Wang Jingwei and China in Dark Times review

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Haihong Yang’s review of Poetry, History, Memory: Wang Jingwei and China in Dark Times, by Zhiyi Yang. The review appears below and at its online home: https://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/haihong-yang/. My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, our literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk Denton, MCLC

Poetry, History, Memory:
Wang Jingwei and China in Dark Times

By Zhiyi Yang


Reviewed by Haihong Yang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2024)


Zhiyi Yang, Poetry, History, Memory: Wang Jingwei and China in Dark Times. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2023. xxiv + 326 pages: ISBN: 9780472076505  (hardcover); ISBN: 9780472056507 (paperback); ISBN: 9780472903917 (Open Access).

In the Chinese literary tradition, lyric poetry is often hailed as a necessary supplement to official histories. The famous quote “words reflect the heart-mind” (言為心聲) suggests that poetic language is an almost transparent medium of the writer’s inner thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Classical poems are often cherished for their biographical value because they are thought to delineate a writer’s political inclinations, personality, and literary competence. Collectively, they portray a society’s political and cultural landscape. In the past few decades, scholars of classical Chinese poetry have challenged the conflation of a historical subject with a poetic one and the presumed binaries between the inside of a person (heart-mind) and the outside (language), the individual and society, and history and poetry. Zhiyi Yang’s Poetry, History, Memory: Wang Jingwei and China in Dark Times is a significant addition to these non-binary scholarly examinations of a writer and his era. The book provides a nuanced analysis of a slice of modern Chinese history, bringing one of it most controversial figures, Wang Jingwei (汪精衞), under a critical lens. Through an innovative theoretical approach, thorough archival research and fieldwork, and astute close readings of poetic texts, Yang investigates the complex interrelationship between the textual subject, the human subject, and the collective cultural memory of the former two.

The book consists of two main parts (each of which is comprised of three chapters that are themselves made up of four to eleven separately titled subsections): “Part I: The End of Literati Politics,” which is a critical biography of Wang Jingwei, and “Part II: The Poetics of Memory,” comprising a study of the complex relations between Wang’s poetry, cultural memory, and historiographies. The author divides Wang Jingwei’s life into three stages: his status as a revolutionary pioneer, his reputation as a well-respected statesman, and his being labeled a national “traitor” [quotation marks in the original]. Whereas Yang’s narration of Wang’s life follows a chronological order, the three chapters in Part I of the book employ distinct ways of organizing important personal and historical events.

The first chapter, “The Revolutionary,” explores Wang Jingwei’s multi-faceted social identity in the first forty years of his life: a young revolutionary, an assassin, a mediator, and a humanist. Character elements associated with these sometimes conflicting identities not only mark different stages of the biography but are frequently revisited later in the book, substantiating convincing explanations of the hidden logic lying behind some of Wang’s most significant life decisions. The author shows that Wang’s many social identities were bound up with a peripatetic lifestyle centered on four places: Guangdong, Japan, Southeast Asia, and France. She examines the critical roles played by the social and political contexts of these areas in developing Wang’s outlook on life and constructing his political identities. Crucial personal episodes (especially Wang’s interactions with his contemporaries) and significant socio-historical events of Wang’s life are contextualized within the particular places they occurred. The result is a nuanced account of Wang Jingwei’s early years and the global society that he lived in and had an impact on. For example, while exploring internal and external factors that led to Wang’s well-known assassination of Shanqi (善耆, a.k.a. Prince Su 肅親王, Chief of the Capital police), Yang examines the possible influence of the traditional education Wang received, including the moral philosophy of Wang Yangming 王陽明 and the poetry of Tao Qian 陶潛, followed by a consideration of his experience in Japan. This critical period in his life is shown to have shaped his nationalist beliefs, drawn him to Sun Yat-sen, and prepared him to become a core member of the latter’s cohort. The author then focuses on Wang’s debate with Liang Qichao 梁啟超 in the pages of Minbao (民報). While Liang supported a constitutional monarchy, Wang advocated an anti-Manchu military campaign as a necessary precursor to constitutional democracy. Such a focus allows the chapter to probe into the complex discourse of nationalism and its contested relations with ethnicity, monarchy, and democracy while demonstrating Wang’s polemicist talents and reputation as a fervent revolutionary and popular public speaker. The first chapter also includes a valuable investigation of Wang Jingwei’s travels to France during and after the First World War. The author argues that this period was instrumental to “Wang’s transition to a humanist, a crucial link to his later persuasions, including his brief alliance with Chinese communists and his apparent endorsement of Pan-Asianism” (p. 48).

