New Perspectives
on Contemporary Chinese Poetry

By Christopher Lupke

Reviewed by Maghiel van Crevel
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2009)

Christopher Lupke, ed. New Perspectives on Contemprary Chinese Poetry.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. xviii + 238 pp. ISBN: 9781403976079 (cloth).

Christopher Lupke, ed. New Perspectives on Contemprary Chinese Poetry  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. xviii + 238 pp. ISBN: 9781403976079 (cloth).

New Perspectives on Contemporary Poetry, edited by Christopher Lupke, is a welcome contribution to the field of Chinese literature and culture. It has a sensible structure for commenting on what is at once a coherent body of texts—because they partake of roughly the same language in a particular period of history, and must hold their own vis-à-vis the same formidable indigenous literary tradition and massive foreign influence—and a mix of diverse and sometimes divergent poetic trends. After an introduction by the editor, New Perspectives opens with an essay by Michelle Yeh that sets the stage for the volume as a whole in that it draws on the full riches of a full century of modern Chinese poetry in its various locales, meaning modern poetry written in Chinese or various modern poetries of Cultural China, rather than limiting itself to any one of its subsets. This is followed by Part I, on Taiwan, and Part II, on mainland China, each containing five chapters in roughly chronological order, with contemporary denoting the period since World War II. Lupke regrets the absence of Hong Kong in this volume, citing the publisher’s constraints on length. Fair enough, but while this book accomplishes much in its approximately 250 pages, its aims would indeed have been well served by one or several chapters on Hong Kong, as a third, distinctive habitat of Chinese literature in the modern era—and, for that matter, on mainland poetry from the Maoist era. Let’s hope this will be remedied in a second edition that should be on the cards sooner rather than later, since New Perspectives is very helpful for both teaching (undergraduate and graduate) and research.

Yeh’s opening essay, on what is modern about modern Chinese poetry, drives home yet again what she has argued in many other publications. In spite of the impact that broad-stroke political history has had on modern Chinese poetry’s development, (geo)political boundaries are by themselves inadequate for structuring commentary on this poetry in a way that does them justice as literature, not mere representations of political, social or cultural history. Accordingly, Yeh’s citations of poetry naturally cross over in space and time between Republican China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic. Questioning literature-as-representation, she submits that defining and judging modern Chinese poetry by its “Chineseness” or lack thereof, and by its “authenticity” or lack thereof, easily leads to unwarranted anxieties and stereotyping on both counts. Instead, she proposes to examine what is modern about modern Chinese poetry.

Her bird’s-eye view of the bumpy road this poetry has traveled since the final years of the Qing dynasty shows a frenetic, occasionally painful dynamic that accommodates divergent and near-incompatible forces. Paradoxically, while modern poetry was institutionally legitimized by the rise of the vernacular (白话) in formal education early in the twentieth century, it continues to be culturally questioned—and as such, considered illegitimate—to this day, the main reason and the cause of its social marginalization being its radical difference from Classical poetry, with its towering prestige as the epitome of the national essence (国粹). Yeh’s experience in interacting with Chinese audiences suggests that “the more educated Chinese readers are, the more they tend to adhere to the classical paradigm and resist Modern Poetry” (14). While art and education need not be in agreement—and, depending on one’s poetics, should perhaps be in disagreement—this may strike the reader as something of a tragedy. We should, however, bear in mind that criteria relegating modern Chinese poetry to “marginal” status are open to debate, especially if one considers how modern poetries have fared in other cultural-linguistic traditions; and that the momentous cultural change that has characterized modern China is very much ongoing, meaning that audience habitus continues to shift and diversify considerably. In a nutshell, Yeh contends that what is modern about modern Chinese poetry lies in its “international and hybrid nature” and “iconoclastic and experimental spirit” (16).

