Baudelaire in China:
A Study in Literary Reception

By Gloria Bien

Reviewed by Nick Admussen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2013)

Book cover for Baudelaire in China

Gloria Bien.
Baudelaire in China:
A Study in Literary Reception.
Newark: Delaware University Press, 2013. 293 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-61149-389-4 (cloth)

As Chinese intellectuals of the May Fourth era were making a concerted effort to learn foreign languages and engage with foreign literature, the work of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was also beginning to garner belated acclaim in and out of France. A poet, essayist, and translator best known for his collections Les Fleurs du mal and Petits Poèmes en prose, Baudelaire was an aesthetic, formal, and conceptual innovator, and poets and critics of many nations still work to understand and react to his legacy. In China, the broad and sustained circulation of Baudelaire’s poetry is visible in the many versions of his Chinese name: in her Appendix I, Gloria Bien lists forty variants spanning almost a century, from the first translators of Baudelaire’s poetry into Chinese (including Zhou Zuoren 周作人) to those found in Zhang Daming’s (张大明) 2007 work A Hundred Years of Chinese Symbolism (中国象征主义百年史).[ 1 ] Baudelaire’s work has passed through the hands of China’s greatest writers and thinkers and makes up a persistently relevant part of the tradition of modern Chinese poetry. The works and authors that intersect with Baudelaire’s poetry, moreover, are particularly diverse, and the impact of Baudelaire’s work on Chinese writing is fundamentally multivalent. For nearly a hundred years, writers of conflicting ideologies, competing schools, and disparate methods have transformed and been transformed by Baudelaire’s work with a complexity that makes the accumulation and categorization of data—to say nothing of interpretation—a substantial task.

Gloria Bien’s Baudelaire in China: A Study in Literary Reception is not a study of this multifarious process of literary reception, and it is not a study of Chinese or French poetry. Its fundamental method is to catalogue, examine, and comment on the many arguments and assertions of Baudelairian influence on Chinese poets. As she points out in the introduction, the book was originally conceptualized as a study of literary influence (p. 2), and it seems clear from the finished work that it remains in large part a carefully annotated list of claims that authors and critics have made about poetic influences from Baudelaire. This makes the book an invaluable tool for future conceptual interventions and critical productions; seemingly all the important Chinese writers of the first half of the twentieth century who read, translated, or imitated Baudelaire are discussed in its pages, and their representatively Baudelarian poems are cited and read in parallel with the French originals. Sometimes this treatment supports arguments of influence, and sometimes it throws those arguments into question. Bien’s book accumulates information in a way that raises, but does not address, important questions about how Chinese practice reflects on and is a reflection of Baudelaire’s poetry: accordingly, after a detailed summary, this review will propose several questions that Baudelaire in China could meaningfully be used to explore.

The exception to Bien’s preference for data over interpretation appears in Chapters 1 and 2, “Baudelaire and Classical Chinese Poetry” and “Horizons of Reception.” Applying concepts from Hans Robert Jauss and James J. Y. Liu, Bien looks for qualities of Chinese life and Chinese poetry that allowed for Chinese readers to “recognize” Baudelaire’s poetry as something that lies within, or adjacent to, their preexisting literary horizons (p. 2).

Chapter 2 aims to identify these horizons by looking at the classical Chinese poets to whom Baudelaire has been compared in the past. These comparisons to Li Bo (李伯), Du Fu (杜甫), Li He (李贺), and Li Shangyin (李商隐) are assessed according to their accuracy. The chapter succeeds in identifying some nodes of similarity that help explain how Baudelaire was so swiftly and enthusiastically taken up by Chinese readers; what the chapter lacks, however, is a discussion of the context and intent of the comparisons. For example, Théophile Gautier’s attempt to publicize his own daughter’s translations of Li Bo by comparing them to Baudelaire (pp. 13-15) trades on literary fame in a way that might have little to do with preexisting horizons of expectation. A broader notion of comparison might have meaningfully complicated the chapter’s theoretical questions. Chapter 2 is a survey of twentieth century Chinese history that narrates the differential interest in Baudelaire according to historical period, attempting to sketch out sociopolitical contexts that will situate the authors discussed in later chapters.

