Photo Poetics:
Chinese Lyricism and Modern Media Culture

By Shengqing Wu

Reviewed by Jiangtao Gu

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2021)

Shengqing Wu, Photo Poetics: Chinese Lyricism and Modern Media Culture New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. 384 pp. ISBN: 9780231192217 (paper); ISBN: 9780231192200 (cloth); ISBN: 9780231549714 (e-book)

Reading Shengqing Wu’s new book Photo Poetics: Chinese Lyricism and Modern Media Culture, is like looking into a kaleidoscope of texts and images drawn from the late Qing and early Republican periods. The reading experience can be disorientating at times, but ultimately pleasurable and enriching, especially considering our otherwise barren knowledge of photo practices in China during this period.

Distinct from dominant discourses on the topic, which often privilege photography’s relationship with progressive and revolutionary cultures, Wu’s book is uniquely focused on the Chinese literati tradition and its engagement with the then-nascent medium. Counter to many May Fourth intellectuals’ disparagement of the tradition’s obsolescence and decay, Wu insists that the literati practice of lyricism was by no means “an ossified or dead entity” (27). Front-loaded with this argument, the book then asks us to consider the literati’s absorption of photography as evidence of the tradition’s longevity and vitality despite rapidly changing technological and social conditions.

In Wu’s words, the book’s title Photo Poetics “not only refers to interactions between poetry and the photographic medium […], but also designates the aesthetics generated from the movement of ‘in-between’ media practices” (4). Wu’s identification and analysis of these objects as being “intermediary” in nature necessitates an interdisciplinary method, in which she draws from the discourses of both literary history and art history. With an eye especially to the latter, in what follows I will offer some points for discussion.

Given the author’s bifurcating interest in text and image (“the signifying field co-constituted by verbal discourse and visual culture”), the book examines three distinctive types of intermediary text/image combinations (265): first, examples of photographic objects that are physically inscribed with verses by their makers and owners—a practice that Wu claims elevates photographs beyond their status as mass commodities (116); second, examples published in poetry anthologies, collections, and magazines that were circulated a bit more widely than the first type, and; lastly, popular publications and periodicals such as The Young Companion (良友畫報) and Dianshizhai Huabao (點石齋畫報) in which the use of photography was mediated by other modern printing technologies. Many of Wu’s images, drawn from nearly a century-long period from the 1860s to the 1950s, have never been reproduced in any Anglophone academic publication to date. The depth of her project reflects a monumental amount of research across archives and collections, the scale and scope of which alone makes the book a significant contribution to our understanding of late Qing and early Republican photo/literary histories. Wu’s stated intention is to privilege neither side of these histories but, rather, to investigate them as intermediary “verbal-visual encounters” (14).

Following the introduction, the book is organized into three parts, each consisting of two to three chapters. The chapters do not appear to follow any chronological order; they are instead arranged according to genres of photographs. Within each chapter, there are often several sections, each devoted to individual examples. While Part I and II are focused on portrait photography and self-portraiture in particular, Part III is focused on landscape and spirit photography (靈魂照相). Parts I and II are further distinguished by their varying analytical focuses. Whereas Part I emphasizes the semantic and formal relationships between image and text, Part II adopts more of a material cultural studies’ approach, examining the social relations behind these practices. Wu argues that the practitioners she examines in Parts I and II exploited photography’s potential for self-expression and fantasy-staging, thereby blurring the boundaries between truth and artifice, fantasy and reality (73). Additionally, the intimate inscriptions on some of these photographs raised the medium beyond its status as a mass commodity and turned photographs into unique objects possessed of rich intellectual and affective values (116).

The exact relationship of Part III to Parts I and II is less clear. While chapter 5 is focused on the relationship between “spirit photography” (photographs using double exposure to create illusive human figures) and discourses of spiritualism in China at the time, chapter 6 and 7 are primarily about landscape photography, especially how Chinese practitioners used photography and verse to engage traditional aesthetic concepts like xieyi (寫意). Their focus on the latter term, 意 (ideas), she argues, helped make photography a useful component in practices such as meditation and remembrance.

Despite the book’s tremendous value in shaping our understanding of how photography was perceived and used by the Chinese literati class in the late Qing and early Republican era, there are some flaws in the book’s organization and its treatment of critical theory that are difficult to ignore. Apart from the lack of coordination among the three parts, many examples mentioned and or reproduced in the book are simply piled one upon the other, without moving the argument in any obvious direction. This lack of continuity in the book’s overall structure can make the reading experience feel quite repetitive and confusing. Especially for non-specialists, one might easily become disoriented by the surfeit of names and anecdotes, many of which lack explanation, historical contextualization or analysis. Throughout, Wu also makes no meaningful distinction between photo/verses produced in different periods marked by vastly different technological and social conditions. This ahistorical treatment of subject matter is antithetical to Wu’s goal of revealing the continued vitality of the Chinese literati tradition. One result of all this is that, against the main assertion of the book, despite the avid uses of new technologies Wu uncovers, the Chinese literati’s engagement with the medium of photography seems to have failed in giving new meanings to traditional Chinese culture’s ossified repository of classic texts and symbols.

Wu’s reference to Western theorists is uneven and fragmented. Despite her abundant citation of authors like Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Allan Sekula, the book does not have any serious engagement with photo theory as it has been developed in the Anglo-Franco context. Instead, Wu employs theoretical quotes in fragmented fashion, merely to frame or conclude her otherwise unrelated analyses. For example, when discussing the combination of female nudity and skull imageries, Wu briefly mentions Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze and Mulvey’s debt to Sigmund Freud, but ultimately fails to elaborate in her analyses on how male spectatorship and gender function on a psychoanalytical level (164). Western critical theory functions too often as a mere reference point in these instances, its sole function seemingly being to render otherwise alien objects legible to a presumed Western readership. Furthermore, these brief allusions to theory leave unexamined the precise relationship between Western theory and Chinese practices.

These criticisms aside, this book does substantially engage at least one theoretical debate about photography, the fact that photographs are compatible with the widely-recognized three key mechanisms of signification—the iconic, symbolic, and indexical. If the modern Chinese theorization of photography, represented by Lu Xun in the book, seems to have rejected the symbolic, Photo Poetics: Chinese Lyricism and Modern Media Culture reminds us that all three were at play in the Chinese literati practice of the medium. Despite its analytical shortcomings, the book will serve as a useful encyclopedia and touchstone, inspiring further research.

Jiangtao Gu
Hobart and William Smith Colleges