True enough, Chineseness is a risky notion. It can give rise to charges of exoticism, when readers feel there’s too much of it, and of disregard for indigenous cultural heritage, when they feel there’s too little. Before discrediting it altogether we would do well to remember that it is by no means a stable category, if only because those contemplating Chineseness help invest it with meaning and discursive power. Also, Chineseness is now more susceptible to redefinition and more protean than ever, in light of the aforesaid cultural change and globalization. If handled with care, so to speak, it can continue to help us ask the right questions and contextualize modern Chinese poetry beyond its purely linguistic identity, without succumbing to easy essentialization. This is, of course, visible in the scholarly and cultural institutionalization of Chineseness in things like the volume under review, the journal for which this review is written, university curricula, multiple-author anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation, and so on.

Part I of New Perspectives, on Taiwan, opens with a chapter by Lupke on Zheng Chouyu 鄭愁予 (Cheng Ch’ou-yu; b. 1928). Lupke argues that the continuing success of Zheng’s poetry stems from a rare combination of traditionalism and conservatism with radicalism and innovation. He situates Zheng’s traditionalism in his use of imagery and his “enchanting ability to rescue the lyrical, the melodious and the musical for modern Chinese verse” (30). Lupke’s discussion of lyricism starts with the observation that etymologically, lyrical denotes musicality. For a word that has meant notoriously many things to many readers through the ages, one wonders how useful etymology is any longer—it’s not as if poets plucking an ancient string instrument appear before the mind’s eye when we speak of lyricism—and indeed, Lupke swiftly brings in various theorists to discuss more relevant interpretations of lyricism to negotiate the beautiful complexity of Zheng’s work. Like most chapters in New Perspectives, Lupke’s essay includes extensive, bilingual citation of the actual poetry and reference to its immediate literary-historical surroundings. His analysis shows that rewarding interpretation does not stop at the borders of the text’s “purely literary” space, but carries over into modern Chinese history, specifically issues of national upheaval, political disjuncture, cultural discontinuity and diaspora, and of exile on both historical and philosophical levels.

A similar mechanism applies in Steven Riep’s chapter on war in the poetry of Ya Xian 瘂弦 (Ya Hsien; b. 1932) of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Again, close readings of individual poems that are also considered as part of an individual poetic oeuvre and in their larger historical context enable the reader to appreciate Ya Xian’s poems as both discrete works of art and components of a larger narrative. In Ya Xian’s hands, the sheer enormity of war is “captured” (47)—conjuring up the image of war as a prisoner of poetry, rather than the other way around—in subtly accomplished verse that deglorifies war through irony and trivialization, and makes its victims’ suffering palpable while refraining from blaming the enemy, all this without keeling over into sentimentalism or pamphleteering. That several military officers in postwar Taiwan were deeply involved in establishing a modernist aesthetic that basically ignored government cultural policy is well known, but it somehow acquires extra saliency when the poetry in question is about war. Riep shows that roughly one fifth of Ya Xian’s oeuvre can be seen to be about war, explicitly or implicitly, with the recurrent image of the buckwheat field as a site of war and a symbol of death. He complements his discussion of imagery with an analysis of terminality and circularity in Ya Xian’s work. Terminality posits a depersonalizing and dehumanizing view of the future as “doomed, chaotic and often apocalyptic” (59). Circularity offers “a radical way of closing a poem” (63, with reference to earlier work by Yeh[1]) in order to halt the flow of time—not just as part of the poetic undertaking per se, but especially for “describ[ing] closed states of mind and convey[ing] feelings of frustration and futility” (64) that correspond with visions of war in Ya Xian’s poetry.

