Chinese Poetic Modernisms

Edited by Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke

Reviewed by Joanna Krenz

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2019)

Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke, eds., Chinese Poetic Modernisms Leiden: Brill, 2019. ISBN: 978-90-04-40289-8 (e-book); 978-90-04-40288-1 (cloth).

Among academic publications, the title Chinese Poetic Modernisms does not stand out as particularly controversial or experimental; at first glance, it may even strike one as being somewhat mundane. Yet, one need only read a few paragraphs of the Introduction, by editors Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke, to see that the formula of “Chinese poetic modernisms” is anything but conventional. Each of its three main conceptual components—Chineseness, poeticness, and modernism(s)—alone can provoke endless discussion and debate, not to mention the plethora of contested terms associated with these concepts and their multiple configurations and contextualizations. The fourteen scholars whose contributions are included in the book confront the idea of Chinese poetic modernisms from various, sometimes radically different angles, which add up to a dynamic, multidimensional picture of modernist practice in Chinese poetry.

Things start out unexpectedly with the first essay by Tsinghua University professor Lan Dizhi 蓝棣之 (translated by Manfredi), which sets the stage for the entire volume. After a thorough survey of the evolution of Modernist (现代派) poetry, Lan summarizes the central subject of his study, and of the entire volume, in the following way:

Looking at their [Chinese Modernists poets’] social position and way of thinking, they were upper-class petty bourgeois members of society. What is called “modern life” really amounted to living in the socially wrapped half-feudal, semi-colonial environment. What they referred to as “modern emotion” was really just sentimentalist, confused, hypersensitive, hallucinatory nihilism. It has long been said that there is only one kind of health, while there are myriad forms of sickness. The Modernists’ poetry gives the reader these myriad forms, allowing decadent emotions to spread, delighting in pain, remorse, tears, and romanticizing sadness. (33)

This immensely erudite essay was written in the mid-1980s and constitutes intriguing evidence of the struggle of the inquiring mind in an era of “one kind of health.” It would have little chance to reach English-speaking audiences if not for Manfredi and Lupke’s unprejudiced reconnaissance in mainland-Chinese scholarship and their, well, rather unobvious decision to include it in the volume.

A crucial advantage of the book is its lack of bias and diversity of perspectives. On the opposite conceptual pole to Lan’s (mainland-)bird’s-eye-view piece, one finds the minute world-in-a-grain-of-sand style essay by Lisa Lai-ming Wong, who discusses modernist poetry through Taiwanese and Hong Kong authors’ linguistic experiments with seemingly meaningless measure words. The question of “poeticness” concerns Dian Li as he diagnoses “nostalgia bugs” (85) on the modern Chinese literary scene in his essay on classical echoes in New Poetry (新诗). Finally, the discussion on “Chineseness” emerges in Jacob Edmond’s chapter, which explores the artistic collaboration between Yang Lian 杨炼 and John Cayley and, even more forcefully, in Lucas Klein’s chapter devoted to Xi Chuan’s 西川poetry, in which Klein challenges a co-contributor to the volume, Michelle Yeh. I return to their polemic later; here let me just mention that Klein’s study refers to an essay by Yeh’s included in a previous volume edited by Lupke, New Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Poetry (2007). Besides Yeh and Chineseness, several other names of contributors and discussed poets, and a couple of topics in Chinese Poetic Modernisms overlap with Lupke’s earlier book, providing yet new perspectives on the then-new perspectives, which allows us to see the two publications as a miniature of the vigorous, constantly self-reevaluating discourse on Chinese poetry.

Chinese Poetic Modernisms consists of fourteen chapters organized into three roughly chronological and geographically-oriented parts encompassing respectively: pre-PRC China of the first half of the twentieth century (Part 1); Taiwan since the 1950s (Part 2); and post-Mao mainland China (Part 4); Part 3 “Bridging Borders in Contemporary Poetry,” spans the literary realities addressed in parts 2 and 4, drawing Hong Kong into the picture and offering intercultural comparison between Sinophone and Anglophone poetic modernisms.

Part 1 begins with the above-cited chapter by Lan, “The Origins and the Development of the Modernist Poets” published in 1985 as an introduction to his anthology of modernist Chinese poetry. In Lan’s study, the term “Modernism,” as the capital “M” in the English translation would suggest, is mostly used in a narrow sense—that is, as a more or less consistent vision of poetry that emerges from literary writing and the meta-textual commentary of the authors associated with the group Xiandaipai 现代派 (modernism, modernist school), centered around the journal Xiandai 现代 (Les Contemporains) launched by Shi Zhecun 施蛰存 in 1932. However, Lan also very precisely situates their activity within a broader context of Chinese New Poetry in the first half of the twentieth century, which in international scholarship is sometimes labelled (the first wave of) Chinese modernist poetry. Giving relatively little attention to foreign sources informing the poetics of the journal’s contributors, he focuses chiefly on localizing them within the literary discourse of early Republican China, with reference to May Fourth poetry, Symbolism (象征派), the Creation Society (创造社), and the Crescent Moon group (新月派).

