Poetry / China


Xie Mian*

CHENG XI 程曦(°1919). Winter of the Yihai· year. LEI CHI NGOK 李志岳 LI ZHIYUE 1995. Colour inks on rice paper. 23.0 cm x 33.0 cm.

For a long time it has been our wish to restore the integrity of a divided China through the study of poetry. While the task of unification may be beset with difficulties in the political, economical and cultural arenas, in the study of poetry we may overcome these obstacles and strive to accomplish this aim.

In recent times the flaw which has hurt China the most is the fact that it is a country based on divisions, be they external or internal, which have already given rise to successive bouts of tremendous hardship for the Chinese people. Whether or not China has the opportunity or the strength in these last years of the twentieth century to bridge this great rift, we are bound to give it our full attention. Moreover, we put our poetic imagination to use to fulfil this longstanding wish.

Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao constitute one strand of the network of Chinese culture. The poetic tradition of these areas draws upon and blends a wide range of influences, yet remains essentially Chinese in origin. Just as in China, in the literature of these other areas, the most dynamic and substantial corpus of new poetry was produced under the influence of the May Fourth Movement. The situation in Taiwan needs to be qualified slightly, since in addition there exists the poetry written during the period of occupation by the Japanese which was influenced by the bilingual environment surrounding its creation and then also the stage termed "[...] the straddling of two eras [...]" which put Taiwanese poetry back on the same track as modern Chinese poetry. The contours wrought on the new poetry of Taiwan had an enriching effect on the whole region. In Macao there is in addition the Portuguese language poetry by Portuguese people born in the territory, which is not regarded as Chinese poetry proper, but which remains nonetheless a characteristic feature on the landscape of Chinese poetry. One prominent writer in this category is Carlos Marreiros. ·

The May Fourth Movement was received in Hong Kong and Macao in a way largely similar to that of the mainland. Hong Kong poetry was still infused with the diligence and wisdom of the older generation of poets. Xu Dishan, · Su Hong, · Dai Wangshu, · Tao Xingzhi· and several others besides all contributed to Hong Kong's poetic tradition. Dai Wangshu lived in Hong Kong for ten years, a period equivalent to a quarter of his life. Many of his most famous works were penned in Hong Kong. The "Singtao Yatboh" and "Singtso" publications managed by him, have both made a substantial contribution to the advancement of literature and poetry in Hong Kong. In founding "Singtso" he expressed the hope that "[...] the hazy climate would soon lift [...] If we can manage to battle on through the haze, then it is the editor's one small hope that "Singtso" might provide its readers with a faithful representation of the canopy of the heavens above and add a little adornment to the light of the harbour lanterns." His illumination of a troubled Hong Kong illustrates the commitment of this poet to his avowed mission.

There can be no doubt that the poetic movements of these areas enriched and substantiated the corpus of "New Poetry" in China. This seemingly unavoidably abstract judgement is based on many facts and on the actual experiences of people in poetic circles. The progress of modern Chinese poetry began to suffer setbacks from as early as the 1930s onwards. Entering the 1950s, mainland Chinese poetry began to diverge. The enormity of China, coupled with the extent to which the country was cut off from the outside world by that exceptional period of history, was sufficient to mend the fractures suffered in the divergence. The 1950s in Taiwan saw the initiation of the modern poetry movement. The aim was to "[...] lead a second revolution in new poetry and to promote its modernisation, [...]" and a radical manifesto of six tenets was proposed, to provoke wide-ranging and longlasting discussion. Regardless of any shortcomings in the manifesto, the advance of the modernisation of the new poetry it instigated was unstoppable.

Taiwan in the 1950s saw the successive establishment of three major poetry periodicals: "Modern Poetry",· "Blue Star"· and "Genesis".· These periodicals each united a group of poets, but also promoted any number of famous names. If we felt impoverished by the small size of our country, the vast expanse on the other side of the Taiwan Straits more than compensated for it. This is a genuine case of poetry thriving on a country's misfortune. Were it not for this blossoming of poetry at the same time but in different places, then perhaps the poetry which we now possess, would have been quite mediochre.

From the modernist drive in the 1950s to today, Taiwanese poetry has seen one trend follow another and famous poets have shone like stars. The recurring benefit has been major development in the art of poetry. One group of poets came from the colleges, another from the military services, many more from society in general, but all of them have stepped beyond the confines of their territory to confront the world beyond the Pacific Ocean. It is open-mindedness which enables art to grow freely. While the poetry of one part of China suffered political repression, not knowing what course to pursue and languishing in a state of inertia, the other part was imbuing people with confidence by presenting a picture of real life.

Meanwhile Hong Kong and Macao, being open and yet self-contained, became a crossroads for the Western and Chinese worlds: a cultural setting which was uninhibited, generous, dynamic and all-embracing. Mainland China spent several decades striving for isolation, despite a massive hinterland and great rivers and seas, and suffered chronically from a long-lasting syndrome of fawning after foreign powers. This hampered the development of ways of thinking. Already mainland China was foundering in state of complacent conservatism, stagnating in timeworn tradition, staunchly spurning all contact with the outside world. Rigidly maintaining a self-righteous pose is a cultural tactic which, combined with an obsessive and irrational rejection of culture and long term cultural undernourishment, created a vicious circle in the country's culture, including even the "New Poetry" from the so-called Nationalist group. The situation was different in the areas outside mainland China. The generally open and free environment of globalism enabled the other regions to enjoy a wide range of contacts and blending influences.