Luo Fu 洛夫 (b. 1928) is another poet with a military past who has famously written on war, and was instrumental in the modernist effort in Taiwan. John Balcom’s essay on Luo Fu surveys his career as a “Chinese literary Odyssey—a mythic journey through time over which the history of modern China and Taiwan stands as a guiding presence,” and which foregrounds tension between the individual self and its search for ontological freedom, on the one hand, and the historicity of what Balcom calls “the Chinese milieu” (65), on the other; or, between “the desire for transcendence and the demands of reality” (72). From the 1950s onward, Luo Fu’s poetic journey has taken him toward exile, first from the Chinese mainland and later from Taiwan, when he moved to Canada—and, arguably, toward a spiritual exile generated by the fundamentally alienated condition of the modern human being. Balcom offers a balanced retrospective culminating in a discussion of the epic poem Driftwood (漂木, 2002). The analysis is slightly marred by the prominence given to the poet’s explicit poetics. What Luo Fu has to say about his poetry carries disproportionate weight, and it doesn’t help that his poetics sometimes sounds rather grandiose—if his poetry also has its pompous moments, these are far outweighed by its stylish appeal to the emotions. Similarly, linkage of particular texts to the poet’s biography is a little too close for comfort, and could have done with some reflection on the relationship of text and author. The sensitivity of Balcom’s readings alone would have sufficed to outline the various stages of development of this confident, seasoned poetic voice, which include radical modernism and surrealism—and, in later years, a return to the Chinese tradition.

Nick Kaldis’ essay on the nature writing of Liu Kexiang 劉克襄 (Liu K’o-hsiang; b. 1956) stands out in New Perspectives in that it is the most theoretically inclined, and has the stated ambition of being a scholarly-ideological intervention in academic practice, not limiting itself to the newly emergent genre of nature writing (in Chinese) but calling into question established paradigms for the reception of new genres into literary studies at large. Extensive citation is in order, beginning with Kaldis’ eloquent sketch of the nature writer’s paradox:

In an age when opportunities for contact with nature are diminishing, while instances of ecological destruction are myriad, none can deny the importance of written records of our vanishing experiences with what lies outside human-industrial civilization . . . [But] the moment one sets out to share an encounter with nature one must . . . convert it into language . . . During this process of transcription, the person’s original experience of the irreducible and always to some degree impenetrable otherness of nature is at risk of being colonized by the writing process that records and preserves the moment in a familiar narrative structure . . . Furthermore, this linguistic conceptualization is usually processed through documentation technologies hostile to nature, such as papermaking, printmaking, computers, and the like. (86-87)

Kaldis recognizes that even before we engage in representation, thought and language are already present in our experience, but he is hopeful that the nature writer

can break language out of its pen and mimete (neologism intended) ways of knowing world and self that only experiences with nature offer. Through recourse to creative linguistic exploration, nature writing has the power to intervene in the sometimes glibly affirmed notion that thought and discourse mediate all experiences. (88)

He argues that in contradistinction to many “purely representational texts” that have “no reference or representative outside of discourse, even at their most mimetic” (88), nature writing has its raison d’être in the moment of the immersion of the author’s mind in the contextual reality of the external, concrete, natural environment. And true enough, the spotted owl and the polar ice cap—two of the many examples Kaldis provides of this concrete, natural and ferociously threatened environment—are perhaps more physically, tangibly real than, say, feelings of depression that “reside” in what he calls the emotional, subjective, imaginative mind, and that have been the subject of literature through the ages. Yet, the argument raises several questions. First, how can nature writing circumvent the dictates of representational discourse? What sort of creative linguistic exploration will do the trick? Conversely, couldn’t the exact same argument—lamenting the reduction of experience when mediated in language—be made for all writing, not just nature writing? Secondly, is an ice cap or a spotted owl truly more real than a car crash, a gunshot wound or the slums in a megalopolis? Kaldis takes the discussion from creative writing to scholarship on same when he expresses the hope that Taiwan nature writing “will prove resistant to the application of reigning paradigms in the study of Chinese literature,” and urges “[l]iterary scholars approaching this genre . . . [to] free themselves from received interpretive conventions and instead seek new, dynamic, open-ended paradigms” directly from “the principles they find within each text” (89-90, italics in the original). Again: does this exhortation apply only to the study of nature writing, or also to that of other literary endeavor?