Lan identifies several dominant tendencies of the Modernist poets, describing their poetry as anti-lyrical, anti-rational, and anti-improvisational/anti-inspirational, which often goes hand in hand with the perceived incomprehensibility of their poems. Although anything but absolute or universally applicable, these categories do constitute good starting points for the discussion of the Modernist texts, as well as for the larger discussion of twentieth-century Chinese poetry, which in the following decades would often define and divide itself vis-à-vis said tendencies.

Géraldine Fiss’s essay, “From Du Fu to Rilke and Back: Feng Zhi’s Modernist Aesthetic and Poetic Practice,” is an impressive case study of a poet Lan describes as “not strictly speaking a member of the Modernist group, [but whose] trajectory overlaps in many places with Modernist writers” (35). Based on extensive textual and metatextual research, Fiss demonstrates how Feng Zhi, through his engagement with Rilke’s literary thought and poetic practice, discovered for himself the mysteries of Goethe’s work, and how through Rilke and Goethe he rediscovered Du Fu, tracing what she calls “inner resonances” between the German Romantic poet and the Chinese ancient poet in their artistic explorations of the “open secret” of nature, to use Goethe’s phrase.

Building on Fiss’s observations, one might add to the already complex map of traveling ideas the fact that the concept of looking for such cross-cultural and cross-epochal resonances resonates with Goethe’s project of Weltliteratur, which, in its turn, was developed partly as a result of Goethe’s delving into Chinese fiction. Moreover, Goethe accessed the Chinese texts in debatable (mostly French) translations, which brings to mind the case of Ezra Pound, whose (mis)conception of Chinese language and literature in various ways translated back to Chinese modernisms, a topic addressed in Jacob Edmond’s chapter in the last part of the volume (discussed below).

Whereas Fiss’s essay offers a compelling study of the dynamic of intertextual space-time, Yanhong Zhu’s “Drama-tic Synthesis: Time, Memory, and History in the Writings of the Nine Leaves Poets” focuses on the structural transformations of poetic space-time from an intratextual perspective. Zhu examines implicit and explicit poetics of the nine poets associated with the informal group called Nine Leaves (九叶派). In the literary-philosophical frame, the term “drama-tic” refers to the poets’ “spectacular and striking re-thinking of time, memory, and history” (59), which was inspired by Western modernism and, indirectly, by developments in science—namely, Einstein’s theory of relativity and the emergence of quantum physics. This reflection translates into the “drama-tic-ness” of poetic forms employed by the Nine Leaves poets, which draw on theatrical concepts, adopting a polyphonic structure and a nonlinear, multilayered, and fluid vision of space-time.

Zhu discusses literary-critical writings, especially those by Yuan Kejia 袁可嘉, the most prolific theorist among the Nine Leaves authors, and provides a quick but wide-ranging survey of representative poems in which the theoretical postulates are reflected. Although the author was perhaps constricted by word counts, it would have been interesting to read an analysis of one or two entire poems to see how this fluctuating space-time informed by physics and the theater is recreated in/through spaciotemporal, or physical, attributes of the text, e.g. stanzaic composition, line lengths, line breaks, prosody, and rhythm, etc.

Stimulating reflections on “form as content” are prominently foregrounded in the last chapter of Part 1, “The Classical Echo in Chinese Poetry,” by Dian Li. At the beginning, Li makes several original and rhetorically effective, but perhaps too nonchalant statements. For example, he diagnoses in [some] contemporary poetry an “unsettling nostalgia . . . in which one is nostalgic about something from which one wishes to break away” (85), with “something” referring to classical poetic forms. To illustrate this, Li invokes Wang Xiaoni’s 王小妮 piece “Poeticness of Today” (今天的诗意).[1] I submit that taking the piece in question as manifestation of Wang’s nostalgic feelings or a symptom of her being bitten by a “nostalgia bug” is hardly justifiable.  In the talk, Wang Xiaoni indeed extensively dwells on classical landscape poetry, yet her musings are not tantamount to eulogizing ancient Chinese verse; instead, she presents a litany of doubts. If there is nostalgia in her words, it is nostalgia for the landscapes as such and for nature, which has been destroyed by humans, rather than nostalgia for poems that describe it. Wang speaks of the limited capacity of old poems, which could not embrace everyday experience, and of the misleading interdependence of the triad Truth, Goodness, and Beauty underlying classical poetics. “I have always doubted good words and good phrases, and ‘Truth, Goodness, and Beauty,’”[2] she confesses. Compared to classical poetry, Wang claims to see more “poeticness” in stories recorded in classical prose (e.g. in A New Account of the Tales of the World世说新语), which were not deemed beautiful enough to be given a place in poems. When the ancient poetic tradition was overthrown, she argues, “the door of new poeticness opened widely,”[3] and elsewhere reiterating even more forcefully: “today, when [formal] constraints no longer play a role, there’s even more poeticness than in ancient poetry.”[4]

