By Tian Jin
Reviewed by Nick Admussen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2020)
Shao Xunmei (邵洵美, 1906-1968) is a fascinating figure. A poet, translator, critical essayist, and editor, his cosmopolitan, decadent, deeply Shanghainese voice both influenced and, in some ways, epitomized a certain strand of Republican-era literature. Shao also led a famously romantic life, some of which was captured by his literary collaborator, opium-partner, and lover, Emily Hahn, in a series of books and New Yorker articles. But Shao’s legacy has been much colored by leftist disdain for his upper-class background and rightist excoriation of his licentious tastes. Lu Xun said that “Money makes the world go round, maybe even the universe, but it won’t make you a good writer, and the poetry of the poet Shao Xunmei demonstrates this” (xvii). Dismissals like this meant that after 1949, even critical consideration of his writing became difficult, and the Cultural Revolution-era charge that he was engaged in international espionage (for writing a letter to Emily Hahn asking for money) was not vacated until 1985.
Tian Jin’s monograph, The Condition of Music and Anglophone Influences in the Poetry of Shao Xunmei, is therefore an early entry into the field of Shao studies, which is a decade behind the study of other writers from the same period. It is a short dissertation-style book with a healthy 42-page introduction that sets out Shao’s biography and reception history, especially useful since Shao has been left out of most literary histories. The book focuses on the way that tropes of music in Shao’s poetry and criticism are drawn from Anglophone writers, specifically Algernon Charles Swinburne, Edith Sitwell, and George Augustus Moore. As it does so, it uses feminist critique to demonstrate that Shao’s gender politics are affected by, and affect, his poetics.
Chapter 1, “Shao, Swinburne, and the Idea of Harmony,” examines the way Shao received and transformed Swinburne’s ideas of inner and outer music. By synthesizing and conceptually restructuring a set of expressive, asystematic texts by Swinburne, Jin finds a trope of harmony (between inner and outer, artificial and natural) in the singing of the nightingale, an image that recurs frequently in the poetic oeuvre of both Swinburne and Shao. The work of Sappho bubbles under the surface of this relationship: Shao’s love for Sappho brings him to Swinburne in the first place, but their shared eroticization and objectification of Sappho deemphasizes her role as a master poet and emphasizes her as a transcendent creature, like the nightingale.
In Chapter 2, “Shao, Sitwell, and the Sister of Horticulture,” Jin examines the way that Shao received and transformed the work of Edith Sitwell, specifically her tropes of poetry as a garden and the poet as gardener. In contrast to the implicitly natural process described by Swinburne—in which nature itself, through the nightingale, generates the poem—Jin argues that Sitwell sees a role for the poet that is constructively artificial and planned. This reception, however, “goes awry” (48) as Shao descends into tropes of flower-women to be appreciated, plucked, and consumed—even ruined—by the male poet. The chapter reproduces some of Shao’s most graphically erotic poetry alongside a strong feminist critique of the objectification and dehumanization implicit in his metaphoric practice, which reduces women to vessels for the entry and fertilization by men.
In Chapter 3, “Shao, Moore, and the Idea of Pure Poetry,” Jin marks the influence of George Moore on Shao’s poetry. Unlike Swinburne and Sitwell, Shao corresponded with Moore, and Jin reconstructs some of their interactions by synthesizing pieces of Shao’s many short essays. Jin argues that Moore’s concept of pure poetry provokes Shao to write a dialogic prose poetry in which tropes of music and the sense of the listening body are deemphasized and the “pure” interplay of voices becomes central. These poems in two voices prevent the kind of objectification and instrumentalization that happens to women in Shao’s Sitwell period; without intimately described flower-bodies and with the ability to “speak” inside the poem, women have more agency. The conclusion synthesizes some of the book’s feminist thinking, calling for feminist critique not as a separate and subsidiary tactic, but as a consistent methodological necessity for all literary scholars. This recommendation resounds with special power in a book that has consistently and successfully used feminist ideas as a tool to understand and judge Shao’s poetry.
The Condition of Music is a short book that is intensively focused on systems of literary tropes: it is not about the music that Shao listened to in his life, or the music of his prosody, but about the “condition of music,” the use of the word music and the image of music as described in his poems and prose. Jin’s analysis creates a concept of music by constructing systems of subsidiary tropes, like the nightingale, the woman-flower, the woman-devil, harmony and purity, and then connects them in a translingual, transhistorical system. This is, to me, the deep structure of the book, and explains a lot about what it does and doesn’t do. As Jin points out, Shao and the poets he reads resist constructing systems: Swinburne’s “critical works are often diffuse and nowhere near systematic” (13), Sitwell “never gives clear definitions of her coined terms” (29), and Moore “wrote no forthright and orderly omnium-gatherum of his artistic opinions” (85). Identical images and abstractions appear scattered across many poems and poets, often for slightly different purposes; to collect and rationalize them, Jin moves restlessly from poem excerpt to poem excerpt, drawing attention to individual tropes and stanza-length passages—but rarely reproducing or explicating whole poems. This limits the use of the book, which is full of original translations, as a compendium of Shao’s work. It also focuses the book on the work of synthesis and generation; Jin’s conclusion about the shifting condition of music in Shao’s work allows for symptomatic reading of his gender politics, but it is also something that Shao never did or could say, something that the Romantic aversion to analysis either hides or excludes.