Be that as it may, spotted owls and ice caps are different from car crashes, gunshot wounds and slums in that the former are part of a natural habitat we are rapidly destroying, and there are pragmatic and ideological reasons for wanting to stop this destruction—and nature writing and the study of nature writing may help us come to our senses and turn things around. As such, reflection on these issues is direly needed, and the programmatic aspects to Kaldis’ essay are more than justified. If his subsequent readings of Liu Kexiang don’t put the questions raised above to rest, they certainly showcase Liu’s writing as compelling, transgeneric (prose) poetry, and highlight the “burden of being both steward of ineffable nature and producer of the public discourse of nature” (94). As for the theoretical part, one senses that for his contribution to this volume, Kaldis has compressed a large amount of material that might yet be unpacked somewhat in other essays or a monograph (101, note 14).

The final chapter of Part I, by Andrea Lingenfelter, features two woman poets with something closely resembling rock star status, Zhai Yongming 翟永明 (b. 1955) and Xia Yu 夏宇 (Hsia Yu; b. 1956). That Zhai is from mainland China conveniently establishes linkage with Part II. Lingenfelter offers a contrastive comparison of Zhai and Xia, both hugely popular authors whose readership far exceeds the sinophone world. She notes that although Zhai and Xia “were raised in societies that were determined to be as different from one another as possible,” their early poetry is similar in the unprecedented “bluntness and honesty” they mobilize for their intimate descriptions of women’s lives, and in their creation of a “self-assured and sexually aware female persona” who engages with traditional Chinese culture in various ways (105-107). Abundant scholarship on both Zhai’s and Xia’s work—to which Lingenfelter makes little reference—shows that labels such as “women’s poetry” (女性诗歌) remain contested, but it is clear that their work has meant nothing less than a sea change for literary images of womanhood, femininity, (female) individuality, (female) sexuality, and female-male relationships, toward emancipation and autonomy and away from patriarchal models and norms. Still, Zhai and Xia are thoroughly different poets. If Zhai’s imagery tends toward the dramatic and the magical, Xia’s is both more playful and angrier, and more closely connected with everyday social intercourse. As regards language usage, while Zhai’s idiolect has become more personal and explorative over the years, Xia is definitely the more experimental of the two—and, in fact, one of the most experimental of all contemporary poets writing in Chinese.

Part II, “Contemporary Poetry of Mainland China,” begins with an essay by Huang Yibing, on a process he describes as Gu Cheng’s 顾城 (1956-1993) metamorphosis from childlike, fairy-tale innocence to ghost-like alienation. This begins in a natural environment that offered refuge from the havoc of the Cultural Revolution and ends in attempts to return to a city that was once home and is out of reach to the poet in exile. Huang shows how both nature and the city are deeply ambiguous and ultimately unreliable if not unlivable habitats in Gu Cheng’s poetry, and how this oeuvre’s evolution is one of ever-increasing fragmentation, and of a turning-inward that tragically results in claustrophobia. He also reflects on Gu’s poetics of “no inhibition”—a contextually justified rendition of Gu’s take on the Daoist notion of 无不为—which features Zhuangzi, the Monkey King and, controversially, Mao Zedong as instigator of the Cultural Revolution. Again, some reflection on the relationship of poetry, explicit poetics and biography would have been useful, even if in Gu Cheng’s case, biographical fact—exile, murder, suicide—makes its presence felt so viciously that it becomes difficult to control. In all, Huang’s essay brings together divergent, not to say paradoxical, strands of experience in what is a singularly complex poetic oeuvre.

