A Modernity Set to a Pre-Modern Tune:
Classical-Style Poetry of Modern Chinese Writers

By Haosheng Yang

Reviewed by Brian Skerratt

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2021)

Haosheng Yang, A Modernity Set to a Pre-Modern Tune: Classical-Style Poetry of Modern Chinese Writers Leiden: Brill, 2016. ix + 255 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-31079-7

Classical-style poetry is an unlucky genre. If one has not experienced suffering and struggled in society, one can hardly write any satisfying poems. . . . The feeling of suffering is not necessarily described in poems immediately. Poems do not necessarily describe suffering directly either. But because of the suffering, one’s emotion can be stimulated more deeply; one will think about writing poems, will be more sympathetic when reading other’s [sic] poems, and will express one’s own feelings more easily, even though those feelings might be far apart from suffering (Yang, 221).

So wrote Nie Gannu 聶紺弩 (1903-1986) in a letter to a friend. Nie, like many Chinese intellectuals of his generation, had enthusiastically embraced new ideas and social progress—including the New Culture Movement, New Literature, and leftist revolution—only to become a victim of the new China he had helped create. After training at the prestigious Huangpu Military Academy, Nie began a career as a journalist and intellectual; he was critical of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and later joined the League of Left-Wing Writers. However, only a matter of years after the Communists came to power in 1949, Nie was labeled a rightist and sent to the “Great Northern Wilderness” (北大荒) in Heilongjiang for four years of labor reform. After he returned from hard labor, he was arrested again as a counterrevolutionary and only released following another ten years of confinement. What makes Nie’s case interesting is that his time spent doing hard labor inspired him to produce poetry—and not just any poetry, but dense, highly allusive, classical poetry, exactly the form and style attacked so vehemently by the New Literature movement decades earlier. When the supervisor at the labor site instructed the prisoners to compose poetry, as part of a nationwide campaign to create “new folk songs,” Nie recalls, “I do not know why, but suddenly I thought about composing poems in the old style. Maybe the farther I was from the literary circle, the more I believed that only old poetry was poetry. . . . As a result, that might be the first time I wrote about labor, and also the first time I officially composed classical-style poetry” (qtd. 183). The extreme physical and psychological toll of labor reform led this writer in his late fifties to find solace in poetry, and that solace he found most naturally in traditional, classical verse, rather than the modern, vernacular poetry demanded by fashionable literary circles, which he himself had once advocated.

Haosheng Yang’s monograph A Modernity Set to a Pre-Modern Tune: Classical-Style Poetry of Modern Chinese Writers explores Nie’s story and those of four others that exemplify this apparent contradiction: that despite espousing New Literature and rejecting a literary heritage they considered “dead,” these May Fourth intellectuals turned to classical poetry in their moments of private desperation. Yang’s research is aimed at overturning several cherished myths of the May Fourth movement: that literature and culture must evolve along with history; that traditional modes are incapable of representing modern realities; and that the formal constraints of classical poetry stifle the free self-expression of the sovereign individual. Yang argues for a “vernacular plus” view of modern Chinese literary history, as opposed to a “vernacular only” view (9), as her research excavates “the old within the new” (i.e., traditionalist tendencies of progressive thinkers) as a form of what David Der-wei Wang has famously called “repressed modernities” (qtd. 21). Each of the five main chapters of the study focuses on a single writer who resorted to classical poetry after having embraced New Literature: Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936), Yu Dafu 郁達夫 (1896-1945), Lu Xun’s younger brother Zhou Zuoren 周作人 (1885-1967), Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1978), and Nie. Apart from Nie, who is more of a peripheral figure in literary history, all of these writers are highly canonical and familiar to any student of modern Chinese literature, and their most famous works are their modern, vernacular stories, poems, and essays, while their classical poetry has received far less attention.