Chapter 3, “Baudelaire in Chinese Translation,” and Chapter 4, “Baudelaire in Chinese Literary Criticism,” are the centerpiece of the book and may provide, in the long term, the most useful tools for scholars. Chapter 3 lists and summarizes the extant translations of Baudelaire into Chinese, from the standard editions used today to comparative rarities like Chen Jingrong’s 陈敬容 translations during the Hundred Flowers Movement or Li Sichun’s 李思纯 translations of Baudelaire into classical Chinese. The commentary generally discusses the fidelity of each translation, whether it retains or tries to represent Baudelaire’s prosody, and, in some cases, examines the translator’s working method.[ 2 ] Chapter 3 is accompanied by Appendix 2, in which twenty complete translations of Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances” are collected for purposes of comparison.

Chapter 4 is a similar collection of Chinese critical statements on Baudelaire and his poems: it opens by making the point that, as with many foreign-language authors in early twentieth century China, descriptions and discussions of Baudelaire predated most actual translations. Critical concepts like those recorded in this chapter did much to shape the way in which Baudelaire affects Chinese poetry. Of specific interest is the argument, repeated over decades, that Baudelaire did not simply pursue beauty in all its forms but instead pursued ugliness as if it were beauty: as Xu Xiacun 徐霞村 put it, “what ordinary people call beautiful, he considered ugly; what ordinary people consider ugly, he contrarily considered beautiful” (p. 66). This type of thinking seems to be the source of many of the study’s later comparisons between Chinese poets and Baudelaire: he is associated so strongly with negative imagery of all kinds that most poets whose works contain rot, filth, or morbidity will eventually see their poems compared to Baudelaire’s.[ 3 ]

Part Two, “The Creative Response” (Chapters 5 through 9), comprises the majority of the book. It lists poets whose work has been identified as showing the influence of Baudelaire. Lu Xun and Xu Zhimo 徐志摩 appear first, in Chapter 5. At just fifteen pages, this section is a bit too short to contain the intricacy of each writer’s relationship to Baudelaire: missing is a discussion of Lu Xun’s essay on “Non-revolutionary Radical Revolutionary Theorists,” which paints Baudelaire’s political and human sympathies as essentially false fronts,[ 4 ] and also missing is Xu Zhimo’s prose poetry, some of which has Baudelarian overtones.[ 5 ] Instead, as is the general method for Part Two, the discussion focuses on summaries of comparisons between individual poems as they have been undertaken by previous Chinese and Western critics: through their eyes, we see some of the most critical interactions between these poets, as in Baudelaire’s poem “The Dog and the Flask” and Lu Xun’s direct “rejoinder” in “The Dog’s Retort” (p. 90).

Chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 cover Chinese decadents, symbolists, symbolist/modernists, and uncategorized writers. In each case, Bien makes it clear that these categories are not organic to the writing, self-identification, or context of the artist in question, but instead represent broad strategies by which critical commentators have compared authors to Baudelaire.[ 6 ] In Chapter 6, this produces a small amount of confusion between the tuifeipai (颓废派), the large-D decadence school of thinking, and small-d decadence, which is adjectival.[ 7 ] It also lends itself to negative results: the comparison, for example, of Yu Dafu 郁达夫 to Baudelaire is revealed as simply tonal, a result of the depiction of pessimism and guilt in Yu Dafu’s fiction, rather than a result of intellectual interactions with Baudelaire, a conceptual commitment to hedonism, or any other more thoroughgoing interrelations.[ 8 ] The most intense interrelation comes last in the chapter, in the work of Shao Xunmei (邵洵美), who read, discussed, and reacted to Baudelaire. Discussion of Baudelaire’s particular brand of decadence as it appears in Chinese poetry—specifically, what happens to ideas of decadence when the Christian superstructure of sin and redemption is removed—are treated most thoroughly in the section on Shao.

