of the cross-applicability of network structure to a wide variety of diverse global experiences.13 One might respond that any hermeneutic is necessarily geometrizing—that we always understand complex phenomena by simplifying them into some kind of diagram, some set of points and lines—and that network analysis is no diffferent from other systems of analysis. This is, however, not entirely true. Network analysis works in binaries (nodes either are or are not connected by edges), positions (a node has a defijined relative location on the page), and values (edges have more or less weight, and nodes are larger or smaller): these are also the specifijic building blocks of geometries. Other qualities—like probability and time, neither of which are easy to represent geometrically—are usually suppressed or elided in network diagrams. In acts of network analysis, assertions about what does and does not count as meaningful interaction are made prior to the visualization of the network: like geometric systems, the experience of the network is meaningfully generated by its axioms. It is worthwhile at this point to underline the fact that processes of interpretation are productive rather than passive: network analysis is not simply modern, it modernizes. In Emirbayer and Goodwin’s assessment of network analysis in sociology, they point out that cultural structures and cultural idioms interrelate with, constrain, and enable social interaction.14 They also, however, claim that these structures and idioms are “analytically autonomous with respect to network patterns of social relationships” (Mustafa Emirbayer and Jefff Goodwin, “Network Analysis,” 1438; author’s emphasis). Cultural 12  13 


Eric Hayot, On Literary Worlds, 115. Note that this is not a criticism, in Hayot’s version or my own, of interpretations of large data sets: as he says, “literary scholarship ought to be able to function at multiple analytic scales” (On Literary Worlds, 19). Mustafa Emirbayer and Jefff Goodwin, “Network Analysis, Culture, and the Problem of Agency,” 1441.

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


idioms pattern social relations in a way that cannot be understood by the direct study of those relations; we can identify a social interaction like shunning without gaining any information about the symbolic order that motivates it. When claiming to focus on the shapes of social interaction without reference to specifijic and local cultural idiom, network analysis in fact introduces its own cultural axioms as a totalizing, objective hermeneutic overlay. It interpellates people with their own set of cultural idioms into the metaphor that is the network, and in so doing invents them as modern nodes. Some proportion of recent digital analysis overlooks the verbal nature of its axioms, the way in which methods of data analysis are always proposals. Matthew Jockers, in his Macroanalysis, establishes a set of Irish-identifying “marker words” in the titles of Irish-American books, and counts the proportion of books that use the marker words in their title. Finding a drop in the proportion in 1890, he writes, “what happens in or around 1880 to cause the precipitous decrease? Here we must move from our newly found facts to interpretation.”15 This neat division between “facts” and “interpretation” contradicts the fact that the very creation of the archive is itself interpretive. Jockers has asserted that titles were used to uniquely express something about a book’s Irishness, as opposed to book covers, distribution channels, or publishing imprints; he has also created a subjective list of which words count as markers, a list that includes words that are not exclusively Irish, like “priest.” Both these decisions, along with many others, determine which data will be measured and which data will not; they are themselves interpretive of social practice. Network analysts must make similar decisions about what to measure and what to ignore: the network analysis is the result of those axiomatic choices.16 It is the active, verbal nature of network analysis that produces its best use. We know that modernization and globalization have taken place in many large and small ways over the long twentieth century, and we know that the globally totalized truth-system that Hayot identifijies as modern has spread, along with capitalism and certain concepts from the European tradition, to many 15  16 

Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, 51. This is sometimes palpable in pieces of literary network analysis: the argument that Mandel et al. make is that “information visualization leads us also to hypothesize that high romanticism or the publishing history of Romantic-era writers of the Lake School may in fact be a ‘network efffect.’ The network efffect has been defijined by economists as increasing the value of something through wide adoption of it.” This tautology is driven by the fact that networks are seen as better if they are more widely spread, and the community is being assessed as a network. See Laura Mandel et al., “How to Read a Literary Visualisation,” n.p.



points in space and time. In modernist spaces and at modernist moments, network theory comes into its own as a metaphoric hermeneutic that matches and respects the cultural idiom of its subjects. When an author really does care largely about circulation, expansion, and commodities, or when an author considers him- or herself as a member of a web of production and consumption, network analysis can read, understand, and predict that author’s literary habitus. So and Long’s project to map the web of literary publication in select American, Japanese, and Chinese modernist literary scenes is therefore a particularly well-chosen application for network analysis.17 They defijine two kinds of nodes, magazines and artists, and an edge is drawn whenever a poet publishes in a magazine. Literary publication of the period was dominated by technologies and ideas of exchange and commodity consumption: a poem was sent to an editor, an editor accepted it, and a magazine was sold to a reader in a transfer that was physical and commercial, and whose physical commerciality was ideologically important to artists and editors alike. The publications that So and Long study were additionally using the substantially globalized, transnational form of the little magazine, and artists adopted that form in part to make a positive case for something that today looks very much like globalization.18 Weighting the edges according to the number of publications a given poet published in a given magazine made even more sense, as the volume of publications could in fact stand in for an economic and possibly ideological connection: this was a world in which one purchased and reproduced artwork from perceived allies, very diffferent from historical moments like the Mao period, when some publications were reproduced for the purposes of criticism. Additionally, the implicitly mercantile emphasis on number of publications would have been reasonable for modern Chinese poets, many of whom shared a drive to educate and transform popular culture on the largest scale possible, and who were attempting to transition from employment as scholar-offfijicials to independent freelancers writing for pay. When the cultural idiom of the hermeneutic is able to parse or reflect the cultural idioms of the cultures under study, we see readings that generate 17 


What follows is not the rationale that is given in Richard Jean So and Hoyt Long, Network Analysis, 157–158: they justify the appropriateness of the study of publication data to artistic societies of the period. I intend to demonstrate why they are justifijied in applying network analysis to that data, rather than another hermeneutic. See Michel Hockx, Questions of Style, 27–29, where he describes the earliest Chinese literary journals as quite similar in design to counterparts from the West: centered in cosmopolitan Shanghai and full of translations, they had names like Yinghuan suoji ♋ሠ ⩀䇠 (Scattered notes from around the universe) and Siming suoji ഋⓏ⩀䇠 (Scattered notes from the four corners of the earth).

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


insights, such as the importance of the position of cultural “broker”—another commercial metaphor—that So and Long identify with poets like Amy Lowell and Liu Bannong.19 We see harmonies and synergies not just between the results of network analysis and the social events under consideration, but between social self-defijinitions and the axiomatic hermeneutics of the analytical system. Hoyt Long quotes a Japanese modernist poet: “if you analyze the poems of those active in today’s [poetry community], somewhere you’ll get a whifff of the age’s global intellectual currents. The [community] as a whole is in fact a dizzying interlacing of all these myriad currents.”20 The modernizing and globalizing efffect of network analysis allows data about modernist activities to be abstracted and emblematized in a way that represents the whole set. However, when the cultural idiom of the hermeneutic contradicts or stands in for the cultural idiom of the cultures under study, we see slippages, lacunae, and aporia; it is these that constitute the challenges for the future of network analysis.


Shapes outside the Metaphor

I came to the study of network analysis by asking a Chinese poet to tell me which contemporary poets he thought were worth reading and meeting. He took out a sheet of white paper, wrote “1960s,” and started listing poets; then he drew a boundary line beneath the list, and wrote “1970s” and made a second list of poets. About halfway through this process, he mumbled, “well, of course, of course” and put his favorite poet at the top of the list, apart from all the others and outside of the list of decades.21 This was what some might 19 

20  21 

I question, though, their description of Countee Cullen as a rare “broker” between the Harlem Renaissance and other poetry scenes. They write “[Cullen and Lowell] bridged gaps in the fijield by strategically submitting their work to, and having it selected for publication in, clusters of journals that were otherwise sparsely connected” (Richard Jean So and Hoyt Long, Network Analysis, 163), insinuating that other Harlem Renaissance poets intentionally declined to do so, when it is equally if not more likely that they were prevented from doing so by racist literary structures and white supremacist aesthetics. Network analysis, in this case, may have trouble visualizing nodes that receive or transmit edges diffferently from one another. See Tara McPherson, “Digital Humanities,” 2012. Hoyt Long, “Fog and Steel,” 285. I have translated “poetry community” and “community” for the Japanese shidan. I elide the poet’s name, and do not reproduce his sheet here, to spare him the kind of attention that adheres to value judgments: he generated the list as a favor to me, rather than as a formal statement of afffijiliation, and I am interested in its form rather than its content.



call this poet’s “network” or community—but he did not organize it in the terms of his commerce or exchange with other poets. He organized it instead according to the birth years of poets, a list that was both hierarchical (because older poets deserve the respect that comes with seniority) and aesthetic (because poets educated before and after the Cultural Revolution have vastly diffferent artistic praxis). This list was dominated by things that were shared, rather than things that were exchanged, and it demonstrated the poet’s idea of elite poetry as a level of capability to which one rises, rather than a thing that can be given or received. Questions that network analysis could answer, such as who published the most, or in the most varied outlets, or who had visited or exchanged letters with who—would miss the way these people saw themselves, for example, the noneconomic and qualitative diffference in exchanges that take place between people who reside in diffferent places in hierarchies.22 If a network analyst did choose to study some kind of measurable transfer between these poets, they would likely pick up several genres of noise, such as geographic location (poets who live near one another read together and plan mutual visits) or personal and non-art-based relationships (poets who are dating each other write more letters to each other). This is not to say that generational listing is a superior hermeneutic to network analysis; like any other interpretive methodology, it is a reductive metaphor for a complex system. And yet it is an apt metaphor for the complex system, as it participates in ideologies that are endemic to the group being studied. The list that the poet drew resembles nothing so much as a certain kind of premodern Chinese zupu ᯿䉡 or jiapu ᇦ䉡, a family register: divided by generations, with each member of each generation listed alongside one another. Some genealogies, both European and Chinese, use the visual idiom of interpersonal connection—a parent shares something physical, represented by a line, with children and siblings—but some zupu list family members of each generation as possessors of a single shared quality of identity, and it is likely this habit of conceptualization that motivated the poet to describe his scene in this way rather than any other. We will remember, too, that these concepts are not just reflective of, but constitutive of social relations; the ability of 22 

Indeed, estimations of literary quality, fame, and status in network analysis are often implicitly expressed by managing sample size, excluding writers that are insufffijiciently well published or insufffijiciently well connected; this can cause the remarginalization of marginalized groups, as described in Susan Brown’s “Networking Feminist Literary History: Recovering Eliza Meteyard’s Web”; see Veronica Alfano and Andrew Staufffer, Virtual Victorians, 65. Additionally, the idea that some people are meaningfully included and some meaningfully excluded is difffijicult to express in the form of a network, as we will see.

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


this poet to see someone who he has never met or interacted with as nonetheless part of his community will likely afffect his treatment of that person, just as the arrival of a stranger who appears in a family’s zupu lineage might be treated with a curiosity and openness that would be denied to other strangers.23 To interpret these interactions through the lens of network analysis is to miss the community that exists, and to fail to predict or interpret their activity. A more concrete example of nonmodern or anti-modern structures being read through the modernizing lens of network theory appears in Moretti’s Distant Reading, when he takes up the fijirst half of the seventh chapter of The Story of the Stone, also known as the Dream of Red Mansions. He creates a series of diagrams that record which characters speak to which other characters; characters are nodes, and face-to-face interactions are edges.24 He then describes the chapter as one in which “nothing major happens…. No interaction is crucial in itself. But taken together, they perform an essential reconnaissance function: they make sure that the nodes in this region are still communicating: because, with hundreds of characters, the disaggregation of the network is always a possibility” (Franco Moretti, Distant Reading, 236–237). One can already see here the value judgments implicit in the network idiom— and those of globalized modernization. The network is good; its disaggregation is bad; communication is good; lack of information is bad.25 Boundaries are to be overcome and the free flow of people and things is the unreached ideal. Even in situations where “nothing major happens”—no truly important commerce or travel takes place—there is still some metaphoric value to the quotidian exchange of small information because it is “consciously producing connections” and generating guanxi 䰌‫( ײ‬Franco Moretti, Distant Reading, 237). And yet, for a reader of the chapter, this is not the point of this part of the story at all. Almost all of the interactions that the network diagram records in the fijirst half of the chapter are undertaken by a single character, Zhou Rui’s wife, as she attempts to distribute paper flowers to the residents of Lady Wang’s compound. Lady Wang gives her very specifijic instructions: three of her 23 

24  25 

The production of the zupu is itself a self-consciously social act: as Johanna Meskill describes, premodern genealogies had many functions, from education in the deeds of great ancestors, to aid in selecting marriage partners, to providing a source of data to help governments select offfijicials (see “The Chinese Genealogy as Research Source,” 143–147). See Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, 167–175. Although So and Long trouble their idea of brokerage with a discussion of community closure, they eventually hold that closure is a temporary phase on the way to a community’s “success” through the profusion of connections (“Network Analysis,” 169). As discussed earlier, however, this may very well be exactly how the artists of the period themselves conceptualized success.



granddaughters will receive flowers fijirst, and then the remaining flowers are to be delivered to two of the novel’s main characters, Daiyu and Baoyu. This is not a commercial interaction, but a hierarchical one; it sends a message to Daiyu, a grandchild who Lady Wang invited to live with her after the death of Daiyu’s mother. The flowers make clear that for the moment, at least, she comes after Lady Wang’s other granddaughters.26 Daiyu hears the message loud and clear: “I thought as much,” she says, “I get the leavings when everyone else has had their pick” (Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, 174). Lady Wang’s floral message about the shape of the hierarchy underneath her creates inequality among nodes; far from preventing the “disaggregation” of the network, it moves one of its members from the center to the periphery, where her ties are weaker. Intentional disaggregation—the breaking of ties as a plot device, the creation of interpersonal barriers and diffferences—is a substantial theme of The Story of the Stone. In chapter 5, the boy Baoyu falls asleep and dreams of an encounter with a fairy in the Land of Illusion; the fairy sings him a series of songs that foretell a love afffair fated to fail, and hints that he is fated to marry not Daiyu but Baochai, another resident of Lady Wang’s compound. This in fact takes place, such that the motion of the plot can be visualized as the long, complex end of the relationship between Baoyu and Daiyu, and Daiyu’s death from lovesickness: the comment on life in the walled pleasure gardens of Lady Wang ends up focusing as much on the walls as it does the relationships within.27 We can see the need for walls and barriers all over The Story of the Stone, even in the fijirst half of chapter 7 that Moretti mentions: one of the reasons Zhou Rui’s wife talks to so many characters is because Lady Wang, her real objective, is so important that she is constantly busy or otherwise engaged. Zhou Rui’s wife does not primarily care about the maids and servants with whom she interacts; they are symptoms of the difffijiculty of getting an audience with Lady Wang, and that difffijiculty constitutes Lady Wang’s importance. 26 


The gift also sends a subtler message, one that is often repeated by Lady Wang; Baoyu, a young boy, is included with the girls as a recipient of the flowers, a denizen of the compound, and much else. This has a relationship to some of Andrew Plaks’s conclusions about the novel: “the aesthetics of plenitude not only do not rule out fijigures of mortal incompleteness, but in fact necessitate their inclusion, so that the very desire to attain a state of selfcontained completeness in individual experience is in itself symptomatic of incomplete vision” (see Archetype and Allegory in the Dream of the Red Chamber, 221). The included incompleteness—something that is in the network diagram but not connected to it—is a barrier or obstacle to the fetishization of commerce and flow that Moretti’s network ideology possesses.

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


The answer to my argument that Moretti’s network analysis ends in a misinterpretation of The Story of the Stone might be that the use of network analysis, because it works on a diffferent scale and according to a distant methodology, simply produces a kind of knowledge diffferent from that of traditional close reading. Because, however, this particular use of network analysis operates at the scale of the individual chapter, the individual story, and even the individual character, we can use more traditional interpretive tools to test whether its observations are primarily a result of its own axiomatic assumptions. Moretti fijinishes his conversation about The Story of the Stone by saying that Baoyu is not a free protagonist “because he has a duty towards the structure: towards the relation-based society he is part of” (Cao Xueqin, Story of the Stone, 240). These two halves of the clause, though, are not identical. Baoyu’s duty is made up of Baoyu’s belief in his duty; although he believes he has a duty toward society, his belief could never be in “the structure” as Moretti invents it, a web of relations that looks far more like a map of airplane flight paths than it does the conceptualizations of structure that would be possible in a large Chinese family of his era. When Moretti concludes that the Eastern novel is “opposite” to the Western novel, maintaining that Eastern characters serve “the structure” while Western characters are served by it, he is simply pointing out that the structure he has imposed on the novel is foreign to the ideologies of its characters, and acts as an oppression and a limitation. Network analysis often fails to serve people that are not modern, instead forcing them into the service of shapes that it can validate and interpret. In order to see premodern, postmodern, and anti-modernist relationships clearly, we will have to accept the cultural and temporal rootedness of data-driven hermeneutics. Only then can we engage with and adapt methods of analysis that aptly describe communities under study.


An Example: Recent Chinese Poetry Scenes

English-language studies of recent Chinese poetry, in the past fijive years, have engaged with poetic communities through a shared methodology: they give a narrative description of the scholar’s entry into a poetic scene, talk about the activities and performances the scholar witnesses, and then draw abstract concepts from the experience. Heather Inwood visited and participated in the Lushan Famous Poets Summit; Maghiel van Crevel attended a reading and multimedia performance at the All Sages Bookstore in Beijing; John Crespi gives stories and contexts for many diffferent readings, including one funded by



a real estate company and one in People’s Square in Kashgar, Xinjiang.28 These accounts are all diffferent, and they all illuminate diffferent parts of poetic practice in contemporary China, but they have substantial elements in common.29 First, they include the scholar either implicitly as an audience member, but more often explicitly as an active participant in the recorded event.30 Second, they share their subjects’ focus on events, usually called huodong ⍫ࣘ, or “activities,” in contemporary China.31 This is quite diffferent from a focus on texts, as we will see later. And fijinally, these accounts of poetic practice all describe a broad variety of roles when they record events, touching on the people who organize them, fund them, read at them, and listen to them. People hold multiple roles, for example, when a poet also serves as master of ceremonies and switches roles without warning, as in the case of the audience member who objected to the style of a poem read aloud and charged the stage, saying “let me read it” (Heather Inwood, Verse Going Viral, 129)!32 These are social groups, but they are illegible when seen through the lens of network theory. They are groups that do not always engage in exchange practices that can be described through metaphors of commercial or other physical exchange; poetry groups producing events more often collaborate in order to attain a common goal. Rather than submitting themselves to the transcendental view-from-above that is the perspective of the network analyst, poetry scenes withhold information from those who are not present—sometimes you 28 





See Heather Inwood, Verse Going Viral, 129–140; Maghiel van Crevel, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem, and Money, 462–471; and John Crespi, Voices in Revolution, 168–188. Here I intentionally exclude my own work on contemporary prose poetry: although I also found myself embedded in a poetry community, and wrote a fijirst-person account of my experience there, it was a state-sponsored, non-event-focused community whose structures were homologous to those of the Chinese Communist Party, and I therefore modeled my sense of the structure of the group on the quite developed methods that governmental and paragovernmental communities use to organize themselves (see Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry). Heather Inwood, Verse Going Viral, 40, states: “it is almost impossible to be an observer of such events without also becoming a contributor and acquiring participatory competence in the process.” John Crespi, Voices in Revolution, 172–173, adds: “After attending dozens of recitation events over the course of eight or nine months, I found myself able to reflect upon my acquired competence as a participant in poetry recitals.” For an introduction to and historicization of the term huodong ⍫ࣘ, see John Crespi, Voices in Revolution, 173–180, although the whole book can be read as a kind of introduction to the poetry of live scenes in China. See also Van Crevel’s quite tantalizing discussion of the ways in which contemporary avant-garde poetry is like karaoke, where all performers are also audience members, and experimental poems are a type of “production for producers” (“Not Quite Karaoke,” 654).

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


cannot understand what the event is like unless you’re there33—and force those who are present to participate. Like globalization, network analysis assumes that it is invited everywhere; but in contemporary Chinese poetry circles, totalizing perspectives are not necessarily on the guest list. The nature of events, or huodong, that we see in contemporary poetry scholarship also presents problems to the network analyst. Rather than being a static, transferable product, poetry events are diachronic productions: the makers of poetry events do not retain predictable, independent identities from encounter to encounter. This problem is compounded by the inhabitation of multiple social roles by individuals participating in poetry scenes. A person who helps with the lighting for one event may be the featured poet at another; a poet who reads may seem like an artist to some audience members even while others interpret him or her as someone whose value comes from their donation of funds or other resources.34 So in addition to being overlapping (i.e., cooperative), nodes in a system that described this activity would also have to be multiple, as changes in the aspect and role of individual participants change their place in the community. To describe these interactions through network analysis would be to visualize the community as dominated by values that may be contradictory to those they actually hold. The network diagram would falsely express a drive toward the expansion of modernist and capitalist values, the intensifijication and spread of a mesh of exchanges of poetry, wealth, and allegiance—it would see guanxi, or relationships, as Moretti does, something to be produced and accumulated (Distant Reading, 237). Both avant-garde events and the commercial events that imitate them can be, by contrast, carefully curated, focused, and limited: Yan Jun 仌ጫ (b. 1973), as Van Crevel relates, once published a book where one side was bound by glue and the other stitched shut by thread, leaving no way for the reader to read the book without slicing it open, something he did with gusto at the start of live performances (Chinese Poetry, 462). This kind of resistance to audience, resistance to increased connection, makes perfect sense in the context of Bourdieu’s argument that for avant-gardes, the literary fijield is the inverse of the economic fijield. The more popularizable and salable one’s work, the less vital it is to the avant-garde, and the less necessary 33 


John Crespi, Voices in Revolution, 173: “my research work, and even my identity in the ‘fijield,’ had come to be dominated less by an attempted analysis of poetry recitation itself than by personal participation in a flourishing social practice of the cultural event.” See, for example, the general manager of the real estate fijirm Genre Don introduced in John Crespi, Voices in Revolution, 183. Her company’s promotional materials describe her as a serious poet, but I feel very strongly that many attendees of the event, including poetcritics Tang Xiaodu ୀᲃ⑑ (b. 1954) and Xi Chuan 㾯ᐍ (b. 1963) would categorize her separately from most publishing poets today.



the avant-garde community becomes to the work. This ideological position is being appropriated by market forces in today’s China, as when the real estate company Genre Don used contemporary poetry events to attract its stated demographic of “bourgeoisie with taste and cultural aspirations” (John Crespi, Voices in Revolution, 183). Crespi describes the tradition of poetry readings, historically afffijiliated with mass events held by the Communist Party, as an only marginal participant in the commercial revolution that has transformed Chinese life in the late twentieth century (Voices in Revolution, 181–182); this gives them a position from which to contest, resist, and collaborate with commercial forces, a position whose uniqueness is invisible if one fijilters out all interactions between participants that cannot be conceptualized as exchanges of goods or information. How, then, can we appropriately interpret these social systems? And what type of interpretation might allow for data about these social interactions to avail itself of the scale of contemporary data analysis? Reading Donna Haraway, Susan Brown asserts that we might try to “build inflection, orientation, flexibility, and diffference into the emergent structures of the semantic web.”35 For a community that comes together to put on performances, we could look to repositories of performance data. One of the biggest—and most useful—of these is the Internet Movie Database (, which lists performers, directors, producers, editors, and crew in a set of hyperlinked lists.36 One can fijind a fijilm or TV show, choose a participant from its list, and then see a list of all the productions on which participant has worked. This makes the database valuable to answer highly specifijic questions—Has Jackie Chan ever shot a fijilm in continental Europe?—and it organizes data on a scale large enough to allow for many types of analysis. Most importantly, perhaps, structuring data about huodong in the style of the IMDB avoids many of the pitfalls of classic network analysis. First, it allows us to include scholars and other analysts in their relationship to the scenes they study, reflecting contemporary poetry scholars’ argument that to study a live scene is to participate in one. The recent scholarly narratives discussed previously, which are otherwise admirable in their sweep, lack the space to produce exhaustive lists of every poetry reading 35 


In this she is responding to the possibility of resisting “modularity” in favor of Haraway’s “situated knowledge,” opposing one of the core structures of twentieth-century computer code as described in the second section of this chapter. See Susan Brown, “Networking Feminist Literary History,” 73. One Chinese reimagination of the site is Although its data is limited, it is often better than IMDB for Chinese fijilms. For the reasonably minor Shanghai actor Chen Long 䱸嗉, for example, has fourteen listed fijilm and TV credits. IMDB has only four (but the Baidu baike has well over fijifty).

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


a scholar has seen or participated in: access to that data would allow readers to judge the lacunae of each scholar’s participatory archive. Second, the IMDB allows an individual to be listed as an actor in one production and a producer in another: a person can additionally hold multiple roles in the same fijilm. This makes for substantially richer data, especially considering that events in the IMDB are diachronic; one can watch Clint Eastwood’s transition from extra to actor to lead actor to producer/director. Were this structure to be applied to contemporary Chinese poetry scenes, we could ask and answer new kinds of questions: does serving as a fijinancial backer for one event make it more or less likely that one will be invited to read at events without donating to them? Does audience size at an event correlate with the number of books the reading poets have published or with the amount of investment in the event? Are small events like banquets and outings organized similarly to large events like readings and conferences? Does a well-attended event in an area increase or decrease the chance that another one will be organized in the same place with the same poets? It is possible to claim that accumulating event data in the form of the Internet Movie Database is simply a process of putting a new skin onto network analysis, with pages as nodes and hyperlinks as edges.37 This is misguided in several ways. One, the “skin” of a data analysis is deeply influential: as So and Long put it, methods of data measurement and accumulation have a “tendency to reify social structure as a static substrate existing independently of the cultural content and processes flowing through it” (“Network Analysis and the Sociology of Modernity,” 153). The shape of the social structure that undergoes reifijication and concretization takes the shape of the data analysis: what we produce is, in many ways, what our tools allow us to produce. The product then makes up part of our own self-image, and our images of others, eliding its basic arbitrariness and strangeness. Put concretely, an actor attempting to excel needs to excel at some metric, and actions intended to improve one’s network diagram may not resemble actions intended to improve one’s IMDB entry. That neither of these metrics are demonstrably identical to excellence at acting makes them no less influential; one identifijies with one’s own metrics. Secondly, though, there is a crucial ideological diffference between a 37 

A strict anti-imperialist critic might additionally point out that a non-Chinese structure is still being used here to interpret a Chinese reality; this kind of argumentation is less compelling after a hundred years of domestic fijilm culture has produced events and roles in Chinese society quite similar to those that the IMDB attempts to record. Additionally, there should be space for analytical frameworks that are apt even though they are not endemic to a region, so long as an analyst can successfully identify homologous social structures or unique insights as a result of the new analytic.



network diagram and the IMDB that matters a great deal in understanding contemporary avant-garde Chinese poetry: the database format allows for the presence of events that are not part of a wider network. The independent fijilm directed by an amateur with no professional actors receives the same type of entry as does a blockbuster whose participants are tightly interrelated to other fijilms; this makes eminent sense in a poetic world in which circles often defijine themselves without reference to interactions between circles. To test the utility of this huodong-centered model, we might very well ask whether, and how, it helps us read a text. László Krasznahorkai’s recently translated book Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reportage makes for an interesting test case. Notwithstanding the book’s title, it is a partially fijictionalized account of interactions between a Hungarian author and those he takes as representatives of Chinese culture, including poetry critic Tang Xiaodu, poets Xi Chuan and Yang Lian ᶘ⛬ (b. 1955), a range of artists in other media from traditional Chinese opera such as kunqu ᰶᴢ to fashion design, and people initiated into the histories of cultural sites.38 Krasznahorkai’s alter ego Stein moves from interview to interview, visit to visit, dinner party to dinner party, and huodong to huodong in vain search of any surviving classical culture. He asks the executive of the Shanghai Museum: “What is your opinion of the teachings of Confucius? Is there any hope that anything from the original spirit of these teachings can return to the Chinese society and culture of today?” (László Krasznahorkai, Destruction and Sorrow, 166). The answers are often evasive and mostly dispiriting—in the original Hungarian, Stein is named after the Inferno’s Dante (Klein, “Taken as Strictly True,” n.p.)—and he sufffers through a long series of socially and physically awkward attempts to pursue an authenticity that make him seem simultaneously to be a kind of dogged journalist and a sort of transcultural Don Quixote. The book’s climax is in its penultimate chapter, “The Spirit of China,” after Stein has come to an increasingly sharp understanding of the dinners, exchanges, and speeches he attends as versions of performance (László Krasznahorkai, Destruction and Sorrow, 47, 207, 250). He meets a stranger named Wu Xianweng,39 who creates an unintelligible and therefore untranslatable text that Stein’s translator labors to reproduce. The translator’s version 38 


Lucas Klein discusses the seriousness and the complexity of the book’s truth claims: he points out that while some details are clearly impossible, others conform not just to potential reality but to Klein’s own experience with the named poets and critics listed, many of whom have in fact met Krasznahorkai” (see “Taken as Strictly True”). No characters are given for this name in the Hungarian or English version of the book; I believe that Xianweng renders xianweng ԉ㗱, or “immortal old man,” a Daoist deity associated with the southern star Canopus.