The second and third chapters, “The Statesman” and “The ‘Traitor,”’ respectively, are accounts of Wang Jingwei’s life after his return from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and his roles as a leader of the Nationalist Party (GMD), head of the Chiang-Wang Coalition government, and later Chairman of the Reorganized National Government (RNG), which collaborated with Japan. The author examines Wang’s career as a stateman during a turbulent time of political and military conflicts between China and Japan, the GMD and CCP, as well as the left and right wings of the GMD. Yang explores Wang’s choices to become involved in these power struggles and his curious detachment and self-exiles, as well as the ideological disagreements, compromises, and integration between literati politics and various versions of democracy that mark this eventful historical period. Yang argues that Wang’s belief in democratic centralism had roots in the elitism of Confucian political philosophy: leaders with altruist moral supremacy are indispensable to social transformation and the ultimate realization of an egalitarian society. Wang was convinced that self-cultivation leads to what Wang Yangming advocated as “moral knowledge,” which is an innate character of the cultivated literatus that can lead to proper deeds. Wang’s many important life proclivities, including his self-exiles and his attraction to martyrdom, stemmed from his sincere aspiration to be an instrument of altruist moral ideals, which ironically led to his physical and moral demise. The author astutely points out that the many restorations of Wang Jingwei’s reputation show “the legacy of literati policies in Republican China” (66). However, the Second Sino-Japanese War made this once-central figure of literati policies irrelevant: Wang, who was at once both recluse and statesman, was now criticized for his bookish and unrealistic approaches to solving complex problems and his lack of courage and decisiveness in taking action. The author argues that the war “finally created the Chinese nation by putting an end to the elitist tradition of literati politics” embodied by Wang Jingwei (66). Wang’s downfall was undoubtedly a result of his human weakness and many misjudgments—of historical events (namely the war situation), of other political figures, and of his own catastrophic decisions. But Yang’s nuanced account of Wang’s “peace movement,” his collaboration with Japan, his death, and his legacy contests the oversimplified understanding and verdict of Wang as a collaborator. Yang argues that Wang was “neither the ‘shameless traitor’ nor the ‘resolute martyr’ that his detractors or defenders alternatively portrayed him to be” (115). Rather, Yang writes, “all defenses and charges [of collaboration] were simultaneously true, to an extent” (116).

“Part II: The Poetics of Memory” is a critical study of Wang Jingwei’s poems. It is laudable for its original approach, thorough archival research, and contextualized close readings. Textual analysis of Wang’s lyric poetry is employed throughout Part II (and elsewhere in the book whenever his poems are mentioned). For example, Wang’s poems written during his first trip to Europe, together with rarely examined primary materials such as Chen Changzu’s 陳昌祖 [Cheong-Choo Chan] Memoirs of a Citizen of Early XX Century China, are carefully analyzed and explored in Chapter 4, “Poetry as Mnemonic Atlas.” The author states in the introduction that the book is interdisciplinary because it “seeks to bridge the boundaries between historical, literary, and memory studies” (10). She argues that instead of treating Wang’s poems as indexes of biographical events, it is more fruitful when we read them for their ambivalence, uncertainty, and inconsistency. This approach is embodied in a close reading of “Night Onboard” (舟夜), a heptasyllabic regulated poem (七言律詩). Through probing into the disparate dates given to this poem in various contexts and meticulous investigation of the different versions of the poem in Wang’s manuscript and a transcribed copy, the author addresses the question of authenticity in the criticism of classical lyric poetry. She argues that, for poets, authenticity is part of their theatricality because “poetry writing is a self-conscious, performative act” (183). The introduction of memory studies theories adds another dimension to our understanding of Wang Jingwei, his poems, and his era. The textual analysis of “Night Onboard” sees the poem as a discursive site of both individual and social memory, in their various forms. Such a reading evinces “a plurality of knowledge” contained in a poem (190, Yang here cites the work of Graham Gardner). The following two chapters of Part II, “The Iconography of an Assassin” and “The Impossibility of Remembering the Past at Nanjing,” continue to examine Wang’s poems the lens of memory. The first of these chapters examines the discourses on Wang Jingwei’s assassination and martyrdom constructed in a group of poems exchanged between Wang and many of his collaborator-poets in occupied Nanjing, the capital city of the Reorganized National Government. These poems were solicited as colophons for a painting entitled “Bidding Farewell at the Yi River” (易水送别). Some of them were later used in the librettos of an opera bearing the same title. The other chapter deals with poems on the city of Nanjing—written by Wang and his cohort after the massacre—or rather on “their amnesia and aphasia in remembering the past and in imaging the future” (223), as these poems are startling few in number despite the city’s rich cultural and historical significance and the “revival of traditional poetry during the Second Sino-Japanese War” (225).

Yang’s modes of contextualization lay a solid foundation for the study of Wang Jingwei and his lyric poetry. Her exploration of Wang as an individual case embedded within contemporary global discourses enables novel critical inquiries into multiple contextual factors, including the interactions between Wang and social, cultural, and political events. All of this is brought to bear on Yang’s “thick-description”-type of close textual analysis. The texts studied expand the discourse on Wang Jingwei’s corpus, introducing rarely studied manuscripts by Wang and his associates. Throughout, Yang brings subtlety and open-endedness to her arguments. She also carefully examines Wang’s many travels to Europe and their impact, providing long-overdue scholarly attention to fill in significant gaps in the biographical literature. In addition, European scholars’ studies of Nazi “collaborators” are acknowledged—a potent source for a deeper understanding of Wang’s case. This book plays a significant role in illustrating how contemporary memory can be an effect of cultural and historical constructs, proving that established biographical “facts” and verdicts are well worth re-examination. More importantly, Yang’s study showcases how revisiting Wang Jingwei and the “dark times” is relevant to our own experiences in today’s world (i.e., that a nuanced perusal of the life and works of a “traitor” reveals truths about ourselves and the world then and now, and that defying taboos is for scholars a moral and intellectual obligation).

Scholars and students in the fields of Chinese literature, culture, and history, as well as general readers interested in modern and contemporary China and East Asia, will find the book intriguing for its eloquent accounts of Wang’s life and death situated in a global-historical perspective, and its masterful analysis of Wang’s poems in their social and literary-historical contexts. For this reader, the book is among the few scholarly studies to bring its subject up-close-and-personal to the reader, sometimes even stirring an emotional reaction. Zhiyi Yang’s Poetry, History, MemoryWang Jingwei and China in Dark Times is to be highly recommended.

Haihong Yang
University of Delaware

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