The method of Chapter 7, “The Chinese Symbolists,” is much more varied. It collects, to my understanding, three major ways in which Baudelaire’s work can be traced through Chinese poetry: direct and self-conscious imitation, as in the case of Li Jinfa (李金发), the use of Symbolist methods, such as incomprehensibility in the work of Wang Duqing (王独清), and the importation of Baudelaire’s particular symbols, as in the work of Qin Zihao (覃子豪).[ 9 ] Of these, the first two are the most intriguing: the chapter’s section on Li Jinfa is particularly effective, exploring as it does the complex relationship between artistic borrowing, linguistic misprision, homage, and innovation that typifies Li’s interaction with Baudelaire. Li is also a particularly compelling figure in the context of this work, because his fame is based in part on critical consensus that he is the most Baudelairian of Chinese-language authors, and that his work served as an origin for Symbolist poetry in Chinese.[ 10 ] Chapter 7, as well as the monograph as a whole, would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of the poets of the 1980s and after: the importance of Baudelaire in contemporary China is in large part a result of Obscure and Post-Obscure poetry.[ 11 ] Additionally, there seems to be little rationale behind including Duo Duo (多多) in Chapter 9, even though Bien records instances in which he is described as a symbolist (pp. 215-6).

Chapters 8 and 9, “From Symbolism to Modernism” and “Other Comparisons,” are a mixed bag of authors who likely could have fit into Chapters 6 or 7, or whose connection to Baudelaire is slight. In Chapter 8, Bien points out that Dai Wangshu (戴望舒) and Bian Zhilin (卞之琳) are often formally considered Symbolists and that their connection to Baudelaire is as much Symbolist as it is modernist (p. 179); Duo Duo (多多) may have meaningfully been included alongside them, as well. Poets like Wen Yiduo (闻一多), Cao Baohua (曹葆华), Chen Jingrong (陈敬容), and Ai Qing (艾青) all seem to have been included in order to demonstrate the tangential nature of their interactions with Baudelaire, and to correct the critical record. The writer that Bien discusses who does not fall into one of these two categories is He Qifang (何其芳), who, like Lu Xun, made an aesthetic and political turn away from Baudelaire even as he applied Baudelarian practices of lyric prose, synesthesia, and symbolic ambiguity.

The final section, “Summary and Conclusions,” is a much more complete summary than the more conceptual outline that appears in the introduction, and is a good place to get a quick impression of the book’s contents. It does not, however, take the next step into activating the scrupulously collected and quite complete research that the book contains; interpretation of broad patterns is generally not a part of the monograph’s design. Because it is designed to accumulate rather than shape or select its data, the book is a generous gift to scholars of the present and the future. Readers of this book are given raw materials with which to ask some of today’s most affective and relevant intercultural questions. One complex of questions centers around the praxis of identifying influences: what does it mean, and in what ways does it mean, for a critic or poet to call a poem Baudelairean? Baudelaire in China records a number of tangential or suppositional relationships between Chinese poetry and Baudelaire’s work, critical connections between the two that are not upheld by apparent textual evidence: what drives critics to make those connections? One visualizes a slow, historical arc from the identification of direct influence to the use of Baudelaire’s name, many decades later, as a simple adjective; at some point, comparing a poet to Baudelaire comes to means little more than that both poets use symbols, or produce a depressive mood. In a situation like this, where the vague influence of his art can be used as an inert descriptive tool, how might Baudelaire be read? How does Les Fleurs du mal still inspire and transform Chinese practice today?

Early in the discussion, under the aegis of Bloom’s concept of deliberate misreading, Bien notes the complexity of interpreting literary influence (p. 2). This observation, however, assumes that Chinese authors received intercultural literary influence in the same way that intracultural authors do, when in fact the situation of early twentieth century Chinese writers was very different from that of the contexts Bloom’s study inhabits. Bien’s examples seem to demonstrate that Chinese authors like Li Jinfa felt little to no anxiety about borrowing or repeating motifs from Baudelaire, and raises the question as to whether or not misreadings were unintentional, whether accuracy was even a secondary or tertiary goal in Li Jinfa’s praxis. In Bloom’s terms, one cannot perform the corrections of clinamen or the negations of kenosis for an audience that has never seen the original. This test case—in which Chinese poets were finding inspiration in an author whom their immediate audience had likely never read, and were thereby freed from some qualities of the anxiety of influence—may provide insights not simply into the motions of Baudelaire’s work through China, but into influence as one of the engines of literature. In addition to our extant studies of lineage and descent, we can look at China’s Baudelaire as a new and meaningfully separate literary creation, one whose profile has a mysterious, rather than deterministic, relationship to the author and his works. Li Jinfa’s work is not necessarily a deliberate, influenced misreading of Baudelaire: to at least some Chinese readers, Li’s work was and perhaps still is their own version of Baudelaire, complete in itself with no external referent necessary.