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


begins: “Things next to one another / unspeakable / density” and it ends “Time / Poetry / recite / painting / We grow old / We die.”40 Stein has a kind of epiphany: he abandons translation and whispers in Hungarian in Wu’s ear that “he doesn’t know how to explain how this is possible, but he has understood, and understands, every word” (László Krasznahorkai, Destruction and Sorrow, 264). Stein then goes on to say that he will always remember the pavilion in which they sit, the Longjing tea they drink, the specifijic garden surrounding them, and “the people sitting around this table” (264–265). A few short pages later, the book ends. If we read this enigmatic scene and its poetic, fragmentary text through its network, we are stymied: Stein has been introduced to Wu by Master Ji, who is a clown-like fijigure recommended by a Shanghai publisher as “a writer but not a particularly interesting one” who can take care of logistical issues for Stein (245). We have lost, rather than gained, ties: Stein has traveled outside the meaningful network of socially important poets and artists where he started. Reading the huodong as a performance elucidates the text. Stein can understand what is happening because he is making it happen, he is participating; he is reading not the scattered words on the page but helping to craft a moment in which something imminent, dense, and shared occurs to all those present. He has learned not to penetrate performances to reveal authenticity, but to accept those performances as the living reproduction of classical culture that he has been looking for. Rather than reading Chinese culture from above, as a modernist looking for static geometries might, in this passage Stein accepts that the performances he engages in will always have qualities that are fijictionalizing, essentializing, and Orientalizing: “Stein feels he has ended up in a great narrative” (László Krasznahorkai, Destruction, 258). His claim to understand without translation performs his dream of Chinese culture, and for the fijirst time he uses the huodong not as a means to an analytical end, but as an expressive method in itself. We can visualize the drinking of tea with Wu Xianweng and his friends in a database alongside all the other events Stein has attended, and imagine what their lists of attendees would look like, and the roles each played: in part because it is a distant event with anonymous people, in part because he is no longer attempting to receive accurate and authentic information—at this and only this huodong Stein self-consciously acts as an artist. This change in roles provokes in Stein the simultaneous senses of the


László Krasznahorkai, Destruction and Sorry, 264. For space reasons, I have elided the large patches of negative space between these words in the original, which only reinforce the piece’s double identity as a set of explanatory notes and a poem.



emptiness and insubstantiality of classical Chinese culture in the modern day and its liberating possibility; it exists as and when people assemble to perform it, no more and no less. A structure modeled on fijilm databases is, of course, not the only way to understand contemporary Chinese poetry’s event culture and their community interactions. Hermeneutics should always be multiple, overlapping, and mutually corroborating. But the procedure described here may be one way in which new, apt interpretive metaphors can be applied to social realities: begin with extant methods of analysis, compare their shapes and results to narrative or other accounts of lived experience in the community under study, and then adapt the structure to record and measure elements that matter to the group.41 This process—which, as we have seen here, sometimes ends by concluding that network analysis is a perfectly appropriate interpretive lens through which to view specifijic social activities—is one that can assess modernizations and globalizations, rather than one that uncritically reproduces them.



While presenting the results of an elaborate word-count of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Eric Bulson writes this: “quantitative readings of literature tend to get a bad rap today because people are skeptical about whether they can teach us anything that some good old-fashioned philological exegesis cannot. The truth is that quantitative data can actually help us ask new questions about the works we’ve read and will continue to reread.”42 Like many scholars, I believe that quantitative methods are crucial to literary interpretation, and I agree with recently published research that demonstrates that they are not particularly new.43 I believe, however, that one of the things limiting the 41 

42  43 

I fijind myself often making notepad sketches of seating arrangements at dinners with artists: Who was paying for dinner? Who was the most famous artist there? Was there a scholar or journalist? Was there a Party representative? Where did they sit—how important are they to the group? This kind of habit of thought is one reason that event lists organized by role “feel right” to me; this happens, meaningfully, before data can be collected. Eric Bulson, “Ulysses by Numbers,” 26. See Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood, “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies,” 359–384. One undervalued piece of digital data analysis in modern Chinese literature is Raymond S. W. Hsü’s The Style of Lu Hsün: Vocabulary and Usage, which used punchcard computing to demonstrate quite convincingly that Lu Xun’s writings freely mixed modern and classical Chinese, but used very little dialectical or regionally inflected language.

Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention


wider acceptance of quantitative methods is not a knee-jerk opposition to data itself, but resistance to the unexamined shaping of particular types of big data analysis by culture and ideology. This fear is not unfounded: Matthew Jockers explains that “the migration to digital humanities appears to be mostly about opportunity…. With apologies to the indigenous, I must acknowledge here that the streets of this ‘new’ world are paved with gold and the colonizers have arrived” (Macroanalysis, 11–12). Large-data literary analysis cannot and should not survive as a tool of the colonizer, the Euro-American assertion of globalization, or the modernist’s unitary perspective. Our cognizance of the cultural situatedness and contingency of data analytics is at a visible crossroads: Hoyt Long quotes Latour saying that “the map in no way resembles the territory” (“Fog and Steel,” 289); on the other contrary, Moretti says, “graphs, maps, and trees place the literary fijield literally in front of our eyes” (Distant Reading, 2).44 Fortunately, the academy’s recent quantitative turn has taken place at a moment of drastic cultural flow. To visualize this flow as proceeding outward from a center—methods of data analysis flowing out into the world from Chicago or Stanford—is to contribute to mismatched hermeneutics and acts of interpellation that make sense only if social subjects worldwide consent to internalize and reproduce the ideologies upon which data analysis has traditionally operated. The computer is a network of circuits, but it is not doomed to reproduce its internal structure in every interpretive process. Data-driven literary analysis can instead internalize the local diffference that globalization has given us access to, transforming our analytical methods in ways that appropriately interpret cultural specifijicity, multiply options for future data analysts, and transform the “bad rap” associated with quantitative methods into a more textured assessment of individual quantitative methods as they are applied to individual cases. Using cultural studies to transform data hermeneutics is a step beyond mixing close reading with distant reading: it calls upon us to invent a distant reading whose distance is measured not from twentiethcentury Europe but from the places and times under study. To resist and revise network analysis is more, though, than a practical or technical amelioration of interpretation. In Spivak’s terms, it is also a small manner of opening spaces to overwrite the globe with the planet. She writes:


Note that the three methodologies here are agents that collect and display the fijield (an unsizeable extraction if there ever was one) for the delectation of an “us”—fijitting neatly into the colonizing profijit narrative that Jockers makes clear.



Globalization is achieved by the imposition of the same system of exchange everywhere. It is not too fanciful to say that, in the gridwork of electronic capital, we achieve something that resembles that abstract ball covered in latitudes and longitudes, cut by virtual lines…. The globe is on our computers. It is the logo of the World Bank. No one lives there…. The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, indeed are it.45 Data accretion and quantitative thinking are not—do not have to be—tools of globalizing abstraction reducible to the “gridwork of electronic capital.” Our challenge is to count and record in ways that “think the other” and, in doing so, clearly perceive the ways in which our social world succeeds in avoiding resolution into a single global system.46

45  46 

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, 338. This essay owes a debt to Tom McEnany both for sharing his deep understanding of contemporary digital analysis and for making compelling counterarguments that greatly influenced some of the ideas above.

chapter 12

Modernist Waves: Yang Lian, John Cayley, and the Location of Global Modernism in the Digital Age Jacob Edmond

The worry that using the term modernism might turn twentieth-century Chinese literature into “a diluted story about repetition” is itself a recurrent theme in modern Chinese literature.1 Such worries were redoubled during the revival of the term in mainland China in the 1980s and extended into debates about Chinese literature in the 1990s and beyond, when anxiety was fueled by the increasing profijile of Chinese artists and writers abroad, by the worldwide expansion of new information and communication technologies, and by the post–Cold War rise of economic globalization, in which China played an increasingly central role. Writers associated with the 1980s revival of modernism, such as the poet Yang Lian ᶘ⛬ and the novelist Yo Yo ৻৻, continue to feel the need to distinguish themselves from slavish adopters of foreign forms. “If one gives up self-questioning, art becomes the same as plagiarism; by adopting the language of American or European art movements, Chinese art plays into the hand of Western hegemony,” Yang and Yo Yo argue, before going on to ask, “Do artists have the right to steal and sell second-hand products simply because they are ‘Chinese artists’?”2 These concerns about “subscribing to Western cultural hegemony” echo Stephen Owen’s analysis of another poet associated with 1980s Chinese modernism, Bei Dao ेዋ (Tang, “Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman,’” 1222). Owen describes Bei Dao as exemplifying the new phenomenon of “world poetry,” which “turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a version of Anglo-American modernism or French modernism, depending on which wave of colonial culture fijirst washed over the intellectuals of the country in question. This situation is the quintessence of cultural hegemony, when an essentially local tradition (Anglo-European) is widely taken for granted as universal.”3 In describing the wave of Euro-American modernism washing over various non-European countries and traditions, Owen’s 1990 review anticipates one of the most influential 1  Xiaobing Tang, “Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ and a Chinese Modernism,” 1222. 2  Yang Lian and Yo Yo, “Stepping Outside Post–Cultural Revolution.” 3  Stephen Owen, “What Is World Poetry?,” 28.

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 014



recent accounts of modern literary history on a global scale: Franco Moretti’s argument that world literary history can be understood as a series of waves translated from culture to culture. For Moretti and other world-systems literary theorists, the apparent plurality of modernisms is merely the result of the “interference” produced when essentially the same literary form, such as the novel or modernism, washes into a new language, culture, and tradition.4 Writing in the early 1990s, Xiaobing Tang took a diffferent view, arguing that modernism in China named “all discursive practices opposed to a repressive political order” rather than the imposition of “an old-fashioned and essentially Western label on the twentieth-century Chinese literary tradition” (Tang, “Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman,’” 1225, 1222). Extending Tang’s thesis a few years later, Xiaomei Chen claimed that, far from being merely a pale imitation, modernism in mainland China in the 1980s meant something quite diffferent from modernism in the West and that this “misunderstanding” of Western modernism, in Chen’s nonderogative sense, functioned as a counter-discourse to offfijicial ideology.5 Tang and Chen helped inaugurate another influential approach to world literary history, whereby Chinese and global modernisms were reconceived as a plurality of responses to global modernity. In this essay, I argue for an alternative framework that adopts the metaphor of modernist waves but rejects the dichotomy of sameness and diffference and the static notions of Chinese and Western through which both these competing approaches to Chinese and global modernism have been routed. I do so by considering a work that deploys the wave metaphor to address its own uncertain position both inside and outside China and Chinese modernism: Yang Lian’s long poem Dahai tingzhi zhi chu བྷ⎧‫→ڌ‬ѻ༴ (Where the sea stands still), written in 1993 and fijirst published in 1995, and Yang’s subsequent collaboration with Anglo-Canadian programmer-poet John Cayley on the transformation of the poem into the digital HyperCard and performance piece Where the Sea Stands Still.6 Yang and Cayley’s collaboration and their use of the wave as a fijigure for their practice allow me to explore the shortcomings of both Owen’s and Chen’s accounts of Chinese modernism. Although Owen and Chen contradict each other, both rely on relatively fijixed conceptions of cultural location and cultural 4  Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” 58–66. Moretti here builds on an idea put forward in Frederic Jameson “In the Mirror of Alternate Modernities,” xiii. Moretti borrows the term “interference” from Itamar Even-Zohar, “Laws of Literary Interference,” 53–72. 5  Xiaomei Chen, Occidentalism, 69–98. 6  Yang Lian, Where the Sea Stands Still / Dahai tingzhi zhi chu; John Cayley and Yang Lian, Where the Sea Stands Still, performance reading.

Modernist Waves


forms. Either the wave of Euro-American modernism washes over local writers, transforming all in its wake; or, this modernist wave is utterly transformed by its new Chinese location, so that it makes little sense to talk about a wave at all. One should instead speak of modernisms in the plural, each defijined by its local context. Yang and Cayley’s work highlights the conceptual problem with both Owen’s and Chen’s models. Where the Sea Stands Still is neither the product of a singular Chinese modernism nor simply the reproduction of a European modernist form. Rather, it is about the problems and possibilities of imagining places and cultural positions in terms of waves and interferences and is itself an example of a text produced out of a complex set of iterations, locations, histories, and media. The poem was written in Sydney, Australia, in the shadow of the events of 4 June 1989 but also of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 trip to the south that ushered in China’s subsequent economic expansion and our current era of globalization. Its immediate context encompasses Owen’s criticism of modern Chinese poetry and the Mao Goes Pop exhibition that helped inaugurate the global rise of contemporary Chinese art. Yang and Cayley’s 1997 multimedia performance piece in turn engages another chapter in recent Chinese history: it was one of a series of works commissioned by the ICA Gallery in London to mark Hong Kong’s return to China. The HyperCard poem was then reworked into an HTML hyperlink poem of the same name and uploaded onto the World Wide Web.7 The resultant text is “born-translated”:8 the digital work that is Where the Sea Stands Still is both Chinese and English and a machine-coded text whose ontology and location are further complicated by its being a performed work, a HyperCard stack, and a website on the World Wide Web. Moreover, Cayley’s approach to programming was profoundly influenced by his understanding of parallelism in classical Chinese poetry and by Poundian modernism, which was itself shaped by Pound’s reading, or misreading, of classical Chinese texts. A multiply versioned and languaged text composed the year CERN fijirst made World Wide Web technology freely available, Where the Sea Stands Still is a collocation of many intertwining and mutually interfering waves of literary history that exemplifijies the difffijiculty of pinpointing a text’s—and modernism’s—geographic, cultural, and media location.

7  John Cayley and Yang Lian, Where the Sea Stands Still, HTML. 8  Rebecca Walkowitz, “Comparison Literature,” 569.

286 1



By staging the tension between land and sea, stasis and movement, Yang’s poem Where the Sea Stands Still confronts the problem of location in the context of his exile after 4 June 1989 and of post–Cold War globalization. He turns to the wave movements of the sea as a counter to the repetitions that he associates with the land, which represents for him the stasis of the Chinese tradition and contemporary Chinese discourse. In an unpublished note on Where the Sea Stands Still, written shortly after its composition, Yang explains that the poem seeks to escape the repetitions of Chinese collective thought—its jiti yixiang 䳶փ᜿‫( ۿ‬collective images) and cihui 䗎≷ (vocabulary). Yang here seems to have in mind the perceived entrapment of the Chinese tradition, as represented by such land-based works as his 1980s long poem Banpo ॺඑ, which centers on a famous Chinese archeological site of that name. But his comment also targets what Li Tuo ᵾ䱰 had analyzed a few years earlier as the dominance of the “Mao style” (Mao wenti ∋᮷փ) in contemporary Chinese discourse, or what Geremie Barmé termed “MaoSpeak.”9 Yang describes the repetitions of offfijicial Chinese culture as perpetuated rather than subverted by what he would later call “Cultural Revolution Pop,” work that draws on communist iconography of the Mao era.10 Yang’s note in particular singles out the landmark Mao Goes Pop exhibition, which had just taken place in Sydney between June and August 1993 and which Barmé criticized in similar terms. “Much of the cultural iconoclasm that plays with Chinese political symbols tempers its irony with a disturbing measure of validation,” writes Barmé in his contribution to the exhibition catalogue. “Mao has become a consumer item,” marketed by artists who play to the desires of foreign audiences for “the exotic or dissident Other.”11 In seeking to diffferentiate himself from those who merely repeat others’ images, words, and forms in ways that afffijirm domestic ideology and foreign desires, Yang’s poem and commentary also implicitly respond to Owen’s attack on Bei Dao’s work as “world poetry” written to be translated into English—a poetry devoid of a sense of the Chinese tradition and history and instead characterized by its repetition of Western modernist forms (Stephen Owen, “World Poetry,” 1990).12 9   Yang Lian, “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu fuyan.” For Li Tuo’s articulation in English translation, see “Resisting Writing,” 274. Barmé describes the same phenomenon in Shades of Mao, 33, 113, 224. 10  Yang Lian, “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu fuyan”; Yang Lian and Yo Yo, “Stepping Outside.” 11  Geremie Barmé, “Exploit, Export, Expropriate,” 29. 12  Even if Yang had not read Owen’s original article by the time he came to compose Where the Sea Stands Still, he is very likely to have encountered Michelle Yeh’s (1991) response

Modernist Waves


Both Barmé and Owen presented new takes on the familiar double bind of Chinese modernism whereby works are criticized for following too closely either domestic or foreign expectations or traditions and sometimes both at the same time. Yang had already encountered this double bind in the highly politicized controversy over the revival of Chinese modernism in the 1980s. At this time, Yang had sought to respond to the double bind through a synthesis of individual and collective voice, which he outlined in essays like “Chuantong yu women” Ր㔏оᡁԜ and enacted in works such as Banpo ॺඑ and Yi.13 In his commentary on his new poem, Yang presents Where the Sea Stands Still as a departure from these land-based works by connecting the earth to the entrapment of the Chinese tradition and political system and to the entrapment of global sameness. Yang associates such repetitions with the “earth,” dadi བྷൠ, a word paralleling and opposing dahai བྷ⎧, the “sea” (“Postscript”). The sea provides Yang with a crucial counterpoint, not only to a land-based Chinese cultural tradition, but also to a mode of globalization stuck in static repetitions. In turning to the sea as a fijigure for dynamism and a global outlook, Yang echoes the oceanic utopianism of 1980s Chinese modernization discourse. This oceanic utopianism is exemplifijied by the 1988 TV series He shang ⋣↷ (River elegy), in which the despotism and backwardness of China’s “ancient inland civilization” ( ji qiannian de neilu wenming ࠐॳᒤⲴ޵䱶᮷᰾), associated with the Yellow River, give way to the “ocean” (dahai བྷ⎧).14 Here, the ocean represents China’s renewed engagement with the “science and democracy” (kexu yu minzhu 、ᆖо≁ѫ) of the West’s “maritime civilization” (haiyang wenming ⎧⌻᮷᰾) and the country’s opening of its seaports to global markets (Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiang, River Elegy, 108). In a discussion with Gao Xingjian 儈㹼‫ ڕ‬in Sydney in 1993, Yang cites the just drafted Where the Sea Stands Still in describing a similar turn from his land-based exploration of the Chinese tradition in Yi to the sea. He explains that this turn marks his rejection of the “motherland” (zuguo ⾆ഭ) and “mother tongue” (muyu ⇽䈝), his refusal to be “subservient to a piece of land” (lishu yi pian tudi 䳦኎а⡷൏ൠ), and the acceptance of his piaobo ┲⋺, or “floating life”—a term for “wandering” or

13  14 

to Owen in a journal published by Chinese writers who went into exile after 4 June 1989. See Michelle Yeh (publishing as Xi Mi ྊᇶ), “Chayi de liuyi–yige huixiang.” Tang Xiaodu discerns a direct response to Owen in Yang Lian’s 1995 essay on Where the Sea Stands Still titled “Yinwei Aodexiusi, hai cai kaishi piaoliu”; See Tang Xiaodu, “‘Zhongyu bei dahai modaole neibu.’” Yang Lian, “Chuantong yu women,” 69–73; and Dahai tingzhi zhi chu: Yang Lian zuopin, 1982–1997; shige juan, 3–28, 73–225. Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiang, Heshang.



“exile” that chimes with the maritime theme.15 Yang also participates in the new era of transoceanic global trade through his poem’s publication in a duallanguage edition, through his turn away from the Chinese tradition to a poetry less defijined by location, and later through his collaboration with Cayley. Yang’s sea, however, opposes the utopian symbolism of River Elegy. Far from being an unequivocal symbol of progress, the sea in Where the Sea Stands Still is bewildering, repetitive, and fijilled with death—from “gaudy speckles on dead fijish” (↫劬䓛к勌㢣Ⲵᯁ⛩; 1.1) to the “paralysis” that is “the bright blue goal that makes the sea dazzle” (㘼ⱛⰚᱟ֯བྷ⎧㘰⵬Ⲵ⒋㬍ⴞⲴ; 3.2).16 Yang’s commentaries on the poem evince a similar sense of the sea’s symbolic ambiguity and a related concern to reject dislocated globalism and static localism. In a subsequent essay on Where the Sea Stands Still, fijirst presented as a talk in Germany in 1995, Yang sought to develop his new sea-based poetics further while implicitly responding to Owen’s accusations about the lack of Chineseness in modern Chinese poetry. Rejecting national location in favor of his linguistic identity as a “Chinese-language poet” (Zhongwen de shiren ѝ᮷Ⲵ䈇Ӫ), Yang claims that “Chinese taught me innately to reject time” (ѝ᮷ˈᮉՊᡁ˖ᵜ䍘ൠᤂ㔍ᰦ䰤).17 Yang’s response here develops an account of modern Chinese poetics that stresses its diffference from Western poetics yet repeats some of the clichés of Western modernist imagining of the Chinese written language and of 1980s Chinese modernism’s oceanic imagining of the West. Rather than simply being Yang’s essentialist image for the timelessness of the Chinese language, the sea standing still fijigures a timelessness that is in fact the product of ceaseless movement, of multiple contexts and layers of cross-cultural reading. Similarly, the poem describes a location in Sydney, Australia, and a condition of “floating life” or exile defijined by movement away from the fijixed earth and tradition and toward an individual idiolect that Yang in the same essay calls “Yanglish” (Yangwen ᶘ᮷; “Yinwei Aodexiusi,” 276). Such a poetics would seem to favor modernist idiolect and untranslatability—indeed, Yang writes of his poem “making translators go mad” (䇙㘫䈁ᇦਁ⯟)—over poetry “written for translation,” or what Owen terms “fungible” world poetry (Yang, “Only because of Odysseus,”

15  16 


Yang Lian and Gao Xingjian, “Piaobo shi women huode le shenme?” 363–364. Unless otherwise noted, all citations of Where the Sea Stands Still are taken from Brian Holton’s 1995 translation published by Wellsweep. Parenthetical numbers following quotations from the poem refer fijirst to the part of the poem and then to the subsection within that part. I have sometimes modifijied Brian Holton’s English translation for the sake of precision. Yang Lian, “Yinwei Aodexiusi,” 276, 274.

Modernist Waves


275; Rebecca Walkowitz, “Comparison Literature,” 172; Stephen Owen, “World Poetry,” 32). Yet the poem remains poised between the assertion of an idiolect poetics and a poetics of repeated “collective images” and cultural stereotypes that moves easily, like the ocean or Owen’s modernist waves, from one nation and language to another. The poem was fijirst published in a dual-language Chinese and English edition, and the Chinese evinces English-language interference. Perhaps in response to the translator Brian Holton’s questions to Yang about whether he should “defijine nouns as singular or plural,” Yang’s poem shows the influence of English in its frequent use of the construction yige ањ (“a” or “one”), which is marked in Chinese, where singular and plural are not normally specifijied.18 Seeking both to accommodate and madden his translators, Yang responds equally to the pressures—and dangers—of singularity and repetition, of idiolectic idiosyncrasy and translatable collective images, of Chineseness and worldliness, of stasis and flux, of static essentialism undermined by its own multiple relations. Where the Sea Stands Still therefore does not eschew repetitions; it revels in them, both thematically and formally. The diegetic world of the poem centers on the poet sitting at the edge of the Sydney clifffs watching the Tasman Sea breaking against the rocks below. Elements of this scene, such as the “seagulls” (haiou ⎧呕), “waves” (bo ⌒), “anchors” (mao 䭊), and “jellyfijish” (shuimu ≤⇽), appear throughout the poem, and key words evoking the location are repeated frequently, including “clifffs” (xuanya ᛜፆ), repeated fijive times; “rocks” (shi ⸣), six times; “blue” (lan 㬍), eight times; “wind” ( feng 仾), nine times; “birds” (niao 呏), six times; and “fijish” (yu 劬), fijive times. The character hai ⎧ (sea) appears forty times in the poem. Although describing the Sydney location, except for “clifffs,” “rocks,” and “anchors,” these words refer to things in constant motion, often across vast distances; they thus dissolve location even as they evoke it. The oceanic vocabulary and sense of geographic displacement stand in tension with the fijixity of land-based location, emphasized in the fijinal part of the poem by the directions to Yang’s Sydney address: King Street аⴤ䎠 Enmore Road ਣ䖜 Cambridge Street 14 ਧ (4.1)


Yang Lian, Concentric Circles, 10. I am grateful to Xiao Yizhi 㛆аѻ for drawing my attention to the frequent use of the yige construction in Where the Sea Stands Still. See Yang Lian, Concentric Circles, 10.



The shift to roman script—aside from the Arabic numerals and the Chinese for “go straight,” “turn right,” and “number”—emphasizes the geographic, cultural, and linguistic movement between Sydney and Yang’s native Beijing. Elsewhere, Yang contrasts Auckland, New Zealand, another harbor city and the place where he fijirst lived after 4 June 1989, with “that ancient city buried in dust and yellow earth” (䛓ᓗ哴൏઼⚠ቈ᧙෻Ⲵਔ෾) where the sea is only a “myth” (shenhua ⾎䈍).19 The sea marks his geographical displacement from dry northern Beijing and his “floating life,” or exile. The poem encodes the play between land and sea in the term dizhi ൠ൰ (address; repeated fijive times in the poem), a word that in Chinese combines the word for “earth” or “land,” di ൠ, with a word for “location” or “site,” zhi ൰. Zhi ൰in turn rhymes visually (distinguished only by the addition of the “earth” radical tu ൏), aurally, and semantically with zhi →, one of the characters in the word translated as “stands still” in the title of the poem. Ironically, the words here that insist on location, address, and stillness lack the evocations of physical place that the sea images in the poem provide, so that the two stand in counterpoint: the sea is shifting and unstoppable, yet more realistically depicted and pinpointed. By contrast, the address, although providing a precise location, quickly transforms into “countless places” (wushu … didian ᰐᮠ……ൠ⛩; 4.1), becoming what is repeatedly referred to as an undefijined “some address” (mou ge dizhi Ḁњൠ൰; 4.3) later in the fijinal part of the poem. The repeated instances of di ൠ in “places” (didian ൠ⛩; 4.1, 4.3), “addresses” (dizhi ൠ൰; 4.1, 4.3), and a “map” (ditu ൠമ; 4.1) highlight how “words” are said to “compose addresses” (ᶴᡀൠ൰Ⲵ䗎; 4.3). “Words” (ci 䗎) bury a person “underground” (dixia ൠл; 4.2), placing a person literally under the sufffocating stasis of di ൠ—with its connotations of earth, place, address, and land-bound location. The poem’s formal repetitions also stress stasis in movement, location in dislocation. Echoing its multiple historical and geographic locations, the iterative structure of Yang’s long poem produces an expanding sense of space and geography that, like the title, combines perpetual repetition with continuous change. The 229-line, 58-stanza long poem contains four parts, each titled “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” བྷ⎧‫→ڌ‬ѻ༴ (“Where the sea stands still”). There is no numbering, so each part’s title is identical to all the others. Each part has three sections and ends with the fijinal two characters of the title: zhi chu ѻ༴ (the place where). These fijinal lines, like the poem as a whole, combine spatial and temporal arrest with the sea’s ceaseless repetitive movements. The poem’s repeated images, title, fijinal words, and structure produce a fluid sense of space; they leave the reader unsure of his or her place within the text because the 19 

Yang Lian, Unreal City, 28.

