Struggle and Symbiosis: The Canonization of the Poet
Haizi and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary China

By Rui Kunze

Reviewed by Lucas Klein
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2013)

Book cover for Struggle and Symbiosis

Rui Kunze.
Struggle and Symbiosis:
The Canonization of the Poet Haizi and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary China.
Bochum/Freiburg: Projekt Verlag, 2012. 340 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-89733-250-8 (hardcover)

“The death of Haizi the poet will become one of the myths of our time” (45), eulogized Xichuan 西川 in 1990, a year after the suicide of one of his closest friends. Four years later, however, he tried to pierce that mythology: if we continue to “frame Haizi in a sort of metaphysical halo,” he wrote, “then we can neither get a clear view of Haizi the person nor of his poetry” (pp. 45-46).[ 1 ] Testifying to its significance in the promotion and dissemination of Haizi’s writings, the first quotation (differently translated and romanized[2]) also appears on the back cover of Over Autumn Rooftops (Host Publications, 2010), the collection of Haizi translations by Dan Murphy reviewed in this space by Michelle Yeh.[ 3 ] The reconsideration, however, presents a cognizance essential for literary history and readers interested in approaching the reality, rather than mythology, of the poet. It is also the starting point for Rui Kunze’s ambitious, painstakingly researched, yet ultimately uneven study, Struggle and Symbiosis: The Canonization of the Poet Haizi and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary China.

While he was never famous in life, Haizi 海子, born as Zha Haisheng 查海生, became one of the most renowned “Third Generation” poets after his suicide on March 26, 1989, at the age of twenty-five, by letting himself be run over by a train. The stated aim of Struggle and Symbiosis is to examine, “in relation to cultural and literary discourses in contemporary China” (11), the canonization of Haizi. Indeed, few poets of the 1980s remain as beloved in China today. My own interpretation is that the phenomenon represents in part the displaced mourning of young intellectuals for 1980’s idealism, truncated after the government’s suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations and Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, projected onto the romanticism of a poet who died before he could be tarnished by actual association with the democracy movement (the fact that, as Kunze notes, Haizi’s poetry has been included in high school textbooks since 2003 (p. 12), complicates my hypothesis only a little). While she does not look at the change in Chinese society punctuated by the Tiananmen demonstrations and their aftermath, Kunze does note in her promising introduction that Haizi is “regarded as representative of the 1980s,” and asks,

What sort of cultural memory does this interpretation of representativeness intend to reconstruct? Why is such a reconstruction desired? What parts of Haizi’s poetry facilitate such a reconstruction? And, when do Haizi’s texts not support this reconstruction, given the complexity of and changes in his poetry? (p. 13)

Offering Edmund Husserl’s notion of “sedimentation” as an organizing principle for her study of the way Haizi’s poetry has been read over time, she explains that it “contains both the idea of forgetting and the possibility of retention. On the one hand, later meanings cover up earlier meanings and gradually disassociate the written sign from its original meanings; on the other hand, . . . earlier meanings are still retained and may be reactivated” (p. 24). Her answer to these questions takes us through questions of modernism and world literature, the notion of minjian 民间, modern Chinese epic poetry, and discourses on divinity and the Mao style, in search of the bottommost layers of Haizi’s sedimentation.

Kunze’s study is formatted along social-scientific lines popular in European literary studies, and her first chapter after the introduction, “The Making of a Canonical Poet: Two Decades of the Canonization of Haizi, 1989-2010,” is a thorough literature review that covers seemingly every scholarly publication about Haizi in Chinese, as well as English and German. The main focus, of course, is on how Haizi and his poetry have been understood in China, covering “the canonization of Haizi in terms of publication, literary criticism, biography, and literary history,” culminating in an argument that the canonization of Haizi has bolstered “the Party’s desire to reconstruct the decade of the 1980s as an idealistic age in order to legitimate its continuing rule” (35). Indeed, the last word of this argument is that “the ideological ambivalence in Haizi’s poetics and poems,” an ambivalence Kunze intends to tease out, “opens up the possibility for his poetry to be homogenized into the orthodox culture of the Party” (p. 72).