Objections might be raised also in regard to Li’s initial diagnosis of the condition of New Poetry at large, whose development is compared to “the case of an infant’s identity formation in the language of Lacanian psychology: that the infant’s self depends on autonomy from the parents’ watchful eyes and is wrought in insatiable nostalgia for the mother’s womb” (85), with the mother’s womb metaphorically referring to classical poetry. This infanti(li)zation of Chinese verse reminds me of the famous psychoanalytical study of Chinese society The Country of Giant Infants (巨婴国) by Wu Zhihong武志红. The book itself is important and uncompromisingly eye-opening, but its language, which befits an analysis of mass behavior, is not necessarily suitable for discussing poetry writing, an activity that is often very intimate and, by and large, painstakingly self-conscious, even if scholars sometimes patronizingly suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, what follows in Li’s chapter after these controversial statements are many instances of insightful, nuanced, well-informed close readings of poems by Li Jinfa 李金髮, Wen Yiduo 闻一多, Feng Zhi, Han Dong 韩东, and Luo Fu 罗夫, and a masterful examination of the unique function of the sonnet genre in Chinese New Poetry. These microanalyses beautifully show how the classical “ideas of order and regulation and the intertext of affinity continue to spur poetic inspiration” (103). Taking a step back from psychoanalytical revelations, he assures:

What the Chinese modernist poets share is this consciousness of the classical with which they constantly experiment and innovate in poetic forms and expressions. The results of their experiments and innovations are not the rigidity and uniformity of the New Poem, but the elevation of individuality in the versification of the poet and her every poem, a celebrated aesthetic value dear to any form of modernism. (103)

Part 2 opens with Michelle Yeh’s chapter “Xia Yu and the Modernist Tradition in Taiwan.” Yeh sketches an overview of the six modernist moments in Chinese literature with special focus on Taiwan to situate Xia Yu’s 夏宇 work as a poet who “continued modernist tradition and took it to a new height” (112). Abundant in textual examples and interpretations, Yeh’s reflection centers on the analysis of the creation of a female persona in the poet’s work starting from her 1984 collection Memoranda (备忘录). This persona is characterized as a cosmopolitan urban woman, “endearingly childlike in her defiance, vulnerability, and whimsical acts; and boldly and explicitly sexualized” (113).

Yeh argues that although Xia is usually considered a pioneer of postmodernism in China, her work owes much to modernist aesthetics, which is visible in her attention to the integrity of form and content, among other things. The essay ends with a thesis that may become a good starting point for another essay. Yeh suggests that if we were to find a counterpart for Xia in modern fiction, it might be Eileen Chang (张爱玲). In the earlier book edited by Lupke, Andrea Lingenfelter discussed Xia in comparison with a mainland Chinese contemporary poet Zhai Yongming 翟永明. Perhaps in a future volume, we might find Xia paired up with Chang, revealing some irresolvable but productive tensions between these two strong artistic personalities.

Chen Fangming’s 陈方明 chapter “Yu Guangzhong’s Modernist Spirit: from In Time of Cold War to Tug of War with Eternity,” translated by Thomas Moran, reexamines the work of one of the best-known Taiwan poets and his role in the shaping of Taiwan’s modernism. Chen identifies two distinct phases of Yu Guangzhong’s 余光中 oeuvre, with the collections Associations of the Lotus (莲的联想, 1964) and In Time of Cold War (在冷战的年代, 1969) as the turning point between them. The early period is marked with nihilism, whereas the mature work reflects the author’s affirmative attitude. Unlike his fellow Taiwan poets influenced by Western modernism, Yu did not adopt the aesthetics of rupture (断裂) and alienation (疏离) but advocated connecting (衔接) and rescuing and redeeming (救赎) instead. In his critical and selective employment of modernist techniques, he always strived to protect the integrity of the self against modern fragmentation and emphasized the importance of subjective consciousness as “the product of the interaction between the self and the objective world” (137).

