Donning Cosmopolitanism:
Expressions of Modernity in Chinese Symbolist Poetry

By Su Ming Marian Chia[*]

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December 2022)

Cover of Li Jinfa’s 1926 poetry collection Songs for Happiness (為幸福而歌).

Within the history of modern China lie histories and inflections that puzzle and provoke us. I am especially interested in the inflections that lie at the interstices of language, between the sign and signified, as they “speak” through the discordance between the ostensible aims and principles of cultural translation in modern Chinese poetry, and the tensions elicited by the pursuit of translated modernity.[1]

Liang Qichao’s clarion call to “renovate” the literature of a nation so as to “renovate the people of a nation” epitomizes how far early-twentieth century Chinese intellectuals were willing to go with literary reform.[2] In fin-de-siècle China, literary reform was a predominant agenda and earnest instrumentality undergirded its pursuit, as is evident from Hu Shi’s eight “modest proposals for the reform of literature,” but those who appreciate the discipline will recognize that literature, an interplay of authorship, readers, text and culture, defies prescription. Accordingly, the ideals of New Poetry—verse written in vernacular rather than classical Chinese—evolved as its practice came to life and a growing number of poets contributed to the debate on modernity and literature. The fervent iconoclasm of the early 1900s was replaced by fresh calls to reinvent, rather than reject, classical Chinese tradition in the 1920s, and an impetus to balance East and West began to replace a heavy reliance on importing foreign models.

The Chinese Symbolist poets of the 1920s and 1930s turned to the masters of “modern” French Symbolist and classical Chinese poetry for inspiration, and their efforts to balance East and West did not go unnoticed. So sophisticated were many of their poems, and so distinctive in their blend of cultures, that literary scholars have hailed the cosmopolitanism of these poems as an indicator of the maturation and modernization of New Poetry.[3] The poems I have translated here speak for themselves; I trust readers will be struck by their eclecticism, suggestiveness, and obscurity, as I was. But the conversation on “cosmopolitanism” will at first glance appear curiously superficial, because the formal synthesis of French Symbolist and classical Chinese poetics, which these scholars claim indicates the progress of New Poetry, belies an ambivalence toward the juxtaposition of cultures in the texts themselves. What this discrepancy in the scholarly conversation suggests is that these poems have not been appreciated in light of the specific context of cultural translation in the 1920s and 1930s, as it was theorized and understood, and as it manifested in practice. Collectively, the formal and textual “cosmopolitanism” of these poems indicate that cultural translation was an interplay of ostensible aims, agendas, or principles and the tensions and contradictions evoked as a result of the practice of translation, and the pursuit of translated modernity. I hope that a detailed appreciation of these poems will thus contribute to understandings of cultural translation in the early-twentieth century as it was understood and practiced. Conversely, I hope that appreciating these poems in the fuller context of cultural translation will prompt us to re-evaluate the periodization of New Poetry, first by focusing our attention on the social and historical significance accorded to a body of poems commonly acclaimed the “height” of New Poetry.

Many Chinese Symbolist poets were themselves literary translators, and the translation of foreign poems in turn inspired their compositions. Two in particular—Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 (1910-2000) and Dai Wangshu 戴望舒 (1905-1950)—accorded great importance to the faithful translation of Western poems and their poetics. If one aim of translation was to “‘awaken the [Chinese] people’ to all the good things, ideas, qualities and practices that the Westerners had,”[4] then a faithful translation was instrumental and best able to expose the Chinese people to Western culture and sensibilities. In separate studies, Wu Yang[5] and Chen Taisheng[6] have convincingly shown Bian’s and Dai’s attempts to closely replicate the form, rhyme, rhythm, and style of the source texts in their translation of poems from English or French to Chinese. The practice of faithful translation was in fact part of a broader, deliberate, and somewhat programmatic study of and attempt to emulate Western poetics. Whether in their translations or creations, the Chinese Symbolists closely adhered to the poetics of the French Symbolists they so admired, and it is their facility with both Chinese and French symbolist poetics that has attracted much attention and dominated the scholarly conversation.

