Calculated Passions: The Lyric and the Theatric
in Mao-era Poetry Recitation

By John A. Crespi

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 72-110

From about 1962 on into the Cultural Revolution years, modern Chinese poetry advanced onto the public stage through a widespread, primarily city-based campaign of revolutionary poetry recitation. A close examination of the discourse surrounding this poetry recitation as provided by poets, poetry-reciting actors, and poetry recitation primers reveals that these stage recitations fell prey to an inherent antagonism between the lyrical and dramatic modes of expression. In other words, was poetry recitation the spontaneous, lyrical expression of authentic “revolutionary passion” (gemingde jiqing) that it often claimed to be, or was it in fact a conscious, contrived, and therefore ideologically suspect art of dramatic performance? Exploring this question sheds light on the ideological mechanisms that generated and perpetuated this tension, and in the process problematizes a tendency to portray this period as one dominated by a seamlessly monolithic political aesthetic of cultural production and reception. Moreover, by offering a more dynamic picture of what might otherwise be dismissed as barren years of “official” poetry production and performance, we can perhaps better understand the background against which the post-Mao “Misty” (menglong) poets later emerged.