Modernist Waves


usual markers of progression—such as progressive numbering, varied titles, and changes in subject matter—are absent. Adding another layer to these iterations, Yang gave the same title, Dahai tingzhi zhi chu བྷ⎧‫→ڌ‬ѻ༴ / Where the Sea Stands Still, to two major collections of his poetry in Chinese and in English (Yang Lian, Dahai Tingzhi zhi chu; Yang Lian, Where the Sea Stands Still: New Poems). Thus, each poem titled “Where the Sea Stands Still” appears within the long poem Where the Sea Stands Still, which is in turn within the collection Where the Sea Stands Still. Each poem relates to all the others in wavelike expanding circles of meaning—what Yang calls, in describing the poem, “concentric circles” (tongxin yuan ਼ᗳശ; “Yinwei Audexiusi,” 277).20 Paralleling the repeated titles, each of the poem’s four parts repeats a series of syntactic structures. Each of the three sections within each part deploys a distinctive syntactic element, producing a sense of progression within repetition, movement within stasis. The strict stanzaic forms of the second section of each of the poem’s four parts stand in counterpoint to the irregular stanzaic structures of the other two sections of each part. These second sections of each part are also distinguished by their third-person constructions, as opposed to sections one and three of each part, which use the fijirst or second person. Similarly, the pronoun “you” (ni ֐), which dominates parts 1 and 3, is in counterpoint with “we” (women ᡁԜ) in parts two and four.21 All these carefully structured repetitions and variations stress a unity that is also characterized by continuous shifting diffference, thereby contributing at a formal level to the thematic vision of location as continuous wavelike movement. The poem also repeats various grammatical constructions, generating a sense of place and location out of purely relational grammatical particles. The most important of these grammatical parallelisms is the sentence structure “X Ⲵо㻛 X Ⲵ” (… X and by X …), where X is a repeated word. This sentence structure appears repeatedly in the third section of each of the four parts of the poem, as, for example, in the following passage: what’s monotonous and what’s monotonously copied is criminal a person who lives alone on a clifff resembles an end more than the clifff does you are smashed by a thousand tons of blue rock

20  21 

This is not to be confused with his later collection, as Yang Lian also titled a subsequent series of poems Concentric Circles (2005). Yang gives an account of these and other aspects of the poem’s form in Guihua—Zhili de kongjian, 259–262. He discusses these formal features in further detail in an unpublished note to his translator, Mabel Lee, titled “‘Dahai tingzhi zhi chu’ fuyan.”



eyes can’t dodge the sea that comes smashing in what watches the daytime and what’s stripped bare by the daytime অ䈳Ⲵо㻛অ䈳䟽༽Ⲵᱟ㖚㹼 ањ⤜༴ᛜፆⲴӪ∄ᛜፆᴤ‫ۿ‬ቭཤ ֐㻛кॳ੘㬍㢢⸣ඇ⹨⵰ ⵬ⶋ䓢нᔰ⹨ᶕⲴབྷ⎧ 䛓ⴻ㿱ⲭᱬⲴо㻛ⲭᱬ࢕‫( Ⲵݹ‬1.3)

The repetitive waveform smashing against the rocks itself becomes an object to be repeated, so that form and content, object and wave are inextricable, just as the clifffs and sea merge in the “thousand tons of blue rock.” Land and sea, earth and water become not just objects or places but dynamic waves. The poem describes waves of water propagated through the medium of the “sea that comes smashing in,” alongside the counterintuitive image of waves propagating through the medium of “a thousand tons of blue rock.” The solid ground of the “clifff” offfers a location: the compound duchu ⤜༴, or “lives alone,” contains the character chu ༴, which (pronounced in a diffferent tone) signifijies “place” or “where,” as in the title. But the solid ground of a “thousand tons” of rock is also the “blue” of the sea, and the transformation of clifff into wave is enacted by the repetition of the word “clifff.” The repeated word xuanya ᛜ ፆ (clifff) in the second line quoted previously parallels the other repetitions in the passage, including dandiao অ䈳 (monotonous/monotonously), bei 㻛 (by), and baizhou ⲭᱬ (daytime), which collectively mimic the monotonous rhythm of the sea and reimagine words and things as wavelike processes of iteration. The word chu ༴, or “place” (translated in the title and elsewhere in the poem as “where”), itself plays a crucial role in the reframing of locations as wavelike iterations. The words zhi chu ѻ༴ (“the place where” or, simply, “where”) conclude each part within the poem: where the necrosis of last night goes endlessly back ↓ᰐቭൠ䘄എ䳄ཌൿ↫ѻ༴ (1.3) stands still where a storm can never stand still ‫→ڌ‬൘а൪᳤仾䴘нਟ㜭‫→ڌ‬ѻ༴ (2.3) where the mirror’s fijictive ending stretches endlessly away ൘䮌ᆀ㲊ᶴⲴ㔃ተ╛ᔦᰐ䗩ѻ༴ (3.3)

Modernist Waves


this is where we look out from the shore on ourselves setting out to sea 䘉ᱟӾየ䗩⵪ᵋ㠚ᐡࠪ⎧ѻ༴ (4.3) Given the left-branching syntax of relative clauses in Chinese, the words zhi chu (where) could refer back, not only to the preceding phrase (as in “where a storm can never stand still”), but to the entire poem—producing an extreme form of the nominalizations that characterize Yang’s syntax in Where the Sea Stands Still.22 This is the place, that is, where all the strange and surrealistic descriptions of the sea and clifffs happen—rendering all the paratactic phrases of Where the Sea Stands Still hypotactically connected in a syntactic oscillation between particularity and totality. Zhi chu suggests a precise location, an object or a point in space and time. However, the many paratactically arranged modifijiers that defijine this location and the poem’s structural repetitions depend crucially on relation. We are offfered not one but many places. The poem moves relentlessly round and round the same location offfering various descriptions that refuse to coalesce into a single object. Emphasizing this repetition with diffference, Yang also repeats chu ༴ in a number of two-character words: daochu ࡠ༴ (everywhere), shenchu ␡༴ (depths/abyss), biechu ࡛༴ (elsewhere). Location is a product not just of an address, a dizhi ൠ൰, a place to stand still on land, but also of a hai … zhi ⎧……→, an impossible site where the sea stands still—at once “everywhere” and always “elsewhere.” Where the Sea Stands Still functions as much through these forms of repetition as through any object it describes. As in the modern theory of light, the poem is a particle, a place, but it is also a perpetually moving wave of relations and repetitions. This matters in crucial ways to theories of world literature and global modernism, because it unsettles the static conceptions of location— place, language, culture, tradition—on which these theories are so often based. My reading of Where the Sea Stands Still suggests a wavelike defijinition of location, just as, in an extended version of modern wave theory, everything has a wavelength—everything, as John Cage puts it, is “in a state of vibration.”23 The poetics and cultural positioning of Where the Sea Stands Still can help us question static notions of cultural location and the treatment of place, culture, and tradition as mere background to the wavelike propagation of modernist literature. Instead, we need to recognize that geographic and cultural positions are themselves continuously in flux. As the digital adaptations of Where the Sea Stands Still illustrate, the same is true of languages and media.

22  23 

Cosima Bruno, Between the Lines, 106. John Cage and Daniel Charles, For the Birds, 220–221.

294 2



In 1997 Yang collaborated with Cayley on a HyperCard version of Where the Sea Stands Still. The programmed poem incorporated images by the France-based Gao Xingjian and calligraphy by the UK-based Qu Leilei ᴢ⻺⻺ and was commissioned for a live performance in London to mark the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control. The work was a further development of a collaboration that had begun when Cayley published Yang’s Non-Person Singular through his Wellsweep Press in 1994. The collaboration extended to Cayley hosting Yang in his London flat in September 1995, when Cayley announced that Wellsweep had published the fijirst edition of Where the Sea Stands Still in a bilingual text with English translations by Scottish translator Brian Holton.24 Linking Hong Kong, China, Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, and France, the geographical constellation generated by the poem went truly global when Cayley published an HTML version of their collaboration on the World Wide Web. Cayley’s transformation of Where the Sea Stands Still not only involves moving the text from one medium to another but is part of a complex interweaving of imaginings of places, languages, literary traditions, and old and new media. Cayley’s and Yang’s approaches rhyme, but their motivations were distinct. Yang’s poetics of stasis in flux, the sea standing still, emerged out of an efffort to fijind a location for modern Chinese poetry outside the stasis of Chinese nativism and placeless globalism—to use repetition to escape both threats of perpetual sameness. Cayley developed a poetics of the computer that drew on and elaborated the complexities of both traditional and modern Chinese- and English-language poetry. He sought to revise the resources of modernism for the digital age in order to oppose the prescriptive accounts of hypertext literature that came to prominence in the early 1990s. Their collaboration combines these concerns while also addressing the historical moment of what Cayley terms the poem’s “cybertextual” transformation.25 The text of Where the Sea Stands Still bears the mark of Yang’s exile years and exchanges the fijixity of the earth and Chinese history in his earlier work for the fluidity and transnational reach of the sea. The ICA performance recontextualizes the work in relation to the return of Hong Kong to China. In this context, the sea becomes a fijigure for the southern seaport of Hong Kong and, as in River Elegy,

24  25 

John Cayley, e-mail to the Poetics List. Cayley describes the works as a “performance reading with cybertextual projections” in his introduction to the online version of Where the Sea Stands Still. See John Cayley and Yang Lian, Where the Sea Stands Still, HTML.

Modernist Waves


a metaphor for China’s relationship with the West. Hong Kong is juxtaposed to its new capital through Yang’s Mandarin Chinese and Beijing inflection, and to its old colonial master, London, through the performance’s setting and through Cayley’s Anglo-Canadian accent. Refracted through this new historical moment, Where the Sea Stands Still comes to confront the entrapment threatened by both Chinese and Western traditions: the “wound of all the past” (‫ޘ‬䜘䗷৫ⲴՔ; 3.2). In confronting the limitations of both traditions, Yang and Cayley’s collaboration demonstrates the impossibility of restricting the study of modernism to one place or time. Through the collaboration, Yang’s poetry—associated with the 1980s revival of modernism in China—is intertwined with practices that might be thought of as quintessentially Western and postmodernist but which in fact turn out to be equally dependent on a modernist revival and an engagement with the Chinese tradition. Just as the work of each poet cannot be located wholly in one place, their collaborative re-creation of the poem shows how digital media came to be imagined through modernist practices of cross-cultural reading. Their collaboration illustrates and addresses the problem with treating one form—say, modern poetry—as moving across various statically defijined traditions, languages, historical moments, and media of inscription. Instead, their work suggests the necessity of seeing each of these elements not as fijixed positions but as mutually interfering and therefore continuously changing processes. Both Cayley and Yang, for instance, draw on Ezra Pound’s Western modernist poetics as inflected by his reading or misreading of Chinese poetry. They thereby further intertwine the crisscrossing histories of Chinese and Western modernism. For Cayley and Yang, Chinese inscription and poetics were privileged sites for synchronicity, for the true realization of a Poundian poetics. In part through his reading of Pound and collaboration with Cayley, Yang came to present Where the Sea Stands Still as a work that refuses location in space and time and, at the same time, insists on the particular synchronic, “timeless” possibilities of the Chinese language as a medium for poetry. For Yang, both “Chinese characters and poetry constitute a concentric circle of synchronicity,” a form mirrored by the Russian doll–like structure of repeated titles in Where the Sea Stands Still.26 In describing the scene that inspired Where the Sea Stands Still, Yang connects the sea at the Sydney clifffs to this timelessness: “The blank space is like breakers crashing into the body. This word delimited by its shape forces you again into a position of fijinality. The position of the pictograph is a terminal point: a convergence of time which flows both from the past and 26 

Yang Lian, “‘In the Timeless Air.’”



from the future” (Yang Lian, Unreal City, 68, and Guihua, 4). Here, Yang writes of a “point” (dian ⛩) that recalls the “place” (chu ༴) where the sea stands still. He insists on a precise spatial, temporal, and inscriptive location—Sydney, 1993, Chinese writing—for a moment that then renders location itself radically indeterminate, just as the repeated zhi chu ѻ༴ (where) encompasses ever-expanding circles of space and time, and the poet’s precise address (dizhi ൠ൰) explodes into “countless places” (wushu … didian ᰐᮠ……ൠ⛩). As his reference to Chinese characters as “pictographs” hints, Yang also invokes what he calls Pound’s “synchronic poetic sense and … unique perception of the Chinese language” (Yang, “In the Timeless Air”). He thereby proposes a poetics located neither in the Chinese nor in the Western literary tradition but in a recognition of the mutually constituting relations and interferences through which both are imagined in modernism. Where the Sea Stands Still re-envisages place and time as a process. Similarly, Yang’s essentialist description of the Chinese language, based on Pound’s misreading, gives way to expanding circles of interrelation. While Cayley might be considered postmodernist, his computer-based poetry also emerged out of deep and intertwined engagements with Poundian modernism and traditional Chinese poetry and philosophy. And, like Yang, Cayley elaborated a poetics of flux out of stasis and repetition. Cayley sought to develop a theory of networked complexity from the repetitions of Chinese poetic parallelism and Pound’s apparent search for le mot juste, “the precise defijinition of the word.”27 During the 1980s, Cayley had produced a series of articles that argued for the importance of the graphic elements of Chinese characters and their quasi-etymological connections to the poetics of Pound’s Cantos. Cayley identifijies the horizontal line yi а, meaning “one” in Chinese, as the thread through which Pound links a whole series of characters and as in itself symbolizing a string of connections among diverse elements, as expressed in Confucius’s phrase yi yi guan zhi аԕ䍟ѻ (I have a single thread binding it all together),28 or, in Pound’s translation in Guide to Kulchur, “I have reduced it all to one principle.”29 Cayley gives particular emphasis to Pound’s use of the character zhi →, which, for Pound, is the “hitching post, position, place one is in and works from” and which, as Cayley points out, “appears no less than nine times in The Cantos.” Pound idiosyncratically argued that “there is no more important technical term in the Confucian philosophy” 27  28 


Ezra Pound, Confucius, 20. See John Cayley, “Literal Image,” 240. Cayley also reads Pound’s Cantos through this Confucian phrase and Pound’s visual and quasi-etymological associations between Chinese characters in two earlier essays. See John Cayley, “‘New Mountains,’” 122–158; and “The Gold Thread in the Pattern,” 126–133. Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, 15.

Modernist Waves


(John Cayley, “Literal Image,” 240–241; Ezra Pound, Confucius, 232). According to Cayley, the importance of the character is not in its basic meaning of “to stop,” as in the title Dahai tingzhi zhi chu བྷ⎧‫→ڌ‬ѻ༴, but in Pound’s association of the character with the earth (symbolized for him by the bottom horizontal stroke) and with straightness, rightness, and true direction, indicated partly through the character’s visual resemblance to zheng ↓, as in zhengming ↓਽, the Confucian concept of “correcting names,” which was so important to Pound (“Literal Image,” 240). Underscoring these associations, Cayley concludes another essay on Pound with the character zhi →, which Cayley presents alongside “coming to rest,” the phrase with which Pound defijines the character cheng 䈊: “‘Sincerity.’ The precise defijinition of the word, pictorially the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally” (John Cayley, “‘New Mountains,’” 157; Ezra Pound, Confucius, 20). In a coauthored essay, Yang and Cayley quote this defijinition in arguing that “even this restful, stilled representation of focus, down to a single point, relies, absolutely, on an elaborate amalgam of metaphoric/symbolic and synaesthetic visual references—the sun’s lance—which, at any moment, might expand back into the complex not to say highly contradictory and necessarily incoherent ideogram of which it is a part.”30 In the same essay, Yang and Cayley claim “that certain resources that are traditional or, as it were, interiorized in Chinese linguistic and literary culture rhyme well with many of the characteristics of Pound’s writing, particularly the ideogrammic method of The Cantos: spatial organization, fragmentation, parallelism, juxtaposition” (“Hallucination and Coherence,” 780). Yang’s and Cayley’s readings of Pound and the Chinese tradition intersect in their collaboration, highlighting further parallelisms that produce still further forms of complexity, contradiction, and flux. In their collaboration, Poundian synchronicity, timelessness, and the “precise defijinition of the word”—signifijied by the act of “coming to rest,” standing still, or zhi →— combine with endless movement, as in the motion of waves on the sea. Cayley brought to the collaboration with Yang a vision of the digital medium and its poetic uses that grew out of his engagement with the Chinese poetic tradition and with Poundian modernism, which was itself inflected by Pound’s reading of Chinese texts. Cayley’s fijirst experiments in computer-based poetry had emerged from an interest, sparked by the classical Chinese quatrain, in “the possibility of exploring dynamically (in real time) non-linear aspects of a poem’s rhetorical structures, by scoring its component words and phrases in alternate orders designed to highlight such structures.”31 For Cayley, the

30  31 

John Cayley and Yang Lian, “Hallucination and Coherence,” 779. John Cayley, “Beyond Codexspace,” 169.



repetitions of syntax, meaning, and sound in the parallelism of traditional Chinese regulated verse produced webs of interconnection, “associations and subsequent enrichment of meaning implied by these correspondences” that he collectively likened to “a tapestry woven in the elements of verbal music” (John Cayley and Yang Lian, “Hallucination and Coherence,” 770). For more than a decade prior to collaborating with Yang, Cayley had been exploring how the “computer’s programmable screen” could represent “directly” the “tropes and fijigures” that he found in the parallelism of Chinese poetry and in “nonlinear poetics generally,” including Pound’s Chinese-inspired “ideogrammic” poetry (“Beyond Codexspace,” 169).32 Through his reading of Pound and Chinese poetic parallelism, Cayley began experimenting with aleatoric and recursive programming techniques to transform existing texts, as, for example, when “each letter is, in turn, replaced by any word from the given text which contains the letter being replaced” (“Beyond Codexspace,” 173–174). Cayley saw such processes of continuous textual transformation as opposing the emerging assumptions of literary hypertext—the node-link structure that he described as “limited and sometimes self-limiting” (“Beyond Codexspace,” 168). To rethink the node and link, Cayley also drew on the image of “Indra’s Net,” whose defijinition he cites in explaining his approach to programmed poetry: a “network of jewels that not only reflect[s] the images in every other jewel, but also the multiple images in the others” (Under It All, 13).33 This image from Huayan Buddhism allowed Cayley to develop an alternative to the orthodoxy of node and link and the concomitantly static vision of digital texts and global networks. Cayley’s alternative vision relied on another analogy entirely: waves of light.



See also John Cayley, Under It All, 13. Cayley’s early experiments with computer programming as a medium for poetry centered on the translation of a one-quatrain poem, “Ti Cui yi ren shan ting” 仈ፄ䙨Ӫኡӝ, by Tang poet Qian Qi 䥒䎧 (710–782). Cayley’s translation of the poem, which he titled Wine Flying, went through a number of iterations. Cayley fijirst scripted Wine Flying in the programming language BASIC in the late 1970s or early 1980s. See John Cayley, “From Byte to Inscription,” 2; and John Cayley “Beyond Codexspace,” 169n6. He later produced a version of Wine Flying on an Apple Macintosh using HyperCard, the program that would become Cayley’s main tool for programmed poetry over the next decade up to and including Where the Sea Stands Still (see John Cayley, HyperCard Wine Flying). Cayley’s programmed scoring of the network of connections and connotations embodied in the Tang poetic form of fijive-character regulated verse thus served as inspiration and prototype for the computer as a poetic medium. The emendation in square brackets is Cayley’s, and he takes the defijinition directly from Kenneth Ch’en Buddhism in China, 317. Cayley elaborates on this defijinition of Indra’s Net and its application to programmed poetry in “Chinese Classical Poetry.”

Modernist Waves


In the early 1990s, Cayley described his programming practice as analogous to “holography,” citing the Oxford English Dictionary defijinition of the hologram: “A pattern produced when light (or other radiation) reflected, diffracted, or transmitted by an object placed in a coherent beam (e.g., from a laser) is allowed to interfere with the undifffracted beam.” In “hologography,” Cayley writes, this process “is transposed from light into language,” so that linguistic “transformations are allowed to interfere with the given text” (“Beyond Codexspace,” 172). The concept of “hologography” was basic to Cayley’s self-conception of computer-based poetics at the time he collaborated with Yang.34 Like Cayley, Yang chose the wave as the image for his iterative poetics. In Where the Sea Stands Still, the wave stands for both repetition and diffference, fijixed form and movement. Yang’s wave offfered an alternative to the binary of fijixed place and identity or placeless globalism through which modern Chinese literature was once again being imagined. Similarly, through the image of interfering light waves, Cayley sought to undo the fijixed node-link conceptual and digital architecture of the Internet and the global imaginary. Yang and Cayley’s collaboration allowed these two uses of the wave metaphor and these two corresponding iterative poetics to intermingle, producing further patterns of interference. In holography, the reflections of a single beam of light produce a pattern of diffferences. In Cayley’s hologographic approach, a given text is continuously transformed and allowed to interact with the original, producing similar interferences. The HyperCard and HTML versions of Where the Sea Stands Still, however, lack Cayley’s signature textual manipulation and operation. Cayley and Yang divided the poem into 59 separate pages, which correspond to the poem’s 58 stanzas (the poem’s fijinal and longest stanza is spread across two pages, hence the discrepancy). Each of these pages of text is linked to four other pages (except page 58, which links only to 59, indicating that it is to be treated as part of the same unit).35 Yang mapped all the links to indicate relationships



Cayley uses and discusses the term “hologography” in Under It All: Indra’s Net Book I; Indra’s Net; or, Holography; and Moods and Conjunctions: Indra’s Net III. For more on Cayley’s conception of hologography, see C. T. Funkhouser, Prehistoric Digital Poetry, 179– 180. On the actual use of holograms in poetry by Eduardo Kac, Richard Kostelanetz, and others, see C. T. Funkhouser, Prehistoric Digital Poetry, 265–270. This account of the link structure is based on the HTML version. See John Cayley and Yang Lian, Where the Sea Stands Still (1998). Comparison with a recording of the HyperCard version projected at the ICA indicates that the link and node structure is the same. See John Cayley and Yang Lian, Where the Sea Stands Still (1997).



between stanzas (John Cayley, Where the Sea Stands Still, HTML).36 One of those links (at the bottom of each page in the HTML version) always takes the reader to the next stanza as it appears in the print poem, but the other three links connect to other stanzas, so indicating limited nonlinear relations between various parts of the poem. These links open up the poem to new readings, but, at the same time, they also delimit and defijine textual units and the relationships between them in ways that threaten to restrict dynamic nonlinear readings of the poem. At a time when Cayley was rejecting such link-node structures in favor of producing collocations of words and phrases in everchanging forms, Where the Sea Stands Still relies on predetermined links and static nodes of unchanging text presented in GIF image fijiles and hence is not subject to the manipulations that even a basic machine-readable text would allow (John Cayley, “Beyond Codexspace,” 168). In this sense, Yang’s commitment to particular words in a particular order would seem to model the text as an inviolable object or collection of objects rather than a continuously moving wave, thus limiting the interference possibilities of Cayley and Yang’s collaboration.37 Yet Cayley and Yang deploy nonlinear readings and looping efffects to diffract the text of Where the Sea Stands Still, interfering with and complicating its link-node structure. If one does not click on a link, the poem is scripted to jump automatically to one of the four possible links, selected at random. Through this simple device, Cayley highlights how the computer program must be run in order for the text to be read—how the apparatus of the computer is in perpetual motion, even when it appears to reproduce static text. The poem proposes the impossible fijixing of the sea’s motion. Similarly, the movements of the running hypertext undo the fijixity of the page. This doubling of temporal arrest with perpetual movement is articulated in the line “now is furthest away” (⧠൘ᱟᴰ䚕䘌Ⲵ; 3.1), which is both a performative speech act that ushers the “now” to which it refers into being and a statement that undoes itself. As soon as “now” is written or spoken, it is no longer now, so that “now” is always “furthest away.” Yang and Cayley further underscore both the immediacy and perpetual deferral of “now” in the poem by having more pages (fijifteen in total) of the

36  37 

The map that Yang drew of these links between stanzas is reproduced in Jacob Edmond, Make It the Same, 111. Cayley’s use of fijixed GIF image fijiles may also reflect the difffijiculty that he encountered in manipulating Chinese text when working with programming languages that “reflect their derivation from an alphabetic system of linguistic inscription.” See John Cayley, “From Byte to Inscription.”