By the same token, Yu’s poetry never revolved around the experience of exile, be it physical or intellectual, argues Chen, and actively sought ways of returning to cultural roots common to Taiwan and mainland China. As is well known, many have misinterpreted this as a form of political activism, and Yu’s poetry, cited occasionally by mainland leaders as an argument in favor of integrating Taiwan into the PRC, has been dragged into political discourse against the author’s intention. Chen’s refreshing reading of the oeuvre of the “old master” from Taiwan who passed away in 2017 at the age of 89 and whose most engaging war was “a tug of war with eternity” based on his conviction that “what we give to the grave / is less important than / what we give to history” (146) allows us to inscribe Yu’s work in the broader context of world literature. Chen’s narrative makes me think, for example, of Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004). In his 93-years, spent largely in emigration and surrounded by political controversy, Miłosz travelled a similarly solitary path from catastrophism and negation to almost mystical affirmation and the persistent hope that he would one day see “the lining of the world / The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset / The true meaning, ready to be decoded”; if it should turn out that there is no such lining, “there will remain / A word wakened by lips that perish, / A tireless messenger who runs and runs / Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies, / And calls out, protests, screams.”[5] A book review is not a wish list and one can imagine that the volume under review certainly consumed tremendous amounts of time and energy, but if one day, after a well-deserved break, the editors think of a sequel, reserving some space for a rendezvous between Yu and Miłosz in their poetic traveling through interstellar fields might be another proposition to consider. Lupke’s essay on Yeats and Chinese poets offers a helpful methodological background for organizing such “cross-galactic” comparative enterprises.[6]

Ruan Meihui’s  (阮美慧) study, “Li and Modernism: the Development of a Poetry Journal,” translated by Yvonne Jia-Raye Yo and Paul Manfredi, is another absorbing tale of the maturing of modernist discourse in Taiwan, narrated from the perspective of a literary journal Li 笠, meaning literally “bamboo hat.” Taking into consideration Western and Japanese influences and, most important, the local nativist element, Ruan shows how Li’s authors’ realist-oriented poetics emerged in the 1960s as a reaction to the dominant formalist tendency in Taiwan’s modernist poetry at the time. The latter tendency, though inspired by European surrealism (which had aspirations for social reform), in Taiwan manifested itself as pure poetic artistry carefreely detached from reality.

One may of course take issue with Ruan’s categorical assessment of this pre-Li Taiwanese formalist-surrealist poetry as suffering from a “meaningless obsession with the inner emotional experience of the poet” (177). Still, it would be difficult to doubt that Li “opened up a new page in Taiwanese modernism” (169) and set “Taiwan poetry on a path of thoughtful and yet defiantly self-aware development” (177). To illustrate this novel contribution to the development of Taiwanese modernist poetry, Ruan presents two suggestive examples of concrete poetry published in Li: “The Picture of Water Buffalo” (水牛图) by Zhan Bing 詹冰 and “The Viscera-Bursting Tree” (爆裂肚脏的树) by Bai Qiu 白萩 that embody the fusion of creative form with philosophical content and “historical Taiwanese consciousness” (176).

Nikky Lin’s chapter “The Poetics of Exile: the Cases of Shang Qin and Bei Dao,” which opens Part 3, does—as the editors note in the introduction—“what few scholars seem willing to do: it compares a Taiwanese poet with a contemporary mainland Chinese poet” (12). The two authors are so frequently discussed in the context of exile and related discourses, such as emigration or escape, that one could hardly expect to read something new, but Lin’s study demonstrates that bringing them together is indeed a productive venture that allows her to revisit and reassess crucial concerns and techniques of their writing. Lin starts from an analysis of the selected works of Shang Qin 商禽 and Bei Dao 北岛that project the experience of dislocation and then moves to a discussion of poems that process this experience and turn it into a source of creativity. The second part of the essay focuses specifically on two tropes: metamorphosis (in Shang Qin) and interruption (in Bei Dao), which Lin identifies as “the primary impulses that inspired their literary creation” (198). Deploying these master tropes allows for an effective rereading of some of the poets’ signature works, including Shang Qin’s “Pond” (池塘) and Bei Dao’s “Untitled” (无题).

As the conceptual framework of her study, Lin cites Edward Said’s writing on exile as “both actual and metaphorical condition,” which prompts her to examine “how the poets’ descriptions of “exile” are not only the reflections of their own personal experiences, but also serve as models to explore universality of the human condition” (182). This statement is a bit misleading and perhaps needlessly diverts attention from the author’s perceptive interpretations of Shang Qin’s and Bei Dao’s texts. For both poets, as we learn from Lin’s work, explorations of the universal dimension of exile actually precede their attempts at processing their own individual lived experience of exile. Moreover, these explorations are abandoned, or at least radically redefined, when this universal perspective becomes a concrete landscape of their lives. In Bei Dao’s early poetry, written before he settled abroad in 1989, the exilic mode is indeed what the lyrical subject sees as a desirable metaphorical condition, a liberating mental detachment from social-political reality. However, when this metaphorical condition turns into a hard fact and his physical banishment begins, it brings sudden disenchantment. A similar thing can be said about Shang Qin. During the first years after his escape to Taiwan, when the GMD government was busy “devoting itself to establishing the legitimate status of China and the myth of nation-building” (184), and many poets hastened to express their support for the authorities with patriotic verse, Shang Qin eschewed expressions of nationalist sentiment. Instead, he created a type of prose poem in which he introduces himself as a citizen of the Universe, interpreted by Lin as a vision of the world without national boundaries. The exilic condition of nonbelonging offers a promise of universal freedom. But as time passed and Shang Qin was increasingly haunted by nostalgia, he started to consider exile as a burden to be coped with, rather than nurtured, through writing.