Yet the “harmonious” synthesis of East and West at the formal level of these poems belies a sense of ambivalence towards cosmopolitan life in modern China. Clearly, the juxtapositions of East and West, or the old and new, were part of the complex lived and imagined experiences of the Chinese Symbolists, and manifest in their poetry in ways that defy a deliberately formulated synthesis. By the 1930s, China had experienced profound change: the collapse of two millennia of imperial rule, the inauguration of a new republic in 1912, and the outright rejection of Confucian ideology fuelled disorientation, soul-searching, and skepticism toward stable structures of meaning. As openness to multiple, new perspectives developed, so did anxiety, disorientation, tensions, and internal contradictions, natural consequences of juxtaposing different aspects of modern life. Here, the iconic opening chapter of Mao Dun’s 矛盾 novel Midnight 子夜 (1933) comes to mind. Old Mr Wu, overstimulated by a barrage of sights, sounds, and shapes in cosmopolitan Shanghai, dies of shock. Intriguingly, this scene recalls the assemblage of images in, and the ambivalence, uncertainty, and displacement of, Chinese Symbolist poetry.

One of the ironies of Chinese Symbolism is the way it “make[s] poetry stutter or stammer, seeking to express [itself], openly and consciously, in a mode of writing that is partly vernacular and partly foreign, [and] yet conceal[s] [itself] in the interstices” of language.[7] In the intervals between signifier and signified one finds unstable meaning, questions (see Dai’s “Impressions”), defamiliarization (Fei Ming’s “Sundry Poems”), unexplained associations (Li Jinfa’s “Unwanted Woman”), the illegibility of dreams, musicality and sensory experience (Dai’s “Rainy Alley”), bifurcation of the self and questions of ontology and epistemology (Ji Xian’s “Maybe Man”), and multiple frames of reference (Bian’s “Broken Lines”). These works vibrantly reflect the spirit of French Symbolism, a movement in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that left its mark on literature, film, theatre, dance, painting, and music. “Symbolism,” in its ordinary usage, refers to “the system of associations where something concrete ‘stands for’ something abstract,” but Symbolist poetry “strives to be anything but an automatic transaction between [the] writer and reader.”[8] Instead, Symbolist poetry creates a “space” between words and images and the reader’s interpretation[9]—a space that allows for “oblique[ness],”  “ambiguity,” “multiple meaning,” and “radical paradox.”[10] The juxtaposition of images, another stylistic feature, “engineer[s] [the] simultaneous coexistence [of various meanings].”[11] Symbolist poetry is therefore “a means of disrupting our ordinary or automatic consciousness” and “liberating something analogous to . . .  the moi profond [profound self].”[12] Although the Chinese Symbolists displayed their cosmopolitanism and facility with foreign literary traditions, they paradoxically lingered in the interstices of language, exploring the incoherence, complexity, and multifariousness of cosmopolitan, “modern” life.

In translating these poems, I too have lingered in the interstices of authorship, readers, texts, and culture. At the confluence of this network lies Symbolism. First, on authorship: I start by recognizing my limitations as a translator. So much of appreciating Symbolist poetry is about perceptual difference. Appreciating a Symbolist poem is like bathing in the ocean under warm sunshine. There’s nothing I could put into words that would replicate that sensation of water on your skin; I can only try. Arthur Symons, in The Symbolist Movement in Literature, aptly wrote that Symbolism is “a form of expression, at the best but approximate.”[13] To some degree, though, my translations also reflect my subjective interpretations and appreciation of these poems. I linger on and expand certain moments—retreating into the contemplation of forms and shapes inherent not only in landscapes, but also in Chinese characters in, for example, Bian’s “Broken Lines” and exploring the emotiveness I sense at the heart of Ji Xian’s “Maybe Man.”

Text and readership, too, have informed my translations. While I concede my interpretations do influence the translations, I’ve tried to strike a balance with focusing on what the text conveys rather than what I think the poet is trying to convey. The poems can sometimes seem incoherent and are often extremely difficult, like Li Jinfa’s “Unwanted Woman.” They don’t always tell a clear story, and seem to defy expectations that they are objects of beauty; they seem more complex than beautiful. What if, instead of organizing these poems as one translates, resolving their ambiguities or lyricizing, as some translations do, the translator takes a step back? Instead of “flattening” these poems, my translations seek to preserve their incoherence, allowing reality to reveal itself slowly through a seemingly random sequence of images. As the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé beautifully expresses, Symbolism “evoke[s] an object little by little to show a state of soul.” “To name an object,” Mallarmé writes, “is to suppress three fourths of the joy of poetry, which should be made by appreciating [gradually]: suggestion is dream.”[14] In a similar vein, Michel Hockx, describing the style of Chinese Symbolists like Fei Ming, Lin Geng, and Bian Zhilin, pithily states, “to express reality too distinctly is to fail to express it at all.”[15] In the intervals of sign and signified, and in between images, my translations will, I hope, allow multiple readings and re-readings. After all, the Symbolists’ “interpretation of the world is provisional, fragmentary. [They] do not believe in definite explanations; they are sceptics rather than enthusiasts. . . . They emphasise the value of intellectual consideration and reconsideration.”[16] Perhaps we might turn to the following lines from Bian’s “Let the Current Take It,” then, which seem to offer a strangely prescient reflection of the many possible interpretations of Symbolist poetry:

How many destinies have yet to be discovered?
Some will fret. Some will speak.
Still it is better like this—let the current take it.

Chinese Symbolism, as I stated at the start, reflects the encounter of cultures and the practice of cultural translation. But why would the poetic tradition of a very different country appeal to modern Chinese poets? Probably they noticed the synergy between Symbolist poetics and the concerns of their social milieu, but I also think that between French and Mandarin they perceived a common thread, a note of cultural resonance—that of music, a “language” all cultures can appreciate. Read Dai’s “Rainy Alley” aloud in Mandarin, and appreciate its musicality, tonality, and accumulation of vowel sounds and gentle consonants. Musicality, too, informs my translations. Admittedly English lacks the tonality of Mandarin, but it’s not a hopeless case; since so much of Symbolist poetry has to do with interpretation, perhaps we can appreciate musicality of a different inflection, aided by the rhythms and stresses of English.

I hope readers will enjoy lingering in the interstices of their “moi profond,” and in the gaps of these texts. Arranged chronologically, the following selection of poems depicts Chinese Symbolism as it buds in the early, bizarre verse of Li Jinfa, reaches its height with Bian Zhilin and Dai Wangshu, and takes flight in the futuristic work of Ji Xian—until the outbreak of World War II halts its growth. For all their ambiguity and opacity, at striking moments these poems are surprisingly real—as in the following lines from Lin Geng’s “May,” which never fail to move me, even though I’ve had the fortune of never witnessing a war in my lifetime:

Now that we’ve grown used to hearing rifle fire
A long life seems ridiculous.
Is it not so?[17]


LI JINFA 李金发 (1900-1976)

Unwanted Woman

Dishevelled locks curtain my eyes,
Thereby severing my despicable, diseased vision,
And the life-pulse of fresh blood, the slumber of withered bones.
Night and mosquitoes approach in step, easily
Surmounting the corner of this squat wall
Ambushing my pure ears with a mad howl,
Like the rage of a tempest in a god-forsaken land:
Countless nomads tremble.
Wielding only a blade of grass, they commune with the spirit of god in an empty valley.
My woe only the mind of a roving swarm of hornets remembers;
Or dissipates, with the eternal fall of the mountain spring, on a precipice
Then disappears with the autumn leaves.
The hidden woe of an unwanted woman accumulates in actions,
Even the blaze of the setting sun cannot reduce the trials of time to
Ashes, taking flight from ashes,
Staining the plumage of a vagrant crow,
Alighting with the flock on a stone dislodged by frantic waves,
Attentive to the song of boats.
Aged lapels on a gown let out ancient groans,
Ambling by a grave
Forever without tears,
Moistening grassland
An ornament for the world.



1925 年

FEI MING 废名 (1901-1967)

Sundry Poems 


Suddenly, from the street—
My father shouting my pet name, but I hear it no more!


I love to see her, palm fan twittering, sprawled on the grass enjoying the cool
But I dare not approach to ask her name!


Engrossed in reading, I’m startled
Outside, begging for rice, a blind boy, his howls—
And a friend mimics his cries!





1923 年

DAI WANGSHU 戴望舒 (1905-1950)

Rainy Alley

Holding an oilpaper umbrella,
Pacing back and forth alone in a long, long
And desolate rainy alley,
I hope to meet
A lilac-like
Melancholy maiden.

She has
The colour of a lilac,
The scent of a lilac,
The sorrow of a lilac,
Lamenting in the rain,
Lamenting and pacing;

She paces back and forth in this desolate, rainy alley,
Holding an oilpaper umbrella
Like me,
Just like me
Walking silently and slowly,
Indifferent, mournful, and disconsolate.

