Modern “Archaics”: A New Look at the Poets
of the “Old Schools” and their Successors

a review essay on

Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation
in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900-1937


By Shengqing Wu

Reviewed by Jon Eugene von Kowallis
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2015)

Shengqing Wu, Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900-1937. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center: 2013. pp. xviii + 437.  ISBN: 978-0-674-72667-3 (Hardcover).

Shengqing Wu, Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900-1937. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center: 2013. pp. xviii + 437. ISBN: 978-0-674-72667-3 (Hardcover).

A number of readers may be familiar with The Subtle Revolution, my monograph on the poets of the “Old Schools” in late Qing and early Republican era China, and The Lyrical Lu Xun, my introduction to Lu Xun’s classical-style verse. With the prospect of a direct exchange of ideas in mind, Nicholas Kaldis, the literary studies book review editor at MCLC, has kindly solicited the following review essay that engages Shengqing Wu’s new work in a dialogue with my published and ongoing research on classical-style Chinese poetry written during the late-Qing and early Republican eras.

Shengqing Wu’s Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900-1937 is a truly exceptional monograph that challenges prejudices that arose in the twentieth century against classical-style Chinese poetry written during the late-Qing and early Republican eras and does so with encyclopedic breadth. It is the type of study that, in past generations, might take a learned scholar an entire career to publish. That is not to say it is in any way old-fashioned or uninformed by contemporary theory and critical methodology—quite the opposite. But what it does is far more significant than once again demonstrating to our colleagues in other humanistic disciplines how some Chinese texts can be used to affirm the universal applicability of Western theories. Rather, the book successfully challenges the idea that classical-style poetry lost its significance in China when a new political order came into being after the Revolution of 1911 brought about the end of the Qing dynasty and the New Culture Movement arose, asserting the primacy of writing in modern vernacular Chinese (白话文).

Wu examines innovations that took place in the ci 词 (lyric) as well as shi 诗 poetic forms in the first decades of the twentieth century, up to the Japanese invasion of China. Wu’s focus on the Republican period complements my own monograph on late-Qing / early Republican-era verse, The Subtle Revolution, where I focused exclusively on examples of shi poetry written in the old styles roughly between 1860 and 1919, focusing mainly on works that had been considered significant by Chinese critics of that era.[1] In exploring classical-style poetry of the period, my initial motivation was to examine Lu Xun’s poetic predecessors to examine the degree of their conservatism versus the extent to which they had been innovators.[2] Those considerations became secondary when I became intrigued by the question of the entry of modernity into Chinese lettres through the vehicle of classical-style poetry. In contrast, Wu’s study appears motivated more by the need she perceives to respond to and challenge the deterministic idea put forth by Hu Shi 胡适 (1891-1962) and Chen Duxiu 陈独秀 (1879-1942) that poetry written in the styles of the past was moribund and incapable of articulating the fast-changing, multifarious world of the present and that classical-style poetry was somehow intrinsically attached to the discredited Manchu dynasty (it was not). But Wu does not stop there. In her introduction she tells us:

I postulate a template that couples “modern” and “archaics” in order to emphasize the conflicted and contested nature of the formulation of modern culture while highlighting each aspect’s mutually transformative power. To think in terms of modern archaics is to think dialectically without privileging the critical category of modernity or replicating the traditional/modern antithesis. Within this paradoxically codependent framework, I will treat tradition as a vibrant site and an exploratory device to detect dynamic reciprocity and dramatic confrontation between the modern and the archaic and, more specifically, to explore their realization in highly aestheticized forms and practices. Throughout this book I endeavor to demonstrate that various kinds of newness and innovations occurred in the old literary forms and cultural practices; still, “modern” in this formula remains a descriptive category, a critical tool, and a desirable literary value, not a teleological goal. (p. 9)

In other words, she seeks to take us beyond the tradition/modernity dichotomy into a more complex world of interaction between the two. But why then make recourse to the term “archaic” or term the poets under examination “archaics”? I would suggest that what they were doing was still within the mainstream of Chinese poetics for much of this period[3] and that the works of the new poetry that supposedly challenged the old-styles developed out on a limb, so to speak, away from what was still the real aesthetic center of the literary culture, what Kurata Sadayoshi referred to as the kisei shidan 既成詩壇 (lit. “the already-established/existing poetic forum”).[4] The “triumph” of the new poetry, to use Chou Ts’e-tsung’s term,[5] came only from being perceived as innovative and being classed as “progressive” in the literary histories written by its own champions and their acolytes. I think that Wu’s greatest potential for error is that her questioning of the hierarchy created by Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu risks replicating it by giving it more legitimacy than it had back then. In a way, this is a question that turns on collective memory.

Wu argues that composing classical-style poetry in the first decades of the twentieth century offered its practitioners a textual and social space for subjective reflection, literary imagination, and stylistic innovation that allowed the poets to re-affirm their collective identity and re-consolidate their cultural memory. This is true, but I would submit that it also gave them a chance to speak in a more culturally “authentic” voice that had become all the more important in a world of profound changes. And of course there may have been an element of nationalism as well as “culturalism” at play here.

The book consists of three parts, each with two subsections. Generally speaking, it proceeds chronologically, but the parts and subsections are grouped thematically. Part I is dedicated to the “poetry of mourning” (perhaps it would be more appropriate to term it the “poetry of loss”), composed roughly between 1900 and the mid-1930s. Chapter 1 deals with ci poetry on the theme of the events of the year 1900, when the Boxer Uprising took place, was suppressed by the Army of the Eight Allied Nations, and the Qing court fled to Xi’an, abandoning Peking to the foreign armies. Wu’s study of this period focuses on works by the major ci lyricists of the era Wang Pengyun 王鹏运 (1848-1904) and Zhu Zumou 朱祖谋 (1857-1931).[6] Through extended discussion and reliable translations, set bilingually alongside the original works, Wu shows how the poets’ use of time-honored techniques such as “imparting meanings through the use of affective images” (比兴寄托) in poems about the tragic life and death of the Guangxu 光绪 Emperor’s (1871-1908) beloved Zhen Fei 珍妃 (the Pearl Concubine) can endow even “seemingly frivolous love poems . . . with profound meaning, becoming allegories for the crumbling nation and culture” (p. 57) in a time of crisis.

