Poetics of Navigation: River Lyricism,
Epic Consciousness, and Post-Mao Sublime Poemscape

By Jiayan Mi

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 91-137

The decade of the 1980s has witnessed an eruption of river discourse in Chinese literature, painting, film, political writings and social movements. This prevalent “river craze,” which registers a larger disturbing picture of social and political moments, most of all designates a poetics of navigating post-Mao and post-revolutionary identity. By focusing on Zhang Chengzhi’s novel Rivers of the North and the poems of Haizi, Luo Yihe and Changyao, this essay examines the river as a dynamic trope for stimulating the oneiric topography of space and reconfiguring the epistemic shift of cultural imaginings of landscape.

The essay argues that what constitutes this poetics of navigation is essentially an overcharged epic consciousness, through the fantastic inscription of the river, to remap post-Mao spatial and geopolitical identity and to recuperate the myth of loss. In tracing the trajectory of this expansive navigation, the essay discusses both the epistemological malaise and the utopian longing of such an epic project. Through a close reading of the caesura between the textual sublimity and the grave reality, the essay reveals the difficult gratification of the epic impulse to articulate the dream scenario of rejuvenating the hydro-therapeutic and mythopoetic power of the river as stimulated by the cultural utopianism of the early 1980s.