Modernist Waves


hypertext poem link to the line “now is furthest away” than to any other part. Only two further pages, 37 and 29, are linked from more than ten other pages. Because some parts of the poem are linked much more frequently than others, if one lets the poem run, it tends at times to loop around a narrow range of stanzas. This looping efffect, like the structural and word repetition in the text, generates both a sense of location in space and time and a “disruption of temporal frameworks” (characteristic of nodal repetition), which distances any claim to location.38 In Yang and Cayley’s ICA performance, for instance, the randomized selection produced a loop between pages 57 and 37, which begins, “flung in one direction a direction that never was” (ᣅ‫ޕ‬ањᯩੁ ⋑ ᴹⲴᯩੁ; 3.2). The three repetitions of this line in quick succession underscore the sense of both perpetual movement—Yang and Cayley read the text quite diffferently each time it recurs in the performance—and the elimination of spatial and temporal development: “a direction that never was.” Or, as the penultimate line of page 37 puts it, “there is no time in the now” (⧠൘䟼 ⋑ᴹᰦ䰤; 3.2). In the ICA performance, Cayley employed four screens running two separate pathways through the program and so further expanded the possibilities for presenting the text as continually reproduced out of its internal interferences, superimpositions, and diffferences. Screens 2 and 4 presented the Chinese and English texts that Yang and Cayley, standing in front of the screens, read in the live performance. The English text was always read fijirst and would shift to the next nodal text slightly before the Chinese. In-between the textual nodes, all four screens displayed images of the sea or other sealike paintings and large Chinese characters in various styles of calligraphy, in a visual underscoring of the link that Yang and Cayley drew between new media and Chinese inscription. Screens 1 and 3 followed the same patterns except that the text on these screens was not read aloud. In this way, Cayley achieved a simple aleatorical, recombinational form where chance intersections between the nodes on screens 1 and 3 and the nodes on screens 2 and 4 could work in counterpoint or reinforcement, like the interference patterns of difffracted waves. For example, toward the end of the ICA performance, the text on screens 1 and 3 almost synchronizes with 2 and 4. All four screens follow the same progression of pages from 58 to 59 to 1, before diverging again. Here the texts coincide—like the light spots on a difffraction pattern—just at the point where the text loops from its end and returns to the beginning. The staggered coincidence of these lines amid the otherwise juxtaposed texts stages the double perspective and beginning within an end expressed in the poem’s fijinal line: “this is where we look out 38 

David Ciccoricco, Reading Network Fiction, 27.



from the shore on ourselves setting out to sea” (4.3). Shifting between Chinese and English, the four repetitions of this fijinal line present location as a process, as a series of wavelike iterations. Yang and Cayley’s collaboration exemplifijies two diffferent uses of repetition and of the metaphor of the wave. Yang’s poem deploys wavelike repetition to reject the binaries of origins and belatedness, singularity and imitation that have plagued discussion of modern Chinese literature. Instead, Yang transforms repetition from a problem into a poetics that undoes the fijixity of spatial, temporal, and cultural location. Cayley deploys the reiterative combinatorial possibilities of computer programming to undo a similar fijixity in the calcifying digital and conceptual structure of the World Wide Web. The collaboration in turn mixes these two modes of repetition, producing—like the interference bands of two waves— patterns of diffference and so a new poetic text. Yang and Cayley’s collaboration demonstrates the problem with attempts to pinpoint cultural or geographical location or the direction of literary influences. We might think we can simply study the progress of one cultural form, such as modernism, as it passes into a new medium or place, language, or culture, as in Owen’s description of the wave of Euro-American modernism engulfijing Chinese and other non-European traditions. Yet Yang and Cayley’s collaboration cannot simply be thought of as an example of the wave of modernist literary form repeating itself as it passes through various cultures and media. Their collaboration and the lines of literary historical development that lie behind it weave in and out of Chinese and Western traditions and modernisms, including 1980s Chinese modernism’s engagement with the Chinese literary tradition, the globe-trotting of Yang and other Chinese writers and artists after 1989, and the use of Chinese regulated verse and Poundian modernism to develop a poetics of the computer. A model that stresses the singularity of Chinese modernism or Western modernism is also insufffijicient. For where is a work like Yang and Cayley’s collaboration located: Beijing, Sydney, London, Hong Kong, the World Wide Web? And what is its original language—Chinese, English, machine code? The digital text is instead born in translation and out of multiple waves of mutually transforming encounter. Each apparently discrete location or medium—from Chinese script to the computer screen—is itself the product of interweaving processes and histories of cross-cultural reading. As Where the Sea Stands Still illustrates, we need the double vision to see each singular instance of modernism and its many wavelike iterations: to see literary history neither as a series of isolated events nor merely as a history of influence. But we can only do this if we stop thinking about a place, language, culture, or tradition—such as China, Chinese, or Chinese literature—

Modernist Waves


or a medium (print, digital, or oral) as the fijixed background through which the modernist wave propagates and start treating these concepts as in themselves wavelike processes, whose mutual interferences are registered in the difffraction patterns of individual literary works. Physicists gave us waves without a medium and waves that are also particles. The intermingling and mutually constituting waves that I have traced in Where the Sea Stands Still suggest the need for a similar paradigm shift in literary studies: a fundamental rethinking of the concepts of location and medium in Chinese and global modernism.

chapter 13

Annotating the Aporias of History: the “International Style,” Chinese Modernism, and World Literature in Xi Chuan’s Poetry Lucas Klein


Lines to Decipher in the Shadows

“The precision of this statement,” writes Xi Chuan 㾯ᐍ (b. 1963) in “Rereading Borges’s Poetry” (“Chongdu Bo’erhesi shige” 䟽䈫ঊቄ䎛ᯟ䈇ⅼ), “emerges from the chaos of the past”: this pure force, like the rhythm of a dripping faucet annotates the aporia of history touching the starlight I leave night to the earth night that licks the earth’s crevices: that forked memory No Man is a man, No Where is a place a No Man in No Where has written these lines I must decipher in the shadows I give up scouring the world of dust for the author, and lift my head to see a librarian, lethargically, and only for his livelihood preserving the order of the universe and books 䘉㋮⺞Ⲵ䱸䘠ࠪ㠚‫ޘ‬䜘␧ҡⲴ䗷৫ 䘉㓟߰Ⲵ࣋䟿ˈ‫≤ۿ‬ㅬཤ┤≤Ⲵ㢲ཿ ⌘䟺ࠪশਢⲴ㕪ཡ ᡁഐ䀖৺ᱏ‫ݹ‬㘼ሶ唁ཌ⮉㔉བྷൠ 唁ཌ㡄⵰བྷൠⲴ㻲㓩˖䛓࠶ዄⲴ䇠ᗶ ᰐӪᱟањӪˈѼᴹѻґᱟањൠᯩ ањᰐӪ൘Ѽᴹѻґ߉л䘉Ӌ 䴰㾱ᡁ൘䱤ᖡѝ䗘䇔Ⲵ䈇ਕ ᡁ᭮ᔳ൘ቈцѝራ᢮֌㘵ˈᣜཤᵋ㿱

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 015

Annotating the Aporias of History


ањമҖ㇑⨶ઈˈ᠂ᮓൠˈӵӵѪҶ⭏䇑 㘼㔤ᣔ⵰Җ㉽઼ᆷᇉⲴ〙ᒿ1

Straddling the division between our notions of literary modernism and postmodernism, Jorge Luis Borges does indeed represent a tension between the chaotic and precise, with a “pure force” that “annotates the aporia of history.” My translation is perhaps too imprecise to express the chaos to which Xi Chuan refers; his lishi de queshi শਢⲴ㕪ཡ would more accurately be translated as “the lacunae of history,” though the alliteration of “annotates the aporia” argues for itself: “Aporia suggests the ‘gap’ or lacuna between what a text means to say and what it is constrained to mean.”2 A decidedly postmodernist term, aporia is defijined by Jacques Derrida as the “difffijicult or the impracticable, here the impossible passage, the refused, denied, or prohibited passage, indeed the nonpassage.”3 In other words, it is Borges’s “Forking Paths” that becomes Xi Chuan’s “forked memory.” Yet, its annotation might lead from the postmodern to the modern and resolve the impassable problem between the two; in the shadows, these lines might show us order in the universe and books. Against the chaos of the possible meanings of “modernism,” especially in a Chinese context, and what modernism and contemporary Chinese poetry might have to say to, or about, each other, I should be precise in my own statements and ground my terminology. So: “philosophical modernism is an attempt to regulate the relationship of fact and value,” as Haun Saussy has explained, while “postmodernism is the abandonment of such attempts.”4 But, Borges is appropriate to this discussion not only for how he calls for a resolution or reconfijiguration of the postmodern and modern, but also for how his words have served as a touch point in debates about modern and contemporary Chinese poetry. Arguing that the essence of a culture as seen from the outside is not necessarily essential to those inside, Borges claims that according to Edward Gibbon, “in the Arab book par excellence, the Koran, there are no camels.”5 Not that he was right: camels appear numerous times in the Koran, and Gibbon cites many of its stories in which camels feature

1  Xi Chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 78–79. 2  See J. A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 49. 3  Jacques Derrida, Aporias, 8. 4  Haun Saussy, “Postmodernism in China,” 119. 5  Jorge Luis Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” 423.



prominently.6 Nevertheless, it is Borges’s authority that Michelle Yeh relies on in her dismissal of “Chineseness” as a worthwhile category for the discussion of modern Chinese poetry, in a capstone of her work to date, titled “‘There Are No Camels in the Koran.’”7 Yeh’s essay reveals some of the contradictions inherent to interrogations of “Chineseness” as we know it in modern Chinese poetry, but she expresses contradictions of her own. Readers’ sense of Chineseness should derive, she says, “not from some a priori notion,” but rather “from the numerous individual works that they have read over time” (“No Camels,” 11); later, though, saying simply, “‘modernity’ clashes with ‘Chineseness’” (14), she does not deconstruct Chineseness as much as she just wishes it would go away: “instead of asking ‘What is Chinese about Modern Chinese Poetry?’ a more meaningful and constructive question is: What is modern about Modern Chinese Poetry?” (16). This misapplies Borges’s point. He was not stating that he wrote within no equivalent to “Chineseness,” but rather that such a notion did not need to be foregrounded so defensively: “Mohammed … knew he could be Arab without camels. I believe we Argentines can be like Mohammed; we can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color” (Jorge Luis Borges, “The Argentine Writer,” 424). Whereas Borges’s references—to an Englishman’s mention of “the Arab book par excellence” in his writing on Rome—demonstrate confijidence in arriving at the relationship between a tradition and its locale even from the outside, Yeh’s citation of an Argentine on the Koran for the authority to reject Chineseness displays her blithe cosmopolitanism.8 Trying to avoid such blithe cosmopolitanism, this essay will renarrate the relationship between modernism and postmodernism

6  See, especially, chapter 50 of Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1–110. Of course, whether and where camels appear is also related to translation. In the version I consulted, a note is appended to the translation of “even if a thick rope were to pass through the eye of a needle they would not enter the Garden,” stating, “Not ‘camel.’ The roots of the words for ‘camel’ and ‘thick twisted rope’ are the same in Arabic and ‘rope’ makes more sense here.” See The Qur’an, 97. 7  See Michelle Yeh, “‘There Are No Camels in the Koran,’ 9–26. I call the short essay “a capstone of her work to date” because of how she weaves in threads of her earlier arguments, citing herself on “the ‘myth of authenticity’ or ‘cult of purism’” (Michelle Yeh, “No Camels,” 11), on the appearance of “Westernization” in the “unfamiliarity of the new poetry” (12), on whether poets should “return to the Chinese tradition” (12), on “the marginalization of poetry in the twentieth century” (13), on “the rethinking of the ontology of poetry in Modern Chinese Poetry” (16), and on “Prose poetry and concrete poetry” (21–22). 8  In fairness, Yeh does say that, “as a conscious break with Classical Poetry, Modern Poetry does not dismiss Tradition as a signifijicant resource…. Modern Poets do not write against Tradition but through Tradition” (“No Camels,” 25; original emphasis). Yet, such a claim is an underexamined aspect both in her essay and in her work as a whole.

Annotating the Aporias of History


and annotate the aporias between world literature and “Chineseness,” particularly as illustrated in the proposition of a “Chinese” modernism. Of course, Yeh’s blithe cosmopolitanism offfers itself as a counter to defensive nationalism, which is indeed where so much “Chineseness” has been asserted. Behind her rejection is a discussion of world literature in the context of China—especially contemporary Chinese poetry—largely begun by Stephen Owen in 1990, where he seemed to be discussing not only one poet when he wrote, “Bei Dao [ेዋ, b. 1949] has, by and large, written international poetry.”9 For Owen, Chinese poetry written since the vernacular revolution of the early twentieth century is “international,” so overdetermined by influence from abroad that it “turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a version of Anglo-American modernism or French modernism” (“World Poetry,” 28). But if Chineseness is, for Owen, best located in Chinese poetry’s premodern traditions, then in Yeh’s intent to rebufff Owen by asserting that “Modern [Chinese] Poetry embodies a new paradigm that is radically diffferent from the revered paradigm of Classical Poetry” (“No Camels,” 24), she actually ends up re-consecrating Chineseness as the product of the past, rather than the present.10 If critiques of “Chineseness” tend to resituate the Chinese “essence” in the irretrievable past, how can we ground our discussions without reifying the object of our critique? Insofar as considerations of Chinese modernism might be “always already” postmodernist, I look to something more grounded: architecture. Like a good postmodernist, however, I will destabilize this foundation later, only to show that the walls of our discourse do not all need to come tumbling down.


Incredulity toward Metanarratives

Leon Trotsky said, “The human word is the most portable of all materials.”11 To ground a discussion of poetry, whose medium is so light, in a discussion of architecture, whose medium is so concrete, may seem odd, but architecture actually casts a long shadow over our understanding of literary history. Owen’s 9   Stephen Owen, “What Is World Poetry?,” 31. 10  Yeh’s initial response to Owen’s article is critical of Owen’s “clear oppositions” (᰾ⲭⲴ ሽ・), questioning the need to “draw a clear and distinct border between ‘national’ and ‘international’ poetries” (ྲօ൘”≁᯿”઼”഻䳋”䂙ⅼ䯃ࢳаọ␵ᾊപᇊⲴ⭼䲀? “Chayi de youlü,” 94–95). Comparing her “No Camels” with the earlier take, however, sees Yeh only reifying the kind of binary opposition she would have critiqued earlier, that is, between the modern and what came before. 11  Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 113.



defijinition, for instance, of the “international poem” as “an intricate shape on a blank background without frontiers, a shape that undergoes metamorphosis,” is analogous to, and conceptually derived from, “International Style” architecture: “It achieves moments of beauty,” he says, “but it does not have a history, nor is it capable of leaving a trace that might constitute a history” (“World Poetry,” 32). The narrative of literary history and the defijinition of “Anglo-American or French Modernism” that Owen describes, and which has been prevalent in discussions of twentieth-century Chinese fijiction and poetry, is largely provided by architecture, in particular the architecture of the International Style, rather than by a close look at the often-contradictory impulses in literary modernism wherever it has taken place. I will therefore use architecture to argue that the history of international poetry is not, as Owen claims, constituted by the denial of its own historicity. If Owen’s model for “international poetry” comes from the International Style of architecture, then it is a reference to the architectural movement that began in the 1920s and 1930s and was defijined by such European luminaries as Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (né Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, 1887– 1965) and German-American post-Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). The movement was defijined not only by their blueprints and buildings but by their slogans as well: Le Corbusier said, “Une maison est une machine-à-habiter” (“The house is a machine for living in”), and Mies van der Rohe took as his credo “Less is more.”12 As for the actual architecture, this can be seen in such icons of architectural modernism as Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Plaza (1973), 860–880 Lake Shore Drive (1949), and the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (1956): steel and glass, straight lines and right angles, and no decoration that does not contribute to the utility of the building in some way. In proper post-Bauhaus fashion, the International Style presented itself as the perfect marriage of form and function. And, while the buildings I cite here are all in Chicago, that is partly coincidental: much of the impetus for the international in the name “International Style” is that these buildings could be anywhere. Of course, Chicago was “anywhere” and did not have to be razed (as Le Corbusier proposed for Paris, expanding the plans of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann) to become an international architectural capital for the twentieth century, but more pertinently the marriage of form and function and the decoration-less aesthetic of the International Style aimed at an architectural purity that did not need to refer to locale or localism in its production of living-machines. 12 

Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture, 73, translated as Towards a New Architecture, by Frederick Etchells, 4.

Annotating the Aporias of History

figure 13.1


IBM Building, 330 N. Wabash, Chicago, IL photo: Paul Klein

But if modernist architecture and the International Style are too clean, too rigid, too austere (the Mies buildings on Lake Shore Drive do not even have garbage chutes), so too is the narrative of architectural history. In a famous example, architectural historian and postmodernist partisan Charles Jencks notes the demolition of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project (1956, designed by World Trade Center—architect Minoru Yamasaki), where the machine-à-habiter



figure 13.2

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL photo: Paul Klein

ideal seems to have been shifted into its most barren gear of alienation, at 3:32 p.m. on 15 July 1972, as the instant that modernist architecture died.13 Out of its proverbial ashes rose postmodernist architecture, rich with detail, decoration, reference, and localism, such as Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s grandfatherclock-shaped Sony Building (1984) in New York, the Harold Washington Library 13 

Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 9.

Annotating the Aporias of History

figure 13.3


S. R. Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL photo: Paul Klein

(Hammond, Beeby, and Babka, 1991) in Chicago—a red brick building in the Loop in a city known, outside the Loop, for red-brick buildings—or, not only in Chicago but on that temple of modernism, Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology campus, Rem Koolhaas’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center (2003). If we take this as a symbol of postmodernist architecture engaging in its own internationalism, the Beijing West Railway Station (Beijing xi kezhan ेӜ㾯ᇒㄉ, 1996) also exhibits decoration and local allusion with its rooftop pagodas and Qing dynasty eaves. Although Wang Mingxian could write, in the late 1990s, that “Beijing is a palimpsest, where the most contemporary forms overlay layers of historical legacy,” and that “urban Chinese architecture is neither a copy of modern Western architecture nor a version of traditional Chinese architecture packaged anew,” since the turn of the millennium the fijield has changed.14 A look at Beijing today belies postmodernism’s localist aesthetic. While the recent architectural trend of Beijing—Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Tower (Zhongyang dianshitai zongbu dalou ѝཞ⭥㿶ਠᙫ䜘བྷᾬ, 2008, known colloquially as “The 14 

Wang Mingxian, “Notes on Architecture and Postmodernism in China,” 163–175.



figure 13.4 The demolition of Pruitt Igoe PHOTO: U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Wikipedia Commons

Annotating the Aporias of History

figure 13.5

The Sony Building, New York photo: David Shankbone. Wikipedia Commons




figure 13.6

Harold Washington Library, Chicago, IL photo: Paul Klein

figure 13.7

The McCormick Tribune Campus Center, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL photo: Paul Klein

Annotating the Aporias of History

figure 13.8


Beijing West Railway Station (Beijing xi kezhan ेӜ㾯ᇒㄉ), Beijing photo: Lucas Klein

Big Boxer Shorts,” Da ku cha’er བྷ㼔㺙), Paul Andreu’s egg-shaped National Center for the Performing Arts (Guojia da juyuan ഭᇦབྷࢗ䲒, 2007), Heurzog and de Meuron’s implementation of Ai Weiwei’s 㢮ᵚᵚ design for the Beijing National Stadium (Beijing guojia tiyuchang ेӜഭᇦփ㛢൪), built for the 2008 Summer Olympics (a.k.a. “The Bird’s Nest” [Niaochao 呏ᐒ]), or any of the buildings in the newly reconstructed neighborhood of Sanlitun й䟼ኟ— is decidedly “postmodernist” and full of detail, and with the flourishing of form beyond function, the buildings show little if any sense of the importance of Beijing’s or China’s architectural heritage. This fact points to a fijissure in the narrative of the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Insofar as Fredric Jameson claims that Jean-François Lyotard’s diagnosis of the postmodern condition “is confijirmed by that area in which the question of postmodernism has been most acutely posed, namely in architecture,”15 we can read architectural history in light of Lyotard’s defijinition of “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives,” replaced under postmodernity with “institutions in patches—local determinism” and les petits récits.16 Certainly, the International Style represented a grand narrative of universalism against which some—though not all—architectural postmodernism

15  16 

Frederic Jameson, Foreword to The Postmodern Condition, vii–xxi. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, xxiv.


figure 13.9


CCTV Tower, Beijing photo: Yeti Hunter. Wikipedia Commons

Annotating the Aporias of History

figure 13.10

National Center for the Performing Arts, Beijing photo: Hui Lan. Wikipedia Commons

figure 13.11

Beijing National Stadium, Beijing photo: Lao Huanggua. Wikipedia Commons


stands as a local petit récit, but this shift had already occurred within modernist literature long before. But as John Barth has noted, “a principal activity of postmodernist critics … consists in disagreeing about what postmodernism is or ought to be.”17 If I say


John Barth, “The Literature of Replenishment,” 194. Barth later states, however, that “the synthesis or transcension of these antitheses, which may be summed up as pre-modernist and modernist modes of writing,” would be a “worthy program for postmodernist fijiction,” 203. I do not wish to confuse Barth’s sense of the postmodernist with my own. Barth continues: “My ideal postmodernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates



figure 13.12

Sanlitun, Beijing photo: Lucas Klein

that I do not consider modernist literature to adhere to Lyotard’s use of “the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of … explicit appeal to some grand narrative” (Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 23), I do so not to reignite a battle begun by Jürgen Habermas long ago (he reads antimodernism, premodernism, and postmodernism as corresponding, respectively, to the views of young conservatives, old conservatives, and neoconservatives),18 but rather to sidestep it: I see an irreducible diffference between literary history and intellectual history, and in our problems with nomenclature for these histories. With all due respect to Brian McHale’s assertion that “postmodernist fijiction difffers from modernist fijiction just as a poetics dominated by ontological issues difffers from one dominated by epistemological issues,” I cannot agree that “the term ‘postmodernism’ … signifijies a poetics which is the successor of, or possibly a reaction against, the poetics of early twentieth-century modernism.”19 I am more convinced by Andreas Huyssen’s take, that what “separates postmodernism from modernism” is “the kind of discourse which insists on the categorical distinction between high art and mass culture,” which argues against “a total break or

18  19 

either his twentieth-century modernist parents or his nineteenth-century premodernist grandparents. He has the fijirst half of our century under his belt, but not on his back.” Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity versus Postmodernity,” 3–14. Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 12, 5.

Annotating the Aporias of History


rupture between modernism and postmodernism, but rather that modernism, avantgarde, and mass culture have entered into a new set of mutual relations and discursive confijigurations which we call ‘postmodern.’”20 In short, while certain aspects of literary postmodernism do indeed appear to be rejections or reconsiderations of certain shibboleths of literary modernism, in many other areas they are more similar than not. I would like to posit, then, that in literature and art, modernism and postmodernism be considered as two steps in the same historical movement of post-Romanticism.21 If, as Marshall Berman has put it, to be modern “is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom … to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air,” and to be “a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom,” then what we call postmodernism is no less the same act of homemaking.22 While postmodernism may be, as Jameson puts it, “the cultural logic of late capitalism,”23 and it may claim to represent what Alvin Tofffler in Future Shock called “accelerative thrust,”24 that acceleration, as Berman shows, had been going on since the Industrial Revolution, and it is wishful thinking to call capitalism “late.”25 But it is just that tradition of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Rationalism and Empiricism up to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/1922) to which modernism in art and literature reacts—with all the sense of contingency expressed in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.26 In other words, the “modern” to which “postmodernism” is “post” is the “modern” of “modern philosophy,” rather than the “modernism” of Pound or Picasso or Eisenstein. Literary and artistic modernism is already broadly postmodernist from the get-go. This is not all that hard to accept if we understand it as part of the inherent indeterminacy of language, or akin to a problem of translation: modern refers

20  21 

22  23  24  25  26 

Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide, viii, x. One of the fijirst times the term “postmodern” showed up in reference to poetry was in a letter from Charles Olson to Robert Creeley on 20 October 1951, stating that “postmodern man” had “better just leave such things” as “so much trash of discourse, & gods” behind him; see Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, 79. Also quoted in Paul Hoover, Postmodern American Poetry, 225. This suggests an intentional break between modernist and postmodernist poetry, but not the break most commentators have understood. Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air, 345; original italics. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Alvin Tofffler, Future Shock. Also worth noting is David Graeber’s observation that Future Shock “appeared when most of these exponential trends halted (“Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profijit”). Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.



to diffferent eras, and modernism refers to diffferent notions.27 Furthermore, the application of the modernist/postmodernist divide as known in architecture to other areas of art and literature overemphasizes the mechanical, minimalist quality of modernism and underemphasizes modernism’s retrospective, historicist, and even localizing ethics. While Le Corbusier’s “Une maison est une machine-à-habiter” may remind readers of William Carlos Williams’s “A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words,”28 and the “Less is more” of Mies van der Rohe may be reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something” (1913) or Hu Shi’s 㜑䚙 (1891–1962) “Don’t use stock-phrases or cliché; don’t allude” (н⭘྇䃎⡋䃯˗ н⭘ި, 1918), none of these slogans fijits the encyclopedic, organic monuments of high modernism that are Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913– 1927), Pound’s Cantos (1922–1962), Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930–1942), Picasso’s Guernica (1937), or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1905, 1916). And speaking of relativity, if modernism is already relativist, it has to be relative to the local, which is what you fijind in Faulkner’s regionalism, Joyce’s Irish identity politics, Lu Xun’s 冟䗵 (1881–1936) focus on the Chinese soul, and Bian Zhilin’s ঎ѻ⩣ (1910–2000) countering of Europeanization (Ouhua ↀॆ) with antiquitization (guhua ਔॆ), and it has to reconfijigure both local and nonlocal via a dissolution of both Europe and the ancient (hua gu, hua Ou ॆਔǃॆↀ).29 What after all is the Imagism of Pound’s “no superfluous word” or a “less is more” aesthetic if not a focus on the local, the petit récit? There may be no better example of the oversimplicity of the architectural narrative to the modernism/postmodernism divide than Charles Jencks’s admission, nearly three-and-a-half decades after the fact, that (like Borges on the lack of camels in Gibbon’s Koran?) he just made up the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death of modernist architecture.30 Rather than a notion of modernism that allows only for the International Style of universalist hegemony and a denial of history, then, we need an understanding of modernism that allows for its rootedness in the local and its continuous reinvestigation 27 

28  29  30 

In Spanish, for instance, Modernismo was a nineteenth-century literary movement led by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío and others’ blending of Victor Hugo’s Romanticism, Paul Verlaine’s Symbolism, and Théophile Gautier’s aestheticist Parnassianism, which should preclude any confusion between Modernismo and Anglo-American or French literary modernisms that reacted against those earlier literary currents. William Carlos Williams, Introduction to The Wedge. Bian Zhilin, “‘Diaochong jili’ zixu,” 459. Charles Jencks, The Story of Post-Modernism, 26–27. According to the website “Pruitt Igoe Now” (, 2014), the demolition of the fijirst of Pruitt-Igoe’s thirty-three high rises occurred at 3:00 P.M. on 16 March 1972, and the second tower was demolished a month later.

Annotating the Aporias of History


of history. Turning to China, we need a notion of modernism that allows for what critic and translator Eliot Weinberger has called “the opposite drift of the modern—the recovery of everything, the inclusion of all that had been excluded.”31 This would be a defijinition of literary modernism that could provide a space for investigations of the particular and local histories as well as “Chineseness” as a specifijic kind of localism in our discussions of translation and world literature.


Paradise Lost in the Dictionary of Modern Chinese

If the question of China in postmodernism is always fraught with a referential anxiety (postmodernists prefer their Chinese referred to from a distance, such as with Bob Perelman’s “China” [see Jameson, Postmodernism, 28–29]), then references to modernism in China are always fraught with a postmodern anxiety. This anxiety results from what Saussy, as quoted at the beginning of the essay, calls the attempt—or abandonment of the attempt—“to regulate fact and value,” such as, for instance, modernism in China must be/cannot be devalued because it showed up in the West fijirst (Haun Saussy, “Postmodernism in China,” 119). For this reason, too, Chinese “modernism” may be, as I suggested, “‘always already’ postmodernist.” But to call something post- only because it comes historically after something else is to grant a primacy to the original that, in an intellectually postmodernist examination of translation and world literature, raises more problems than it resolves. As Eric Hayot has argued in addressing just this question: To include China among the global Modernisms, to discover a global Modernism at all, requires abandoning the temporal logic that has until now structured the fijield (and which has served as a screen for its geographic centrisms). Whether Modernism as a concept can survive such a breach, or rather, what kind of Modernism will emerge from that breaching, is one of the questions that remains before us.32 Jameson argues against “the powerful alternative position that postmodernism is itself little more than one more stage of Modernism proper [and] that all the features of postmodernism … can be detected, full-blown, in this or that preceding Modernism”—in other words, my argument—by stating, “surely one of 31  32 

Eliot Weinberger, “3 Notes on Poetry,” 52. Eric Hayot, On Literary Worlds, 162–163.



the most plausible explanations for the emergence of postmodernism itself” is “the result of a canonization and academic institutionalization of the modern movement generally” (Postmodernism, 4). But while canonization, which must also include the packaging and presentation required by translation into another language and context such as China’s, is a fact that literary history has to reckon with, not all reckonings are the same. Certainly, canonization cloisters offf the canonized from its otherwise revolutionary potential, but to rely on this argument to remove Chinese literature from the possibility of contributing to the modernist movement is to reiterate the cloistering, not overturn it. Just as Saussy asks, in “Postmodernism in China,” “What more uncomfortable paradox can be imagined than attempting to argue that one’s own postmodernism is the real, the authentic, the historically originary, the ancestrally legitimate, brand?” (118), if we ask this question of our treatment of Chinese modernism, too, we begin to expand, rather than delimit, the possibilities of modernism as a fijield for the investigation of Chineseness. But to say that “Chinese ‘modernism’ [is] ‘“always already” postmodernist’” does not say much if we have already said that literary modernism in the West is postmodernist too. Notable in most of the discussions of Chinese postmodernism is how little they talk about literature and art as such. Jing Wang calls Chinese postmodernism a “pseudoproposition,”33 and Zhang Xudong titles his Jamesonian study of Chinese literary and fijilm culture in the 1980s Chinese Modernism [i.e., not postmodernism] in the Era of Reforms;34 meanwhile, Saussy’s “Postmodernism in China” talks only of critical theory, not prose or poetry. As if forecasting my contention that literary modernism already adheres to postmodernism intellectually defijined, Arif Dirlik and Zhang Xudong have stated that “Chinese postmodernism … as a discourse preceded postmodernism as a reality,”35 a reality I take to include literary production and style. A look, then, at poetry rather than Theory in contemporary China, and the ways local and historical reference points both anchor and complicate the defijinition of literary modernism in the Chinese context. On that hinge, we can turn to Xi Chuan (pen name of Liu Jun ࡈߋ), whom Maghiel van Crevel has called “one of the … most prominent poets writing inside China.”36 In the rest of this chapter, my aim will be to discuss Xi Chuan’s work through a literary history that considers modernism to be an ongoing project, and also considers the implications of such reading for our understanding 33  34  35  36 

Jing Wang, High Culture Fever. Xudong Zhang, Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms. Arif Dirlik and Xudong Zhang, “Introduction: Postmodernism and China,” 8. Maghiel van Crevel, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem, and Money, 187.