Chapter 2 is titled “Radical Antiquarianism: Chen Sanli’s Response to Cultural Crisis.” Here Wu begins by telling us although “the late Qing poets did suffer from the overbearing shadow of tradition; these poets, including those of the Poetic Revolution [shijie geming 诗界革命, e.g. Huang Zunxian] and Tongguang-style 同光体 schools [Chen Sanli 陈三立 and Zheng Xiaoxu 郑孝胥], sought to reinvigorate the stilted diction of traditional poetry, challenging the faults and limitations of form, especially when it encountered new, Western topics” (pp. 110-111). In my opinion, this focus on diction holds true for those of the “Poetic Revolution” but not necessarily the Tongguang-style poets; I would argue that the latter are more thematic than formalistic innovators—with few exceptions, they used traditional vocabulary to create their images and metaphors and present them in traditional forms.[7] Indeed, Wu’s subsequent analysis would seem to substantiate this view. In one of many inspired passages, she observes:

Chen Sanli’s bleak cultural vision is further captured in his favorite image of the “ashes of disaster” (jiehui 劫灰). Although this phrase has become part of the common vocabulary of Chinese poetry, the original concept related to the Buddhist idea of the ashes remaining after the fire that will precede the end of the world. Chen Sanli writes: “The Goddess Chang’e still plays with the shadows of rivers and mountains, / without seeing that one layer after another is the ashes of disaster” 嫦娥犹弄山河影,未辨层层是劫灰. This powerful image of the ashes of disaster layered over the rivers and mountains conveys a profound sense of loss. “The ashes of disaster” is a literal reference to the scarred landscapes that had experienced years of war and turmoil, but it is also a subjective projection of the poet’s agony. In this regard, Chen Yinke’s 陈寅恪 widely quoted insight into the reason for Wang Guowei’s 王国维 suicide is applicable to his father [Chen Baozhen 陈宝箴] as well: “Whenever one kind of culture is in decline, the individual who is raised in this culture must suffer anguish. The deeper he represents this culture, the more profoundly he suffers the anguish” 凡一种文化值衰落之时,为此文化所化之人,必感苦痛,其表现此文化之程量愈宏,则其所受之苦痛亦愈甚. Uprooted from everything familiar, Chen Sanli was unable to restore his unified world vision (wen 文 in a macro sense). Still, he continued to use poetic writing (one embellished form of wen), ornaments, and patterns as a means of embodying a Confucian moral sensibility and an arduous quest for meaning. This sense of crisis, disillusionment, and conflicting intellectual theories charged his poetry with potent lyricism and emotional depth. (p. 129).

It was the effective way he articulated to an educated readership the sense of crisis, the Angst he felt, and the agony of the passing of the traditional order in time-honored language and artistic form that resulted in Chen Sanli being considered by some to be China’s greatest poet—a position into which even the modern, Harvard-educated Hu Xiansu 胡先骕 (1894-1968), an able critical adversary of Hu Shi, elevated him—of the first three decades of the twentieth century.[8]

Wu at times becomes so deeply engaged with Chinese scholarship on the subject that she herself falls back on certain preconceived notions, such as the late Qing era as one in which the predominance of “the poetic style of the Song dynasty” was resurgent (p. 114). In The Subtle Revolution I challenged that verdict, arguing that the late Qing was an eclectic era of different, sometimes contending and sometimes overlapping poetic schools, such as the Neo-Ancient (拟古派) and Mid-to-Late Tang (中晚唐诗派), none of which came out in the end as predominant, nor did they intend to. Wu repeats the frequent characterization of Song poetry as philosophical and intellectual, which fits in with the idea of the rise of practicality (实用) in the nineteenth-century intellectual arena, including a utilitarian approach to statecraft (经世) and a renewed concern with moral issues surrounding the paradigmatic self and society (p. 115). Tang poetry, by comparison, is rich in bold images and aesthetically intoxicating. Yoshikawa Kōjirō 吉川幸次郎 likened Tang poetry to wine and Song poetry to tea (p. 117). Where I see a plurality of poetic voices flourishing, Wu (and other contemporary scholars) argue that the gravity of the situation in China and the seriousness of intellectuals to come to grips with that reality made Song poetry the natural model. My suspicion is that they may have been influenced in the same way that those who proclaimed the victory of the vernacular were—this time by the verdicts and/or preferences of the literary historians, critics, and catalogers of the poetry of the late-Qing era, such as Chen Yan 陈衍 (1856-1937), Qian Jibo 钱基博 (1887-1957), Qian Zhonglian 钱仲联 (aka Qian E’sun 钱鄂孙, 1908-2003), and Qian Zhongshu 钱钟书 (1910-1998). Wu indicates a degree of identification with this trajectory when she tells us:

Qian Zhonglian nearly single-handedly established the subfield of the study of Qing poetry in mainland China. In the past decade, scholarly interest in Chen Sanli, as well as late Qing poetry, has been significantly revived, and I have made use of the recent Chinese scholarship throughout this book. (p. 114, fn19).

That she has done, and that is one of the things that make this book a fine example of state-of-the-art scholarship in the field. But what Qian Zhonglian did could more accurately be described as re-establishing, reviving, or really re-outing late Qing poetry, and his students, such as Ma Yazhong 马亚中 and Wei Zhonglin 魏中林 have done a good job of continuing this cause up to the present.[9] I had hoped to challenge the dominant paradigm; they have returned to and reinforced it.

Interestingly, Shengqing Wu turns to Lu Xun to underscore one of her readings of a line from Chen Sanli’s poem “Arriving at Jiujiang at Dawn” (晓抵九江作) in which the poet describes a boat (perhaps a metaphor for China?) full of snoring travelers, whereas he alone is awake:

The image of “sound sleepers” ran deep for the intellectuals of the late Qing. A decade after Chen wrote his poem, Wang Guowei described his solitude thus: “The sound of snoring everywhere, the stars exuberant” 鼾声四起斗离离. This image also anticipates Lu Xun’s famous parable of the iron house in which many people are soundly asleep. The contrast between the “awakened few” and the “sound sleepers” was one of the major tropes of Lu Xun. This is not to downplay Lu Xun’s creativity but merely to show how the image of the lonely intellectual in a crowd of sleeping people gained currency at the end of the Qing. (pp. 141-2).

