Edited by Christopher Lupke and Thomas Moran
Reviewed by Jenn Marie Nunes
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2021)
This volume of the Dictionary of Literary Biography presents an engaging selection of contemporary Chinese poets (see here for complete table of contents), compiled for anyone interested in compact and yet detailed introductions to those poets’ lives. In terms of selection, Chinese Poets Since 1949 (CPS) focuses on award-winning literary figures who have made well-documented contributions to contemporary Chinese poetics from various places inside and outside of official poetry arena(s) and along the spectrum from, to borrow Maghiel van Crevel’s terms, “elevated” to “earthly” (and otherwise experimental ideologies and aesthetics). Moreover, in defining “Chinese poets,” editors Christopher Lupke and Thomas Moran look beyond the geo-political border of the Chinese state and include those who write in Chinese language and are located in Taiwan and Hong Kong (although here the volume comes up a little short). The editors clarify that this is not meant to imply anything about the political relationship between these geographical areas, but they are also careful to emphasize that the poetic traditions in these three places “have developed distinctive characteristics, even while sharing a heritage and influencing one another” (xxi). As such, this is a text that pushes gently in the direction of Sinophone literary studies.
In terms of how the volume meets the expectations of the series, which sets out to present career biographies of significant literary figures—i.e. biographies that are focused through each figure’s identity as a writer—while also situating each figure’s life, career, and work within the larger historical field, the contributors to CPS do an exemplary job. The volume delivers exactly what the cover and titles promise: a relatively traditional approach to canon building and a usable and informative resource, a sensible addition to any library collection that prides itself on covering the bases of Chinese literature—particularly since this series is also available as an electronic text, hopefully at a more competitive price.
The introduction to CPS, written by Lupke and Moran, is a pleasantly readable and yet impressively detailed overview of modern poetry in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, beginning with a firm grounding in the importance of poetry throughout Chinese history. Simply reading the introduction offers a solid framework for understanding both the aesthetic and political significance of the authors highlighted in the volume, and in particular an understanding of how Chinese poets so consistently take on political significance, whether their work is overtly political or not. The introduction further points the way toward a number of sources—collected in detail at the back of the volume—for those who wish to read in more depth. There is, perhaps naturally, also a sense of the English-speaking Western audience that CPS aims at, suggested by the one image of a poet included in the introduction: T. S. Eliot on the cover of Wenxing 文星 (Literary Star). Of course, it is most likely that this image of T. S. Eliot on the cover of a Taiwanese literary journal is meant to highlight the “hybrid nature” of modern Chinese poetry, influenced as it has been by both Western and Chinese poetic traditions. At the same time, because the series prides itself on its “illustration policy—its concern with the iconography of literature” (xxvii)—this image also does a certain amount of work to situate or make legible Chinese poetry for a Western audience.
Beyond the introduction, the book presents forty-five contemporary poets—thirty-one men and fourteen women—the majority of whom are native to mainland China. Although the entries are written by different scholars, they each contain similar information: the author’s place within the realm of Chinese poetry, their childhood and literary influences, how their writing responds to or engages with the political and aesthetic forces at play in the region, brief excerpts from their poetry. This consistency ensures that each poet gets equal attention and treatment, although the length of entries varies slightly. And while I don’t personally find book covers—by far the majority of images included across sections—to be the most compelling or telling way to offer visual insight into the life of a poet, I do appreciate the images of the poets themselves and a couple of examples of their visual creative work: Aku Wuwu’s 阿库乌雾 use of Yi script (11) and a painting done by Yan Li 严力 (229). Overall, the entries are thoughtful and packed with details, and there is no doubt that for someone interested in knowing more about the poets represented here, CPS is a worthy resource.
While the focus is always trained through the lens of the poet’s writing career, for me, it is the more personal touches, glimpses into the poet’s life and writing beyond awards, literary influences, and schools attended, that stand out and make some entries more engaging than others. For instance, C. T. Au’s biography of Xia Yu 夏宇 (Hsia Yü) begins with Xia’s description of her writing process. Rather than discussing how she gets ideas or what she does when she has writer’s block, she explains that she has five tables in her home, which Au pithily describes—including “a small table covered with a checkered tablecloth” and only one “writer’s desk.” Xia begins writing on a clean table and then moves to another and then another as the one she’s at becomes too cluttered (195). Not only does this strike me, a poet, as a quirkily apt way for a poet to conceptualize the “writing process” and immediately gives me a sense of Xia Yu the person, but Au astutely connects these tables to Xia Yu’s poetics, just as Xia does herself. Another entry that stands out is Mark Bender’s biography of Aku Wuwu, a Chinese poet of the Yi ethnic group. Bender not only makes clear how Aku’s self-proclaimed identity as a “cultural hybrid” and Yi poet have informed his poetry and professional life, but also includes vivid description of the mythology surrounding his birth and his motivation for studying Mandarin Chinese: so that the language would not be able to “trick” him again” (5). I get the sense reading about Aku that alongside his deep spirituality and dedication to his people and his craft, there is a sense of humor. Steve Bradbury on Ye Mimi 葉覓覓 and Joanna Krenz on Yin Lichuan 尹丽川 are also favorites, but it’s no surprise to me that I find these edgy women poets of interest.