Annotating the Aporias of History


of world literature. Divided into two periods, Xi Chuan’s poetic career splits on the fault line of 1989 when, in addition to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, he witnessed the suicide of his friend Hai Zi ⎧ᆀ (1964–1989) and death of his friend Luo Yihe 傶а⿮ (1961–1989). Prior to this, from his days in the English department at Peking University onward, his style was defijined by one kind of modernism; afterward, his writing developed into another kind of modernism. A quick retrospective begins with some of his fijirst published poetry, from June of 1985, right after college: “The City I Live In” The city I live in is made of building blocks with straight streets and smooth public squares, and row houses low but meticulously ordered The city I live in has no people wind blows through windows a frail, naive whistle the rising and setting sun compelling seasons to revolve there is only dust in the city I live in If I died, if color and light died, no hand would come knock down this city it will exist forever because in the city I live in there are no people 㸳㈴䓂⭥⧨㬱 ᡁትտⲴ෾ᐲ⭘〟ᵘᩝᡀ 㺇䚃ᮤ喀ˈᒯ൪ᒣඖˈ ᡯቻ㲭❦վ⸞նᆳԜতҏᧂࡇ㕌ᇶ ᡁትտⲴ෾ᐲ⋑ᴹӪ 仾੩䗷䰘デਁࠪᗞᕡ㘼অ㓟Ⲵ༠૽ ཚ䱣ьॷ㾯㩭ᑖࣘഋᆓ䖞ᴯ ᡁትտⲴ෾ᐲ䟼ਚᴹ⚠ቈ ⭊㠣ᡁ↫Ҷˈ㢢ᖙ઼‫↫ݹ‬Ҷ ҏнՊᴹаਚ᡻ᶕ᧘‫ق‬䘉ᓗ෾ᐲ ᆳሶ≨䘌ᆈ൘л৫


Klein ഐѪᡁትտⲴ෾ᐲ⋑ᴹӪ xi chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 8–9

If we call this architectural, even International Style, modernism, it is not only because the poem describes a city of straight lines, right angles, and timelessness beyond history (a machine for not living in), but because the poem too embodies that architecture. In its unadorned, stark descriptions and structured but unrhymed, asymmetrical regularity, Xi Chuan’s poem approaches what Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson describe in their manifestolike introduction of The International Style, wherein they cite “Regularity” as one of their axiomatic principles: “most buildings have an underlying regular rhythm which is clearly seen before the outside surfaces are applied …. Good modern architecture expresses in its design this characteristic orderliness of structure and this similarity of parts by an aesthetic ordering which emphasizes the underlying regularity,” yet “modern architects have no need of the discipline of bilateral or axial symmetry to achieve aesthetic order.”37 While Hitchcock and Johnson insist that the International Style was “not international in the sense that the production of one country is just like that of another” (The International Style, 36), the fact is that its legacy has proven otherwise, with van der Rohe and others living in several countries, designing buildings for several countries, and influencing stylistic development in several countries all pursuing the aesthetics of the same cosmopolitan modernity; this, too, is behind Owen’s critique in reference to “international” or “world poetry” that “these poems translate themselves. These could just as easily be translations from a Slovak or an Estonian or a Philippine poet” (“World Poetry,” 31). I have always found Owen’s comments overstated,38 but I must admit that in this case, while Xi Chuan is purportedly writing about the city he lives in, without biographical information in Chinese, this could be Beijing or Xi’an or Hohhot, and via translation could be nearly anywhere. As a city, it is perhaps most notable for being so unspecifijic, for being universal and timeless, standing outside history: “it will exist forever,” he writes. A few years later, however, Xi Chuan’s style made a subtle shift. From 1991: “Twilight” in the vast expanse of a nation twilight is equally vast 37  38 

Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style, 70, 72. See Lucas Klein, “Letter from Hong Kong.”

Annotating the Aporias of History

lamp after lamp lights up and twilight spreads out like autumn oh deceased, appear now all of the living have shut their mouths where are you, deceased? the twilight invites you to speak some names I will memorize some names search for their tombstones countless names I have written down as if I were writing a nation and twilight spreads over the earth an outstretched hand grasped as twilight reaches the window, where someone is always rapping lightly at my door 㚛㩌 ൘ањᑵઈ䗭䱄Ⲵഭᇦ ᳞㢢ҏ਼ṧ䗭䱄 ⚟а⳿а⳿ൠӞ䎧 ᳞㢢‫⿻ۿ‬ཙаṧ㭃ᔦ ӑ㘵થˈࠪ⧠੗ ᡰᴹⲴ⍫Ӫ䜭䰝кҶ౤ ӑ㘵થˈ൘ଚ䟼? ᳞㢢䚰䈧֐Ԝ䈤䈍 аӋ਽ᆇᡁ㾱⢒䇠 ਖаӋ਽ᆇራ᢮ໃ⻁ ᰐᮠⲴ਽ᆇᡁ߉л ԯ֋߉ࠪҶањഭᇦ 㘼᳞㢢൘བྷൠк㭃ᔦ ըࠪⲴ᡻㻛ᨑտ ᳞㢢ѤデˈᙫᴹӪ 䖫䖫ਙ૽ᡁⲴᇦ䰘 xi chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 30–31




The poem seems to exhibit the same technique as the earlier one, suggestive moodiness in city block—like neighborhoods of text, but in fact we have here a gesture toward something else. While a timelessness haunts “The City I Live In,” memory—and the search for memory—haunts “Twilight”: names require memorization or search for their tombstones, and the dead begin to reappear. Like the interstitial boundaries whose imagery (twilight, autumn, windows) constitutes this poem, “Twilight” is a boundary within Xi Chuan’s own work, standing between his earlier International Style modernism and his later modernism of recovering the excluded. A year later, he was writing a very diffferent kind of poetry. In Salute (Zhijing 㠤ᮜ), published in 1992, he is less lyrical but more deeply emotive, yet still modernist, employing a disjunctive example of what T. S. Eliot in 1920 would call the “objective correlative.”39 The title sequence begins: Depression. A suspended gong. A leopard dozing in the basement. A spiral staircase. A torch at night. A city gate. Cold that touches a blade of grass beneath an ancient constellation. Concealed flesh. Undrinkable water. An ice cube floating like a giant vessel. Its passenger a bird. A blocked canal. An unborn girl. Unformed tears. Unenforced punishments. Chaos. Balance. Ascent. Blankness … How can depression be discussed without error? Facing flower petals descending at a crossroads, consider the cost of desperate risk-taking. 㤖䰧DŽᛜᤲⲴ䭓啃DŽൠлᇔѝ᰿ⶑⲴ䊩ᆀDŽ᯻䖜ⲴᾬởDŽཌ䰤Ⲵ ⚛ᢺDŽ෾䰘DŽਔ㘱ᱏᓗл䀖৺㥹ṩⲴሂߧDŽሱ䰝Ⲵ㚹փDŽᰐ⌅侞⭘ Ⲵ≤DŽլབྷ㡩㡜┲〫ⲴߠඇDŽ֌Ѫ҈ᇒⲴ呏DŽ䱫ᯝⲴ⋣䚃DŽᵚ䈎⭏Ⲵ ‫ྣݯ‬DŽᵚᡀᖒⲴ⌚≤DŽᵚᔰ࿻Ⲵ᜙㖊DŽ␧ҡDŽᒣ㺑DŽкॷDŽオⲭDŽDŽDŽ  ᘾṧ䈸䇪㤖䰧᡽н㇇䗷䭉˛䶒ሩዄ䚃к䚇㩭Ⲵ㣡ߐˈ䈧㘳㲁䬔㘼䎠䲙 Ⲵԓԧ! xi chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 152–153

In addition to the modernist collage technique that suggests the alienation and depression with which the sequence begins (“A blocked canal. An unborn girl. Unformed tears”), the passage also exhibits an incredulity toward linguistic certainty (“How can depression be discussed without error?”) and grandiose conceptualization (“Chaos. Balance. Ascent. Blankness …”) familiar to literary modernism and philosophical postmodernism. Historically, too, Salute links with modernism because it is a prose poem, in which Cole Swensen hears, 39 

T. S. Eliot, “Hamlet and His Problems,” 95–103.

Annotating the Aporias of History


as Marshall Berman might, the rhythms of a Paris newly modernized by les travaux haussmanniens: just as “Haussmann’s program, along with spreading industrialization, also altered views and horizons, transportation, air quality and ambient sound,” the prose poem “established a new rhythm, less regular, less formally structured; it was poetry adapted precisely to the changes in ambient sound.”40 But amid both this disjunction and this adaptation of ambient sound come the possibilities of expansion, as seen in later sections, such as “Exhortation” (“Zhenyan” ㇤䀰): You examine your face in the mirror, afffronting a stranger. The law sayeth: any man to loot a burning house shall be put to death, any man to sell dogmeat as mutton shall meet with retribution, any man to cast glances east and west shall fijind a snare at his feet, any man of chicken gizzard pettiness shall be spit upon. But I must supplement this, as I have seen monkeys on the fast track just as capable as men on the fast track, their muscles equally developed, their methods equally unscrupulous. So the sunflower really is a flower! ֐ㄟ䈖䮌ѝⲴ䶒ᆄˈ䘉ᱟሩҾањ䱼⭏ӪⲴ߂⣟DŽ ⌅ᖻк䈤˖䛓䎱⚛ᢃࣛⲴӪᗵ↫ˈ䛓ᤲ㖺ཤআ⤇㚹ⲴӪᗵ䚝ᣕᓄˈ䛓 ьᕐ㾯ᵋⲴӪ䲧䱡ቡ൘㝊ࡽˈ䛓ሿ㛊呑㛐ⲴӪᗵ䚝୮ᔳDŽ㘼ᡁнᗇн ᴹᡰ㺕‫ˈݵ‬ഐѪᡁⴻࡠ伎哴㞮䗮Ⲵ⥤ᆀ‫ۿ‬伎哴㞮䗮ⲴӪаṧ㜭ᒢˈа ṧ㚼㚹ਁ䗮ˈаṧнᤙ᡻⇥DŽ 㪥㣡ት❦ҏᱟ㣡! xi chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 158–159

Here, the memory and nation that haunt “Twilight” have turned into a fullblown poetic examination of “Chineseness” and the linguistic creation, as opposed to representation (“So the sunflower really is a flower!”) of social reality such as law and retribution. “Exhortation” holds the recent developments of Chineseness up to the mirror, the exclamation about the sunflower resonating with a Chinese society learning to appreciate reality and beauty after its metaphorical overdetermination under Mao Zedong (1893–1976) as a vehicle 40 

Cole Swensen, “A Brief History of the Early Prose Poem,” 192–193.



for the tenor of Chinese people forever facing the sun (prefijiguring Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds [Xiangrikui zhongzi ੁᰕ㪥⿽ᆀ] exhibit in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010), but it also investigates the deeper, linguistic roots of Chineseness. In taking outdated yet common colloquialisms of Mandarin (since when has dogmeat been cheaper than mutton?) and turning them into law, Xi Chuan explores and yet stands away from the process by which habit conditions language, language creates convention, and convention becomes social requirement if not fully legal binding. By the end of the decade, Xi Chuan’s examination of the linguistic creation of China’s social reality had expanded so that social reality could include not only political history, such as Chairman Mao or Hong Xiuquan’s ⍚⿰‫( ޘ‬1814– 1864) Taiping Rebellion (Taiping tianguo ཚᒣཙ഻), but cultural history as well, such as the Monkey King (Sun Wukong ᆛᛏオ) from Journey to the West (Xiyouji 㾯䙺䁈, sixteenth century). From “A Personal Paradise” (“Geren de tian tang” њӪⲴཙา), written in the year 2000: Chairman Mao’s paradise befijits the appetite of the poor; in Hong Xiuquan’s paradise there’s only him wandering around; but Monkey King’s paradise attracts both children and delinquents. The only reality is a great reality. So-called happiness is just decreasing your vocabulary without decreasing your songs. Each day the little man who comprehends this hangs his stockings to dry while humming a tune. Paradise lost, as it should be lost, committed to rote memory on page one thousand two hundred forty-six of the Dictionary of Modern Chinese. Paradise lost, as if the head of a pin lost its elemental pax et lux. Making the creator of paradise labor in vain. So, could it be, when you are absolutely thought-free, that you just happen to be passing through your own paradise? One thousand times you deny that you are your own distance. ∋ѫᑝⲴཙาሩᓄҶェӪⲴྭ依䟿˗⍚ཙ⦻Ⲵཙา䟼ਚᴹԆањӪ䰢 䙋˗㘼ᆉབྷ൓Ⲵཙาˈᰒ੨ᕅྭᆙᆀˈҏ੨ᕅሿ⍱≃DŽ ᜏаⲴ⧠ᇎᱟՏབྷⲴ⧠ᇎDŽᡰ䉃ᒨ⾿ቡᱟ߿ቁ䇽≷䟿㘼н߿ቁⅼୡDŽ ␡䉉↔䚃Ⲵሿ⭧Ӫ⇿ཙବ⵰ሿᴢሶԆⲴэ㻌Ხ൘㔣ᆀкDŽ

Annotating the Aporias of History


ཙาђҶˈ‫ۿ‬ᆳᓄ䈕㻛ђᔳ䛓ṧˈlj⧠ԓ≹䈝䇽ިNJሶᆳ↫䇠⺜㛼൘ ㅜаॳҼⲮഋॱ‫ޝ‬亥DŽ ཙาђҶˈԯ֋䪸ቆїཡҶᆳᵜ䍘Ⲵ઼ᒣо‫ݹ‬㣂DŽ䘉֯ཙาⲴਁ᰾ᇦ ᗂࣣа൪DŽ 䛓Ѹˈᱟ੖ˈ൘֐ᰐᡰᙍᜣⲴᰦ‫֐ˈى‬ቡ⻠ᐗク䎺Ҷ֐㠚ᐡⲴཙา ? ֐аॳ䙽੖䇔֐ᱟ֐㠚ᐡⲴ䘌ᯩDŽ xi chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 188–191

The examination of the intersection of language, national identity, and memory is still there—committed to memory in the Dictionary of Modern Chinese—as is the understanding that the history and social reality of China can be large enough to include or accommodate Western canonical texts, as with the allusions to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). In this way, Xi Chuan builds a poetry of international modernism that can incorporate, and be incorporated by, Chinese, rather than one limited by the history-less idealism of International Style. More recently, Xi Chuan has been investigating China’s history with more depth and with more curiosity about what has been excluded for a long time. In a sequence titled Thirty Historical Reflections (Jianshi sanshi zhang 䢤ਢй ॱㄐ), he digs into China’s written past and comes up with an examination of its writing process, particularly in the aptly named “That Person Writing” (“Yige xie zi de ren” ањ߉ᆇⲴӪ): Eighty wooden slips, like a line of old men linked by fate. The seal script writing interposed in the slips is difffijicult to discern, but what it conveys about heaven, the state, war, and the thoughts of the sages remains unchanged. The work of the brush of this anonymous writer looks like the brushwork of Sima Qian or Sima Xiangru. Only at a remove of two thousand years can the customary greatness of his era be perceived! From afar he may yet have glimpsed Sima Xiangru or Sima Qian. He dips his brush in ink, working stroke upon stroke, permitting himself not one false word; writing the aphorisms of Zengzi, delighting in his thoughts. He’s nearly convinced that the thoughts he transcribes will be of great use to humanity. These thoughts he protects, these thoughts he transmits. Wittingly or not certain words are altered, wittingly or not he retains his own breath within the views of another. From a humble stenographer, he unwittingly transforms into a minor author beside a great author, like an



ant tethering thought’s kite against the wind. Sunlight spilling onto the writing desk, he sneezes. On the street shoe sellers call out to him: “You— you’re the guy who deals in thought!” He writes on wooden slips, in a time before the invention of paper or movable type, and so what he writes is the “one” book (each book so written must be the “one” book). But later, a dead man takes his book underground. The thought that evolved from this book, the thoughts that were transformed from this book, would ultimately reshape the world, but this “one” book, through the slow stretch of time, was no more to be found. And now, even if it were to be brought back to light, those thoughts transformed from it, the thought adopted by the world, could never be corrected. Like a forgery re-entering the site of civilization. And that person writing, it’s as if he had never been born. He is a speck of dust on the earth, disseminating civilization in its limited way. ‫ॱޛ‬ṩᵘㆰˈ‫ۿ‬а㗔ሿ㘱ཤભ䘀⴨䘎DŽᵘㆰкӻѾㇶ䳦ѻ䰤Ⲵ᮷ᆇ䳮 ԕ䗘䇶ˈնᆳԜᡰ㺘䗮Ⲵᴹ‫ޣ‬ཙлǃഭᇦǃᡈҹо൓䍔Ⲵᙍᜣэ∛ᵚ ਈDŽ䛓њ९਽ⲴҖ߉㘵ˈԆ䘀ㅄⲴᯩᔿˈᖃоਨ傜䗱ǃਨ傜⴨ྲ䘀ㅄ Ⲵᯩᔿབྷ⮕⴨਼DŽᰦԓ仾ቊ享㓿єॳᒤ䰤䳄᡽㜭㿹ሏަՏབྷʽԆ⭊㠣 ᴹਟ㜭䘌䘌ⷕ㿱䗷ਨ傜䗱ᡆਨ傜⴨ྲDŽԆ⭘∋ㅄ㱨⵰໘≱ˈаㅄаࡂ ൠᐕ֌ˈн‫ݱ‬䇨ࠪ⧠ањ䭉ᆇ˗൘Җ߉ࡠᴮᆀⲴṬ䀰ᰦˈԆⲴᗳᛵཊ Ѹ᜹ᘛDŽԆլѾඊؑԆᡰᢴ߉ⲴᙍᜣаᇊՊ൘Ӫ䰤⍮кབྷ⭘DŽԆ‫؍‬ᣔ Ҷ䘉ӋᙍᜣˈՐ䙂Ҷ䘉ӋᙍᜣDŽԆᴹ᜿ᡆᰐ᜿ൠ᭩ਈҶḀӋᆇਕˈԆ ᴹ᜿ᡆᰐ᜿ൠ൘ԆӪⲴ㿱䀓ѝ‫⮉؍‬л㠚ᐡⲴ≄᚟DŽԆӾањ䉖ঁⲴ ᢴ߉㘵ˈᰐ᜿䰤ਈᡀҶ䛓儈␡֌㘵䓛ᯱаսሿሿⲴ֌㘵ˈ‫ۿ‬аਚ㲲 㲱ˈ᣹տаਚ䘶仾㘼䎧ⲴᙍᜣⲴ仾ㆍDŽ䱣‫ݹ‬⍂൘ҖṸкˈԆᢃҶњ௧ ಿDŽ㺇ཤ䍙ን㘵ᵍԆਸ਼்˖”ᛘ઀ˈᛘᱟ઼ᙍᜣᢃӔ䚃ⲴӪʽ”Ԇ߉ᆇ ൘ᵘㆰкˈ䛓ᰦ㓨ᕐ઼ঠࡧᵟቊᵚਁ᰾ˈᡰԕԆ߉лⲴᱟ ”ୟа”ⲴҖ ˄⇿а䜘ྲ↔߉лⲴ䜭ᱟ”ୟа”ⲴҖ˅DŽնᱟਾᶕˈањ↫Ӫት❦ᢺ 䘉䜘Җᑖ‫ޕ‬ൠлDŽӾ䘉䜘Җ╄ॆ㘼ᡀⲴᙍᜣˈӾ䘉䜘Җਈ䎠ҶṧⲴᙍ ᜣˈᴰ㓸᭩䙐Ҷц⭼ˈ㘼䘉䜘”ୟа”ⲴҖˈত൘ྲ↔╛䮯Ⲵᰦ䰤䟼⑪ нਟራDŽ⧠൘ˈণ֯ᆳ䟽㿱ཙᰕˈᆳҏнਟ㜭৫㓐↓䛓ⓀҾᆳত䎠Ҷ ṧⲴǃᐢ❦㻛ц⭼ᡰ䟷㓣ⲴᙍᜣDŽᆳ‫ۿ‬а䜘՚Җ䟽䘄᮷᰾Ⲵ⧠൪DŽ㘼 䛓њ߉ᆇⲴӪˈԯ֋Ӿᵚࠪ⭏DŽԆᱟབྷൠкⲴа㋂ቈ൏ˈᴮ㓿൘ᴹ䲀 Ⲵ㤳ത޵Ր᫝䗷᮷᰾DŽ xi chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 212–213

Not only does this piece teach the writing of history by committing the writing of history, it understands its complicity in that process: just as the unnamed transcriber of Zengzi’s ᴮᆀ (505–436 BCE) aphorisms cannot but retain “his own breath within the views of another,” writing himself into what he is

Annotating the Aporias of History


writing, neither can Xi Chuan (nor I as the translator) keep from infusing this episode with his own (and my own) understanding, even while remaining an “anonymous writer.” Not just an assertion that modernism can contain history by recovering the excluded, this poem is an enactment of that fact. But in investigating the Chinese written character, it not only links up with other Chinese poets who have exploited the specifijics of written Chinese for their poetry—I am thinking of Yang Lian ᶘ⛬ (b. 1955), especially in Concentric Circles (Tong xin yuan ਼ᗳശ)—but also with the old men either philosophically postmodernist—Jacques Derrida of Of Grammatology—or who represent Anglo-American or French literary modernism—Victor Selegan of Stèles/ਔӺ ⻁䤴, Ezra Pound of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, and Henri Michaux of Ideograms in China. Yet as if to counteract any assertion that his modernism is derivative of Western modernity, Xi Chuan also includes in Thirty Historical Reflections a piece on another, earlier West against which China saw itself as other. In Xi Chuan’s ready-made transcriptions “Fragments from the Kharoṣṭhī Sand-Sea Scrolls, c. Jin Dynasty (265–420 CE),” Shahai gujuan Lu chuanluwen Shu canju, yue Jindailj⋉⎧ਔধNJᖅչ঒᮷Җ↻ਕDŽ㓖ᱻԓ, for instance, contains records of Han Chinese engagement with neighbor others: “That daughter of … the girl comes from Khotan … his unjustifijiable occupation of Cinaṣyaniya continues to this day” (䈕ྣᆀ……ѻྣᶕ㠚Ҿ䱇……ᖬᰐ⨶ঐᴹ䈕ྣᆀ᭟ 䛓ᯭ㙦ቬ㙦㠣Ӻ; Notes on the Mosquito, 214–215). In these fragments, which match the fragmentary way that contemporary readers would understand the relationship between their, or our, social—and linguistic and political—realities and Jin-era Central Asian texts that prefijigured them, Xi Chuan posits an earlier China that has always had interactions with its neighbors, has always trafffijicked in exoticism and mystery, and has always had answers to questions about World Literature. These concerns are better fulfijilled in a following poem from the sequence “A Sanskrit Brick from the Nanzhao Kingdom (738–937 CE)—after a Vietnamese poet” (“Nanzhao guo fanwen zhuan: Fang yiwei Yuenan shiren” ই䇿ഭụ᮷ ⹆˖ԯаս䎺ই䈇Ӫ): An antique shop on Jadestream Road in Dali’s old quarter. A gray-green brick in the shop from the late Nanzhao era. On the gray-green brick eleven lines of Sanskrit. The hands that molded the Sanskrit lines. The hands that inlaid the brick into the base of the pagoda. The late Nanzhao monk who could read the eleven lines of Sanskrit. The man or men who brought Sanskrit from India through Nepal to Nanzhao. Buddhists. Buddhists who had or had not achieved nirvana before dying, and the loiterers who couldn’t give a damn about achieving nirvana. Problems



Hīnayāna Buddhism encountered never encountered by Mahāyāna Buddhism. The pain the emperor of Nanzhao sufffered unbeknownst to the emperor of Tang. The dusk of Nanzhao kingdom’s demise. The thugs who knocked over the pagoda. The astonished onlookers. 902 CE. From then till now, countless I’s have searched for this gray-green brick molded with eleven Sanskrit lines. In this antique shop on Jadestream Road in Dali’s old quarter, coming down with a cold and with a runny nose, I pulled the gray-green brick out of the glass case, held it in my hands, and in the end talked the clerk down from 800 to 430 rmb. Just by shifting my hand, I could have dropped it and watched it shatter. But the notion passed in an instant. Also present were the poet Song Lin and a spider dangling from the rafters. བྷ⨶ਔ෾⦹⍡䐟каᇦਔ㪓ᓇDŽਔ㪓ᓇѝаඇই䇿ഭᲊᵏⲴ䶂⹆DŽ䶂 ⹆кⲴॱа㹼ụ᮷DŽ⭘⁑ᆀ঻ࠪ䘉ॱа㹼ụ᮷Ⲵ᡻DŽሶ䘉ඇ䶂⹆⸼䘋 ֋ຄสᓗⲴ᡻DŽ䇔䇶䘉ॱа㹼ụ᮷Ⲵই䇿ഭᲊᵏⲴ儈‫ܗ‬DŽሶụ᮷Ӿঠ ᓖ㓿ቬ⋺ቄՐ᫝㠣ই䇿ഭⲴањӪᡆࠐњӪDŽ֋ᮉᗂDŽབྷᖫབྷᛏⲴ֋ ᮉᗂᡆ↫ࡽቊᵚབྷᖫབྷᛏⲴ֋ᮉᗂˈԕ৺ሩབྷᖫབྷᛏҶᰐ‫ޤ‬䏓Ⲵ⎚㦑 公DŽሿ҈֋ᮉᡰ䙷ࡠⲴབྷ҈֋ᮉнᴮ䙷ࡠⲴ䳮仈DŽই䇿ഭⲷᑍᡰ㓿শ 䗷ⲴнᴮѪབྷୀⲷᑍᡰ⸕ⲴⰋ㤖DŽই䇿ഭ⚝ഭⲴ哴᰿DŽᥔ‫֋ق‬ຄⲴ᳤ ᗂDŽ᛺ᝅⲴ㗔ՇDŽ‫ ݳޜ‬902ᒤDŽӾ䛓ᰦࡠ⧠൘ˈᰐᮠњᡁራ᢮䗷䘉ඇ ঻ᴹॱа㹼ụ᮷Ⲵ䶂⹆DŽ൘བྷ⨶ਔ෾⦹⍡䐟кⲴ䘉ᇦਔ㪓ᓇ䟼ˈᡁᛓ ⵰ᝏ߂ˈ⍱⵰␵啫⏅ˈӾ⧫⪳Ḍ䟼ਆࠪ䘉ඇ䶂⹆ˈㄟ൘᡻кˈᴰਾ䐏 ᓇሿҼӾ800‫ݳ‬ᵰԧ㠣430‫ݳ‬DŽ㾱ᱟᡁаᶮ᡻ˈᆳቡՊ㩭ࡠൠк᪄ᡀᮠ ⬓DŽնᡁਚᴮᴹ↔ᘥཤ൘аⷜ䰤DŽᖃᰦ൘൪Ⲵਖᴹ䈇Ӫᆻ⩣઼аਚ㠚 ቻằ඲элᤲⲴ㵈㴋DŽ xi chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 224–225

Here, Xi Chuan brings in all of the elements that are the hallmarks of his “opposite drift” modernism, his “inclusion of all that had been excluded” modernism, specifijically, language, economics, China’s social reality, and the relevance of China’s past and its cross-cultural interactions to language and China’s social reality. In juxtaposing the fijind of the brick in the antique shop with the brick’s religious, cross-cultural history, Xi Chuan brings that history into the present just as he brings the otherwise excluded into his poetry; “All ages,” as Pound said, “are contemporaneous,” and they become so in the poem.41 By ending with the near throwaway description that another poet and a spider’s thread were also on the scene, the poem returns not only to modernity 41 

Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance, 6.