Lu Xun was indeed part of a continuum, just as were his predecessors and his successors. But that becomes, in the right hands, a tool for innovation, which is one of the main themes of Wu’s book, as well as my own.

Part II of Modern Archaics, “The Lure of Intellectual Elegance,” begins by discussing the institution of ci and shi poetry clubs that came to flourish in urban areas and how gatherings with recitation and poetry games, through which members could give a restrained and stylized reaction to their anxieties over the changing social order through elegant traditional poetic forms, allowed for the formation of a creative cultural link between past, present, and future. Thus classical-style verse fulfilled important social functions not taken into account by modern histories of Chinese literature that simply wrote it off as resisting social progress. Chapter 4 takes a cultural studies–type approach to the career of Chen Yan, a literary associate of poets Chen Sanli and Zheng Xiaoxu. Chen Yan is associated with the 1898 Reforms and the Tongguang Style in poetry; Wu charts his “remarkable transformation into a modern intellectual, with emphasis on his editorial work and institutional involvement” (p. 221), a reference to Chen having his celebrated Notes on Poetry (石遗室诗话) serialized in Liang Qichao’s 梁启超 (1873-1929) periodical Justice (庸言) and later in The Eastern Miscellany (东方杂志), as well as to his compiling the influential three-volume Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (近代诗钞) and to recasting himself as part of the professoriate in modern universities (where he was received as “the literary world’s foremost authority” on classical-style verse), including the Imperial Academy (the predecessor of Peking University), Amoy (Xiamen) University, and the School of National Learning in Wuxi. Indeed, his anthologies and literary criticism were of such influence as to contribute to elevating the status of neo-Confucian philosophes of the Tongguang style, such as Zheng Xiaoxu, to the pinnacle of renown in their era (Zheng later became Prime Minister of the Japanese client-state Manchukuo, at which point Chen dropped him as a friend and from his anthologies). Invoking Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of literary fields, Wu shows how Chen Yan also used the role of anthologist (e.g., compiler of the aforementioned Anthology of Contemporary Poetry published by the Commercial Press in Shanghai in 1923 and reprinted in Taipei in 1961) and academician to build up social capital and cultural prestige, thereby continuing to exert considerable influence on later generations of intellectuals, such as Liang Qichao and the international sophisticate Qian Zhongshu. All of this shows Chen Yan, unlike Chen Sanli, to be a resourceful adapter to the new era, but it also calls into question certain basic positions he held on poetics, such as “poetry should be autonomous and disinterested,”[10] an idea that was also trumpeted by many of the advocates of modern vernacular poetry (p. 244).

We have been told that Chen Yan believed isolation was a prerequisite for his poetic self-cultivation—only that could enable him to acquire a unique emotional depth in his work. As Wu puts it: “The aesthetic characteristics of ‘clear and meaningful, cold and spirited, lean and strong’ 清而有味,寒而有神,瘦而有筋力 are all valorized, reflecting individual expressiveness and uniqueness” yet “clarity, coldness, and leanness are all from the old lexicon of aesthetics” (p. 242). If that is the case, then from where is Chen Yan’s modernity derived if he simply “accentuated and advocated this distinctive style in a new context” (p. 242)? Chen Sanli, by contrast, sought to achieve “distinctiveness” (不俗) not through the use of neologisms (as with the Poetic Revolution group) or with the use of free verse (as in the New Poetry) but rather through “new formulations of ideas in his poetry and a new conceptualization of poetry itself” (p. 243). Like Wang Guowei, Chen Sanli was searching for a transcendental artistic realm as a way of dealing with the breakdown of the traditional system of meaning (p. 243). In other words, Chen Sanli’s aesthetic program is clearly marked by modernity, even though he may have ultimately rejected the modern world, whereas Chen Yan’s modernity was problematic at best, even though he adapted to the modern world. Here, I would argue, we once again see the primacy of poetry over criticism.[11]

In part III, “Lighting the Modern Torch with Ancient Fire: Travelling Poetics,” Wu begins by introducing Henri Lefebvre’s theory of spatiality in her analysis of gender roles and the use of a male voice in the works of women poets like the cross-dressing revolutionist Qiu Jin 秋瑾 (1875-1907) and the female voice created by Zhou Shi 周实 (1885-1911), a young male revolutionary and member of the Southern Society 南社 poetry group (pp. 267-276). She then moves on, in chapter 5, to an extensive introduction and treatment of Lü Bicheng 呂碧城 (1883-1943), an impressive, unconventional woman ci lyricist, feminist and globe-trotting animal rights advocate writing in the first three decades of the twentieth century, who “has been generally neglected by literary scholars until very recently” (p. 268). Born into a scholar-official family in Taiyuan, she received a top-notch traditional education. Shortly after her father died when she was only in her twelfth year, her engagement to the scion of a well-to-do family in the locale was rescinded, and she was sent to live with an uncle outside Tianjin. Having written a letter expressing her ideas on women’s education, she was discovered by Ying Hua 英华 (1867-1926) the founder and chief editor of L’impartial (大公报), who hired her as an editor and published her poetry, catapulting her to celebrity status. Wu translates the first stanza of her 1904 ci to the tune of “Man Jiang Hong,” commenting: “Lü urges women to be worthy members of the new citizenry and asserts that women’s liberation should be an epicenter of national renewal” (p. 279). Although Lü lamented Qiu Jin’s martyrdom, she disagreed with her political radicalism and anti-Manchu agenda. Lü in fact benefited through male patronage at different stages in her career, but remained unmarried by choice. In 1920, at thirty-seven, she went to New York to study art and English at Columbia University, serving at the same time as foreign correspondent for several Shanghai newspapers. Returning to China in 1922 she translated a history of the United States and other works into Chinese. In 1926 she began a solo trip across the US and Europe, settling in Montreux, Switzerland (1928-1933), where she wrote numerous essays in classical Chinese about her travels for newspapers and magazines in Shanghai. Wu comments: “At the same time, she demonstrated an incisive awareness of imperial power, social inequality, and racism” (p. 285). Wu seems to express surprise—perhaps a rhetorical surprise, given the considerable market for this type of writing among the cosmopolitan readers of Shanghai and elsewhere—that someone holding these views would continue to write in traditional forms (p. 289). In 1929, Lü represented China at the International Conference for Animal Protection in Vienna and in 1930 converted to Buddhism, spending much of the next decade translating and interpreting Buddhist sutras. Her ci lyrics were enthusiastically received by established poets such as Fan Zengxiang, a friend of her late father. Fan ranked her on a par with Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1084-c. 1151), perhaps the most prominent woman poet in all Chinese history; and the contemporary scholar Qian Zhonglian rated her as the most accomplished woman lyricist in modern times (p. 288). In her early ci, she writes with a melancholy tone of nostalgia and longing; later, she writes about the unique beauty of the Swiss Alps, “paying homage to the spirit of the mountains” (p. 309) in a way that introduces a female authorial identity (p.310) and “maneuvers away from what she considered an objectified portrayal of the female” (p. 315). In subsection, “Translating Cultural Space,” Wu shows how the lyricist uses the subgenre “mediation on the past” (怀古), writing about historic sites in Europe and China “to insert feminine sensibilities and emotions into a heavily masculine-coded space” (p. 316). She compares Lü’s ci on European sites with those of Kang Youwei 康有为 (1858-1927) and Wang Jingwei 汪精卫 (1883-1944); for example regarding Lü’s ci ruminating on the ruins of Rome, Wu remarks:

Kang Youwei’s poem appropriates its space to articulate a powerfully affirmative and masculine heroic vision and ambition. Lü’s poem is organized around the confrontation between a universalized self and the vicissitudes of life and the world, but this poetic self is a sensitive female, not, as tradition would have it, an ambitious man frustrated by mortality and the passing of time (p. 322).

This is the case in the examples cited, but is it not also reminiscent of the prominent traditional distinction between the “bold” (豪放) and “delicate” (婉约) voices cultivated in ci by male lyricists? If that is the case, aside from subject matter and context, how “modern” can this ci be? In fact, Wu discerns a “quasi-jingoistic attitude” in the same work ruminating on Rome when Lü notes: 十二世纪时,成吉思汗统一欧亚,罗马属焉, which Wu translates as “During the twelfth century, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) conquered [literally, “unified”] Europe and Asia, and Rome belonged to him” (p. 320). Lü’s strength as a poet lay in her ability to evoke traditional metaphorical associations to describe foreign things and in the way she refused to see tradition as predominantly male (p. 331), bringing new gendered perspectives into traditional forms, as well as her deliberate choice of ci as a vehicle to describe foreign vistas rather than shi, which had been the genre of choice by earlier Chinese poets who travelled overseas. Wu concludes: “perhaps the most marvelous achievement in Lü’s ci lies in its interconnection of intercultural space—the mixture of traditional culture and diction with European landscapes and landmarks—and the construction of gender relations” (p. 331). It is a pity that previous literary historians had all but written her out, and one of the many contributions of this book is that Lü Bicheng has now been rediscovered.

In her sixth and final chapter, “O My Love is Like a Red Red Rose: Classical Form and Translation,” Wu examines the way Chinese poets used traditional forms to take up the challenge of translating Western poetry, which I would argue they accomplished with great acumen, producing latter-day gems of classical-style poetry that were widely read at the time, but fell by the historical wayside after the new literature movement got into full swing. Again, I would speculate this was because they were not incorporated into the National Literature (国文) school curriculum, having been excluded by the new-style authorities, gatekeepers, and anthologists. Wu tells us:

Contrary to popular opinion, I argue that it is important not to view such domestications of foreign texts merely as inaccurate translations, but to contemplate the goals and challenges of the practice, as well as the literary innovation that often accompanied it. The cultural signification thrives in the appropriations and accommodations, as well as in the rift between the original and the translation (p. 335).

In analyzing his translations of Burns and Byron, Wu observes that Su Manshu 苏曼殊 (1884-1918) used what Roman Jakobson referred to as a “creative transposition” from one system of signs to another. Rather than simile or metaphor, Su made recourse to xing 兴, which Wu translates as “stimulating or evocative image” (i.e. the symbolic connection of scenery with a poet’s thoughts or emotions). To this she adds: “some scholars believe that the use of the metaphor versus the use of xing marks the fundamental difference between Chinese and Western poetics” (p. 336). In other words, Su Manshu used what Wu later refers to as a “domestication process” to rewrite the originals into classical Chinese poetry. Su’s concerns were with form and fluidity in the host (i.e. Chinese) language (p. 339). Later versions by other translators closer to our own time came to favor lexical accuracy. On Yuan Kejia’s 袁可嘉 (1921-2008) translation of a Robert Burns poem (that Su had previously translated), Wu rightly observes: “Yuan’s rendition is highly vernacular and is very close to the English original in meaning and syntactic structure. This impression comes in part from the fact that the modern vernacular language was to a certain extent reinvented according to the syntax and style of European languages” (p. 339). In other words, when Lu Xun argued it was necessary to change the Chinese language to convey new ideas accurately,[12] it was already happening, whether people resisted it or not. But Lu Xun was writing about accuracy in the translation of modern literary theory and Su Manshu was translating poetry. So let us look now at the two different Chinese versions of the first stanza of Burns’ 1794 poem:

O My Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly played in tune.

Yuan Kejia’s contemporary version gives us:

啊,我爱人像一朵红红的玫瑰,   Ah, my lover is like a red, red rose,
它在六月里开出;                            It first blooms in June.
啊,我爱人像一支乐曲,               Ah, my lover is like a melody,
它美妙地演奏起来。[13]                It beautifully begins to play.

While Su Manshu’s turn of the twentieth century classical-style rendering was:

炯炯赤蔷靡,           Fiery fiery crimson rosebush,
首夏初发苞。           At the head of summer, newly sprouting buds.
恻恻清商曲,           Harmonious the clear Shang aria,
眇音何远姚。[14]   Wondrous sound wafting from whence and afar.