For both Bei Dao and Shang Qin, the alluring metaphor of “exile” based on abstract analogy and a clear-cut dialectical topology, which Lin in her interpretation of Bei Dao’s Obscure poetry describes as “I” and “world” separated by an “unbridgeable chasm” (191), at some point exhausts itself. It gives way to more meticulous mechanisms that follow different rules and produce different patterns in every individual poem. This metonymical mode, as we might call it, leads to the establishing of a system of dynamic relations between the world and the (poetic) text, in which the text can function variously as a miniature, an extension, a reflection, a re-enactment, or reconfiguration of extratextual reality through language and literary imagery. By employing these artistic strategies, the authors try to turn the existentially disadvantageous situation to their advantage, if only in artistic and cognitive terms, as something that helps “open the third eye,” to quote the famous initial line from Bei Dao’s “Untitled.” These minute transformations, beautifully captured in Lin’s essay, speak for themselves, and Lin could easily forgo Said’s universals, which actually obscure rather than advance our understanding.

The theme of exile as a writing strategy returns in Christopher Lupke’s “National Myth and Global Aesthetics: Reading Yeats alongside Chinese Poetic Modernism,” which proposes a juxtaposition of the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the works of three Sinophone poets representing different geographical locales, different literary generations, and different styles: Wu Xinghua 吴兴华, Luo Fu, and Xiao Kaiyu 萧开愚. In his “alongside” reading, Lupke identifies as common denominator the four poets’ exilic status within the globalized mainstream culture and their artistic strategy of blending elements from this culture “with the more particular and idiosyncratic mythic lore” (209) of their (spiritual) homelands. As in mathematical operations, this common denominator allows for efficient comparisons of their poetics and combining them into a bigger transnational picture.

At the same time, Lupke is fairly forthright about the many limitations of his undertaking; he makes clear distinctions and cautions against “too forced a comparison” (213) and consistently resists the temptation of easy simplifications and generalizations. Lupke’s essay powerfully reminds us that the history of literature is a history of shared concerns and questions and not universal codes or solutions that can be easily transplanted or copied from one culture to another. If Western modernism somehow attracted Chinese authors, it is arguably because that modernism was itself disoriented and replete with fresh ruptures and old scars, and not because it could miraculously heal them from their “myriad forms of sickness,” as Lan Dizhi puts it.

Lisa Lai-ming Wong invites us to explore how these shared concerns and questions stimulate the dynamic of one of the most specifically Chinese particles of the Chinese language—measure words. Her chapter, “Measure Words Not for Measure: a Linguistic Experiment in Modern Chinese Poetry,” aims to show “how modern poets have used measure words—an almost invisible part of speech that has no lexical import—to achieve a desired suddenness through ungrammatical usage and unfamiliar collocation” (240). As a result of their creative use, notes Wong, this part of speech underwent a shift “from its normal function of measurement to a new performative role as the vehicle for a twist in vision” (240).

The essay constitutes an exquisite record of her illuminating close—almost microscopic—readings of Taiwan- and Hong Kong-based poets: Shang Qin, Luo Fu, Liang Bingjun 梁秉钧 (Leung Ping-kwan, pen name Ye Si 也斯), Huai Yuan 淮远, Zheng Chouyu 郑愁予, and Xi Xi 西西. Through Wong’s eyes, we can see how measure words convey the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong in Liang’s “Russell Street”; how they reflect the anxiety of Hong Kongers after the 1997 Handover in Huai’s “Apart from These” (此外); how they recreate the sound of rain and the feeling of emptiness in Luo’s “Following the Sound of Rain Into a Mountain But Rain Is Nowhere to Be Seen” (随雨声入山而不见雨) and a fragmentation of the human body and identity in his “Death of a Stone Cell” (石室之死亡); how they conjure up a romantic mood in Zheng’s “Night at North Point” (北角之夜); how they reenact the triumph of good over evil in Shang’s “Water Hyacinth” (水葫芦); and, finally, how in “Can I Say?” (可不可以说) under Xi Xi’s pen, they produce a “celebration of the vernacular in everyday life” and spawn a vision of “an innocent world without a sense of distinction or hierarchy but full of imaginative alternatives” (256).

To engage with the first two chapters in Part 4, authored respectively by Nick Admussen and Jacob Edmond, one needs some theoretical orientation in the digital humanities and more. Both urge readers to rethink the assumptions and conceptualizations that underlie our methodological approaches to (Chinese) literature and propose concrete methods to re(de)fine these approaches.