Annotating the Aporias of History


but to modernism as well, fijinding social relations binding us in a spiderweb of allusion, language, and historical text. But what the spider hangs from are the rafters, or the architectural structure supplying both form and function—and angles, but not right angles—both to the building and to Xi Chuan’s poetry.


Toward a Weltliteratur

In the early 1980s, before Xi Chuan started publishing poetry, “modernism” became a contentious and politically loaded question for Chinese writers, mostly because of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (Qingchu jingshen wuran ␵䲔㋮⾎⊑ḃ), launched by Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) in 1983 but abruptly called offf in early 1984.42 Party-line critics accused “modernist” writers of bourgeois liberalism that must have come from the decadent West, which, as Bonnie McDougall points out, “put pressure on translators to seek outside publication for their translations, so that in the event of intimidation, censorship, or other kinds of persecution, the writer’s work could be made widely known through publication abroad,”43 contributing to the dissemination of contemporary Chinese literature in the larger “world literature” market.44 Whereas the campaign against modernism may have inspired the enthusiasm for postmodernism following Jameson’s visit to China in 1985, it is also behind, for instance, the moment in Gao Xingjian’s 儈㹼‫( ڕ‬b. 1940) Soul Mountain (Lingshan 䵸ኡ, 1990) when the “he” (ta Ԇ) protagonist must defend the novel against an offfijicial critic’s accusations of fragmentation, nihilism, and, of course, modernism: The critic is cowed and snarls, “This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short.” He says then it’s Eastern. 42  43  44 

Maghiel van Crevel, Language Shattered, 76. Bonnie McDougall, Translation Zones in Modern China, 95–96. For more on the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign and debates on “modernist” Chinese literature in post—Cultural Revolution China, see Rui Kunze, Struggle and Symbiosis, 73–86; Maghiel van Crevel, Language Shattered, 71–77; Wendy Larson, “Realism, Modernism, and the Anti-’Spiritual Pollution’ Campaign in China,” 37–71; D. E. Pollard, “The Controversy over Modernism, 1979–84,” 641–656; He Li, “The Discussion Concerning the Question of Western Modernism and the Direction of the Development of Chinese Literature,” 49–54; and Geremie Barmé, “Translator’s Introduction: Do You Have to Be a Modernist to Be Modern?,” 44–48. For more on the history and issues of Chinese literature in the 1980s, see Sylvia Chan, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Towards a ‘Free’ Literature,” 81–126; Wang Jing, High Culture Fever; Xudong Zhang, Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms.


Klein ᢩ䂅ᇦ㍲ᯬ䵢ࠪа‫ػ‬䝉ཧⲴ⾎ᛵˈᗎ⢉㑛㼑ᬐࠪаਕ˖ 䚴Ӱ哭⨮ԓ⍮ˈᆨ㾯ᯩҏ⋂ᆨ‫ۿ‬DŽ Ԇ䃚䛓ቡ㇇ᶡᯩⲴDŽ 45

While the thrust of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign was not about protecting an essence of Chineseness against the onslaught of Western cultural imperialism (in fact, later on the same page Gao Xingjian’s critic asks the writer with disdain if he’s a member of the Roots-Seeking group [Xungen pai ራṩ⍮]), we can see the trajectory develop as Chinese Communist Party rhetoric transitioned from socialist to nationalist under Deng. Ultimately, the argument against “modernism” would link with Owen’s aforementioned critique of “international” or “world poetry” (indeed, the sanctity of the native, however defijined, may be at stake in every political condemnation of modernism, from Andrei Zhdanov’s 1934 attack in Stalinist Russia to the 1937 Nazi Germany Entarte Kunst exhibit to Michigan Senator George Dondero’s denunciation in the 1949 United States). Hence the aporia, or impasse, between international modernism and Chineseness. But hence, also, there is an attempt to resolve the oppositional nature of the modernism/ postmodernism relationship by fijilling in the lacuna with an annotation thereby softening the either-or quality. Not that every attempt is successful. While Jessica Yeung, for instance, reads Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain—despite, or because of, its conscious acknowledgment of accusations of modernisms—as Gao’s “depart[ure] from high modernism [to make] an attempt at translating the Postmodernist writing paradigm,”46 I see her formulation as an indication of the problem: if the paradigm of postmodernism requires translation into Chinese, then it offfers no clear way out of the accusation that world literature represents the West’s cultural hegemony over non-Western localities. Not only did postmodernism never overturn modernism’s universalist logic with localism (its literary iterations are no more invested in the local than its architectural versions), literary modernism has always been invested in the regional and local. As Eliot Weinberger writes, reviewing Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?: We are still sorting out whatever happened in Modernism … and it is difffijicult to believe that its moment is over, that we are not simply in a late (or later) phase. Many of its radical and once-shocking innovations (collage, abstraction, improvisation, free verse) have become so absorbed in the culture that they are now standard practice in kindergartens. 45  46 

Gao Xingjian, Ling Shan, 503. Jessica Yeung, Ink Dances in Limbo: Gao Xingjian’s Writing as Cultural Transition, 79.

Annotating the Aporias of History


But the most typical artworks of so-called postmodernism—installations, pastiche, “language” poetry—when stripped of their critical theory scafffolding aren’t all that diffferent from those produced a hundred years ago.47 For this reason, the work of Xi Chuan, in its annotations of this aporia of literary history, stands as a testament not only to the applicability of modernist techniques as they broach various topics with an expanse of ideological implications, but also to the possibility that modernism, even Anglo-American or French modernism, could be something other than only hegemonic, that it could also create a ground on which locality and cultural specifijicity can be written, and rewritten. Not only that ground but that rewriting of locality is essential to creating a world literature worthy of the name. As Xi Chuan writes in his essay “The Tradition This Instant” (“Chuantong zai cishi cike” Ր㔏൘↔ᰦ↔࡫), only when Chinese literature is able to engage in dialogue with other traditions—even and especially traditions that have borrowed elements of Chinese culture—will China be able to engage in the “dialogue with the world that is ultimately a dialogue with ourselves” (оц⭼Ⲵሩ䈍ަᇎҏᱟо㠚ᐡⲴሩ䈍). He continues, “This doesn’t mean a shallow ‘fusion of East and West,’ or the even shallower sloganeering of ‘The More National, the More Global’; rather, it is a response to Goethe’s call for a Weltliteratur” (䘉ᰒнᱟањ䖳վ㓗Ⲵ֯ ь㾯ᯩ᮷ॆ⴨㔃ਸⲴ䰞仈ˈҏнᱟањᴤվ㓗Ⲵ”䎺ᱟ≁᯿䎺ᱟц⭼ ”Ⲵ䰞 仈ˈᡁԜ⇻ᆱ䈤䘉ᱟሩⅼᗧᴹ‫”ޣ‬ц⭼᮷ᆖ”Ⲵᜣ⌅Ⲵબᓄ).48 Without the common ground—even if that ground is modernism—the possibility of creating a world literature does not exist. But more than the possibility of creating a world literature is at stake: Xi Chuan’s writing points not only to the possibility, but to the dual necessity of creating a world literature that can accommodate local petits récits such as the Chinese cultural tradition without having this tradition ossifying into a defensively rigid “Chineseness.” By moving past the modernism of International Style architecture toward a modernism of linguistic and cultural investigation engaged in negotiating the relationship between local and universal logic, Xi Chuan’s writing calls both for a redefijinition of received literary history and for a new vision for world literature.

47  48 

Eliot Weinberger, Review of Who Made It New? by Gabriel Josipovici. See also Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism? Xi Chuan, Notes on the Mosquito, 253; Xi Chuan, “Chuantong zai cishi cike,” 26.

chapter 14

Modernist Literati: Abstract Art of Contemporary Chinese Poets Paul Manfredi

Since roughly the beginning of the twenty-fijirst century there has been an increasing number of Chinese poets turning their attention, and their creative powers, to the realm of visual art. These include not only well-established poet-artists such as Lo Ch’ing 㖵䶂 (Luo Qingzhe 㖵䶂ଢ, b. 1948), Yan Li ѕ࣋ (b. 1954), Sun Lei ᆉ⻺ (b. 1971), Che Qianzi 䖖ࡽᆀ (b. 1963), and Wang Ai ⦻㢮 (b. 1971), but also veteran poets who have picked up visual art as a new mode of creative expression, including Mang Ke 㣂‫( ݻ‬b. 1950), Duo Duo ཊཊ (b. 1951), Dao Zi ዋᆀ (b. 1956), and Song Lin ᆻ⩣ (b. 1959). Collectively, which is to say in the numerous joint exhibitions that they have launched in cities throughout China, they are often referred to as the “Shipai” 䈇⍮ (Poet’s group).1 Since roughly 2007, when the fijirst relatively major exhibition of their work took place in Beijing, they have expanded in membership, and scale of venue, exhibiting with increasing frequency and broadening geographical reach with each passing year.2 My focus in this chapter will be on one modernist subset of the visual artwork produced by these multimedia contemporary Chinese artists: abstract art. Such a focus is in part an efffort to disrupt some persistent but ever unproductive binaries of modern Chinese cultural studies. These include the overly 1  “Shipai” is one among many ways of referring to this loosely afffijiliated group. Another organization, built around Lo Ch’ing, is the “Contingent school” (Miaowu shufa࿉ᛏᴨ⌅) which specializes in calligraphy and other ink art. Often, however, the members of “diffferent” groups are actually the same people. 2  The 2007 exhibition was titled Poem Insert: An Exhibition of Painting by Poets (ᨂ䈇˖䈇Ӫ ⭫ኅ), held in Beijing and curated by Zhu Qi ᵡަ and Liu Guopeng ࡈഭ呿. Other major exhibitions include Rhetoric (‫؞‬䗎, 2010), held in Beijing and curated by Jiang Nan ဌᾐ and Sun Lei ᆉ⻺; Forum on Chinese Poetry Calligraphy (ѝഭ䈇Җ⭫儈ጠ䇪උ, 2010), held in Beijing and curated by Feng Yi’er ߟаҼ; Echoes of the Sea (બᓄⲴ⎧, 2012), held in Ji’nan and curated by Wang Jiaxin ⦻ᇦᯠand Sun Lei; Poets Group: Contemporary Chinese Poets’ Paintings(䈇⍮ѝഭᖃԓ䈇Ӫ㔈⭫, 2012), held in Beijing and curated by Li Anshu ᵾᆹ ṁ; The First Qinhuandao Ocean Poem Festival (བྷ⎧˖ 俆ቺ〖ⲷዋ䈇ⅼ㢲, 2014), held in Qingdao and curated by Xu Jialing ᗀᇦ⧢; and The Poetic Survivors (䈇᜿Ⲵᒨᆈ㘵, 2015), held fijirst in Shanghai and curated by Gao Hui 儈ᲆ.

© koninklijke brill nv leiden 2019 | doi:10 1163/9789004402898 016

Modernist Literati


familiar tradition/modernity, local/foreign, modernist/realist, “pure art” didactic or functional art, as well as a host of issues relating to audience reception both in local Chinese and in global contexts. On the one hand, abstract artistic expression seems to be situated securely in one place: namely, a modern, foreign, pure-art form with no discernable social function. But, on the other, that art-historical assessment can be easily dismantled; even Anglo-American abstract art (Abstract Expressionism) has clear roots in ancient cultures, one of which being China, and was in the 1940s and 1950s often drawn into global political “left-right” discourses as either symbol of a decadent West or champion of pure art uncorrupted by political expediencies or authoritarian influence.3 Following, even a strictly modern exploration of abstract art in the Western context will reveal considerable spiritual dimension, something that encompasses clear social function.4 In short, abstract expression does not conform to facile confijigurations of time and place, requiring more subtle treatment altogether. My approach to the subject of abstract expression in a contemporary Chinese context stems also in part from work done by Gao Minglu 儈਽▎ (b. 1949), developing what he calls “maximalism.” Though seemingly a counterpart to “minimalism,” Gao’s term is actually farther reaching: I coined this term not to characterize an art style or school, but to illuminate a particular artistic phenomenon, a kind of “Chinese abstract art” that a number of artists have created since the late 1980s. Since these artists are not interested in either producing Chinese exoticism or representing the appearance of the ongoing globalization of China, their works have been underrepresented both in China and abroad…. What they wish to do is to unify the process of making art with daily life, in the manner of traditional Chan meditation. This is an efffective response to

3  Neolithic Yangshao pottery is the frequently cited example in the Chinese case, but there are of course common examples from all over the globe. The cultural function of such early artifacts most probably related to rituals of burial, though on the most basic level creative design was no doubt abstract before it was representational. For a description of Yangshao, see Craig Clunas, Art in China, 15–28. Of course, the politics of Abstract Expressionism is a complicated question. See, for instance, David Craven’s discussion in Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissent during the McCarthy Period. 4  Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866–1944) fijirst theoretical work on the subject of abstract art, titled “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” took color as the essential mechanism for a universal “grammar” of visual expression (Anna Moszynska, Abstract Art, 27). The essay actually preceded Kandinsky’s own important picture, “First Abstract Watercolor.” The essay, though, was not published until two years later, 1912 (Dietmar Elger, Abstract Art, 28).



the challenges of current Chinese modernity, rather than a purely artistic engagement with any form of modernism.5 As Gao explains, the posture toward art evolves from the Chinese literati tradition, where technical skill and other professional artistic attributes are subordinated to the principal goal of revealing individual state of mind and degree of self-cultivation (Minglu Gao, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde, 22). Part of this process, and the reason that abstraction is actually quite in line with a traditional literatus’s self-positioning outside (or alongside) ideological directives of the time, is abstraction’s core meaning. In a 1986 article, art critic Judi Freeman quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary, “to abstract means to ‘withdraw’; to ‘take away secretly’; to ‘draw offf or apart’; ‘to disengage from’; ‘to separate in mental conception’; ‘to consider apart from the material embodiment, or from particular instances.’”6 For the contemporary Chinese artists, moving to an abstract mode is a response to his or her contemporary context, particularly on a material level, a stepping away to more contemplative position vis-à-vis not only art, but the entire social structure that supports it. My work here is to attach the other genre of poetry, which is very much in line with the elaboration of contemporary art as a form of (neo-)literati expression. By linking poetry and abstract visual art specifijically, which is to say by selecting poets who also produce abstract images, we are able to read lyrical subjectivity or authorial presence as it is mediated through the two media at once, arriving at a mode of cultural practice that has, again, a long history in China. For the presentational connection between the actual poems and paintings under discussion can be either loose or close. In the case of stronger afffijinity, we fijind side-by-side proximity of visual and verbal texts on, for instance, a given page in a collection of poems and paintings by a single group of artist-poets. More loose afffijiliation, then, emerges when poets insert single images among a group of poems or, less commonly, a single poem among a group of images. And though as yet there are no instances I know of akin to the tihuashi 仈⭫䈇 tradition using modern poetry, I expect the moment is not far away when such word-image intersection reemerges.7 Literati creators of art, literature, and other genres have for centuries been understood to produce cultural work as an expression of their own self-cultivation, an expression that travels freely among these various artistic media and other pursuits. At the

5  Minglu Gao, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde, 21. 6  Judi Freeman, “Abstraction,” 65–66. 7  A review of the tihua tradition can be found in Pan Da’an’s Lyrical Resonance Between Chinese Poets and Painters.

Modernist Literati


same time, abstract or nonfijigural visual expression has a prominent history with specifijically modernist poetry, as Natalia Carbojosa points out: twentieth-century Anglo-American Modernist poetry has been repeatedly described as one of the literary periods during which the ut pictura poesis metaphor was most widely and fruitfully exerted … avant-garde movements like Pound’s Imagism and Vorticism began to highlight the new relation existing between poetry and the visual arts. Concretely, poetry started to draw on those avant-garde currents that abandoned fijigurative painting for the paths of abstraction.8 The choice of abstract visual expression by Chinese poets in the contemporary period thus invites an exploration of the parameters or boundaries of literary history as it spills over into multimedia expression, and of cultural essentialisms (both Chinese and Western) as they dissolve into each other. In China the viewing of words as aesthetic objects or even as meaningful visual statements in their own right (i.e., irrespective of what they “say”) has been a common feature of the cultural landscape since the writing system fijirst developed.9 At the risk of stating the obvious, word as image (calligraphically rendered Chinese character) is the one constant feature of all Chinese written expression. The abstract image, though less obviously, is also a presence in the word-image nexus from the beginning. As Michael Sullivan observed: This concept of the hsiang [xiang ‫]ۿ‬, whether considered philosophically or in relation to the practical requirements of divination, is of great importance in understanding the traditional Chinese attitude toward visual art. It has given rise to the idea that pictorial representation is not for the purpose of describing a particular object, since individual objects have no signifijicance in themselves, but in order to express the ideal or norm that exists eternally beyond the limits of temporal existence and is manifest in natural forms. The more abstract and unparticularized the pictorial forms, the nearer they approach true form.10 8  Natalia Carbojosa, “Ekphrasis and Modernism,” 49. 9   Christopher Bush’s Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media lays out in detail the uses of “China” by modernist writers and theorists going back at least to Fenollosa’s famous essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” edited by Ezra Pound. The subject of my work shares to a degree some of the possibly Orientalist associations (Christopher Bush, Ideographic Modernism, xxx), but at one remove, namely, that these are Chinese modernist writers leveraging their own traditions in renewal or reinvigoration of Chinese poetics in contemporary period. 10  Michael Sullivan, The Birth of Landscape Painting, 5.



A notable array of possibilities such a medium presents was on display in a 1995 exhibition curated by H. Christopher Luce titled Abstraction and Expression in Chinese Calligraphy.11 The fact that the target audience was clearly not people literate in Chinese merely serves to demonstrate the appeal of Chinese character forms beyond their linguistic contexts. Two contrasting characters from the China Institute exhibition can elucidate this point. The fijirst is a character by Qian Dian䫡ި (1741–1806):

figure 14.1 “Cen,” Qian Dian

and following, one by Wu Kuan ੤ᇭ (1436–1504):

figure 14.2 “Han,” Wu Kuan


H. Christopher Luce, Abstraction and Expression in Chinese Calligraphy, n.p. The exhibition, which was held at the China Institute Gallery in New York City, contained the characters and readings of the characters both in terms of their literal meanings and their stylistic expression.

Modernist Literati


These two images are each clearly replete with aesthetic value; they are evocative, suggestive, and highly distinctive in terms of respective personal style. They largely share the common denominator of being simply Chinese characters rendered with ink and brush, and are otherwise almost entirely divergent. The precise “meaning” of each—in the fijirst case, cen (steep); in the second, han (winter)—is far less relevant in what they communicate than in quality of the lines themselves, specifijically, the thickness of the strokes, the traces (or none) of the bristles of the brush, or even the silent rhythm that can be discerned if not precisely heard in the progression of the brush across paper. These images are meaningful, in other words, in a manner beyond words, as abstract objects of visual contemplation. The practice of discovering such meaning in writing is both commonplace and ancient in the Chinese context. The specifijic importance of twenty-fijirst-century Chinese poets turning their attention to visual art, however, is less a continuation of a tradition than signifijicant reconnection with a tradition that had been in large part severed over the past century or so. With the advent of May Fourth reforms, the tendency to take Euro-American models of verbal and visual art as objects of emulation resulted in a distanciation of poem and visual artwork that was new in the Chinese cultural context, setting these two media on parallel but still disparate paths through roughly a century of modern evolution.12 Chinese New Poetry, which labored to emerge from under the oppressive weight of its predecessor, classical verse, was not as fortunate as visual art in terms of its ability to change modes of expression without sacrifijicing its claims to expressive object. Whereas a paper-and-ink-brush painter of birds and flowers in the traditional style taking up oil and canvas to paint human fijigures could lay claim to a modern pose par excellence, the same was not at all true of the would-be modern Chinese poet. Poets were left to attempt renewal without the benefijit of change in media, largely a subtraction (prosodic conventions), and not an addition. Poets therefore confronted a sort of stubborn tabula rasa, a free verse that was, from the point of view of most of the Chinese reading public, indistinguishable from prose. By the time we reach the twenty-fijirst century, of course, the generic credibility of free verse or modern poetry has become more or less secure; few readers would claim, after a century of production, publication, and literaryhistorical exegesis, that such a body of work simply does not exist. Nonetheless, 12 

Of course, Chinese New Poetry went through signifijicant changes during the Maoist years (roughly 1950–1979), as did all other art media. In efffect, poetry was part of an allpervasive propaganda efffort that sought to bring all cultural expression in line with current Party policy, whatever that policy happened to be at any given moment.



relative to visual art and in many respects other patently modern media (e.g., fijilm), poetry is often relegated to last place in a pantheon of creative genres. Thus, poetry’s engagement with a visual mode is part reinvigoration, part rescue plan for a genre that has struggled against the tide for many decades. This divergence of artistically expressed word and image is particularly true if we look again at the twin fortunes of the poetic word and the visual art object since the advent of contemporary art, which can be roughly dated to 1979. Prior to that year, in the People’s Republic, art and literature, among other cultural media, were all strictly subject to Chinese Communist Party cultural policy, an all-encompassing organization of human expression designed to permit only that art which would clearly advance society in highly circumscribed and thoroughly politicized fashion. The year 1979 was pivotal in the development of Chinese culture on both the verbal- and visual-art levels for two major events: the fijirst ever non-State-organized art exhibition of the Stars art collective (Xingxing huahui ᱏᱏ⭫Պ) in Beijing, and the establishment of the fijirst ever non-State-published journal of contemporary literature, Today (Jintian Ӻཙ) and the “Misty” poets who published therein.13 In the years immediately following, art and literature, particularly poetry, developed in tandem, allowing for a new, more subjective, more experimental, and more genuine artistic expression to emerge after decades of censorship and control. The offfijicial response to these two emergent and seminal cultural movements was in varying degrees permissive and hostile, but as the violent and destructive Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was still fresh in people’s minds, a permissive enough cultural policy came into efffect to allow for begrudging acceptance of new cultural practices. Thus, a vigorous debate was allowed to develop concerning the nature and function of art in China, a debate that ran until the early 1980s when liberalization was fijinally put back under control in the “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign.”14 It was the opinion of establishment conservatives, who deemed the new expression of creative art “modernist” and therefore a form of “pollution,” that modernist art did not serve the people in the way that socialist-realism did. The progressives, meanwhile, continued to maintain that a higher degree of subjectivity and freedom of expression were necessary ingredients for the development of any true art. Abstract expression immediately became an element of this discussion, both as a literary and a visual-art matter. The very term “misty” (menglong 13  14 

Many of the poets associated with this journal later took the title “Misty” (or “Obscure”) poets (Menglong shiren ᵖ㜗䈇Ӫ). An excellent review of these debates where poetry is concerned is done by D. E. Pollard, “The Controversy over Modernism, 1979–84,” 641–656.

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ᵖ㜗, or more precisely, “obscure”), was coined in order to critique the new

poetic writing for not being clear enough, which is to say realistic enough to be readily accepted by wide audiences. The feelings, images, and in particular political content, according to critics, were too difffijicult to ascertain, making the entire body of work “misty.” In the visual art realm, the question of nonfijigural art was broached fijirst by the artist Wu Guanzhong ੤ߐѝ (b. 1919), beginning with his “The Formal Beauty of Painting” in Meishu 㖾ᵟ (Art), and more particularly with this “On Abstract Beauty.”15 In the second article Wu, in the absence of any other formal or theoretical discussion, forthrightly tackles verisimilitude by observing simply that “like” is not necessarily what is “good,” and what is “good” is not necessarily what is easily discernable (Wu Guanzhong, “On Abstract Beauty,” 37). He uses an approach that is fundamental, and largely utilitarian: We need to inherit and promote an abstract aesthetics; abstract aesthetics should be the object of scientifijic study for our arts program. This is because for purposes of all manner of art, whether realistic or romantic, whether it uses traditional Chinese brush or mimetic Western style, apprehending the underlying abstract principles of form will be inherently useful. wu guanzhong, “On Abstract Beauty,” 37

Abstract expression was thus the cutting edge of new expression in China, a direct afffront to cultural policy as it had been laid out by Mao Zedong, and a fundamentally new relationship between author and art object, and between art object and viewer. In short, the freedom to interpret had returned to Chinese cultural experience after an absence of many decades. At this time (early 1980s), which is to say under the still nearly all-pervasive pressure from the authoritarian system of censorship and policing of personal expression, poetry began to take a more central role, largely because, unlike the materiality of plastic arts, it leaves minimal trace in either space or time. Much of the important poetic work created at this time was not printed or circulated in anything but handwritten or crudely reproduced format, and even that was often committed immediately to memory by enthusiasts and performed in unofffijicial poetry recitation sessions.16 In contrast to the poet’s pinnacle 15  16 

These two articles were both published in 1979 and were titled “Huihua de xingshimei” and “Guanyu chouxiang mei,” respectively. Veteran poet and artist Yan Li ѕ࣋ (b. 1954) describes working with Mang Ke 㣂‫ݻ‬ (b. 1951), Bei Dao ेዋ (1949) and others later afffijiliated with the Today journal to use wax



cultural position of the early 1980s, when Misty generation poets could lay claim to heroic status as leaders of the unofffijicial art movement (broadly construed), the fijirst decade and more of the twenty-fijirst century has seen rapid decline of the social role of the poet in China. During the same period, visual artists have experienced rather stunning success, taking over from poets in their high profijile and often politicized stratagems (in particular events and exhibitions organized by Ai Weiwei), but also leading the entire world in terms of market value of their creative productions. Chinese contemporary art has become an essential component of our shared global cultural scape, a development that has as much to do with the world’s attention (and concern) about an increasingly powerful and prominent China as it does with any particular aesthetic or stylistic development in China. In this context, poets turning to visual expression since about 2005 could be seen as merely capitalizing on what has now become worldwide interest in Chinese contemporary experience and its concomitant connection with art. In a related critique, it is tempting to observe that abstract expressionism is an obvious mode of visual artistic practice given its relatively low entry point: it does not necessarily require training to produce an abstract work. This point of view is partial, however, at best, in terms of explicating Chinese contemporary poets and abstract visual art. It is perhaps not surprising that this would be a chosen approach of these neophyte artists with a long history of commitment to creative work, simply because abstract work (which is not to say necessarily good abstract work) is relatively easy to produce. This observation, however, is far from an explanation of the important nexus that links the visual, the verbal, the poetic, and the abstract in the contemporary Chinese context. In fact, poets join the fray of visual art expression with a kind of cultural capital that strictly visual artists have a harder time claiming. The poets’ investment in verbal primary to visual expression allows them (or their readers) to triangulate their reception, to traverse spaces opened up in both aural and visual territory. The abstract among these is moreover more buoyant than the rest as it denies or at least resists tethering to any locality whatsoever even as it harkens back to furthest antiquity. In many respects, the twin cultural poles of poetry and visual art, particularly oil painting but also calligraphy and ink-brush work, are a matter of proximity; the poets and visual artists shared an “unofffijicial” space in the years following the Cultural Revolution, one that they themselves, through manifestos and paper and pens to impress Chinese characters in relief and then whatever ink they could fijind to make copies of their poems. Interview with the artist, Shanghai, 2008.