She silently draws near
Draws near, and casts
A glance like a deep sigh,
She floats past
Just like a dream,
As mournfully and faintly as a dream.

Like floating in a dream
Past a lilac,
This maiden brushes past;
Silently, she drifts further, further,
To the dilapidated wattled wall,
At the end of this rainy alley.

Awash in the rain’s mournful melody,
Her colour disperses,
Her scent scatters,
Dissipates, even her
Glance like a deep sigh,
Her disconsolation like a lilac’s.

Holding an oilpaper umbrella,
Pacing back and forth alone in a long, long
And desolate rainy alley,
I hope to float past
A lilac-like
Melancholy maiden.









1929 年


Is it  drifting to the mountain valley
A faint bell song
Is it  vanishing into the mist
A tiny fishing boat,
If it is an emerald pearl;
It’s been lost in the gloom of an ancient well.

Aglow above the treetops the dispirited setting sun
Coolly withdraws
A smile wan but radiant.

Arising from a lonesome place,
A rumor, lonesome wailing
Slowly returning to a lonesome place, alone.





1933 年

BIAN ZHILIN 卞之琳 (1910-2000)

Broken Lines

Standing on a bridge you ponder the scenery
From a balcony above someone looks down at you.

The bright moon adorns your window, whispering tomorrows
You adorn the dreams of another.




1935 年

Let the Current Take It

Among fallen autumn leaves
A street sweeper unearths
The small portrait of a girl:

Is it rain or tears
Obscuring the rosy, pretty cheeks
Who knows! But it reminds one
Of a worried face, unrecognizable
In the clouded mirror of an old mansion.

Distinct on its back
“You must never throw this away!”

“It takes effort to deepen ties,” aye,
Think no longer of an ancient Qiang maiden’s love letter
Lost in drifting sands by the Puchang sea
Waiting to be retrieved by a Western traveller
Exhibited in London before countless pairs of blue eyes.

How many destinies have yet to be discovered?
Some will fret. Some will speak.
Still it is better like this—let the current take it.







1932 年

Dressing Table (Bygone Senses, New Forms)

The world adorns my dressing table,
Like a fruit store surrounding me with fruits,
Effortlessly, I can bend down and pick them up
But how can I help my weak appetite upon waking?

Spiderwebs should be fastened to the eave corner on the left.
Willow catkins, don’t tumble into my water pot.
Mirror, mirror, how provoking you are,
Let me first pencil in two beautiful brows for you.

But from the joy of each interlocking tile
I understand the rooftop, and grasp
Leaf upon leaf, towering jade parasol—
Look at that little bird on the branch playing with its beak!

Why not give that new robe the dance of wind?
“The meaning of adornment is in losing oneself.”
Who wrote this for me? Don’t think on it—
Unthinkable! “I complete me to complete you.”

妆台 (古意新拟)





1937 年

JI XIAN 纪弦 (1913-2013)

Maybe Man

Expanding  distending
Exploding  imploding
Figure without form  unthinkably twisted
Vapor diffuse thought!
Use your gut,
your instinct,
Oh, Maybe Man
Seize him
Bring my answer
Without fail,
On the script of your life
Life’s X to the power of n…
And we’ll say, “till we meet again.”
Don’t cry, don’t miss me.
For in the day without sorcery
Without God
When heavenly spheres have lost their shape
And ichthyosaurs surge to shore
Maybe Man,
Won’t we have a blissful reunion,
Orbiting the farthest cry of the galaxy?
Then, Maybe Man
Will you remember how to play the mandolin
I don’t know
I might be hoarse by then
No longer able to serenade you with a waltz, but
Intimately, we’ll be one flesh
Flying like a stallion
Sketching with shadows
on frozen tundra
16 footprints
Breath  spirit future


生命之X n 及其他具神秘性的数字。


[*] Marian Chia is currently leading a curriculum team designing lessons and material for high school students at a private enrichment school in Singapore. Growing up in multilingual Singapore, she had the privilege of learning a few languages, including Japanese and French. She especially credits the persistence and dedication of her Chinese-language teachers in preparing her to pursue graduate research at Columbia University from 2019 to 2020.


Batt, Herbert, and Sheldon Zitner, trans. The Flowering of Modern Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from the Republican Period. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.