Chapter two, “Contextualizing Haizi: Modernism, World Literature, and the Myth of Qu Yuan,” looks at Haizi’s “homogenization” into Party orthodoxy broadly, “looking into the connection between literature and nation building in the discussions of ‘literary modernism’ and ‘world literature’ in the 1980s” (p. 75). The shared link in 1980s China among modernism, world literature, and Qu Yuan 屈原 is the poetry of the xungen 寻根 movement, which Kunze translates as “Root-searching.” In “Root-searching” discourses Kunze sees an attempt to legitimize literary modernism through the rhetoric of national modernization; its engagement with world literature likewise expressed an anxiety about China’s national literary canon. The chapter ends with an overview of Haizi’s poetics in which she considers him a “Root-searching” poet (a significant observation I do not think has previously been made in English) and examines his identification with Qu Yuan, whom she calls “the prototype poet in Haizi’s imagination” (119). For Kunze, this is in line with other Chinese writers “who tied their individual self with the national self” (p. 120), representing the foundation of a cultural nationalism she considers both elitist and contaminated by Party ideology.

One mechanism by which Kunze presents Haizi’s poetry as under the ideological sway of the Party is through its development of the minjian, for which she offers the provisional translation of “folklore” but refers to throughout in italicized Pinyin. In chapter three, “An Ambivalent Space of Alternative: The Minjian Discourse and Haizi’s ‘Folklore Themes,'” she traces the changing definitions of minjian from the May Fourth generation through Yan’an to its developments in the 1980s, the 1990s, and today, with writings by Chen Sihe 陈思和 about “civil society” featuring prominently in her critical reading. She follows this with an examination of the place of “earth (tudi) [土地]” and “Earth (dadi) [大地]” in Haizi’s poetry, concluding with a reading of his attempt at epic in But Water, Water 但是水、水. Noting that he wrote so often about wheat, whereas he grew up “in the rice paddies” of Anhui (159), Kunze argues that Haizi “reflects and reinforces the influence of the Party’s positive portrayal of the Northwest of China, which is not only conveniently used to construct [sic] thousands of years of a continuous Chinese history, but also coincides with its own mythos of founding ‘New China’ in Yan’an” (p. 149); in her view, this “undermines his own determination to seek an alternative history writing by using a literary trope effectively developed by the Party” (153). In her conclusion of the chapter, Kunze calls Haizi’s employment of folk themes “a homogenized, faceless minjian, [that] with its attractive appearance of being alternative, fits beautifully into the regime’s current interpretation of ‘minjian‘ . . .: a theoretically revered collectivity which only serves to confirm a continuous national History, yet has never had a place for individual or political resistance” (p. 175).

In the following chapter, “Defining the Heroic: ‘Modern Epic’ and Haizi’s The Sun,” Kunze continues her criticism of Haizi’s poetics as insufficiently independent of Party discourse. Looking at the history of the epic, or shishi 史诗, in twentieth century China—especially as discussions about this form, which “merges ‘history’ (shi) or historical records with literary creation ‘poetry’ (shi)” (p. 182), crescendoed in the 1980s—with poetic statements by Xie Mian 谢冕, Jianghe 江河, Yang Lian 杨炼, the brothers Song Qu 宋渠 and Song Wei 宋炜, and others, she concludes that “‘epic’ has always been interpreted as the aestheticized monument inscribing historical and cultural memory of the nation” (p. 229). She then interrogates Haizi’s four-hundred-page The Sun 太阳, concluding that, by incorporating the aforementioned poets’ notions, Haizi’s poem not only adheres to Hegel’s understanding of the epic as “the first monumental book of any great nation and [which] bears the original spirit and consciousness of the people” (p. 178) (sind diese Denkmäler nichts Geringeres als die eigentlichen Grundlagen für das Bewußtsein eines Volkes, she quotes in a German footnote), it also figures the poet as one who “appears in and outside diegesis of the epic as a hero and genius whose creation crystalizes the national spirit and evolves into an asset of human civilization” (p. 203).