Admussen’s chapter, “Network Analysis as a Modernist Intervention: The Case of Chinese Poetry Readings,” critically reexamines the increasingly popular network theory, which Admussen presents not as an objective, neutral, and transparent hermeneutical method, as many of its proponents claim, but rather as a form of symbolic violence. “[T]he method of the isolation and abstraction is itself a cultural product, perhaps the cultural product par excellence: in deciding what to leave out and what to conceptualize, network analysis performs transformative and generative cultural work” (265), warns Admussen. To substantiate his argument, he embarks on a thorough meta-analysis of Franco Moretti’s reading of the Chinese classical novel The Story of the Stone (红楼梦) by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹, showing to what extent the outcome of network analysis reflects the axioms of the method itself rather than worthy insights into the book’s plot and its cultural background.

Nonetheless, acknowledging the epistemological potential of network analysis despite its self-evident shortcomings, Admussen envisions possible ways of fixing the methodology to enable a greater flexibility of networks and increase their compatibility with specific local conditions. He uses poetry readings in China as an example of a phenomenon whose understanding might benefit from applying a fine-tuned network analysis. A brilliant association leads him to the Internet Movie Database, which offers a multimodal, polyvalent, individualized, and self-updating data storing and processing system; IMDB efficiently maps the movie industry as such, including multiple roles and mutual interactions of multiple agents (“edges” and “nodes” in network theory), and embraces the complex interplay between artistic undertakings and critical discourse. Admussen proposes to incorporate elements of the IMDB model into network analysis. Even China scholars who do not share Admussen’s enthusiasm about quantitative methods in literary research will have many reasons to enthusiastically welcome his proposition as a rare example of an approach in which Chinese literature—and Chinese Studies—become not just a passive recipient but a source of more broadly applicable methods that may serve researchers beyond the field of sinology.

This last remark applies also to Edmond’s essay. His “Modernist Waves: Yang Lian, John Cayley, and the Location of Global Modernism in the Digital Age” critically and creatively builds on Moretti’s work, among others. Edmond examines the wave metaphor from Moretti’s earlier literary-critical studies that renders the apparent plurality of global modernisms as “the result of ‘interference’ produced when essentially the same literary form, such as the novel or modernism, washes into a new language, culture, and tradition” (284).

Edmond’s reflection is inspired by Yang’s long poem “Where the See Stands Still” (大海停止之处) and its hypermedial interpretation by Cayley. For Yang, the wave, represented in his writing through constant formal and conceptual repetitions, iterations and reconfigurations of various materials, is a figure that conveys the fluidity of space-time locations. Cayley, in his turn, is fascinated by the image of interfering light waves, which helps him disassemble fixed coordinates in the virtual space of the World Wide Web. When Yang’s and Cayley’s “waves” encounter one another, demonstrates Edmond, they create yet another pattern of interference. This observation is conceptually extended to cover encounters of cultures in general, leading the author to call for a paradigm shift in literary studies. A new paradigm should encompass “waves without a medium and waves that are also particles.” Translated from physics into the language of humanities, this means specifically that

we need the double vision to see each singular instance of modernism and its many wavelike iterations: to see literary history neither as a series of isolated events nor merely as a history of influence. But we can only do this if we stop thinking about a place, language, culture, or tradition—such as China, Chinese, or Chinese literature—or a medium (print, digital, oral) as the fixed background through which the modernist wave propagates and start treating these concepts as in themselves wavelike processes, whose mutual interferences are registered in the diffraction patterns of individual literary works. (303)

Yang’s poem in its various incarnations, and Edmond’s essay on Yang’s poem, are important voices in the discussion of the relationship between Chineseness and modernness that has vexed and divided participants as well as commentators on the Chinese literary scene. It was ignited by Stephen Owen’s critical remarks on the lack of Chineseness in Chinese contemporary poetry in his essay “What Is World Poetry? The Anxiety of Global Influence” (1990).[7] In “There Are No Camels in the Koran” included in New Perspectives, Michelle Yeh responded to what she called an “obsession with Chineseness” among China scholars, Chinese literary critics, and Chinese authors themselves, questioning the concept of literature as representation and the demand for authenticity among Western readers.[8] She urged us to replace the question “what is Chinese about Modern Chinese poetry” with “what is modern about Modern Chinese poetry.” Lucas Klein responds critically to Yeh’s essay (from Lupke’s New Perspectives) in the initial section of his chapter “Annotating Aporias of History: the ‘International Style’, Chinese Modernism, and World Literature in Xi Chuan’s Poetry.” Klein assesses what he characterizes as “blithe cosmopolitanism” (306-307) in Yeh’s work and sets out to unmask inconsistencies in her reasoning.

