Why Is There a Poem in this Story?
Li Shangyin’s Poetry, Contemporary Chinese
Literature, and the Futures of the Past

By Paola Iovene


Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 71-116


The author discusses the reception and intertextual allusions to the late Tang poet Li Shangyin in Chinese fiction and literary criticism of the 1980s and 1990s. Classical poetry continues to appeal to contemporary writers for reasons that involve personal affinity and, at least in some cases, a conscious effort to redefine the roles of literature in a period of deep transformations. The first section shows how the valorization of Li Shangyin’s hermeticism contributed to the legitimization of Menglong poetry in the early 1980s. The second part looks at the reception of Li Shangyin’s poetry in the essays and fictional writings of Wang Meng, while the third focuses on Ge Fei’s novella Brocade Zither, which is shaped by Li Shangyin’s homonymous poem on multiple levels. While Wang Meng’s appropriation of Li Shangyin presupposes the possibility of selecting specific aspects of the literary past and is predicated upon a vision of literary history as a sequence of distinct segments, Ge Fei’s novella suggests a vision of the literary past that is at odds with ideas of linear development and selective recuperation. Rather, the literary past emerges as an integral dimension of the present, which however remains partially inscrutable.

The recent reviving of Li Shangyin can be connected with the process of legitimizing ways of writing focused on the interiority of the writer since the early 1980s. This process is well documented, but what is much less known is how classical Chinese literature has contributed to the shaping of new visions of literary authorship and readership. The contemporary revival of Li Shangyin reveals an ongoing reflection on the functions that the reading of classical literature might have in shaping future subjectivities and communities, or the functions that such reading might have had, since in some of the texts examined in this article one might perceive nostalgia for reading, as well as the fear of an impending post-reading age.