A second complex of worthwhile questions could arise from inverting the direction of influence. As Bien shows, Baudelaire has been carefully and widely read all across China: it seems likely that a substantial proportion of Baudelaire’s readers today are, in fact, Chinese. What can their experiences, insights, and attitudes reveal to us about Baudelaire? The fact that Chinese authors see something particular and inspiring in Baudelaire’s poetry does not indicate that their readings are derivative of Western interpretations, and it certainly does not mean that their interpretations are more or less fictive than those of non-Chinese readers. For example, the interpretations of Liang Zongdai (梁宗岱) are much more than a localization of European Symbolism: he theorizes that correspondence (qihe 契合, after Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances”) is the collapse and fusion of a felt object into a feeling subject. This is an artful and incisive interpretation of symbolist thinking, and the theory is enriched, not limited, by the use of classical Chinese poetics (pp. 78-81). Furthermore, Lu Xun, He Qifang, and to a certain extent Xu Zhimo all made explicit comments repudiating Baudelaire and his poetry. How might we read and understand Baudelaire through their eyes? As an aesthete and a fatalist? As a failed or incomplete revolutionary? It is rare for critics and authors who came after Baudelaire in the French and English tradition to make such a point of turning away from him: the willingness of Chinese readers to do so makes them a fascinating and rare resource to Baudelarian studies.

With the exception of its Part One, at heart Baudelaire in China: A Study in Literary Reception is a monograph in the tradition of Bonnie McDougall’s The Introduction of Western Literary Theories into Modern China, 1919-1925 (1977). Both works ask when and how Chinese authors came into contact with writers and works outside their tradition, and both make an attempt to identify this contact through broad Western “schools” of thought and practice. For McDougall, this undertaking conforms to the topic at hand—literary theory, the generator of the categories she uses. In Baudelaire, which covers a much more heterogeneous and subtle cultural transit, the structure is somewhat less effective. The value that both works share is that their goal is not to shape or edit the information they contain, but to display the broadest measure of it, without transforming the evidence into the basis for a conceptual argument. The best offerings of Baudelaire in China come from its breadth, its willingness to pursue Baudelaire’s name wherever it is summoned, and its emphasis on the accumulation of data. A great deal of work remains to be done: first, to update our understanding of intercultural readings of Baudelaire into their crucial second iteration, which would include both Obscure and post-Obscure poets and, second, to use this accumulation of diverse Baudelairean experiences to understand intercultural translation, criticism, and influence as engines for connection, delineation, and creation. Future monographs that take up these questions may not much resemble Baudelaire in China in structure or scope, but their authors will be well served by the scholarship that it contains.

Nick Admussen
Cornell University


[ 1 ] Bien pages 235-236. One name missing from this otherwise very complete list is Lu Xun: for Baudelaire he used 波特莱尔, which is meaningfully not the transliteration used by Zhou Zuoren or his Japanese source, Kuriyagawa Hakuson (廚川白村). See the Complete Works of Lu Xun 鲁迅全集 (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 2005), 10: 263.

[ 2 ] For example, on page 57 we learn that Taiwanese poet and translator Qin Zihao 覃子豪 translated from French, with the aid of Japanese editions, “though his command of both those languages has been questioned.” This level of investigation for all the translators would have been quite useful for scholars who ask questions of translation: are more faithful translations more widely accepted? Is this true in all historical periods? When a translator fails to understand an original text, is there a pattern or structure to the misprision he or she produces in the target language?

