Muffled Dialect Spoken by Green Fruit:
An Alternative History of Modern Chinese Poetry

By Xiaofei Tian

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 1-45

The history of modern Chinese poetry has so far focused almost exclusively on new-style poetry or vernacular poetry; in recent years, there have been several studies of modern poetry written in classical forms, but these studies usually exclude any mention of new-style poetry. This essay argues that modern old-style poetry and new-style poetry are contingent on each other and that their uneasy relation constitutes the essential story of modern Chinese poetry. The true dynamic force of modern Chinese poetry lies in the clash and traffic between the two forms, and a new history of modern Chinese poetry should therefore not only incorporates both forms but also examines them in relation to each other, within the larger Chinese cultural context and the context of world literature.

Centering on the cases of three poets, Huang Zunxian (1848-1905), Nie Gannu (1903-1986), and the Internet poet Lizilizilizi or simply Lizi (1964-), this paper singles out three important moments in the writing of old style poetry in modern times, and discuss the issues emerging in these moments. All three poets fortuitously write at a critical junctures in modern Chinese history: in the late nineteenth century, during the Cultural Revolution, and at the turn of the twenty-first century when China is undergoing economic and social transformation. The three poets give eloquent expression to their experiences during these turbulent times as they try to make sense of the turmoil of the world around them through the craft of poetry. Lizi, in particular, writes a new kind of poetry dubbed “New-Old Style” (xinjiuti). It is a postmodern hybrid form straddling old style and new style, and is largely read, circulated, and even directly produced on the Internet. This new form brings together a number of issues that concern today’s writers, critics and scholars alike, namely globalism and localism, world literature and national literature, translation and the impossibility of it.