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even, in the case of the Stars, marches through the city of Beijing, were instrumental in opening up in the fijirst place. This free, creative space has expanded and contracted in the nearly four decades since, with central authority occasionally exerting its will over more audacious challenges to governmental power, or at least gatherings of scale.17 Gradually, visual art has taken up a position of prominence—due in large part to its easy transportability in global contexts—that runs roughly parallel to the massive and high profijile redevelopment of China’s built environment that was initiated with Deng Xiaoping’s Opening and Reform. Poetry, meanwhile, has receded, but not entirely, and in the hands of poet-painters in particular, may well be encountering a “second life” in the contemporary period. Turning now to individual producers of such word-image cultural works in an abstract vein, one of the most prominent is poet and painter Lü De’an ੅ᗧᆹ (b. 1960). A native of Fujian, his training in the middle-to-late 1980s was as a visual artist. He cofounded both the Friday art group (Xingqiwupai ᱏᵏӄ⍮) and the “They” (Tamen ԆԜ) poets society and thus was an influential fijigure in the advancement of Chinese contemporary art broadly speaking, even though he was not located at its epicenter in Beijing. In 1991, he began an extended (three-year) sojourn to New York City, where he connected with other expatriate Chinese writers and artists already collected there. Among these expat Chinese was Yan Li, who was principally responsible for helping Lü get situated, and Ai Weiwei 㢮ᵚᵚ (b. 1957), who was also pursuing whichever activities would allow him to both support himself and develop as an artist. Lü’s approach was to set up an easel on the street in Manhattan and sell portraits to passers-by. Meanwhile, he visited museums and galleries and was gradually drawn to abstract painting as his principal mode of self-expression.18 In the years following, he has continued to travel back and forth between Manhattan and Fuzhou, among other cities. The contrast between his life in New York and that in China could not have been more stark. When in the Fuzhou area, he spent his time not in the city, but on a small mountain thirty minutes outside of town. His abode was in fact a small house he himself constructed: This structure’s importance can be seen in the title of Lü’s 2014 painting collection Thatched Hut Damaged by the West Wind (Maowu wei xifeng suopo 㤵ቻѪ㾯仾ᡰ⹤), which is also the title of a 17 


Ai Weiwei 㢮ᵚᵚ is the famous example of art pushed most intentionally into the realm of politics, but other, lower profijile independent cultural production often comes in for censorship. Interview with the author, Fuzhou, 2008.



figure 14.3

“Thatched.” Photograph by Lü De’an. In Maowu wei xifeng suopo Courtesy of Lü De’an

four-painting series that appears in the collection. In addition, the importance can be seen in his own prefatory description to the collection of a location that was conducive to, as Lü puts it, “seriously make art.”19 More broadly, though, such a spatial consideration is important to appreciating Lü’s art and poetry, if not much of contemporary art in a Chinese context. The period during which Lü undertook the building of this small domicile coincides with a crescendo of construction activity elsewhere in China. Chinese cities from Shanghai to Beijing, Chongqing to Guangzhou amount collectively to what is arguably the 19 

Lü De’an, Maowu wei xifeng suopo, n.p.

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greatest single overhaul of the physical environment known to humankind. Such complete overhaul of everything from roads and bridges, buildings and their concomitant infrastructure, introduces a state of flux to urban Chinese experience, where, in major cities, just about every object of a certain age is marked for demolition, and around the vast gaping holes emerge developergenerated images of better conditions to come, a promise packaged in constant deferral.20 This also brings opportunity for marginal fijigures (floating populations), and artists are perhaps most adept at exploiting those opportunities to occupy and then foster creative spaces. For Lü, the “thatched hut” is a place to depart from the din of urban experience, quiet enough to allow for deeper meditations on art to emerge: On those occasions when I realize that I am a “conscious presence,” I suddenly feel that this is not the real self—that within this there is still some sort of a blank space, a space into which I can never fully fijit. This blank space appears to be eternally waiting for the “performance” of a painting, and it is through painting into that blank space that I can fijill in a more natural self. lü de’an, Hut Damaged by the West Wind, n.p.

This posture has obvious historical precedent—the literatus, retired from “afffairs of the world” (renshi Ӫц), in free pursuit of a landscape that situates his conscious engagement with the phenomenal world in a format of exchange with his audience, often other poet-artists and art-appreciators.21 This familiar trope, though, is both echo and shadow, sounds of presence where presence is not, and efffects of light where none is cast, much the way “Abstract Landscape 1” conjures a traditional scroll, with the possibility of mountains and a body of water in the foreground.22


21  22 

The most obvious iteration of this is the large-scale art installation of the 798 District of northeastern Beijing, the fijirst major art territory of contemporary China, which was soon followed by now countless others in cities throughout the country. In very much the same way that Huang Rui 哴䭀 (b. 1952), 798’s principal progenitor, went about identifying an old abandoned factory district as the one where he would like to build an arts community, Lü De’an identifijied the abandoned shack and built from it his own domicile in the woods. The famous recluse writer Tao Qian 䲦▌ (365–427) being perhaps only the most famous of these. This is one of the six images by Lü De’an that appear in a collection of visual art created by poets: Li Anshu, Shipai: Zhongguo Dangdai shiren huihua, 82–83. This image also appears in his subsequent painting collection Langman de luocha, 43.


figure 14.4


“Abstract Landscape 1” (“Chouxiang shanshui” ᣭ䊑ኡ≤ 1), 170cm × 132cm, acrylic, 2007. In Lü De’an, Langmande luocha, 43 Courtesy of Lü De’an

Such envisioning of natural landscape takes efffort, though, as none of these real world prompts are quite “there.” The evocation of landscape is simply titular, and then conceptual, as though the open medium of nonreferential expression is leveraged to observe a landscape that is somehow no longer available to view. In painting such a work the artist is no longer distanciated, he is reconnected, but is so without “return” to a given cultural tradition, much less particular theme or discursive statement. The abstract work is a complete statement unto itself, even if in this case we can see relatively clear quotation of the work of Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), for instance, in the oblong shape center right. On the one hand, of course, this is true of any abstract visual artwork, a style that eschews place and time either of creation or even in some sense of viewing itself. On the other, to have poets in particular engaged in production of such an image forms additional possible links across these two mediums of expression, a sort of triangulation from a reception point of view that allows a glance into the blank space or gap between word and image. In the 2012 collection Poets Group: Paintings by Contemporary Chinese Poets (Shipai: Zhongguo dangdai shiren huihua 䈇⍮˖ѝഭᖃԓ䈇Ӫ㔈⭫) in which

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this image appears, the poem by Lü De’an immediately preceding it contains a strong visual element, in fact a landscape of sorts: “Scenery” (“Fengjing” 仾Ჟ): After years of disappointment I fijinally removed the window, Or on second thought, I realize all I actually took away was its frame. Pitch black, the world’s still there Only now I’ve gone To wander its most remote places, With its window frame on my back Those migrating birds at the edge of the sky Seem just like me way back when, Wandering again to this place or that, With my own window frame on my back. 㓿䗷ཊᒤཡᵋ ᡁ㓸Ҿᩜ䎠Ҷデਓˈ նԄ㓶аᜣˈһᇎк ᩜ䎠ⲴਚᱟᆳⲴṶᷦDŽ 唁⍎⍎Ⲵˈц⭼ӽ൘৏༴ˈ ਟᡁ∅ㄏᐢ㓿⿫ᔰˈ ൘ᆳⲴ䘌ᯩ㹼䎠ˈ 㛼䍏ᆳⲴデᆀṶᷦDŽ ཙ䗩伎䗷⴨լⲴ‫ى‬呏ˈ ᜣ䊑ᖃᒤⲴᡁҏаṧˈ 䟽༽ൠ䎠䗷䘉њᡆ䛓њൠᯩˈ 㛼䍏⵰㠚ᐡⲴデᆀṶᷦDŽ li anshu, Poet’s Group, 81

The presence of the poem in close proximity introduces the possibility of reading across poem and image, seeing the poet seeing, so to speak, migrating birds through the window. Yet there is also the gap, the lack of reference in the painting, and, indeed, the eighteen years inserted between composition of the poem and the painting. Such a gap also emerges in a poem that reflects the degree to which the poet reflects upon his physical surroundings



as context for the pursuit of real experience, as in the poem “Manhattan” (Manhadun ᴬ૸亯): If on a night between the island of Manhattan And Roosevelt Island There descends a great seabird Slowly gliding, silent Breathless; if this night is one Of violent wind snow I do not know if this bewildered bird Arrived on a moment’s impulse Between these two brilliant cities This small sea is constantly shrinking At night, if the bird Just wants to fijind a way to accommodate itself To survival amidst the gaping shafts of light Or to borrow the light and snow To pursue schools of fijish in the darkness Then I hope it gets its wish And if I surprisingly discover that under the wings of this bird There are white feathers Then I will have located my loneliness Between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island ྲ᷌൘ཌᲊⲴᴬ૸亯 ઼㖇ᯟ⾿ዋѻ䰤 аਚᐘབྷⲴ⎧呏 ↓൘㕃㕃ൠ━㘄ˈᰐ༠ ᰐ᚟˗ྲ᷌䘉ᱟањ ৸࡞仾৸䱽䴚Ⲵཌᲊˈ ᡁн⸕䚃䘉ਚ䘧ᜈⲴ⎧呏 ᱟнᱟаᰦߢࣘ 䘉ᱟєњ䘿ӞⲴ෾ᐲ ѝ䰤ᱟнᯝ㕙ሿⲴ⎧

Modernist Literati ൘ཌᲊˈྲ᷌呏‫ݯ‬ ӵӵᱟᜣ䘲ᓄалྲօ ൘а䚃䚃‫Ⲵݹ‬㕍䳉䟼⭏ᆈ ᣁᡆُࣙ‫઼ݹ‬䴚 ৫䘭䲿唁᳇ѝⲴ劬㗔 䛓Ѹˈնᝯᆳྲᝯԕ‫گ‬ ྲ᷌ᡁ䘈᛺ཷൠਁ⧠ˈ䘉ਚ呏 㗵㞰ᓅлⲴ㝻ネᱟⲭ㢢Ⲵ ᡁቡ᢮ࡠҶᡁⲴᆔ⤜ ൘ᴬ૸亯઼㖇ᯟ⾿ѻ䰤23

An accompanying image to the poem could well be 2012’s “To Bacon”:

figure 14.5


“To Bacon” (“Xiang Peigun zhijing” ੁษṩ㠤ᮜ), 148cm × 131cm, 2012. In Wang Jiaxin and Sun Lei, Huying de hai, 73 Courtesy of Lü De’an

Lü De’an, Wanshi, 30.




In the image we may see a bird, gliding, spreading its wings, possibly perched, revealing a hint of white feathers, and thus overtones of loneliness. Or, we see suggestions of Francis Bacon’s twisted fijigures, faces and limbs recognizable as such, but pushed to referential limits by disfijigurement. All of this and also none of this, as the abstract image serves more as receptacle for sundry expectations, and visualizations. They emerge in concert with the forms on the canvas, but recede on closer examination, or as the mind and image move on to new possibilities. The stabilization is in the word, and in anthologies where poems and paintings appear together, as would have often been the case for literati expressions in a Chinese classical context, the reading across media takes place on the media-shared ground of the poet’s biography. Spatial and temporal contexts present themselves as semiotic space, narratives and other verbal exchange anchored in place, as in “Soft Things from New York” (“Niu Yue ruan shi” 㓭㓖䖟һ): When we fijirst met, she was gazing out from The dark hallway where she was lying to her landlord To this poetry-writing stranger Standing in the garden Later, taking in my age, she said I looked ten years older than I am In an impression of me as if set in stone Like a greying old persimmon However, when we fijinally ran hand in hand through The domed hallways of the MET Her youthful bag of fashion spilling out a flute, I began to think of how this palace of art might use Its ancient magic to turn it into a snake Thinking on the way home, how to lay hands On that willowy waist, and afterward, No matter whether it was late rent or separation, and Life so like a stepfather, Until the pots and pans stashed in the corner make a Watery mess, I’ll never forget her, The basement muse who made me melancholy ᖃᡁԜ⴨䙷Ⲵᰦ‫↓ྩˈى‬൘ 

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 wang jiaxin and sun lei, “Echoes of the Sea,” 72

The poem was composed in 1998, fourteen years prior to the image. Moreover, and topically speaking, the poem is unrelated to the painting, their collectivity is instead a function of editorial decisions and deliberate if not obvious juxtaposition; their togetherness, in other words, is a fact of the printed text and little else. If there is a meaningful connection, it is a labored one, as in the physical artistic context location of the evolution of the lyrical I’s romantic relationship with his muse, the halls of the New York Metropolitan Museum. This connection would flow from the painting’s title, “To [Francis] Bacon.” Indeed, the New York museum houses two Bacon works, and in a stretch we could imagine the poet encountering them there with his newfound afffection. An even more strained reading would take programmatic or even literal features of the encounter, dark hallway, bag spilling open, and so on, as representable elements in the abstract work. These avenues of word-image connection are less compelling, though, than an oblique layer, a painterly posture (abstract) combined with a narrative poem (concrete), where one reaches toward the other, fijills in the gaps not literally, but as a matter of impression. To interpret, in other words, detracts from the abstract work’s essential power, which is its open quality, its suggestive force. Only an abstract image is elastic enough to



accommodate the randomness of textual (word-image) contexts, an accord akin to the abstract image’s accommodation of “meaning” itself—infijinite and without prejudice. The painting stands both alone, a bouquet, an explosion, perhaps a bird spreading massive wings, but in these possibilities also in conjunction with the poem. Proceeding from formal features alone, the picture emerges more clearly, within a dark region top left, a broad bisection roughly center, a trunk of sorts center low, and ghostly yellow lower right. Beyond this the picture’s texture is highly variegated and harbors considerable drama, from rough layers, jagged and material, to smooth, blended, colored surfaces, drips, and even a suggestion of three-dimensional shading at the “X” low center left. These formal features of Lü’s image, less than “speaking out,” can be seen instead to call words in, a return of sorts. The poem responds and the two reverberate, two silent sounding boards. The word plus image is a manifestation of an artist’s mind in its interaction with the phenomenal world, at once excavation through revelation, but also arrangement and concealment. The media combination of inner-outer contexts is dialectical and dynamic, a flow, but can also be roughly parsed as a receding or submerging into the image, and emerging and projection from the poem. The reversal comes as the image displays an interiority at the surface, a texture and tone “unsayable” but available to view, whereas the poem’s lyrical “I” is a fijiction of its own narrative devices, perceived via the prismatic efffect of “her,” the muse who brings him into being. The persona that emerges, in other words, where 1998 shades into 2012, where the fashionable young New Yorker lying to her landlord sets her gaze at the poetry-writing stranger in the garden, is visualized both in word and image, the combination of which delivers more information than either poem or painting could alone provide. Lü De’an, for all his association with innovative trends since the 1980s, is certainly a sort of conservative when compared with the highly iconoclastic poet, artist, collector, galleryist, and theoretician Xu Demin 䇨ᗧ≁ (b. 1953). Xu, a graduate of Shanghai’s Fudan University and now adjunct professor there in the Department of Chinese, not only has been experimenting in fijirst surreal and then abstract visual genres since the late 1980s, but has also released an entire collection of “abstract poems” in 2013, the most radical approach to poetry composition since the advent of modern Chinese poetry in the early twentieth century. In addition to prefatory essays by curators such as Zhu Qi ᵡަ (b. 1966) and fellow Fudan poet Yang Xiaobin ᶘሿ┘ (b. 1963), the volume also includes Xu’s own reflections on the phenomenon of abstract expression, both as a matter of innovating poetry and as a broader artistic and humancultural phenomenon. Beyond relatively obvious assertions of the origins of


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abstract expression in antiquity, Xu’s analysis focuses on the Chinese character, a fijive-thousand-year old tool for human communication but a free-standing mode of thinking in its own right.24 The progenitor of the character, in Xu’s estimation, is less humankind than the universe itself and the mysterious process by which the universe produced humankind. Thus, when humans “borrow” Chinese characters to create, they enter into a partnership, where agency is only partly in the hands of the artist. This portion of Xu’s abstract poetics is a modifijication if not radical expansion of Pound-Fenollosa’s theory of character-based poetry.25 But Xu’s framework is larger, and basically dichotomous. He places abstraction on one side and rationality on the other, with all social and professional human experience relegated to the rational, and the abstract accounting for aesthetic enjoyment, pure experience, and other aesthetic experiences.26 In order to get at the abstraction, Xu relies on a process of sequencing, an ungrammatical and irrational arrangement of words that form their own correspondences in pairs or across longer segments of text. The fijirst work appearing in his abstract poetry collection is titled “Send Blood, Supply Black” (“Ji xue gong hei” ᇴ㹰‫׋‬唁):


25  26 

Chimney Paper Hinder Great

changes made green analogies

fijire pen sectioned dense

slices fijine blue shadow

Writing Corner Dyed Send

tip divide life blood

hook no breaks supply

selection group light black

This and subsequent observations appear in the fijirst essay in abstract poetry included in Xu Demin’s 2013 anthology Chouxiang shi. The essay is titled “Chouxiang shixue guan,” 157–163. For an in-depth discussion of Fenollosa and Pound, see Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound, Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, 1–40. Xu Demin, Chouxiang shi, 164. See also Li Xu, who locates the origins of China’s abstract tradition fijirstly in the Chinese character, specifijically the grass script that developed during the Tang dynasty, but also the entire philosophical and aesthetic background of Daoism, with its emphasis on negativity, void, and paradox as a major touchstone for the irrational leading to the entirely asemic. See Li Xu and Li Jianchun, Chouxiang yishu zai Zhongguo.



Art Stomps Bees Patience

internal accompany cut flies

from ballad nests knock

language seeds married numbers

Watch Offfijicial Private Black

leaves simple symptoms habit

stop beauty absorb savage

tears short gentleman emotion

















xu demin, Abstract Poetry, 1727

Xu’s visual work, meanwhile, oscillates between the abstract and the surreal, showing distinct signs of influence or even quotations from Western masters and then its own particular departures, as in the fijive-work Buddha Eyes series from 1997. And on to the more completely abstract, as in “Insect: Ink-Brush Experiments Number 8,” from a sixteen-image series see fijigure 14.7. Although the second image contains echoes of fijigural painting, we would only accurately associate the coiled image with an insect if we were aware of the title. Certainly, other naturally and even man-made forms are suggested, and nevertheless a form of “pure” color, the array of lines from red into faded green, suggest a visual work that is reduced to the simple elements of abstract form and color on canvas. Generally speaking, Xu’s visual art is by and large legible in contrast to his abstract poetry, particularly in the way he carries 27 

Translation of such a poem is of course not an easy matter. I have made choices for the rendering of each word based largely on common usage. More challenging, I have for the most part left verbs, such as they can be identifijied, without conjugation. This actually arguably departs from the Chinese original, where readers would likely work to concretize the poem by selecting certain words to serve certain grammatical functions according to their own reading inclination. The fact that in Chinese this can be done is part of the reason that Xu can actually produce such “abstract poetic sequences” as this one. In English, this is simply not possible.

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figure 14.6


“Buddha Eyes” (“Foyan” ֋⵬), 50cm × 50cm. In Xu Demin, Xu Demin zuopin, 125 Courtesy of Xu Demin

thematic statements from titles into re-presented forms on canvas. The poem, by contrast, is a series of sequences that are typographically—and thus also visually—constrained by lineation and the square expression of printing font. The aural aspect and the poem’s semantics, as much as they can be discerned, are by contrast free flowing, with echoes of rhyme both line-end and internal, and the availability of a variety of possibilities meaning in the word sequences. The contrast of a visual image that is readable with verbal language that is impenetrable reverses the more common dynamic of word-image interrelation, and the artist-poet at the center of this reversal thoroughly theorizes reading back unto itself. Through these two images to the poem, we have a completely open fijield. A series of invitations or possibilities.


figure 14.7


“Bug: Ink Experiement” (“Chong: shuimo shiyan” 㲛≤໘ᇎ傼), ink on paper, 68cm × 68cm. In Xu Demin, Xu Demin zuopin, 155 Courtesy of Xu Demin

Fellow Fudan University graduate, though of a younger generation, is Yang Xiaobin, a poet and critic who only in recent years has turned his attention to visual art, in his case photography. Like Lü De’an, Yang’s biography is bicultural. After working for a few years at the Academy of Social Sciences in Shanghai, Yang moved to the United States where he received an M.A. from the University of Colorado followed by a Ph.D. from Yale University. Once graduated, he taught at the University of Mississippi for eight years. As a graduate student in Colorado and Connecticut in the early-to-mid 1990s, Yang became directly engaged in conversations about Chinese modernity and postmodernism, publishing widely on the subject in both Chinese and English. Since

Modernist Literati


he has continued as critic, poet, and then creator of what he terms “postphotography” (housheying ਾᩴᖡ), most recently in his position as researcher at Academica Sinica (since 2006). Yang is also author of one of the three forwards to Xu’s collection of abstract poems. His reading of Xu’s work reflects his acute awareness of the violence of modernity with regard to China broadly speaking, and Chinese poetry in particular. Yang regards Xu’s work to be a kind of implement, tearing language down for epistemological redeployment of characters as new unconcretized possibilities: The secret of modern poetry is the new organization of linguistic logic, so abstract poetry is to take this to its limit; a complete upset of grammatical logic. After causing language to break into fragments and detritus, this method gives it another chance at life. As we all know, Xu Demin came from the realm of writing lyric poetry and his abstract poetry is in some respects a manner of ruptured lyricism. It does not express clearly the emotions of the poet, and of course there is nothing in it of wisdom of knowledge. Abstract poetry comes to approximate a more true state of spirit, a place Lacan has called “real.” This place can’t be clearly named, and its depths are unfathomable; but it contains a kind of traumatic excitement, this trauma is the fijissures of the symbolic stage, the scars of language containing their own meaning. quoted in Xu Demin, Abstract Poetry, 11

As a poet, Yang does not generally work in abstract style, though his work has often been described as challenging enough to make easy interpretation impossible. One recurrent motif, and even near method, is his use of dream reference, so that poems emerge as semitranscriptions of dream material. This allows for a degree of free association that is at times jarring, and uncanny. This has to do with the fact that his style is intensely intimate, and fragmentary, drawing the reader close to hand, but not afffording enough context to make the scene visualizable. For instance, “Winter” (“Dong” ߜ): Having disrobed our fallen leaves we’re frozen like snowmen, flying on the wilds of philosophy in down coats Gazing at the horizon, still no glimpse of the waters of spring Those warm ducks are forever trapped in the rhymes of Song poetry In the fables of winter, tomorrow’s swan is endlessly delayed And the ugly duckling turns a page of lake water to enter dream town



Dreaming a swarm of Santa Clauses, all one year older than before Even subtracting us, they’re still not as young as spring Moreover, across the line of death There’s a swan playing an English horn And a real winter will cough endlessly And we’ll wrap it in a blanket, hang it above the stove We’ll wrap winter’s neck in pine branches, not letting it blow north This kind of winter can peacefully fortify us Using icicles to poke us out of hibernation Until the stifffened language resorts to bear bile listening to another winter’s proletarian roar outside the window Listen to another winter’s drifting in the moonlight of the soul Just before selling that last matchstick Let’s sell a homeless poem fijirst ᡁԜ㝡ᦹ㩭ਦቡ߫ᡀ䴚Ӫˈクк㗭㔂 ቡ伎൘ᙍᜣⲴ㦂৏ѻк ⵪ᵋൠᒣ㓯ˈতн㿱ᵚᶕⲴ᱕≤ ᳆⌻⌻Ⲵ呝ᆀӾᶕ⑨нࠪᆻ䈇Ⲵ严㝊 ൘ߜཙⲴㄕ䈍䟼ˈ᰾ཙⲴཙ呵ሶ㻛ᰐ䲀ൠᔦ䘏 сሿ呝㘫䗷䘉а亥⒆⋺ቡ䘋‫ޕ‬ҶỖґ Ỗ㿱㴲ᤕ㘼ᶕⲴ൓䈎㘱Ӫ䜭∄৫ᒤ㘱Ҷа኱ ߿৫ᡁԜ䘈нཏ᱕ཙ䛓Ѹᒤ䖫 ࣐кˈ৸䗷Ҷ↫ӑ㓯 䛓‫ݯ‬ᴹ㲊ᤏⲴཙ呵੩⵰㤡ഭ㇑ 㘼ањⵏᇎⲴߜཙՊૣభн→ ҾᱟᡁԜᢺᆳ㼩൘㻛ᆀ䟼ˈᤲ൘໱⚹к ⭘ᶮ᷍ंտߜཙⲴ㝆ᆀˈн䇙ᆳे仾੩ 䘉ṧⲴߜཙቡਟԕᆹᗳൠ⓻㺕ᡁԜ ⭘ߠḡⰋࠫᡁԜⲴߜⵐ ⴤࡠ‫Ⲵ⺜ܥ‬䀰䗎䇹䈨➺㛶 ੜਖањߜཙ൘デཆᰐӗ䱦㓗ൠશந

Modernist Literati


ੜਖањߜཙ⍱⎚൘⚥兲Ⲵᴸ㢢ѝ ൘আᦹᴰਾаṩ⚛Ḥѻࡽ ‫ݸ‬আᦹа俆ᰐᇦਟᖂⲴ䈇ⅼ28

The poem reflects Yang’s experience in a multicultural setting, with elements of bourgeois Christmas in efffect, English horns, quilt and fijireplace, a smattering of natural world meditations and reflections, as well as references to classical Chinese poetics. Such a stylistic feature is typical of modernist verse in Chinese, a cosmopolitanism that draws from multiple sources, giving a sense of vertigo to the writing as establishing a center of gravity, linguistic, cultural, or even temporal is challenging. Nonetheless, Yang’s depictions of nature bring us back to the realm of landscape painting, to the point that we see the ducks trapped within the painting. A bookend to this quartet of season poems, “Summer” (“Xia” ༿) contains the lines: Only by seeing summer do we notice the falsity of Spring A bare-naked summer walks boldly toward us Uncivilized legs straddling our shoulders in one step Summer, flipped over and about is still summer And in the space of a tired, sweaty night we’re ripened through and through … ⴻ㿱༿ཙˈ᡽⸕䚃᱕ཙⲴ㲊՚ 䎔㼨㼨Ⲵ༿ཙ䗾䶒䎠ᶕ ⋑ᴹᮉޫⲴ㞯ˈа↕ቡ䐘൘ᡁԜ㛙к ༿ཙˈ仐ᶕ‫ق‬৫䘈ᱟ༿ཙ 㘼ᡁԜ㍟ᗇ⊇⍕⍕ˈаཌ䰤⟏䘿 DŽDŽDŽ yang xiaobin, To the Nest of the Sea, 136

Certainly more conventional, and not particularly fragmented or semantically challenging, the poem nonetheless rotates notably around “we” and “our,” reinforcement of lyrical subjectivity, an open interlocutor that registers vaguely amorous. The efffect is again dreamlike, opening with the phenomenology of 28 

Yang Xiaobin, Dao haichao qu, 140.



seeing summer, and adding to it corporeal experience at night. Yang’s visual art, meanwhile, is abstract and often studiously impenetrable. In the case of a recent series, though, there is a kind of interpellation of abstract method, a generic “calling out,” to a form that, on closer inspection, dissolves in the realization that the image is actually literal and realistic photography:

figure 14.8

“Untitled” (“Wuti” ᰐ仈), Yang Xiaobin Image provided by Yang in e-mail correspondence, 12 June 2015

The origins of this approach are in a kind of absolute realism, one that ironically makes discerning the material object generally impossible. Yang achieved this by pointing a lens at a minute section of the built environment, blowing it up to a kind of microscopic degree, and then framing it as abstract image, where what one is “really” viewing is a real segment of concrete, for instance, or a strip of wall paint, or the like. The efffect “from a distance,” though, is very often surprising see fijigure 14.9. What arises in such work of “post-photography” is a deliberately textured and granular account of our physical world, so granular in fact that it serves both as image and artistic commentary because of its hyperdocumentary focus (recording that which is verifijiably “there” even if we typically do not perceive it). Through magnifijication, the newly resonate elements come to view, calling attention or even revelation to the phenomenology of attention itself.