Pointing out the lingering hold the ideologies of German nationalism and hero-worship have on Haizi’s poetry and poetics, in her next chapter, “Rhetorizing the Divine: The Literary Discourse of Divinity, the Mao Style, and Haizi,” Kunze continues to undertake her purported deconstruction of the poet’s intellectual roots. She begins with discussions of Li Tuo’s 李陀 notion of the “Mao style” 毛文体 and Li Zehou’s李泽厚 Marxist sublime 崇高, whose apotheosis appears in the figure of Mao Zedong as a poet; this leads to a discussion of the deployment of Christian rhetoric in 1980s literary criticism and production, which, while “indicat[ing] the search of alternative cultural/poetic resources,” is ultimately an extension of the Mao style in its “self-justified authority, the refusal to discuss and reflect, and the tendency of abstracting everyday experience into concepts” (p. 256). Kunze then looks at instances of divine invocation or religious allusion in Haizi’s poetry throughout his short career, concluding that “the religious symbols and motifs turned into their inversions [e.g., the Mao style] when Haizi became disillusioned with his identity of poet founded on the idea of the (socialist) poet hero” (294).

This is quite a bold and broad-ranging argument. It also leaves lots of holes.[ 4 ] Most of the problems, I think, are the result of a truncated turnaround between dissertation and published book. The copyright page notes that Kunze’s dissertation, subtitled “Haizi’s Poetry and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary China,” was submitted in 2011, with the book published in 2012; the acknowledgements refer to “this dissertation,” and Struggle and Symbiosis reads more like a Ph.D. thesis than a polished monograph.[ 5 ] A copy-editor would have helped: typos dot every page; it is full of syntactical missteps such as “space of alternative” rather than “alternative space,” or translating xungen as “Root-searching” (one does not “search roots,” one “searches for roots,” so “Search-for-roots” or “Roots-seeking” would be better); the works cited list is incomplete (Xichuan, for obvious reasons, takes up much space in Kunze’s discussion, but his essays are not in the bibliography). Most of these do not hinder understanding, but they nag.[ 6 ]An editor may or may not have been able to repair more organizational shortcomings. A dissertation needs to demonstrate comprehensive research, so the candidate can prove to her advisors and readers that she’s done the requisite legwork; for a published book, however, readers should have more trust in the author’s expertise and want only the relevant information laid out to fit the argument, with the rest in footnotes. The benefit of her social-science style, with numbered sections and a literature review coming before any textual analysis, is that her arguments are clearly stated. The drawback: an introduction, a literature review, and the cultural discourse section of one chapter before Kunze’s first analysis of a Haizi poem, on p. 110 in a three-hundred-page study (one poem is quoted on pp. 48-49, but the reading offered is Michelle Yeh’s, not Kunze’s own). Here, context always precedes text, with the two never sufficiently enmeshed into a single discussion.

Structured thus, I found Kunze a better reader of cultural discourse than of Haizi’s poetry. While she opens the book with a memory of nights chanting Haizi’s poetry “with other girls in the candle light among empty beer bottles” (p. 11), she ends by calling his writing “ideologically problematic” (p. 297); researching Haizi, she may have convinced herself that ideological issues outweigh poetical ones. As a result, her takes on the secondary literature, though long, are illuminating, while her takes on the poems treat poetry as the simple product of cultural discourses, rather than as literature that is engaged in dialogue with those discourses and as such able to complicate their implications and refract their discursive power. For instance, Kunze reads the following lines from Haizi’s “The Wheat Field and the Poet: the Reply” 麦地与诗人:答复,

麦地阿,人类的痛苦 Ah wheat field, the suffering of mankind
是他放射的诗歌和光芒! is poetry and light emanated from Him!

as embodying “a manifestation of God” (p. 278) (hence her capitalization of “Him”). She does not mention Mao in relation to this poem, yet coming after her analysis of how religious imagery plays into the Mao style, she could have claimed Haizi to be enacting this, writing both God and Chairman Mao at the same time—who else in China was depicted as emanating both poetry and light across the wheat fields to alleviate human suffering? Likewise, the “Root-searchers” and modern epic poets come under repeated criticism for “cultural nationalism” and accepting the epistemology of the Mao style; so many long poems from the 1980s, though, seem to be about “the sun”—Haizi’s Sun, Jianghe’s The Sun and His Reflections 太阳和他的反光, Yang Lian’s Sun and Human 太阳与人 (later published as Yi , not mentioned in the study)—does this undermine their search for “alternative history writing by using a literary trope effectively developed by the Party,” or in fact show them to be writing against the Party’s authority with its own tropes and tools? (In Mangke’s 芒克 1983 poem “Sunflower in the Sun” 阳光中的向日葵, the sun strangles the sunflower and the sunflower glares at the sun; can the sun in longer poems not also be an anti-symbol of Maoist association?). For Kunze to engage in these questions would have enabled her to ask how “later meanings cover up earlier meanings” as “earlier meanings are still retained and may be reactivated.” But then, Husserl and his “sedimentation” never make a follow-up appearance after the introduction.

