Xi Chuan’s “Salute”:
Avant-Garde Poetry in a Changing China

By Maghiel van Crevel

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 11, no. 2, pp.107-149

Xi Chuan is a leading voice in contemporary poetry from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). His affiliation with marginal, avant-garde literary scenes in post-Mao China has not precluded emerging canonization of his work in publications of more orthodox orientation. This paper aims to introduce Xi Chuan’s poetry to an Anglophone audience, and presents an analysis and interpretation of SALUTE, one of his most important works to date.

Critics have stressed the special relevance of Xi Chuan’s poetry in the commercializing China of the 1990s. Sometimes in idolizing terms, they have pitted the spirituality of his work against ubiquitous material greed and the desintegration of cultural values. “Salute” (Zhuing) (1992) is one of the long, prose-like poem series that have become a trademark of Xi Chuan’s art. It seems to justify the critics’ praise for the values of mind in his poetry battling those of matter, in that it suggests a romantic opposition of poetry and everyday reality. But upon closer inspection, “Salute” allows for a degree of indeterminacy in that dichotomy, reflecting socio-cultural change in China as well as Xi Chuan’s individual development as a poet. While this quality has been little noted, it is of crucial importance for assessing Xi Chuan’s original contribution to Chinese poetry.

Section 1 situates Xi Chuan’s literary career in its surroundings, and highlights critics’ remarkable portrayal of this poet as a force of cultured spirituality, countervailing that of money. Section 2 questions the full validity of that image, and complements it by drawing attention to the quality of indeterminacy in Xi Chuan’s work. Section 3 presents a close reading of “Salute”, to illustrate this and other aspects of his poethood. Some concluding remarks are offered in section 4.