Beyond specific individual treatments, I also particularly enjoyed entries where the biographer lets the poet speak for themselves through (more of) their own poetry. Yvonne Jia-Raye Yo on Rong Zi 蓉子 stands out, as does Lucas Klein on Mang Ke 芒克, and Joseph R. Allen’s treatment of Gu Cheng 顾城, where Allen delicately weave’s Gu Cheng’s poetry through a telling of the poet’s ultimately tragic story that is vivid, specific, and eschews melodrama. What I am getting at is that despite the format, which promises homogenous treatment of each figure, and the painful insistence on the detached third person voice of objective scholarship, there are enough moments in CPS when the personalities and voices of these distinctive poets shine through to make the volume more enjoyable than your average biographical dictionary. I would also suggest that these moments are artfully rendered or enhanced by the range of exceptional scholars tasked with writing these biographies. It is possible to feel the voices of many of these dynamic scholars pushing against the scrim of third person objective alongside that of the poet whose life they have agreed to sum up in just a handful of pages. There is a world in which even a Dictionary of Literary Biography allows for more creative and expressive presentation of the lives of poets, but within the limitations of this world, the undercurrent of intellectual and creative energy in these pages is something.
While I can find little to pick on in this volume based on the parameters it operates under, the notion of another world nags at me. Should a book like this exist in that other world—and likely it should, since it’s useful to organize information in order to process it—there are a few things I imagine it might do differently. For instance, a volume on contemporary Chinese poets might think beyond the individual poet. I realize this sounds antithetical to the very nature of a volume of writer biographies, but Chinese poetry as a means of expression entwined with the voices of the people is as old as the Book of Odes, so why not consider inviting that perspective into a volume representing Chinese poets—and implicitly Chinese poetry? For example, what if the book included biographies of important historical moments in which poetry played a significant role, such as the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations following Zhou Enlai’s death, the Umbrella Protests in Hong Kong (also a way to include poets born in Hong Kong), and even the Cultural Revolution (I do not find drawing a stark line between propaganda and literature entirely useful). Internet poetry is also worthy of its own biography—or two, depending on how one might approach it. There are numerous ways to consider how the medium of the internet has intersected with poetry, from the anonymity and communal production of huge literary forums (see Hockx 2015) to the democratizing power of social media platforms for publishing and the mass gatekeeping of poems gone viral (see Inwood 2014) to multi-media reconfigurations and experimentation (see Shi Jia’s 2020 PhD dissertation, “Stay Connected: Border-Crossing Experimentation and Transmission in Contemporary Chinese Poetry”). An entry addressing each of these moments and how that moment wrote poetry—through the individual, through anonymity, through collaboration—would give a different vision of how poetry functions in the region, one that I think would truly deepen an English-speaking audience’s understanding of what it means to be a poet writing in Chinese.
Perhaps somewhat similarly, I also imagine that in this other world Chinese Poets Since 1949 includes more poets writing before the 1970s, more poets who are not ethnically Han Chinese, poets from even more diverse geographical regions (and particularly Hong Kong, given the attention paid to its unique character in the introduction), and yes, more women. Maghiel van Crevel notes in his chapter on Shen Haobo 沈浩波: “Most if not all of the poets Shen first worked with were men. While Shen’s network has grown tremendously and diversified over the years . . . his ur-connections mirrored the male-dominated mainland-Chinese poetry scene at large” (135). CPS reflects this description of the poetry scene in China. Just under a third of the poets included are women. It’s not an embarrassing percentage considering the “male-dominated” Chinese poetry scene, which doesn’t mean that in this other world it isn’t also possible to go beyond improving the representation of women poets by raising it from the 8 out of 49 we see in the 2011 anthology Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry From China to 14 out of 45. In this other world, even in a book that positions itself as representing “Chinese Poets” and not exclusively “Chinese Woman Poets,” it becomes possible to approach and even exceed the halfway mark—and to see the matter of gender raised in more entries about men. And to be clear, it is important to extend that kind of approach to representation beyond gender concerns, as noted above. Along those lines, I also imagine this book includes poets like Ren Hang 任航, who, as a queer artist best known for his photography, could start to fill a very large hole in the general presentation of Chinese life and art.
It is not that I think any of the poets included in CPS are not worthy of attention and biography. Nor do I think expanding this book ad infinitum is the answer. It’s just that any collection is a process of selection, and any process of selection, which cannot help but make a statement about what or who is valid, is flawed. Knowing some of those involved in this project, I presume that this volume is not, in fact, intended to be the last word on who is who among Chinese poets since 1949. It is meant to touch on important figures that represent important happenings in poetry during these turbulent years, and it does so with great skill and great care.
Jenn Marie Nunes
The Ohio State University