In her epilogue, Kunze wonders, “how would Haizi’s poetry have developed if he had survived 1989?” (p. 298). It’s worthwhile to ponder; his closest poet friend, Xichuan, offers no model, since so much of Xichuan’s development since 1989 rests on his reevaluation of poetry following Haizi’s death.[ 7 ] Would the specifics of his poetic ideology have changed, and would the Party still have looked for ways to appropriate the foundations of any opposition? Then again, too much time imagining the what-ifs of Haizi embodies the same hero-worshipping Kunze criticizes. While I stand by my reservations with Struggle and Symbiosis, I imagine my criticisms may represent similar fantasies (what if she had taken more time to revise her book before publishing it?). In the end, Kunze’s remains a clearly, strongly argued book that, for its provocations as well as for the thoroughness of its research, deserves patient reading by scholars both of contemporary Chinese poetry and contemporary Chinese cultural discourse.

Lucas Klein
City University of Hong Kong


[ 1 ] The page numbers refer to their citation in the book under review. For the full articles, see Xichuan 西川, “Huainian” 怀念 (Rememberance) in Busi de Haizi 不死的海子 (The undying Haizi), ed. Cui Weiping崔卫平 (Zhongguo wenlian, 1999), 21–25, and “Siwang houji ” 死亡后记 (Postscript to a death), in Busi de Haizi, 26–35. Romanization is Kunze’s, but title translations are mine; Kunze translates Busi de Haizi as Haizi Who Never Dies, while the cover offers the English Hai Zi Whose Poetry Will Never Be Dead; Kunze translates “Siwang houji” with the ominous, “The Postscript of Death.”

[ 2 ] Kunze explains her transcription of names as follows: “For pseudonyms, except for those assuming the appearance of normal last and given names, I put the syllables together as if they formed a word of its own meaning—as most pseudonyms do. The true name of the poet and his/her year of birth appear in parenthesis [sic.] following the pseudonym.” While I find this mode of transcription needlessly idiosyncratic (Maghiel van Crevel refers to “Haizi” and “Duoduo” 多多, but I can recall no one but Kunze referring to “Beidao” 北岛 or “Mangke” 芒克), for the purposes of this review, I follow Kunze’s transcriptions.

[ 3 ] Michelle Yeh, “Review of Over Autumn Rooftops: Poems by Hai Zi“; the sentence, as Murphy translates it, reads, “The death of the poet Hai Zi will become a myth of our age” (Hai Zi, Over Autumn Rooftops, trans. Dan Murphy) (Austin: Host Publications, 2010).

[ 4 ] For a further discussion of some of what Kunze’s study covers and does not, see Michelle Yeh, “Review of Struggle and Symbiosis: The Canonization of the Poet Haizi and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary China,” Journal of Chinese Studies 56 (Jan. 2013): 343–6.

[ 5 ] In Dissertation Reviews, for which I serve as the Chinese literature field editor, our policy is to offer “friendly reviews”; if I were reviewing Kunze’s work as a dissertation, I would offer my criticisms in private correspondence, rather than publicly.

[ 6 ] At their most frustrating, these minor typos can lead to significant misunderstandings; I wondered, for example, why she translates an article cited as “Lingrenqimeng de ‘menglong'” as “The Infuriating ‘Mistiness'” (p. 19), since I took it to be “The Enlightening ‘Mistiness'” 令人启蒙的’朦胧‘; then I checked the bibliography, where it is “Ling ren qimen de ‘menglong'” 令人气闷的’朦胧‘(p. 315).

[ 7 ] For more on the changes in Xichuan’s poetry, see chapter 5, “Mind Over Matter, Matter Over Mind: Xi Chuan,” in Maghiel van Crevel, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 187-221; and Xi Chuan, Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, trans. Lucas Klein (New Directions, 2012), esp. the “Translator’s Introduction,” ix-xiv.