The focus on tropes also excludes a discussion of Shao’s circulation in the physical world, both in terms of the prosody of his poems and his social life. Shao was an experimental prosodist who, for example, translated Verlaine into a 12-syllable line (like the alexandrine) (42) in Chinese, and then repeated that structure in his poem “Xunmei’s Dream” (洵美的梦). He used new rhyme patterns and identical rhyme with particles (like 了 in his translation of Sara Teasdale, p. 41) and much more. His attention to prosody seems deeply imbricated with his concepts of the dual artificiality and naturalness of poetry, with his translingual practice, and even with his powers of seduction—imitating, for example, Sapphic hendecasyllabics as he uses the language of romantic affection to express his desire to write poetry like his early poetic idol. Shao’s prosody is a prime target for further research, and would do much to help us understand what he may have felt and thought about music. The feminist assessment of Shao in this volume would be even more fascinating if it also referred to his biography, specifically his concrete treatment of the women around him, sketched out in Jonathan Hutt’s “Monstre Sacré” (2010). This kind of analysis could close the circle that Jin has begun drawing between Shao’s influences, his poetics, and his gender politics.
These boundaries are not accidental omissions, though—they are by design. By focusing almost exclusively on Shao’s play of tropes, Jin specifies and recuperates Shao as a reader and writer. The fluidity of late nineteenth-century critical terminology about poetry, and the wide variability in the uses of imagery in period poems means that in charting the movement of tropes between poets and poems, The Condition of Music demonstrates Shao Xunmei’s originality and individuality as much as it establishes his genealogy of influence. Swinburne’s nightingale is re-voiced by a young poet who has not yet heard the bird’s real cry; Sitwell’s patient poet-gardener becomes a participant in Adam and Eve’s first debauchery in the Garden of Eden. No book can possibly tell us what harmony, texture, and purity mean—and so Tian Jin is free to tell us a great deal about what they meant to Shao Xunmei. Focusing on the play of ideas also gives an independent rationale for the study of Shao, one that does not require readers to either praise or blame the poet’s hedonism and decadence, rescuing him from entrapment in the disputes that divided his critics in the early twentieth century. Paradoxically, this allows for more generous approaches to his biography; we can justify the study of a serious and protean poet-thinker through our interest in a famous Shanghai playboy, or vice versa.
The Condition of Music is the first offering in modern Chinese literature from Vernon Press, an independent scholarly publisher in Delaware. It joins Pengfei Wang’s 2019 book Metaphysical and Mid-Tang Poetry: A Baroque Comparison, another comparative Anglo-Chinese volume drawn from a recent dissertation. In an era during which COVID-19 is disrupting publishing budgets at established presses, it is extremely welcome to see publishers add material in Chinese literature to their offerings. Small hiccups in prose aside, these books are extremely well made, and are most laudable for providing original Chinese for all translations. Parallel Chinese should be a field standard, but isn’t always, especially in the case of comparative work. Where The Condition of Music is concerned, the consistent presence of original Chinese allows readers to think seriously about Shao’s translations into Chinese as well as Tian Jin’s translations of Shao’s poetry into English. The presence of Chinese texts defuses any infelicities in the extremely challenging translation of metrical and rhymed poetry; it improves the manuscript greatly.
The Condition of Music and Anglophone Influences in the Poetry of Shao Xunmei is an extremely focused, short, specialist book, but it is well-made, carefully thought through, and easy to read. It will be of interest to anyone who researches Shao Xunmei, and would be quite worthwhile for those who study the aesthetics of Republican Shanghai. Many researchers in Chinese literature would benefit from its advocacy of an internalized, daily practice of feminist criticism. Its influence on teaching feels prospective: this book might usefully inform either a transnational, translingual course on cosmopolitan Shanghai or a survey of early twentieth century poets whose breadth included Chinese writers like Shao. I am not entirely sure that such classes exist in any quantity. The depth and breadth of possibility available to readers of Shao Xunmei, though, does highly recommend him for study now and in the future.
Hutt, Jonathan. “Monstre Sacré.” China Heritage Quarterly no. 22 (June 2010). Accessed 9/17/2020.
Wang, Pengfei. Metaphysical and Mid-Tang Poetry: A Baroque Comparison. Wilmington: Vernon Press, 2019.