Yang’s monograph consists of an introduction, five chapters, one each on Lu, Yu, Zhou, Guo, and Nie, and a short conclusion. In her introduction, Yang questions the orthodoxy of canonical, vernacular modern Chinese literature and the nationalist historiography underlying it, drawing on revisionist scholarship by Prasenjit Duara and David Der-wei Wang, and contrasting her work with existing scholarship on modern classical poetry by Jon Kowallis and Shengqing Wu. The chapter on Lu Xun explores the complicated aspects of Lu Xun’s psyche revealed in his classical poems responding to China’s national crisis of the 1930s. In her chapter on Yu Dafu, Yang discusses Yu’s loyalist self-portrayal in verse, while the third chapter explores the relationship between Zhou Zuoren’s lyricism and his acts of “disloyalty.” Chapter 4 examines Romanticism as the unifying thread between Guo Moruo’s early vernacular works and his later classical poetic dialogue with Mao Zedong, and chapter 5 is devoted to Nie Gannu’s use of humor to cope with his experience of imprisonment and labor reform. The conclusion reiterates Yang’s objections to orthodox, linear literary history and argues that classical poetry is “more capable of representing the universal power of compassionate understanding and historical empathy” than modern, vernacular poetry (233). Rather than treat each chapter in detail, in what follows I respond to some of Yang’s main arguments, as exemplified by her readings of particular poets.

In focusing on modern classical poetry, Yang draws attention to works by significant authors that have been excluded from orthodox literary history. Whether these authors’ classical works are superior to their vernacular works, literarily, is an open question. The poets themselves were quick to deprecate their own classical writings: both Zhou Zuoren and Nie Gannu often referred to their poems as dayou shi 打油詩 (translated as “doggerel,” though not a perfect rendition of the term for reasons Yang explains in her book), lest their readers suspect them of trying to produce great literature. Zhou Zuoren claimed that classical poetry was easier to write (23), while Nie went so far as to refuse the publication of an annotated edition of his classical poems, hoping that the difficulty of reading his allusive language would deter young readers from imitating him (24). In fact, some of these acclaimed writers of modern-style literature protested that they were somehow driven to create classical poetry by necessity, not by choice: Lu Xun and Guo Moruo each claimed that they sometimes “had no alternative” but to compose classical poems (22-3). As Yang points out, Yu Dafu alone, among these luminaries of modern Chinese literature, did not apologize for writing classical poetry, but even his way of describing this passion—being “infatuated with a skeleton” (63)—suggests considerable ambivalence. Disclaimers aside, Yang argues that it is in classical poetry that writers “evoke a deep sense of empathy with the audience’s shared cultural experience” (28). Her argument for classical poetry is grounded in psychology; she claims that authors “may feel less vulnerable to existential loneliness when they recognize that their predecessors as poets also faced challenges and difficulties” (ibid.). Yang takes allusion and the modeling of work on that of predecessors, classical literary tendencies attacked by New Literature advocates, as defining features of classical poetry and shows in particular how each modern writer comes to identify with specific figures from Chinese cultural history in order to make sense of and cope with his contemporary problems: for instance, Yu Dafu with Ming loyalists such as Wu Weiye 吳偉業 (1609-1672) and Qian Qianyi 錢謙益 (1582-1664), or Zhou Zuoren with Tang poet Du Mu 杜牧 (803-852).

Yet allusive literature is also notoriously hard to read, which is part of the reason why the May Fourth writers were so anxious to throw away China’s highly self-referential tradition in the first place. Yang’s defense of classical poetry is based on “shared cultural experience,” but this culture, insofar as it is acquired by reading specific texts, is something that elite writers only share with others who have received a similar education. Yang does not address the exclusivity of this tradition, or the gesture toward inclusivity that motivated the New Culture movement. (Hu Shi, founder of the vernacular poetry movement, called for poetry simple enough that any “old crone” could understand it.) While it is satisfying and necessary to question the assumptions about modernity, tradition, and Westernization that underlie not only May Fourth thought but much modern Chinese thought, Yang’s overall argument is weak partly because it universalizes a certain textual and cultural tradition, assuming that it is a common link between authors and readers without asking who those authors and readers are and who is therefore excluded.