There is a subtle grace in Su’s version lacking in Yuan’s. What is spelled out all too clearly in Yuan’s is only suggested in Su’s. Yuan translates “My Luve” as 我爱人 (lit. “my lover” or “my spouse”); Su doesn’t—in his poem the fiery crimson rose and the harmonious (恻恻) clear Shang aria (清商曲) are stand-ins for her. In the subsequent second and third stanzas, she is referred to, but only as “beauty” (美). I would argue that for a reader who understands what Su is doing, this in fact comes closer to conveying the feeling of Burns’ original than Yuan Kejia’s translation. Later Wu tells us: “Su Manshu and others employed . . . traditional Chinese forms in a deliberate attempt to absorb and domesticate the foreignness of the original” (p. 340). But was their translation enterprise really about “domestication”? I doubt it. I think they wanted to reproduce what sounded to them like “real poetry” as the equivalent in their own aesthetic realm. Su’s translation uses an ancient ballad style to hint at the style of Burns’ scottice[15] (Yuan does not attempt a hint) and to convey the feeling that it is real poetry, at least in the eyes of his readership at the time[16] (and arguably in some people’s eyes in present-day China). At this point Wu speculates on the influence Zhang Taiyan might have had on Su’s translations:

Su had a tutor and collaborator, the prominent scholar of classics and philology Zhang Taiyan, and the common belief is that Zhang revised and polished Su’s translations and unnecessarily added archaisms in order to show off his knowledge. I, however, understand the archaism here as a discursive strategy that Su (or Zhang) deliberately employed to register literary and historical difference. (p. 343)

Here I would agree that there was genuine recourse to archaism, but that was the Zhang Taiyan style, which also influenced Lu Xun’s prose in his early essays (1907-8).[17] Wu then moves on to Su Manshu’s translations of Byron,[18] and notes that “in February and March of that year [1908], Su was steeped in Byron’s poetry” (p. 350). In January and February 1908 Lu Xun’s “On the Power of Mara Poetry,” which takes Byron as a central figure, came out in number two (第二号) and issue three (第三期) of the journal Henan 河南. The front pages of Henan no. 2 also contain a drawing by Su Manshu titled “White Horse Temple in Luoyang” (洛阳白马寺). The timing suggests that Su Manshu could have been influenced by Lu Xun, either that or the two were working in concert at that time: Lu Xun on the life of Byron and Su Manshu on his works.[19] Wu continues, powerfully: “I provisionally propose that this unique practice of translation challenges the common view of translation as a one-way process of influence in the unequal cultural power structure and instead offers a site rich in examples of contestation and negotiation” (p. 345).

Wu mentions the work of two more figures to show that this type of poetic translation was not an isolated practice. One is biblical translator Wu Jingxiong 吴经熊 (aka John C. H. Wu, 1899-1986), whose “masterful rendition of the entire book of Psalms presents a sinicized treatment of the image of God that resonated across war-torn China” (p. 346). The other is a group of translations of Western modernist poetry by Dongnan University professor Li Sichun 李思纯 (1893-1960) and others that appeared in The Critical Review (学衡). These included works by Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Edgar Allan Poe all rendered into traditional forms. Unfortunately, this enthusiastic narrative is too brief and lacks examples. Wu then returns to Su Manshu, but concludes the chapter by back-pedaling—“Although I suggest that their translations from English into classical-style poetry infused Chinese poetics with a distinctively new flavor, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of classical Chinese language and poetic forms as a medium for modernity” (p. 348)—which I find disappointing. What are the limitations? Where is the discussion? Suddenly, in this massively well-documented book, a verdict is passed almost as an aside and (seemingly) without a trial. Again, I cannot suppress the suspicion that idées reçues are raising their heads here.

The next chapter sub-section, “Translating Lyrical Intimacy,” is primarily a treatment of the influence of Byron and Western Romanticism on Su Manshu, sometimes called the “Chinese Byron.” Wu tells us Su identified “not with Byron’s political fervor and revolutionary exploits but his sentimentalism and expressions of love” (p. 352). She quotes prolific Japanese Lu Xun scholar Fujii Shōzō 藤井省三 (b. 1952), who wrote that Lu Xun understood Byron as searching for personal freedom, whereas Su discovered in Byron how to locate love in a personal, interior world (p. 352). Wu tells us “an extolling of the romantic and individualistic aspects of love and the construction of the modern self occurred in the poetic culture, in part as a result of translation practice. . . . Byron offered him a model in literature and in life . . . Su manipulated this model and employed Byronic extravagance as a vehicle to express his emotions, inventing a persona that was palatable to an emerging public as a melodramatic subject in life and poetry” (p. 353). This was certainly a distinctive aspect of literary phenomena of the era, but whether it is defining of “modern” I am not entirely convinced. Wu writes that Su’s use of the masculine “I” in addressing his lover was influenced by Burns’ or Byron’s poems and was “striking in the context of early twentieth-century China.” But it also reminds me of Lu Xun’s untitled ancient-style quatrain, often referred to as “Personally Inscribed on a Small Picture [of the Poet]” (自题小像), which may have been written in the spring of 1903 or earlier:

灵台无计逃神矢, The Spirit Tower holds no plan to escape divine arrows,
风雨如磐闇故园。 Wind and rain, like boulders, darken the ancient garden.
寄意寒星荃不察, Entrusting thoughts to a wintery star, the Fragrant One considers them not,
我以我血荐轩辕。 I take my blood and offer it up to Xuan Yuan.[20]

Here Lu Xun uses a rather masculine-sounding “I” not just once but twice in the concluding line in a masculine and assertive way: “I take my blood and offer it up to Xuan Yuan,” not in speaking to a lover but in addressing the plight of the nation at the time. This might also be deemed Byronic in influence, as the commentator Zhang Xiangtian 张向天 was keen to point out long ago,[21] but it is, most likely, inspired by the other side of Byron.

Wu compares Su Manshu favorably with Li Bo 李白, thought by many to be the greatest Tang poet, saying Su employs more forthright and daring expressions than Li, who was also known as a bit of a swashbuckler (p. 357). Su’s strength lay, in Wu’s view, in the way he refused to subordinate love or the individual self to the collective, nationalism, or Buddhism (his religion)—the lyric subject “I” emerges as the predominant speaker (p. 358) as a result of mixed cultural influence from Byron, Burns or Shelley (p. 359). Su’s self-projected lone monk image, with its “solitude, rootlessness, and shifting relationship with the world, turns out to be surprisingly modern” (p. 360). Here I would submit that the claim of modernity could be valid only if a sense of alienation were present. Is it there in what Wu tells us was Su’s favorite couplet?