True enough, Yeh’s argument may at times appear unclear if not chaotic, but Yeh’s sensibilities are arguably very much in line with those of Xi Chuan, whose works Klein so expertly writes about in this chapter and elsewhere. I sense a kindred emotionality between Yeh’s interventional essay and Xi Chuan’s poems such as “Don’t Strip Me of My Complexity” (不要剥夺我的复杂性).[9] On that note, history tells us that, used derogatorily, the notion of “cosmopolitanism” may easily turn into a ruthless rhetorical weapon (think, for instance, of the Soviet antisemitic campaigns against “rootless cosmopolitanism,” or even of the nationalistically-oriented political discourse of many modern countries), so it should be mobilized no less cautiously than, say, “Chineseness” and many other concepts that are fraught with the high risk of essentialization.

Yeh’s roundabout argumentation and Borges’s problematic interpretation of the Koran aside, I do not think she cites—in Klein’s words—“an Argentine on the Koran for the authority to reject Chineseness” (306), that is, to reject Chineseness as such; rather, she dismisses it as a critical and epistemological category because it does no justice to the heterogeneity and dynamism of Chinese culture. Her questions—“Why is there recurrent anxiety about the lack of Chineseness in Modern Chinese Poetry? Why does the linguistic register alone . .  fail to convince critics of its Chineseness?”[10]—indicate that she considers Chineseness as something inscribed, among other things, in the very Chinese language and thus immediately obvious to its native users, yet at the same time having as many variants and hues as the Chinese language has speakers (and writers). This is analogous, I believe, to what Borges described as “the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color” (in Klein, 306) and does not “misappl[y] Borges’s point” (306). Put differently, Chineseness should not be taken as something that limits its “bearers” and stands in conflict with their freedom of linguistic and artistic self-expression. It feeds into their works but their works, too, feed back into its gradually evolving structures negotiated among all individuals. Understanding it in this way—I think not far from Yeh’s intention—one avoids the danger of reifying Chineseness or re-consecrating it as “as the product of the past rather than the present” (307), about which Klein is concerned.

In any event, Klein, who recently published a monograph that demonstrates how Chineseness has been consistently constructed through translation,[11] is definitely not a person who would want to strip Chinese poetry of its complexity, and his chapter on Xi Chuan confirms this. He refers extensively to the International Style in architecture, taking it as a starting point for his reflection on (Chinese) “modernism [which] is already broadly postmodernist from the get-go” (319). Both modernism and postmodernism, he proposes, are in reality “two steps in the same historical movement of post-Romanticism” (319). Following Eliot Weinberger, he calls for inclusive understanding of modernism as a notion rooted in history and embracing specific cultural geographies without detracting from their uniqueness. Klein’s familiarity with Chinese literature at large and with the evolution of Xi Chuan’s poetry is exceptional, as is his “negotiating the relationship between local and universal logic” (335), to borrow from his own description of Xi Chuan.

After thirteen chapters focusing largely on the interactions among cultures, the final chapter directs our attention to another important aspect of modernist practice—namely, correspondences among the arts. In the essay “Modernist Literati: Abstract Art of Contemporary Chinese Poets,” Paul Manfredi examines the artistic practice of three authors: poet-cum-painters Lü De’an 吕德安 and Xu Demin 许德民, and poet-cum-photographer Yang Xiaobin 杨小滨 who have successfully restored or, indeed, reinvented the ancient tradition of poetry and painting as “sister arts.” Manfredi’s focus is specifically on the marriage of modern poetry with abstract expressionism, making a case that “abstraction is actually quite in line with a traditional literatus’s self-positioning outside (or alongside) ideological directives of the time” (338). In the twentieth century, the sisters were separated as a result of various cultural and historical circumstances. Sometimes fate treated painting more kindly than poetry—for example. after the May Fourth reforms, when “poets were left to attempt renewal without the benefit of change in media” (341); sometimes it was the other way round, such as during and shortly after Cultural Revolution, when poetry enjoyed more freedom, “largely because, unlike the materiality of plastic arts, it leaves minimal trace in either space or time” (343). Today, the visual arts have risen to prominence, and poetry “is often relegated to last place in a pantheon of creative genres. Thus, poetry’s engagement with a visual mode is part reinvigoration, part rescue plan for a genre that has struggled against the tide for many decades” (342).

Bearing in mind how vigorous the contemporary Chinese poetry scene is, and how much verse is produced beyond this scene at the grassroots level of Chinese society, I find it difficult to subscribe to Manfredi’s sceptical assessment of poetry’s status in China. At any rate, whatever the motivation behind this reunion of the sisters was, his subsequent expert analyses of the interactions between images and texts in various configurations clearly show that in the perspective of a concrete artistic work, the relationship between the two forms of expression definitely does not boil down to poetry’s parasitizing the visual arts or vice versa but in most cases constitutes a mutually beneficial and liberating symbiosis. In the final lines of the chapter, and of the book, we are left with a moderately optimistic conclusion about the culture’s self-regulating micromechanisms which allow it to preserve a considerable degree of independence from the surrounding political and economic forces:

As audience, reading across abstract image and poetic word, we arrive at a more complete apprehension of artistic expression, one that serves as its own corrective, resistant to crude “narratives” the like of which art too often turned to hopeless ideological or market-driven purpose, and yet, by dint of the poetic word’s rooting in an identifiable “here and now”, is also still connected with contemporary cultural and social context (364).