Chen Taisheng 陈太胜. “Fan yi dui Zhongguo xin shi chan sheng he fa zhan de zuo yong: yi Bian Zhilin wei zhong xin de yan jiu” 翻译对中国新诗产生和发展的作用: 以卞之琳为中心的研究. Guangdong she hui ke xue 广东社会科学 no. 3 (2017): 141-48.

Chen, Yongguo. “Becoming-Obscure: A Constant in the Development of Modern Chinese Poetry.” Modern Language Quarterly 69, no. 1 (2008): 81-96.

Chia, Su Ming Marian. “An Apparel of Cosmopolitanism: Anxious Expressions of Modernity in Chinese Symbolist Poetry.” Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 2020.

Fokkema, Douwe and Elrud Ibsch. Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature, 1910-1940. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1988.  

Liang, Qichao. “On the Relationship Between Fiction and the Government of the People.” Tr. Gek Nai Cheng. In Kirk A. Denton, ed., Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, 74-81

McGuinness, Patrick, ed. Symbolism, Decadence, and the Fin de Siècle: French and European Perspectives. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000.

McGuinness, Patrick. “Symbolism.” In William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond, and Emma Wilson, eds., The Cambridge History of French Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 479-87.

Pollard, David E. “Introduction.” In Pollard, Translation and Creation: Readings of Western Literature in Early Modern China, 1840-1918. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1998, 5-24.

Symons, Arthur. Introduction to The Symbolist Movement in Literature, 3-10. London: William Heinemann, 1899.

Wu Yang 吴杨. “Dai Wangshu yi shi de zhong shi xing yu chuang zao xing” 戴望舒译诗的忠实性与创造性. Journal of Liaoning Normal University 42, no. 6 (2019): 134-40.

Yoon, Ho-Byeong. “Encounters between French Symbolist Poetry and Modern Korean Poetry.” Korea Journal 27, no. 10 (1987): 11-27.


[1] Su Ming Marian Chia, “An Apparel of Cosmopolitanism: Anxious Expressions of Modernity in Chinese Symbolist Poetry” (master’s thesis, Columbia University, 2020), 1-7. Portions of this essay were first developed in, and are based on a reworking of, my unpublished master’s thesis.

[2] Qichao Liang, “On the Relationship Between Fiction and the Government of the People.” Tr. Gek Nai Cheng. In Kirk A. Denton, ed., Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 74-81.

[3] Chia, “An Apparel of Cosmopolitanism,” 1-11. For a detailed analysis, see my master’s thesis.

[4] David E. Pollard, “Introduction.” In Pollard, ed., Translation and Creation: Readings of Western Literature in Early Modern China, 1840 – 1918 (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1998), 10.

[5] Wu Yang 吴杨, “Dai Wangshu yi shi de zhongshixing yu chuangzaoxing” 戴望舒译诗的忠实性与创造性, Journal of Liaoning Normal University 42, no. 6 (2019): 134-40.

[6] Chen Taisheng 陈太胜, “Fanyi dui Zhongguo xin shi chansheng he fazhan de zuoyong: yi Bian Zhilin wei zhongxin de yanjiu” 翻译对中国新诗产生和发展的作用: 以卞之琳为中心的研究, Guangdong shehui kexue 广东社会科学 no. 3 (2017): 141-48.

[7] Yongguo Chen, “Becoming-Obscure: A Constant in the Development of Modern Chinese Poetry,” Modern Language Quarterly 69, no. 1 (2008): 86.

[8] Patrick McGuinness, “Symbolism.” In William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond, and Emma Wilson, eds, The Cambridge History of French Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 482-83.   

[9] McGuinness, “Symbolism,” 483.

[10] Patrick McGuinness, ed., Symbolism, Decadence, and the Fin de Siècle: French and European Perspectives (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000), 2.

[11] McGuiness, “Symbolism,” 484.

[12] McGuiness, “Symbolism,” 484; original emphasis.

[13] Arthur Symons, introduction to The Symbolist Movement in Literature (London: William Heinemann, 1899), 3.

[14] Ho-Byeong Yoon, “Encounters between French Symbolist Poetry and Modern Korean Poetry,” Korea Journal 27, no. 10 (1987): 13-14.

[15] Herbert Batt and Sheldon Zitner, trans, The Flowering of Modern Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from the Republican Period (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 170.

[16] Douwe Fokkema and Elrud Ibsch, Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature, 1910-1940 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1988), 4.

[17] Batt and Zitner, Flowering of Modern Chinese Poetry, 213.