袈裟点点疑樱瓣, Petals of cherry blossoms dot my robes,
半是脂痕半泪痕。 Half are traces of rouge, half tearstains.

She observes that through the “erotic and exotic images” of cherry blossoms and “streaks of rouge and tears on the monk’s robe, the poet establishes a metonymic and metaphorical relationship between images to dramatize the conflict between religious devotion and sensuous feeling” (p. 360). But this was an age-old conflict, running back through the middle ages into antiquity. Can we compare it with the modern sense of terror conveyed by Lu Xun’s classical-style poem which includes the lines?

昔闻湘水碧如染,Once ran the Xiang, ’twas said of old, bluer than indigo,
今闻湘水胭脂痕。Yet rouge streamers now add new hue to her former cyan flow.[22]

Of course, Lu Xun was writing in 1931 against the historical backdrop of party purges, extra-legal executions, and the Chinese civil war. But Su also lived through cataclysmic events leading up to and including the 1911 Revolution as a confidant and fellow of Chinese revolutionists in Japan. True, Su died early on (1918) and so “did not live through the height of the vernacular language movement; therefore, his translating and writing in the classical style may seem to have been a given rather than a conscious choice” (pp. 363-4), but what we have been surveying in Wu’s book up to now are primarily outcomes, not choices. Interestingly, she observes at this point that Su, who is said to have authored a Sanskrit grammar for Chinese readers,[23] ranked Sanskrit literature the highest, Chinese second, and European literature the lowest, explaining:

his condescension toward European literature, seemingly in contradiction to his enthrallment with Romanticism, should be understood as a strategic or psychological reaction to the state of the world at the time. His opinions were leveled against the asymmetrical cultural, political, and technological power dynamics among countries, while the ancient civilizations proved disastrously limited in the face of Western technology. Su, in rejecting Western hegemony but actively absorbing aspects of its culture, engaged in a calculation of the advantages and disadvantages of foreign cultural influences. (p. 364).

Again, Su’s criticism of “asymmetrical cultural, political, and technological power dynamics among countries” as well as the limitations of the surviving ancient civilizations sounds remarkably like that of Lu Xun in his early (1907-1908) classical-style essays[24] and his “rejecting Western hegemony but actively absorbing aspects of its culture” also approaches Lu Xun’s solution, both in his early essays and in his famous 1934 essay “Grab-ism” (拿来主义).[25] Thus I think the possibility of cross-pollination between the two suggested by Masuda Wataru is real, either that or these were ideas au courant in wider intellectual circles at the time.

The last figures discussed in the book are the Critical Review group, which formed around Wu Mi 吴宓 (1894-1978), who had studied at Harvard under Irving Babbitt. They included Guo Binhe 郭斌龢 (1900-1987), Liu Yizheng 柳诒征 (1880-1956), and Hu Xiansu. This was a group of Western-educated scholars who searched for common ground between Eastern and Western cultures. Although in writing about China they often echoed ideas first proposed earlier in the twentieth century by the “national essence” (国粹) school, they did so with a cosmopolitan sophistication and the inspiration of Anglo-American modes of thinking. As Wu puts it: “Paradoxically, it was the introduction of Western ideas and the imitation of Western models that led this group of intellectuals to adopt a more appreciative attitude toward their own literary and cultural past” (p. 366).

In this section, titled “The Will to Refrain,” Wu focuses on Wu Mi’s translation of the poetry of Christina Rossetti and Matthew Arnold and how Wu Mi “used the act of translation to engage in critiques of culture and modernity” (p. 366). While at Harvard (1918-1921), Wu Mi studied Victorian poetry and held these two poets (along with Byron) in high regard. Shengqing Wu examines his translation of Rossetti’s “Remember,” in which a dying woman addresses her lover. Wu Mi translated the poem into five-character, ancient-style form that “consciously cultivates a tone of languorous melancholy, exploiting the elegiac potential of the form and language to great effect” (p. 368). Wu Mi thought that the ancient style poem in Chinese resembles the English sonnet in form, so this was an ideal choice, with which Shengqing Wu seems to concur, with the caveat that he “sinicizes the scenes provided by Rossetti and significantly tones down the religious aspect of the poem” (p. 369). She compares his translation favorably against other renditions by four different translators all using the ancient style (could they all have been “archaics”?), but does not quote any of their lines, instead noting that Wu Mi avoids sexist language[26] and “conducts an interesting exploration of the relationships between religion and sexuality and between love and political allegory” (p. 371), adding that the other translators “endow the female speaker with a humble manner and lovelorn voice, and thereby fail utterly to reproduce the tensions and conflicts between religion and passion that are central to Rossetti’s poetry,” i.e. what Babbitt referred to as “the ‘will to refrain’ or the ‘inner check’ that restrains natural impulses” in the service of a higher self (p. 371). Here I suspect Babbitt’s Chinese disciples may have responded to a parallel they drew to the Confucian dictum to “restrain oneself and restore propriety” (克己复礼).

She then refers briefly to Wu Mi’s translation of Matthew Arnold’s “Requiescat,” a melancholy poem responding to the death of an aristocratic woman, commenting that “the poem offers an empathetic understanding of modern culture through a powerful vision of negativity and desolation” (p. 373). Wu Mi thought of Arnold as “a quintessential figure of Romantic pathos, aloof from society and committed to his craft and to an uncompromising vision of society” (p. 374), suggesting cultural personas familiar to Chinese readers like the ancient poet Qu Yuan 屈原. She tell us that Wu Mi understood and identified “with Arnold’s elegies and his expression of suffering on an allegorical level during an era of transition when people were bereft of faith and poetry became the new religion of the modern world,” suggesting (quite rightly, I think) that Wu Mi, with his cosmopolitan sophistication as an international student from China, was able to appreciate Arnold’s views on poetry better than his (more provincial) mentor Babbitt, who called this (that is, the idea of poetry as a stand-in for philosophy and religion) Arnold’s “dubious side” (p. 374). In turn, Arnold and Babbitt “both stimulated Wu Mi to come to grips with the materialism and the disintegration of traditional culture” (p. 375), again subjects that the poets of the “old schools” and Lu Xun also grappled with during the last years of the Qing dynasty.