“Our book fills this gap,” write Manfredi and Lupke in their “state of the field” introduction, where “gap” indicates the lack of English-language book-length studies of Chinese modernist poetry (1-2). I am definitely not in the business of nit-picking about words, but since I believe that the editors undersell their book by saying so, and because the problematic vision of scholarly work as a “gap filling” enterprise in general should be given careful attention in academia, I take the liberty of making three brief points about this unsettlingly popular cliché.

First, “gap filling” implies an image of a scholar desperately seeking a fissure in which to insert a bit of omitted filler/knowledge, which clearly undermines the sense of academic work—and is patently false. There are so many fascinating things to explore all around that scholars certainly do not need to fight over the tiny holes remaining in the field. In fact, the proportion is exactly the opposite: what we know and have already researched are but small gaps in all that we do not know.

On top of that, the silent assumption underlying “gap filling”—that everything in this world should, and can, be exhaustively researched and described—is debatable as well, and poetry is a case in point. Arguably, those of us who study poetry need to be even more self-aware and refrain from striving toward—and feeling confident that—one can fill in the gaps between the words with concrete scholarly narrative.

Last but not least, there are things worth saying more than once—even literally reiterating—from different perspectives and by different people. Academic discourse needs rethinkings and retellings. This is particularly important for Chinese studies and area studies at large, still too often perceived as disciplines unable to process and interpret their own findings and therefore of secondary relevance, good only inasmuch as they supply other more “substantial/relevant” fields with culturally and linguistically specific data. Rethinkings and retellings testify to both the significance of a particular subject matter and to the insights and dynamic interactions within the community of Chinese/area studies scholars, who have much more to say and to do than regularly updating the encyclopedia.

In these three senses, Manfredi and Lupke’s work certainly does not “fill a gap.” There are many passages in their book that open new horizons of thinking about Chinese literature and beyond. We will also find many old topics constructively revisited. And whether discussing “old” or “new” material, the authors show a lot of subtle sensibility and respect to elusive poetic matter. All in all, helpfully informative, often challengingly innovative, and at times disquietingly provocative, Chinese Poetry Modernisms is a remarkable collection of high-quality scholarship. 

Joanna Krenz
Adam Mickiewicz University

[1] Although he discusses Wang’s work as an “essay,” it should be clarified that the text is in fact a talk she gave at the Poets’ Forum in Bohai University. This information is provided in the text’s subtitle, which Li ignores or overlooks in his chapter as well as in the volume’s bibliography. I cite Wang’s talk as it was published in the journal Dangdai zuojia pinglun: Wang Xiaoni 王小妮. “Jintian de shiyi – zai Bohai Daxue ‘shiren jiangtan’ shang jiangyan 今天的诗意——在渤海大学“诗人讲坛”上的讲演  (The poeticness of today—a lecture at the ‘Poets’ Forum’ at Bohai University). Dangdai zuojia pinglun no. 5 (2008): 5-9. Li refers to the version reprinted under the same title in: Lin Jianfa 林建法, ed. Ershiyi shiji Zhongguo wenxue daxi. Er ling ling ba nian wenxue piping 二十一世纪中国文学大系•二00八年文学批评 (Literary criticism: twenty-first-century Chinese literature compendium 2008) (Shenyang: Chunfeng wenyi, 2009).

[2] Ibid, 7 (translation my own).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 8.

[5] Czesław Miłosz, “Meaning,” translated by Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass, in: Czesław Miłosz, New and Collected Poems (New York: Harper Collins, 2001): 569.

[6] Czesław Miłosz is an important point of reference for mainland-Chinese poets, including authors such as Xi Chuan, Song Lin 宋琳, and Zhang Shuguang 张曙光, due to certain historical similarities between the PRC and Poland under communist rule. In terms of personal and intellectual experience, there is, however, arguably a closer affinity between Miłosz and Yu than Miłosz and PRC-based authors.

[7] Stephen Owen, “What Is World Poetry? The Anxiety of Global Influence.” New Republic 203, no. 21 (1990): 28-32.

[8] Michelle Yeh, “There Are no Camels in the Koran: What Is Modern about Modern Chinese Poetry?” In: New Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Poetry (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[9] See e.g. Xi Chuan 西川, Wo he wo. Xi Chuan ji 1985-2012. 我和我. 西川集 1985-2012 (I and I: a collection of Xi Chuan’s writings). (Beijing: Zuojia, 2013): 194-196. The poem is available online at:

[10] Yeh, “No Camels”: 13.

[11] Lucas Klein, The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (Leiden: Brill 2018).