Modernist Literati

figure 14.9


“Untitled” (“Wuti” ᰐ仈), c. 2008, Yang Xiaobin. In Yang Xiaobin, Zongji yu tumo, 11 Courtesy of Yang Xiaobin

By resituating the frame in this way, Yang is able to penetrate the surface of our physical world, establishing a broad parallel between the built environment and the building or making of art. Yang’s abstraction is also an important form of cultural quotation, a reference to a modernist-based self-expression the like of which Lü De’an pursues in his abstract images and Xu Demin attempts in his abstract poetry. It cleverly contains an ironic update of drip painting and other accidental work, something that reorients him toward revelations typical of Chinese aesthetic responses to natural world. The echoes of the Chinese landscape tradition are here, and the literati posture of borrowing the physical world as occasion for expression of self-cultivation is also in efffect. Finally, though, Yang’s post-photography mostly captures the fleeting transitions of the Chinese built environment: construct, tear down, construct again. Poets in twenty-fijirst-century China, by trying their own hands at painting, poetry, and other visual media, can be seen capitalizing, literally, on the inherent power of visual-verbal confluence, a new currency in an increasingly market-oriented visual art scene. As they do so, they again harken back to some degree to literati elements of the cultural tradition, namely, a bracketing



of their work (its message and import, and even to a degree its very appreciation) from that of centralized state authority, formerly the emperor and court, presently the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, they stake out a position that is paradoxically removed from the rise of a free-market, commodity-based system that has almost completely subsumed contemporary Chinese discourse, if not Chinese experience writ large. No one, though, would mistake Yang, or Lü or Xu for that matter, for neoclassical artists. Their position as avant-garde, or cutting edge, or at least verifijiably “contemporary,” has everything to do with their dual status as artists and poets, and it is the poetry that could never be confused with premodern models. In the abstract vein we fijind a confluence of word and image that is slightly paradoxical—a modern, “Western” style that nonetheless efffectuates artistic sensibilities that are strongly reminiscent of literati expression. The abstract move is one away from the word, but it is in many respects incomplete for that very reason. As audience, reading across abstract image and poetic word, we arrive at a more complete apprehension of artistic expression, one that serves as its own corrective, resistant to crude “narratives,” the like of which art too often turned to hopeless ideological or market-driven purpose, and yet, by dint of the poetic word’s rooting in an identifijiable “here and now,” is also still connected with contemporary cultural and social context.

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Zhu, Yanhong. “Reconfijiguring Chinese Modernism: The Poetics of Temporality in 1940’s Fiction and Poetry.” Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 2009. Zhu Ziqing ᵡ㠚␵. Xinshi zahua ᯠ䈇ᵲ䈍 [Assorted writings on new poetry]. Hong Kong: Taiping shuju, rpt., 1963. Zhu Ziqing ᵡ㠚␵. Zhu Ziqing xiaopin sanwen ᵡ㠚␨ሿ૱ᮓ᮷ [The prose essays of Zhu Ziqing]. Edited by Lou Dongren ဴьӱ and Xia Long ༿嗉. Beijing: Zhongguo guangbo dianshi chuban she, 1996.

Index Abstract Expressionism 16, 337, 337n3, 344 Abstract Poetry 355, 359, 363 Academica Sinica 359 Achebe, Chinua 210 adaptation 134, 293, 327 Admussen, Nick 14, 281 Ai Qing 34, 36 Ai Weiwei 315, 328, 344, 345 Aldington, Richard 11, 171 Allt, Peter 210n2, 212 Alspach, Russell K. 210n2, 212 An Lushan Rebellion 218, 221 Andreu, Paul 315 ancient style (see gushi) 214 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign 333, 334, 342 aporia 14, 269, 334 Au Chung-to 1, 2n4, 218n13, 222n15 Auden, W. H. 34, 36, 59, 61, 92, 108, 109 Bai Guang 113 Bai Juyi (Bo Juyi) 25 Bai Qiu 154, 166, 168, 173, 174n36, 175, 176n38 baihua (vernacular) 51, 112, 217, 236, 238 Balcom, John 220n14, 222 Li shishe (Bamboo Hat poetry group) 11–12, 153 Banpo (historical site) 223, 286, 287 Barmé, Geremie 286, 287, 333n44 Barth, John 317 Baudelaire, Charles 91, 109, 157, 158, 159, 172 Bauhaus 308 Bei Dao 6, 13, 181, 182, 189–208, 283, 286, 307, 343n16 Beijing 4, 5, 246, 273, 290, 295, 302, 311, 342, 345 Beiwanglu (Memoranda) 112 Benn, Gottfried 171, 375, 380 bensheng Taiwanese 222 Berman, Marshall 319, 327 bi (metaphor) 24, 48–49, 92 Bi Guo 161 Bihui 160 Bi Jia 170

Bian Zhilin 22, 25n11, 27, 29, 215, 320 opacity 30 romanticism 26 Bible and Biblical allusion 262 binaries 266, 302, 336 Borges, Jorge Luis 113, 304–306, 320 Bradshaw, David 1n2 Breton, André 11, 171, 196 Burgee, John Burgee 310 Bush, Christopher 1, 339n9 Butler, Christopher 1n1 Cage, John 293 Cao Baohua 34 Cao Cao 225 Cao Xinzhi 36 capitalism 133, 164, 265, 267, 319 Carbojosa, Natalia 339 Carter, Mia 1 Cayley, John 15, 284, 284n6, 285, 288, 294, 294n24, 294n25, 295–302 center-periphery conflict 2, 272 Cesaire, Aimé 210 Cézanne, Paul 113, 158 Chang, Heesok 1n1 Che Qianzi 336 Chen Fangming 10, 132 Chenbao shijuan (Morning Poetry Supplement—journal) 25 Chen Jiangfan 26 Chen Jingrong 36, 58, 62, 69, 75–76 Chen Mingtai 165 Chen Qianwu (Huan Fu) 153, 154, 154n4, 168, 170, 172n34, 173, 174n36 Chen Xiaomei 284 Chiang Kai-shek 221 Chicago 261n1, 281, 308–311, 314 Childs, Peter 1n1 Chinese modernist poetics 7, 239, 239n12 Chinese past 222 Chinese script 302 Chineseness 288–289, 327–328 debates over 306–307, 321, 322, 334–335 Chuci 49 Chuangshiji 109


Index chunshi (pure poetry) 87 ci (lyric) 217 Civil War 2n4, 9, 11, 33, 153, 181, 184 Clunas, Craig 337n3 contemporary Chinese art 285 Craven, David 337n3 Creeley, Robert 319n21 Crescent Moon group (see Xinyuepai) Cubists 158 Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler 211, 212 Cultural Revolution 102, 147, 148, 181, 188, 217, 231, 270, 342, 344 Pop 285, 286 post- 9, 12, 333n44 cybertextual transformation 294, 294n25 Dadaism 158 Dai Wangshu 8, 22, 24, 26–27, 31–34, 36, 98, 108, 160, 160n15 Dao Zi 336 Darío, Rubén 320n27 Darwish, Mahmoud 210 Deng Xiaoping 194, 231–232, 285, 333, 345 Derrida, Jacques 15, 305, 331 Dettmar, Kevin 1, 1n2 digital literature 280n43, 284–285, 293–294, 299, 299n34, 302 Dingdian (Pinnacle) 34 Dirlik, Arif 265, 322 Dondero, George 334 Dragon Boat Festival 117, 229, 231 Drama-tic synthesis 8, 62, 70 dramatic (dramatization) 59, 63–64, 66, 71 Du Fu 8, 38–39, 41, 43, 45–51, 53, 55, 123, 226, 228, 237–238 Du Guoqing (Tu Kuo-ch’ing) 154, 166, 170–171 Du Heng 21, 26 Du Yunxie 35, 58, 68, 77, 108 Duo Duo 181, 336 Dutta-Roy, Sonjoy 211 Eatough, Matt 1, 1n2 Edmond, Jacob 15, 283 Eisenstein, Sergei 319 Eliot, T. S. 35, 36, 60–61, 63–68, 71–74, 78, 82, 102, 109, 209, 210, 214, 321, 326, 334, 335

Éluard, Paul 171 Empiricism 319 Empson, William 28, 35, 61, 108 Ersoy, Ahmet 1n1 exile (piaobo, also “floating life”) 10–13, 134, 136, 145–146, 148, 181–182, 184, 188, 192, 194, 196, 200, 204, 208, 216–218, 221–222, 286–287, 287n12, 288, 290, 294 Expressionism 16 Fei Ming 25, 35 Feng Naichao 7, 23, 32, 86 Feng Yi’er 336n2 Feng Zhi 8, 22, 35–36, 38, 39, 40, 42–56, 94n24, 94–98, 108, 231 Fenollosa, Ernest 339n9, 355 Fiss, Géraldine 8, 38 Fu (rhymeprose) 50, 50n16 Fujian 222, 345 Futurism 11, 129, 171 Freeman, Judi 338 Friday Art Group (see Xingqiwupai) Friedman, Alan 1, 1n2 Friedman, Susan Stanford 2 FitzGerald, Carolyn 1, 1n4, 2 Gallagher, Sharon 272 Gao Minglu 337–338 Gao Xingjian 287, 288, 294, 333–334 global aesthetics 209 globalization 14, 265, 267–268, 275, 280–283, 286, 337 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 8, 38, 39, 42, 45–50, 53–56, 95, 113, 335 Gu Bei 154, 170 Gu Cheng 181 gushi (ancient style poetry) 214 Guanxi 271, 275 Gautier, Théophile 320 Gibbon, Edward 305–306, 320n27 Graeber, David 319n25 Gunn, Edward 215–216, 215n11 Guo Moruo 24, 29, 31 Habermas, Jürgen 318 Hai Zi 323 Hang Yuehe 36, 58 Hayot, Eric 266, 267, 321

398 He Jingzhi 231n19 He Qifang 27, 29, 34, 215 He Shang (River elegy) 287 hierarchies 256–257, 270, 270n22, in global histories 266–267 Hirsch, Edward 211, 211n7 historicism 169 anti-historicism 72–73 historical sense 71–72 Hitchcock, Henry-Russell 324 Hockx, Michel 217, 268n18 Hoklo language 221 Hologography  (holography) 299 Hong Xiuquan 328 Hoover, Paul 319n21 horizontal transplantation 11, 153, 157–158, 166 Hou Ruhua 26 Hu Pinqing 171 Hu Shi 24, 25, 85–88, 94, 111, 215 Eight tenets 82, 107, 235, 235n2 Huai Yuan 14, 241, 243–246 Huan Fu (see Chen Qianwu) Huang Hesheng 154 Huang Jiguang 229, 231, 232 Huang Qingxuan 237, 237n9 Huang Rui 347 Huang Yong 160, 250 Hugo, Victor 320n27 huise (opaque) 7, 30, 83 huodong 274–276, 278–279 Huoxing (Mars) 22 Huyssen, Andreas 318, 319n20 HyperCard software 284–285, 294, 298n32, 299 Hypertext 294, 298, 300–301 link-node structure and 277, 298–301 ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts)  284n2 Imagists / Imagism 11, 16, 31, 37, 158, 173, 320, 339 276 Indra’s net 298 Industrial Revolution 133, 139, 319 International style 308–309, 315, 320, 324, 326, 329, 335 Internet 130, 263 Ireland 209, 211–213, 234 iteration 15, 292, 298n32, 299, 302,

Index Jameson, Fredric 4, 72, 284n4, 315, 319, 321–322, 333 Jencks, Charles 309, 320 Ji Xian (Lu Yu; Lu Yishi) 4, 22n3, 133, 154, 167, 181, 245, 257 horizontal transplantation 11, 166 six tenets of Modernists 156–160 Jiang Nan 336n2 Jiapu 270 Jin Kemu 26 Jin Lian 153, 154, 168 jinti shi (recent style poetry) 214 Jintian (Today—journal) 188, 342 Johnson, Philip 310, 324 Josipovici, Gabriel 334 Joyce, James 71, 72, 280, 320 Kandinsky, Wassily 337n4 Kitasona Katsue 171 Klein, Lucas 15, 304 Kline, Franz 16 Koolhaas, Rem 311 Koran 305, 306, 320 Korean War 231, 232 Krasznahorkai, László 278, 279 Lacan, Jacques 85, 359 Lan Dizhi 7, 21 Lanxing 153, 154, 160, 175 language 41, 64, 97, 118, 129–130, 155, 172, 174, 235, 239 abstraction and 359 Adorno and 205 barrier 154 Bei Dao, Shang Qin and 200, 201, 203–204, 208 games and 252 globalization and 283 hologography and 299 Lacan and 85 “language” poetry 335 Luo Fu  and 218 poetic, literary 68, 84, 88, 89, 150, 163–165, 168, 250 Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) 308, 320 Le Moulin group 9, 108, 110 Les contemporains (see Xiandai) Leung, Ping-kwan (Liang Bingjun) 78 Levenson, Michael 1

Index Li Anshu 336n2, 347n22 Li Baifeng 27 Li Bo (Li Bai) 123, 217, 218 Li Dian 9, 82 Li Guangtian 27, 35, 95 Li He 218 Li Jinfa 7, 23–24, 27, 32, 86–87, 93–94 Li Kuixian 171 Li Shangyin 24, 25, 28 Li Xinruo 27 Li Xu 355n26 Liang Shiqiu 25, 93, 111 Liang Zongdai 22, 94, 108 light and globalization 293, 298–299 Lin Geng 26, 29 Lin Hengtai 110, 153, 154, 159, 160, 161, 167, 173 Lin Huiyin 25 Lin, Nikky 12, 181 linear (and non-linear) 9, 59, 63–74, 77–78, 80, 297, 298, 300 Lloyd, David 211, 234 Literati 6, 17, 336, 338, 352, 364 Literature 23, 60, 82, 94, 103, 136, 145, 171, 173 communism and 58, 133, 156–157 global literary histories 34, 36, 299, 321, 323 local and 11, 16, 151, 175n37, 285 modernism and 4, 21n1, 72, 83, 103, 140, 145, 207, 283, 317–323 questioning of hierarchies of 16, 293–294, 307, 331–335 social function and 94, 103, 188, 190 location 270, 285–286, 288–296, 301–303, 346 London, England 209, 210, 213, 294, 295 Long, Hoyt 261n1, 264, 269, 281 Lü De’an 345–354 Lu Xun 83n3, 85, 280n43, 320 Lu Yu (see Ji Xian) Luce, Christopher H. 340 Luo Fu (Lo Fu) 10, 98, 102, 135, 141, 146, 169, 218, 220–222, 246, 248–249 marginalization of 181, 221 Luo Men (Lo Men) 160 Luo Qing (Lo Ch’ing; Luo Qingzhe) 336 Luo Yihe 323 Lupke, Christopher 13, 209 Lyotard, Jean-François 315, 318

399 MacDougall, Bonnie S. 5n8 Mallarmé, Stéphane 8, 27 Mainlanders (waishengren) 2, 221 Manfredi, Paul 17, 336 Mang Ke 336 Mao Goes Pop exhibition 285, 286 Mao Zedong 58, 83n3, 231n19, 327, 343 Mao style (MaoSpeak) 286 Mar, Ronald (Ma Lang) 109 Marnetti, F. T. 11 Marx, Karl (Marxism) 34, 139 Marxian reifijication 233 May Fourth 5, 9, 14, 22, 31, 74, 75, 78, 132, 157, 239, 341 McHale, Brian 318 McKinsey, Martin 212, 213 McPherson, Tara 264, 269n19 measure words 14, 236–243, 246, 248–250, 254–257 mechanization 233 media (multimedia, new media) 15, 16, 17, 273, 293–295, 301, 302, 336, 338–339, 352, 354, 363 Meishu (Art—journal) 343 Menglong Poetry (Misty, Obscure Poetry) 12, 98, 181, 188, 189, 190n13, 201, 222n17, 342–343 Miaowu shufa (Contingent school) 336n1 Michaux, Henri 196, 331 Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig 308, 311, 320 Milton, John 329 modern Chinese grammar 236, 238 Modernism “Chinese-style” 59, 61, 80, 284, 295, 321 mot juste in 296 Poundian 285, 295, 296, 302 problems of as a term 2–3, 158, 283, 318–319, 321, 326, 334–335 wave / network and 284–285, 293, 297, 302–303 Modernists (see Xiandaipai) Modernity 2–6, 9, 77, 159, 167, 172–173, 243, 265–266, 284, 306, 324, 331, 332, 338, 358 Mohammed 306 Moretti, Franco 261, 271–273, 275, 281, 284 moshi xing (paradigmatic form) 84 Motherwell, Robert 348 Mu Dan 1, 35, 57, 58, 66–67, 69, 75, 77, 108

400 Mu Mutian 7, 23, 32, 34, 86–88 music-picturesqueness theory (yinhua) 83, 88 Musil, Robert 320 myth 13, 72, 73, 97, 124, 290 national 184, 209, 211–214 National Language Movement 197 Neruda, Pablo 210 network 14, 261n1, 265–281 as conceptual metaphor 261, 263 network analysis 15, 261–262, 264 network diagram 265–266, 271, 271n27, 275, 277–278 New Poetry (see xinshi) New York 310, 345, 353 Nietzsche, Friedrich 41, 72, 73, 74, 77 Nine Leaves Poets 8, 9, 58–59, 61, 70, 73–75, 77–78, 80–81 Nishiwaki Junzaburo 171 node 14, 15, 263, 265–269, 271–272, 275–277 node-link (see hypertext)

Index Pound, Ezra 5, 15–16, 60, 72, 102, 209, 210, 285, 295, 296, 298, 302, 319, 320, 331–332, 339, 355 Promoting the Common Language 197 Proust, Marcel 320 Pruitt-Igoe 309, 320 pure poetry (poesie pure) 7, 8, 21–25, 32, 36, 85, 87–89, 161, 163 Qian Dian 34 Qian Zhongshu 215n11 Qiao Lin 170 Qin Zihao 153, 160 Qu Leilei 294 Qu Yuan 10, 117–118, 231–232

objective correlative 64–65, 67, 326 Obscure Poetry (see Menglong) oceanic utopianism 287 Olson, Charles 319n21 Owen, Stephen 283, 284, 285–286, 287–288, 302, 307–308, 324, 334

rationalism 39n2, 319 recent style poetry (see jinti shi) Red Guards 147, 232 repetition poetics 286, 289, 291, 293–294, 296, 298, 299 Rilke, Rainer Maria 8, 35, 39–56, 59, 79, 80, 92, 95, 109 Rodin, Auguste 43 romanticism 10, 24, 26, 37, 31, 89, 110, 123, 128, 132–133, 267 roots-seeking (see xungen) Ruan Meihui 11–12, 153 Rui Tui 170

Paris 94, 308, 327 Parnassianism 26, 320n27 Perelman, Bob 321 performance (poetry and) 64, 170, 173, 252, 257, 262, 273, 275, 276, 278–279, 284–285, 294–295, 301 periphery-center conflict 2, 272 Perlofff, Majorie 1, 15 petit récit 315, 317, 320, 335 piaobo (see exile) Picasso, Pablo 319, 320 place (see location) Plutzik, Hyam 171 poetic-ness (see shiyi) Pollard, D. E. 333n44, 342n14 Postmodernism 108, 128, 137, 305, 306, 311, 315, 317–322, 326, 334–335 post-photography 362–363

Saussy, Haun 305, 321–322 sea (hai) 289, 293 Sensory correspondence (ganjue de jiaocuo) 88 Shang Qin 13, 14, 109, 129, 182–190, 192, 196–201, 203, 207–208, 240, 250 Shi chuangzao (Poetry composition) 58 Shi Qiu 171 Shi Weisi 26 Shi Zhecun 3, 21, 27, 28, 32, 82 Shijing (Book of Odes) 49, 113 Shikan (Poetry) 25 Shike yu xiongnian (Visitor in hard times) 23 Shipai (Poets Group) 336 Shisihang ji (Sonnets) 35, 50 shiyi (poetic-ness) 9, 83–85, 92, 98 Shizhi (Poetry intent) 22


Index Sima Qian (Sima Xiangru) 329 simultaneity 73, 74, 78–80 sincerity 167–168, 172–173, 297 Sitwell, Edith 171 Song Lin 332, 336 sound-foot (yin chi) 89, 91 So, Richard Jean 261, 264, 268, 269, Southwest Associated University (Xi’nan lianda) 9, 35, 58, 61, 95, 108 spatial 9, 59–61, 67–69, 78, 80, 89, 257, 290, 296–297, 301–302 Spivak, Gayatri 281–282 Stars art group (see Xingxing Huahui) Story of the Stone / Dream of Red Mansions / Honglou Meng 271–273 Su Dongpo 10, 25, 217 Sullivan, Michael 339 Sun Dayu 22, 25, 94, 108 Sun Lei 336 Sun Zuoyun 34 Surrealism 108, 109, 153n1, 154, 161, 162–164, 166, 167, 171, 173, 196, 197, 239 Swensen, Cole 326 Symbolism / Symbolists 7, 23, 25, 26, 32, 34, 37, 41, 83, 86, 91–92, 108, 158, 320n27 Synthesis 50, 55, 67, 68, 70–71, 317 synthetic (tradition) 59, 63, 68, 80 Taiwan wenyi 164 Tamen poetry group (They) 345 Tang Qi 58, 78–80 Tang Shi 36, 58, 73–74, 75 Tang, Xiaobing 284 Tang Xiaodu 278 Tang Xuanzong 218, 220 Tao Qian 347n21 technology 5, 129 temporal (temporality) 9, 17, 59–61, 63–64, 71–74, 78–80, 211, 257, 264, 273, 296, 300–302, 321, 339 the classical 84–85, 98, 101–103, 220, 232, 240, 297 the past 8–9, 10, 50, 52–53, 59, 71–81, 102, 234, 295 the present 8, 50, 53, 54, 59, 71–80, 98, 212, 226, 228 Thing poem (thing-poetry) 8, 39, 40–42, 56 Third World 210

three beauties 89 tihuashi 338 time 59–61, 71, 73, 77, 78–82, 296–297, 324, 326, 337, 348 Today (see Jintian) Tofffler, Alvin 319 Tradition (traditional) 3, 9, 11, 13, 37, 74, 80, 83, 97, 102, 112, 130, 145, 163, 173, 210, 234, 238–240, 256, 283–288, 293–298, 302, 307, 335, 337–338, 341, 347–348 Classical Chinese 85, 89, 111, 123–124, 134–135, 213, 216–218, 221–222, 278 Western 61, 73, 93, 94, 128, 214, 267, 283–288 Modernist 58, 62, 107, 110 New synthetic 59, 63, 65, 68 Japanese 166 transhistorical 72–73 translation 11, 15, 87, 107, 129, 153, 177, 196, 255, 279, 302, 319, 321–322, 324, 333–334, 356 Trotsky, Leon 307 Ueta Toshio 171 ut pictura poesis 339 Valéry, Paul 30, 239 Van Crevel, Maghiel 196, 273, 274n28, 275, 232 Van Tieghem, Paul 37 Vendler, Helen 210 Verlaine, Paul 24–26, 113, 320n27 vernacular (vernacularism) 14, 32, 51, 82, 83–88, 92, 94, 213, 215–218, 235–240, 243, 248, 256–257, 307 Victorian Era 209 Vorticism 339 Walcott, Derek 210 Walz, Robin 1n1 Wang Ai 336 Wang Guowei 217 Wang Duqing 23, 32, 86–88 Wang Jiaxin 336n2 Wang Jing 333n44 Wang Li 236, 238 Wang Mingxian 311 Wang Wei 10, 218

402 Wang Xianyang 154 Wang Xiaoni 9, 82, 84–85 Wang Zuoliang 61 War of Resistance 10, 23, 32, 34–35 waves modernist movement and 3, 23, 284 Yang and Cayley’s use of 289, 297–299, 302–303 Wei River Valley 223 Weinberger, Eliot 321, 334 Weiyu (Light rain) 23 Wellsweep Press 294 Wen Tingyun 24, 25 Wen Yiduo 25, 35, 88–94 Wenfu 50n16 Winkiel, Laura 1 Williams, William Carlos 16, 320 Wittgenstein, Ludwig 319 Wollaeger, Mark 1 Wong, Lisa 14, 235 world literature 333–335 center-periphery (China) in 16, 307, 331 circulation theories of 271n2, 284n4 location in theories of 293, 321–323 wave and network as metaphors of 284, 293 world literary history 113, 171 world poetry 50 world-systems theory of 261 World Wide Web (see Internet) Worldspace 51, 53, 54 Wu Benxing 22 Wu Guanzhong 343 Wu Kuan 340 Wu Xinghua 13, 213–218, 233 Wu Yingtao 154, 161n17, 166, 168, 171 Wu Zhuoliu 164 Xi Chuan 6, 16, 275n34, 278, 304–305, 322–333, 335 Xi Xi 14, 252, 254–257 Xia Yu (Hsia Yü) 9–10, 107, 111–131, 368 Xiandai (Les contemporains—journal) 3, 4, 7, 21, 22, 23, 32, 82, 108 Xiandai pai (Modernists) 21–37, 111, 129, 157, 168, 222n15 Xiandai shi jikan (Modern poetry quarterly) 3, 14, 109–110, 153, 182, 239 Xiandai shifeng (Modern poetry style) 22

Index Xiandai wenyi (Modern literature and art) 22 xiang (image, pictograph) 92, 339 Xiao Kaiyu 13, 213, 222–226, 228, 231, 233 Xiaoya (Elegentia) 22 Xin Di 58 xinshi (New Poetry) 21, 82, 107 Xinshi (New poetry—journal) 22, 34, 35, 108 Xinyue (The Crescent—journal) 94 xinyue (style) 160 Xinyuepai (Crescent group) 25, 26, 31–32, 88, 132 xing (analogy) 24, 48–49, 92 Xingxing Huahui (Stars art collective) 342 Xingqiwupai (Friday Art Group) 345 Xu Chi 34 Xu Demin 17, 354–358 Xu Jialing 336n2 Xu Zhimo 25, 29, 32, 98, 111 xungen (roots-seeking) 334 Ya Din 161n17 Ya Xian 153, 160, 181, 240, 252 Yamanaka Chiruu 171 Yamasaki, Minoru 309 Yan Jun 275 Yan Li 336, 343n16, 345 Yan’an 34 Yan’an Talks 5n8, 197 Yang Guifei 218, 220, 221, 222 Yang Jiang 215n11 Yang Lian 15, 181, 278, 283–291, 293–299, 331 Yang Xiaobin 17, 354, 358, 361–364 Yanglish 288 Yangshao pottery 337n3 Yeats, William Butler 13–14, 209–214, 216, 233–234 Yeh, Michelle (Xi Mi) 9–10, 97n27, 107, 128n17, 164, 198, 244–245, 286, 306–307 Yeung, Jessica 334 Yi (Yang) 287 Yip Wai-lim (Ye Weilian) 51, 108, 181, 214n10, 240 Yu Guangzhong 10, 132–152, 160, 163, 181, 240 Yuan Kejia 8–9, 36, 58–59, 62–68, 70, 71, 73, 77, 80, 108


Index Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) 131, 215n11 Zhan Bing 153–154, 170, 174–175 Zhang Mo 153, 160, 161n16, 171, 181 Zhang Xudong 322 Zhao Tianyi 154, 166, 167, 168, 171 Zhao Yuanren (Yuen Ren Chao) 238 Zhdanov, Andrei 334 zhen ji (strike truth) 12 Zheng Chouyu 111, 124, 239, 249 Zheng Min 35, 58, 69, 108

Zhongguo xinshi (Chinese New Poetry) 35, 58 Zhou Zuoren 24, 85 Zhu Guangqian 28 Zhu Qi 336n2 Zhu Xiang 25 Zhu Yanhong 8, 57 Zhu Ziqing 35, 94 Zupu 270–271 798 District 347n20