MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Brian Skerratt’s review of A Modernity Set to a Pre-Modern Tune: Classical-Style Poetry of Modern Chinese Writers, by Haosheng Yang. The review appears below and at its online home: https://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/skerratt/. My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, MCLC literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.
Kirk Denton, editor
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)
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. Continue reading