That said, Yang’s study is useful as a guide to reading a number of difficult and challenging works. Her five body chapters provide translations and extensive explications of the rhetorical gestures, allusions, and implications of a selection of these writers’ classical works. Although the translations are mostly by Yang herself, some are quoted from other translators, with considerable stylistic inconsistency; nonetheless, the translations, footnotes, and explications are sufficient to help a reader understand the original poems. Yang also strives to relate the works to important themes in the writers’ larger oeuvre: for Lu Xun, this means the pursuit of a rebellious lyrical voice articulated in his famous essay on “Mara Poetry” (摩羅詩力說); for Yu Dafu, it is the dialectic of personal resentment and political loyalism that can be found in works such as his famous story “Sinking” (沈淪); for Zhou Zuoren, it is the emphasis on the individual and personal affect over national discourse that also led to his “betrayal” of the motherland in collaborating with the Japanese; for Guo Moruo, it is the transformation of the Romantic poet-hero into a Communist revolutionary; whereas for Nie Gannu, it is the recuperation of the ego through a humorous perspective on suffering. In other words, for most of these writers, Yang fits their classical poetry cleanly into preexisting critical approaches to their work, seldom arguing that examination of the classical poetry contradicts those approaches. As a result, the book refrains from arguing for uniquely original reinterpretations of these writers’ classical poems, preferring rather to emphasize shades of psychology and affect.

To take one example, in her discussion of Yu Dafu, Yang begins by arguing that “The discouraged loyalist persona in Yu Dafu’s [classical] poetry provides a critical counterpart to the semi-autobiographical protagonists in his vernacular stories” (70) such as “Sinking.” However, she then concludes, “Yu Dafu’s loyalist poetry is in fact a lyrical demonstration of his artistic pursuit of ‘Sinkingism’” (71)—in other words, a form of “psychological compensation for his inadequacy in real life” (ibid.). Yang finds that, whereas the old poetry and new fiction seem at first to be in conflict, they turn out to sing in harmony. A similar backing away from asserting a novel argument comes in the chapter on Guo Moruo, where Yang initially disagrees with Liu Zaifu’s 劉再復 critique, stating “Liu Zaifu’s comparison of Guo to a chancellor poet overlooked the essentially modern nature of Guo’s poetic production” (149). However, later in the discussion, Yang reverses herself, writing, “By producing a refined picture of Mao’s PRC, Guo’s responding song lyric [‘Xiao Tang Shan’ 小湯山, written in response to Mao’s ‘Kunlun’ 崑崙], as Liu Zaifu suggests, functioned as a literary ornamentation of the new regime like the classical ‘chancellery style’ poems of the early Ming dynasty” (168). Yang does not explicitly address these apparently contradictory readings of Yu’s and Guo’s works.

Some other issues with the book will also attract the careful reader’s notice. Following common practice found in many scholarly works on Chinese literature, the original Chinese text is provided along with English translation. However, the Chinese text throughout the book seems to consist of simplified characters converted to traditional characters by means of an algorithm, resulting in a great number of errors in the traditional Chinese text (后 for 後, 隻 for 只, 余 for 餘, 斗 for 鬥, 云 for 雲, and so on). Other passages are printed entirely in simplified characters for no clear reason, even when the original publications predate simplified characters. One wishes that the editors at Brill would catch such inconsistencies and produce a bilingual text whose Chinese is as reliable and error-free as its English.

