The Tower of Going Astray:
The Paradox of Liu Yazi’s Lyric Classicism

By Zhiyi Yang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 28, no.1  (Spring 2016), pp. 174-221

This article explores the metaphor of Milou – the Tower of Going Astray, a place where Liu Yazi (1887-1958) and his Southern Society associates gathered for drinking and revelry in December 1920 and which they commemorated with 808 poems produced on location or after the event. I argue that this metaphor expresses Liu Yazi’s paradoxical attitude toward China’s lyric tradition. Through his life he composed exclusively classical-style verse and conducted a series of formal experiments to keep it relevant to a modernizing society. His “classicist” literary practice represented the Southern Society’s effort of creating a modern Chinese literature in succession of the tradition, a culturalist nationalist approach showing the influence of the National Essence Movement. Their inconsistency in upholding the aesthetic standard, however, was most tellingly shown in the 1917 “Tang and Song poetry,” a conflict that led to the group’s ultimate disintegration. Liu’s belief in the ethical dimension of the lyric form drew him close to the New Culture proponents’ utilitarian approach, leading to his eventual conviction that vernacular (baihua) poetry was morally superior and its victory necessary. Classical poetry became for him a tower of pleasure standing by the eddying stream of history, an imposing edifice doomed to collapse. His was an eloquent case representing a generation of Chinese literati who kept chasing the tides of radical proposals to reform the society, until they woke up in a brave new world where they felt alienated, marginalized, and ultimately abandoned, a fate illustrated by Liu Yazi’s post-1949 interactions with a victorious political authority.