[ 3 ] It seems possible that there is another, more synthetic layer of analysis possible here: Baudelaire’s identification of pain and disgust as engines for artistic experience fits powerfully into his experiments with socialism and populism, and the aestheticization of suffering allows him to make art of cultural critique. This innovation would endear him to certain kinds of socialists, and borrowing does take place in the work of Lu Xun, Turgenev, and Gorky; at the same time, Baudelaire’s refusal to take the next steps towards revolution would make him an undesirable model and counterpart, a phenomenon we see in Lu Xun’s work (see below), as well as most of the revolutionary Marxist writers in China and Russia. For a version of this struggle, see Adrian Wanner’s excellent book Baudelaire in Russia (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), 42-55.

[ 4 ] This is likely a casualty of the book’s separation of the “critical response” and the “creative response” to Baudelaire’s poetry; a brief mention of the essay appears on page 69, but does not seem to inform the discussion in Chapter Five. The original essay appears in the Complete Works of Lu Xun 鲁迅全集 (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 2005), 4: 231; Bien has it in excerpt via Sun Yushi 孙玉石.

[ 5 ] A suite of three of them, 《毒药》, 《白棋》, and 《婴儿》, appear in Zhimo’s Poems 《志摩的诗》.

[ 6 ] Page 108: “The Chinese writers who were called “Decadent” by various critics actually did not form a school or movement, and there is little evidence that they knew each other….” Page 127: “The Chinese Symbolists did not represent a movement or a school.” Page 179: “Although Baudelaire is often named a forerunner of Modernism, there was no real “Modernist” movement in France. Nor can it be said to have been a real “Modernist” movement in China.”

[ 7 ] This is clear, for example, in the middle of page 110, where Bien writes, “…the aura of pessimism and decay, the brothel visits, and overindulgence in alcohol all contribute to the idea of ‘Decadence.’” To Bien, this capitalized word, in quotation marks in the original, does not mean that Yu Dafu had been identified or self-identified as “a Decadent,” a member of tuifeipai, a person whose literary and aesthetic ideology hinged around the attempt to escape what Gautier called the “boredom and banality of everyday life” (107); it means that the ideas and experiences in his work were considered small-d, adjectival “decadent” due to his subject matter and tone. Bien does not record any critic claiming that Yu Dafu was part of an implicit or explicit tuifeipai like Yu Gengyu (于赓虞); the critics she records call him simply “decadent.” This confusion does not just exist on the level of terminology; there are multiple points in the book where it becomes unclear whether the monograph is taking interest in formal critical categorizations, the broader literary practices they represent, or the representation of literary practices by critical categories.

[ 8 ] The comparison between Baudelaire and Yu Gengyu operates on the same logic: critical “…comparisons with Baudelaire are based on depressed moods and graveyard imagery” and “there is no evidence of his having had first-hand knowledge of Baudelaire,” page 112. It would be interesting to see an attempt at limning second-order influences and readings; although Yu Gengyu never read Baudelaire, it is possible that he read Li Jinfa’s poetry, which was strongly (and directly) influenced by Baudelaire.

[ 9 ] The other poets listed in the section are Mu Mutian (穆木天), Feng Naichao (冯乃超), Xu Yunuo (徐玉诺), and Liang Zongdai (梁宗岱).

[ 10 ] The observation that symbolism’s inscrutability makes up part of the “pure poetry” that some early baihua poets pursued may provide, in my opinion, insight into the critical rationale behind lumping some fairly straightforward poets of the 1980s into the category of “obscure” (menglong朦胧) poetry: because many Obscure poets are symbolists, they are also sometimes assumed to be obscurantists.

[ 11 ]There is much additional research to be done on the influence of Baudelaire on the Obscure and post-Obscure poets; Bei Dao (北岛), to name just one example, refers directly to Les Fleurs du mal in his poem “Insomnia.” See Bei Dao, tr. David Hinton. Landscape Over Zero ( New York: New Directions, 1996), p. 71. Post-Obscure poets, including Bai Hua (白桦) and Yang Lian (杨炼), also discuss or react to Baudelaire in their work.