Like Gu Cheng, poet-painter Yan Li 严力 (1954) is among those associated with the groundbreaking unofficial journal Today (今天) and the Obscure Poetry (朦胧诗) of the late 1970s and early 1980s, even if this association is primarily literary-sociological; textually, his playful style stands out among the ponderousness of many early Obscure poems. As such, Yan was part of the first generation of “avant-garde” writers and artists after the Cultural Revolution. He was also one of the first to move abroad, leaving China in 1985 for Hong Kong and then New York. In a highly readable study of Yan Li that situates him in what Saskia Sassen calls the global city, Paul Manfredi notes that for three decades, Yan has stayed true to the seemingly simple and superficial lightness of his early poetry and painting. At the same time, thematically, his work reflects the enormous changes that have taken place during those years, especially in the urban environment and in human beings’ relationship to economy, technology, ecology and political power. Manfredi links Yan Li’s peripheral artistic habitus with the various forms of his poetry—including short pieces called “poetry gum,” which Manfredi describes as “epigrammatic condensations of contemporary experience,” as well as longer works—and its commodity-like feeling of being good to go, meaning “consumable, portable, light, and thus well suited to new media both as a technological format, and as a mode of consumption” (149-155). He shows how these things combine to make Yan Li’s work “travel well” (160), and how part of its attraction lies in its very elusiveness.

If we go by literary history rather than biological age, Yu Jian 于坚 (b. 1954) and Sun Wenbo 孙文波 (b. 1956) belong to decidedly younger generations than that of Obscure poets, rising to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In an essay on Yu and Sun, John Crespi questions the easily assumed monopoly of narrative modes and genres on “recovering meaningful historical experience,” and specifically asks how the short poem might “rewrite the Cultural Revolution experience” (166). While the emergence of Obscure Poetry was closely connected to the Cultural Revolution, it rarely qualifies as poetic memoir; by contrast, Crespi argues, Yu’s and Sun’s work represents “a sustained effort to retrieve, reconstruct and unfold complex, discontinuous moments of memory and self” (169), each in their own way, without taking recourse to the linearity and teleology that often characterize narrative ways of remembering. Crucially, this poetry’s potential for remembering hinges on structural features of the genre that ultimately come under the “poetic function,” with reference to Todorov and ultimately Jakobson (170). Crespi’s readings of recent works by Yu and Sun are embedded in theoretical reflection whose density is made good by the clarity and cogency of his argument. His identification of poetry as an alternative, non-narrative way of remembering works well for both poets, but especially for Yu Jian.

Moving ever closer to the present, New Perspectives continues with a chapter by Li Dian on a polemic that swept through the mainland Chinese avant-garde poetry scene from 1998 to the early years of the twenty-first century between so-called Intellectual (知识分子) and minjian (民间) poets and critics. Li finds such translations of the latter term as popular problematic in this particular context; whether translating it points to “accessible universalism” and transcribing it to “intractable nativism” (200, note 1) is another matter. His central question concerns both the substance of the polemic and its motivation. Was it a publicity stunt by “marginalized” poets, or a true landslide in poetical discourse? Why did it involve so many emotional, fiery and acerbic personal attacks? In a helpful discussion of the two labels, Li initially leans closer to a general notion of the public intellectual than is perhaps warranted by this particular context. As for minjian, after dwelling on Chen Sihe’s 陈思和 scholarly interpretation of the expression, he duly notes that its actual usage during the polemic was very different. Li critically reflects on positions taken by some of the most productive contributors to the polemic among both the minjian crowd (e.g. Yu Jian, Xie Youshun 谢有顺) and the Intellectuals (e.g. Wang Jiaxin 王家新), and by authors whose writings foreshadowed the polemic from the mid-1990s on, mostly in the Intellectual camp (e.g. Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Xi Chuan 西川). Observing that on several issues, Intellectual and minjian poetical content display considerable overlap, Li frames the polemic in a history of poetical-discursive infighting that he traces back to the early 1990s. Considering how much ink was spilled and how many personal-professional relationships were damaged or compromised, many have wondered whether the polemic was a meaningful moment in Chinese literary history, and opinions are sharply divided. Li Dian calls it “a valiant collective effort . . . to reconfigure the meaning of poetry in China’s cultural discourse on tradition and modernity in the age of commercialism and globalization” (200).