After the tragic suicide of much-beloved progressive movie star Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉 (1910-1935), Wu Mi wrote a poem lamenting her in the style of one of his translations. It made use of images such as “fallen flowers,” which appeared in a poem the widely-revered and much lamented scholar Wang Guowei 王国维 had been copying out before his own suicide (p. 375). Interestingly enough, Wu Mi explained at that time that “the poem is concerned not with China’s particular debilitating vicissitudes but also with the modern existential agony universally experienced by intellectuals” (p. 375). He further described Arnold’s poetry as “modern feeling framed in a classical form” (p. 376). In other words, what he translated was what he himself wanted to say (I sometimes think that was the case with Lu Xun’s translations as well). Here Shengqing Wu comments: “we should not underestimate the ideological implications of form and archaism in the contentious relationship between China and the West. Highly selected aspects of Western culture became sources of legitimation and inspiration” (p. 377).

Wu Mi and his colleagues claimed to stand aloof from politics in pursuit of higher cultural values. Shengqing Wu circumspectly notes that this claim, “loaded with contradictions and power struggles, was enmeshed with the intersections of culture and politics in the Republican period” (p. 377). She concludes by saying: “Whether we regard Wu’s poetry and his translations as effective or not, his effort to reframe Western subjects in Chinese classical form represents a sophisticated attempt to resuscitate an old form in a new era while demonstrating an openness to the inherently hybrid nature of modern culture” (pp. 378-379). She then ends the chapter with a quotation from Wu Mi’s translation of André Chénier’s poem “L’Invention,” one line of which reads “Sur des pensers nouveaux faisons des vers antiques,”[27] and in Wu Mi’s saoti-style translation: 用新来之俊思兮, 成古体之佳篇.[28] Which I dare say is an improvement over the original, and hardly “archaic” in language, save for the affectation of the particle xi 兮 to remind us of the language used in the ancient Elegies of Chu (楚辞) anthology.

In summary, despite my reservations about the use of the word “archaics” in the book’s title and the understanding of the works of a number of these poets that term implies, this book is a tour de force that moves with ease, lucidity, and without pretense from the late-Qing poets to Todorov back to Pan Chonggui 潘重规 and Qian Zhongshu. Shengqing Wu not only provides insightful readings, reliable translations, and brilliant commentaries, she is never pedantic or boring. Aside from re-writing literary history, this book contains the best (and most self-disciplined) application of Western critical theory to texts of Chinese literature I have ever read. The exposition is logical, respectful to other scholars (it displays a vast familiarity with and an appreciation of the contributions of virtually all the authors of secondary sources), and is written in plain language. In short, it is, and will be for many years to come, the defining moment in our study of classical-style Chinese poetry in the recent historical period.

Jon Eugene von Kowallis
The University of New South Wales, Sydney


[1] Wu draws upon more and different evidence, while treating fewer of the “old” poetic schools. Interested readers can consult The Subtle Revolution: Poets of the ‘Old Schools’ during Late Qing and Early Republican China (Berkeley: University of California, Institute of East Asian Studies Monographs, 2006).

[2] That project began with my study of Lu Xun’s classical-style verse, in The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-style Verse (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996).

[3] As Wu herself puts it: “What made Chen Yan the most significant voice in the world of poetry in the Republican era were his anthologies, his institutional involvement, and his poetry criticism” (p. 225).

[4] See Kurata Sadayoshi 倉田貞美, Shinmatsu Minsho o chūshin to shita Chūgoku kindai shi no kenkyū 清末民初を中心とした中国近代詩の研究 (Research on Chinese poetry of the recent historical period, centering on the late Qing and early Republic) (Tokyo: Taishūkan, 1969), p. 67 passim.

[5] Actually Chow was referring to the literary revolution, not the new poetry per se, when he said that by 1922 “the literary revolution had triumphed,” its opposition thereafter limited to “isolated skirmished.” See Chow Ts’e-tsung, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 282.

[6] For a complementary analysis of the poetry of this period, see The Subtle Revolution, which explores Fan Zengxiang’s 樊增祥 (1846-1931) two-part Caiyun Qu 彩云曲 (The song of Rainbow Cloud), based on the story of the fabulous concubine Sai Jinhua 赛金花 (1864-1936), who, according to popular legend, became the lover (and policy advisor) to Allied commanding general Alfred Graf von Waldersee (The Subtle Revolution, op. cit., pp. 92-128).

[7] See my treatment in The Subtle Revolution, op. cit., pp. 153-231.

[8] See H. H. Hu, “Chen Sanli, the Poet” in T’ien Hsia Monthly 6, no 2 (Feb 1938), p. 134. The monthly was an English-language scholarly journal published in China by the Sun Yat-sen Foundation. But even prior to that article his reputation had already spread overseas. In 1936, Chen Sanli was one of two representatives of Chinese lettres invited to attend the International Writers’ Conference in London: Hu Shi, as a representative the new literature, and Chen, representing the old. Chen did not take up the invitation, possibly because he was too old by that point to travel. See Zheng Yimei 郑逸梅, Yilin sanye 艺林散叶 (Scattered leaves from the grove of literature and art) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1982), p. 326.

[9] Examples are Ma Yazhong 马亚中, Zhongguo Jindai Shige Shi 中国近代诗歌史 (A History of Chinese poetry from the recent historical era) (Taipei: Xuesheng shuju, 1992); Wei Zhonglin 魏中林, ed. and comp., Qian Zhonglian Jianglun Qing shi 钱仲联讲论清诗 (Qian Zhonglian lectures on Qing poetry) (Suzhou: Suzhou daxue, 2004), 178 pps.