The strongest parts of Yang’s book are her analyses of individual poems, wherein she reveals herself to be a subtle and empathetic reader. The most interesting and scandalous works analyzed in Yang’s book are the poems Yu Dafu wrote about his wife Wang Yingxia’s infidelity and the dissolution of their marriage. The works are full of references to figures from Chinese history, which Yu deploys to contrast his wife’s faithlessness to his own steadfast loyalty to the Chinese nation, then at war. Yang sees clearly through Yu’s posture:

Contrasting Wang Yingxia’s selfishness and vanity with his own patriotic devotion, Yu Dafu drew on the ideological, social, and political content of loyalism to reflect on what damaged his marriage. . . . [H]e emphasized the prestige associated with a loyalist’s righteousness in national resistance and adopted a position of moral superiority in order to criticize his flawed wife. In this sense, the catastrophic anti-Japanese war nonetheless facilitated Yu’s healing after his wife’s infidelity. (83)

At the same time, Yang’s analysis reveals the horrible gender imbalance in Yu’s poetic accounts: “She [Wang Yingxia] wrote several letters to the same magazine to refute Yu’s accusations against her, blaming Yu for comparing her to the ‘bad woman in every story in the world’ . . . while he described himself as a man ‘deserving sympathy and mercy’” (89). Here we realize that, while the loyalist discourse Yu finds in tradition may provide solace to him, and to the other marginalized male thinkers like him discussed in the other chapters of the book, those same traditional cultural resources may be a source of oppression to others, especially women. Such is the ambivalence of cultural tradition.

The incident raises an interesting question with respect to Yang’s argument. Although she rightly criticizes Yu for views that are “racist, chauvinistic, and offensive to women” (86), she does not pursue the question of how modern classical-style poetry should respond to those elements of tradition that are incompatible with feminism, or with other progressive elements of modern thought. While Yang does note the ways that modern writers subvert Confucian poetics in their classical works—incorporating vehement emotions such as anger or violating norms of elegance—one wishes she had demonstrated more explicitly how modern classical poetry critiques or reinforces traditional ethics and social norms. After all, the May Fourth attack on Chinese tradition was not limited to prosody or merely motivated by a thirst for novelty; it upheld liberationist discourses. In other words, is the classical poetry of these modern intellectuals conservative only in terms of poetic form? Or is it conservative ideologically as well? Yu’s example suggests that some chauvinistic aspects of Chinese tradition were easy to replicate in modern classical verse, with ample allusions to wicked women from which to choose.

Yang does not take the book in this direction partly because she is committed to a clear binary contrast between traditional/classical poetry, on the one hand, and modern/vernacular literature, on the other. Although she argues against the May Fourth view of historical progressivism, rejecting the notion that anything new is better than anything old, she does not examine any examples of texts that could blur the distinction. As a result, she often resorts to simplified descriptions of modern, vernacular poetry to serve as a foil for classical poetry. As she writes in her introduction, “Westernized modern vernacular literature has increasingly become the freestyle expression of the self, which means that writers are committed to breaking with older literary traditions and elaborating themselves in unique and individual voices” (27). Or again in her conclusion, “In modern vernacular verse, nearly all emphasis falls on the distinctiveness of personal experience; the authors and readers of classical-style poetry, by contrast, are better equipped to tackle social and individual crises in light of their own cultural heritage” (233). Excessive individualism is a valid criticism of the earliest modern, vernacular poetry (“You cannot write my poem, / Just as I cannot dream your dream,” as Hu Shi put it in “Dreams and Poetry”), but there is nothing about vernacular language or modern prosody that prevents the poet from interacting with tradition in a meaningful way—as later writers from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Malaysia have demonstrated. Even during the period Yang analyzes, poets like Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 provided an alternative to “the freestyle expression of the self” that Yang finds unsatisfactory.

In summation, Haosheng Yang’s study is a careful work that casts welcome light on less-appreciated parts of these five major figures’ literary oeuvres. Yang is very much justified in her argument that the story of modern Chinese literature must acknowledge the fact of classical poetry’s persistence into the modern era; whether “shared cultural experience” and “cultural empathy” are sufficient arguments to recover such poetry for the modern canon remains, however, debatable.

Brian Skerratt
Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature and Transnational Cultural Studies, National Chung Hsing University