Arguably, the mainland avant-garde poetry scene’s proclivity to high-profile infighting that culminated in the polemic started as early as the mid-1980s. As such, it is a continuation of the frantic metatextual activity—meaning discourse on poetry, in the broadest sense—that has marked modern Chinese poetry since the early twentieth century. In the PRC, this activity intensified immensely when the avant-garde took to the Internet, around 2000. New Perspectives concludes with an essay by Michael Day outlining important features of online poetry scenes that have since emerged. On metatext, Day finds that while male poets are more active on poetry websites and Internet forums, and apparently more invested in the struggle for critical-discursive power, women poets are more successful in the blogosphere. With an eye to the sheer abundance of poetry and criticism being uploaded, Day speaks of an “anarchic state of poetry” (202). When he notes that critics have “spoken out against the seeming anarchy of poetry on the Internet” (214), it is hard to suppress the image of meteorologists speaking out against the weather.

While the Internet has by no means incapacitated censorship in the PRC, it is harder to control than print culture, and what happens online in the way of testing the boundaries of political correctness goes much farther than would be possible in print. Day cites examples of poetry on the bloody suppression of the 1989 Protest Movement or June Fourth, some of them notable for an effective use of irony that does not detract from the seriousness of the moral and ideological issues involved; on hair-raising social injustice, such as in a Duchampian ready-made by Lan Hudie Zi Dingxiang 蓝蝴蝶紫丁香, poeticizing a newspaper clipping on the sale of a twelve-year-old girl and her systematic rape by hundreds of “whoremasters” (210), caustically entitled “How the Steel Was Tempered” (钢铁是这样炼成的, after the socialist-realist novel by Nikolai Ostrovsky); and on sex and basic bodily functions, both largely taboo subjects according to government cultural policy, in poetry associated with the Low Poetry Movement (低诗歌运动) and the Trash School (垃圾派). Incidentally, it’s not as if online poetry is primarily defined by dissidence or rebelliousness. Politically incorrect texts and metatexts constitute only a small part of the online poetry scene—but a part that hinges on the accessibility, speed, and scope of the Internet as a channel for publication.

An important finding of Day’s research is that the mainland-Chinese Internet poetry scene hardly avails itself of the medium-specific potential of what is known as e-poetry or cyber poetry: flash technology, interactive reading and writing, and so on. To date, the web has functioned as an incredibly spacious and fast extension of text and metatext in the forms in which they appear in print. Significantly, it has upset received practices of networking, consecration and canonization in the process. This presents a striking analogy with the impact that unofficial (非官方) poetry journals have had on the mainland-Chinese scene ever since the late 1970s. In a way, inasmuch as the unofficial scene has displaced the official or establishment (官方) scene or, at the very least, deconstructed its control over cultural production, the Internet is now doing something similar to print culture.

In all, New Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Poetry is a solid, accessible addition to English-language scholarship, reaffirming the validity of the individual poetic voice as an organizing principle in research on literature and art, and the value of expert translation and close reading, without losing sight of poetry’s various contexts. A collection more narrowly focused in space and/or time and/or aesthetic orientation might have linked its case studies more closely, but the strength of New Perspectives lies in its rich diversity of content, and its generous signposting of various parts of the field. Kudos to Lupke for bringing these essays together—the occasional editorial slip will hopefully be remedied in an expanded edition that will also have room for Hong Kong and Maoist China. The book’s dedication, “To all contemporary Chinese poets who have suffered in the steadfast pursuit of their art” (italics added), is happily incongruous with the kind of energy that emerges from the poetry that New Perspectives is about.

Maghiel van Crevel
Leiden University


[1] Michelle Yeh, Modern Chinese Poetry: Theory and Practice since 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), ch. 4.