[10] Modern Archaics, p. 241. See also the excellent thesis by Taiwanese scholar Wu Shanshan 吴姗姗, Chen Yan shixue yanjiu jian lun wan Qing Tongguang ti 陈衍诗学研究兼论晚清同光体 (A study of Chen Yan’s poetics including of a discourse on the Tongguang style of the late Qing], PhD diss. (National Cheng-kung University, 2006), pp. 296-300. Wu Shanshan argues that Tongguang poetry is not simply a descendant of Song poetry, nor does it “uphold Song poetry”; in fact, “if we study Tongguang Style poetry from the point of view of Song poetry, it limits [our understanding of] the significance and evolution of the Tongguang Style within late-Qing poetry” (i-iii). She further holds that “the turning point of modern Chinese literature” came not with the the Revolution in the World of Poetics advocated by Liang Qichao and put into practice by Huang Zunxian et al, but rather in the classical poetry of the Tongguang Style (iii). At her defense, she was advised to remove two of the most controversial sections from her dissertation, one challenging the notion that Chen Yan was a stalwart of the Song School, the other which critiques Qian Zhonglian’s understanding of (and in her words “opposition to”) Chen Yan, which I have urged her to restore for publication.

[11] In The Subtle Revolution, I look briefly at Chen Yan, not just as a critic but also as a poet (pp. 153-167). I do not find him as stodgy as he might seem at first glance, but view him more as a precursor to the modernity articulated by Chen Sanli than as a conduit.

[12] See his polemical essay ‘Ying yi’ yu ‘wenxue de jieji xing’ “硬译”与“文学的阶级性 ” (‘Hard Translation’ and the ‘Class Character of Literature’) in Lu Xun quanji 鲁迅全集 (Complete works of Lu Xun) 16 vols. (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 1981) 4: 199-200. For an English translation by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, see Lu Xun Selected Works 4 vols. (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980) 3: 80-82.

[13] This verse quoted in Wu, p. 339. I have modified Wu’s translation to make it more literal.

[14] Quoted in its entirety by Wu, p. 334. The translation here is more my own.

[15] This refers to a style of English used by Burns and others in poetry to suggest a folksy form of spoken English then in use in Scotland.

[16] Wu cites Leihong Sheng’s 泪红生 tribute Ji Manshu shangren 记曼殊上人 (An account of Venerable Master Manshu) in Liu Wuji 柳无忌, ed. Manshu quanji 曼殊全集 (Complete works of Su Manshu) (Shanghai: Beixin shuju, 1934), vol. 4, 130-140.

[17] As Lu Xun put it in his preface to Jiwai ji 集外集 (Collection of the uncollected): “以后又受了章太炎先生的影響, 古了起来” (Later [i.e. after reading Yan Fu] I was influenced by Mr. Zhang Taiyan and got ‘ancient’). See Lu Xun quanji   鲁迅全集 (Complete works of Lu Xun) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 1981) 7: 4. See also Jon Eugene von Kowallis, Warriors of the Spirit: ‘On the Power of Mara Poetry’ and Other Early Wenyan Essays by Lu Xun (Berkeley: University of California, Institute of East Asian Studies, China Research Monographs, forthcoming).

[18] These have been treated in greater detail by Chu Chi Yu (Zhu Zhiyu), who compares them with translations of Byron done by Ma Junwu 马君武 (1881-1940) and Hu Shi (1891-1962), see Chu’s chapter “Lord Byron’s ‘The Isles of Greece’: First Translations” in D E Pollard, ed. Translation and Creation: Readings of Western Literature in Early Modern China, 1840-1918 (Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1998), pp. 79-104. Ma Junwu took considerations of form even farther, translating into regulated verse (律诗), a much more demanding form in terms of prosody than “ancient style” (古诗) used by Su or the sao ti 骚体 (style of the elegies of Chu) used by Hu Shi.

[19] Although Zhou Zuoren does not mention it in his memoirs nor does Lu Xun in the preface to Nahan, Masuda Wataru 增田涉 wrote in Rojin no Inshō (Impressions of Lu Xun) that Lu Xun told him Su Manshu had been his friend and was to have been one of their collaborators in the abortive journal New Life (新生). See Lu Xun de Yinxiang 鲁迅的印象, Zhong Jingwen 钟敬文 trans. (Changsha: Hunan renmin, 1980), pp. 47-8.

[20] Xuan Yuan is an alternative name for the Yellow Emperor—then thought of as the progenitor of the Han race. For a discussion of the dating, symbols, literal and figurative translations of this poem, see The Lyrical Lu Xun, pp. 100-107.

[21] See Zhang Xiangtian, Lu Xun jiu shi jian zhu 鲁迅旧诗笺注 (Exegeses and commentaries on Lu Xun’s classical-style poetry) (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin, 1962), p. 35.  Zhang suggests that the image of the shen shi 神矢 may have come from the description of the death of Lara in Byron’s poem by the same name: “Why sudden droops that plumed crest? / The shaft is sped—the arrow’s in his breast!” (Lara, Canto II, XV, 13-14).

[22] Here Lu Xun would appear to be describing the Xiang River running red with blood. The full text is 昔闻湘水碧如染,今闻湘水胭脂痕。湘灵妆成照相水, 皎如皓月窥彤云。高丘寂寞竦中夜,芳荃零落无余春。鼓完瑶瑟人不闻,太平成象盈秋门。It appears under the title Ode to the Xiang River Goddess (湘灵歌) in Lu Xun quanji (The complete works of Lu Xun) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 1981) 7: 146. For a translation and exegesis of the poem, see The Lyrical Lu Xun, pp. 162-167.

[23] The book was never published and the manuscript lost.

[24] “On Unbalanced Cultural Development” (文化偏至), “On the Power of Mara Poetry” (摩罗诗力说), “Toward a Refutation of Malevolent Voices” (破恶声论). See Lu Xun quanji (1981) 1: 44-62; 1:63-115; 8: 23-37. The third of these essays was translated into English and annotated by Jon Eugene von Kowallis in the US journal boundary 2 38, no. 2 (Summer 2011), pp. 39-62.

[25] Originally published in Qiejieting Zawen且介亭杂文 (Essays from demi-concession studio), in Lu Xun quanji 鲁迅全集(1981) 6:39-40. The title of the essay is sometimes translated as “Grabbism,” but “The Take-over Policy” is the Yangs’ version of the title; for their translation, see Lu Xun Selected Works (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980), 4: 51-53.

[26] For instance, she tells us Wu Mi does not use the self-denigrating term 妾—“your concubine”—for the first-person “I,” unlike the other translators (p. 371).

[27] Lit. “On new thoughts, make ancient verses.”

[28] Lit. “Using newly-come brilliant ideas, fashion beauteous works in ancient styles.”