In this environment, then, traditional Chinese culture suffered from the tangled collision of many different cultures, while at the same time benefitting from contacts and mutual exchange. Over the last hundred years China has learned a lesson from her shallow pride and her ignorance of the outside world. China's precarious predicament is this: on the one hand infatuation with the distant past dulls creativity, while on the other slavish preference for foreign things destroys self-confidence and the power of discernment. The cultural carousel of mainland China in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a vivid manifestation of this problem. The natural conclusion to be drawn is that we need to build on foundations of normal exchange and mutual contact.

Into the 1950s, judging from the spheres of reference of the poetry written during the period of intense ideologisation in mainland China, there emerged an illusion of euphoria. The origins of this phenomenon lay in the prevailing idealism in the society at the time. The demand for conformity in the subject matter of poetry gradually evolved into a poetic standard with intrinsic value judgements, while a formulaic modus vivendi in art formed under the shroud of a united will. Hitherto, regulations and controls had been applied not only to poetry but even to feelings, in that poetry was obliged to portray a specific, unified sentiment. Roughly speaking, poetry was required to show optimism, joy and hope; conversely, the pessimism and greyness of the declining classes naturally had to be portrayed as antagonistic.

Just at the time when China was forcibly drenching one part of its poetry with euphoria, the other side of the straits was also reverberating under the immense power of a whirling tornado. The tiny poem Xiangchou· (Anxiety for the Homeland) communicated an enduring grief and proved the genius of Yu Guangzhong. · It was also the focus of the tragic poetry of that period. Of course Yu Guangzhong was not the only exponent of this grief; all the well-known, accomplished poets in Taiwan without exception expended great effort to develop this theme in their poetry. The silken waters of the Yangtze River threading their way into the distance, the deep red of a single crabapple leaf: both became symbols for the pain of departure for many of China's sons and daughters. It is an old saying that feelings of happiness are quick to engineer, but sorrow is less straightforwardly fashioned. When it appeared that China was once again floating in superficial happiness and false optimism, the new Chinese poetry consequently underwent a period of aesthetic replenishment by virtue of the pain and sorrow of Chinese people.

The great majority of members of this vast agricultural society were peasants, since the cities were still underdeveloped. Before the 1980s, it could be said that there was no such thing as a modernised urban centre in China. Some people jokingly called Shanghai a "big village". For several decades previously, China's political, economic and cultural activities had all been acted out on a rural stage. The characters were cast mostly from peasant stock, or from those who had been repackaged as peasants. Against this backdrop, any discussion of modernisation or of modernism and post-modernism in Chinese poetry in such a setting confronts an immense void. The subject matter and themes of the modern city are fundamentally lacking in modem Chinese poetry. Without entering the urban domain, Chinese poetry will remain incapable of defining an objective to lead it into the modern era.

On the basis of this assumption, the poetry of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan has contributed to the integrity of Chinese poetry as a whole. The urban poetry emanating from the cosmopolitain environment of cities such as Hong Kong, Taibei or Macao, encompassing the psychology, emotions and aspirations of city-dwellers is significant for new Chinese poetry not only by virtue of the subject matter it offers, but also because of the culture and modes of thinking it contains: information about the worlds of finance, trade, transport and communications which cosmopolitan cities provide; the driving passions and emotional constraints of the lives of the urban population; the laying bare of artistic talent and the flourishing or stifling of creative power; the joys and sorrows and the unreconcilable feelings of loneliness. Added to which the sounds, shades and colours of the city, its rhythms and melodies. Especially Hong Kong, that huge-scale, three-dimensional figure fashioned in land, sea and sky, comparable in magnitude with the international giants London, New York and Tokyo. A stretch of water separating it from Taiwan opposite; a sliver of city, Shenzhen, separating Hong Kong from the adjoining mainland. Hong Kong is a bridge, a confluence mixing the politics, economics and cultures of East and West; also a convergence of poetry.

In the 1930s, writers like Xu Chi· started to describe the thoughts and feelings of city-dwellers with a modern perspective, but this theme has dried up in poetry since. One reason for this is that the prominence of the cities seems not to have increased, the countryside remaining centre-stage. The other reason is that value systems have undergone acute changes. Describing the norms of city life is a somewhat negative activity: their guiding ethos has come to represent the criminality of capitalism. The only moral codes to which cities can adhere lead ultimately to their decline and demise. The living memory of the modern generation and the depth of the urban population's conscience, including the attitudes of the urban intelligentsia, are all too often surpressed in poetry. However, in the work of writers from metropolitan centres such as Hong Kong or Macao, the urban phenomenon is allowed to flourish unadulterated and untamed, sustained by the changing fortunes, joys and sorrows of ordinary city folk, offering an undiluted portrayal of power and greatness.

The shortcomings of China's poetry are made up by supplements of this kind. The new attributes contributed by the work from these detached parts of China have reinforced the contemporaneity of China's poetry. Poetry which had originally had a crippling and anomalous slant has been righted to healthy equilibruim by an injection of realism.

Chinese people today may well lament the century-long segregation of their nation, but when all is in the past and the causes of these feelings have subsided to insignificance, they will be able to evaluate anew the unpredicted effects which the separation brought about. If a nation is divided for some reason and lives segregated in different environments, to the extent that the two parts may actually adopt a hostile stance toward one another, their originally common cultural traditions are severed such that they are no longer compatible. The isolation creates new cultural structures and infuses the original traditions with new ways of thinking and states of consciousness, producing a cultural alloy with qualities divergent from the original and concocting new cultural mixtures. The original ingredients are not preserved in their original form, but undergo changes; the new components do not intrude unaltered, but are likewise remodelled and melted down. With the passage of time, the situation continues to change. People look back at the original society and focus on the similarities and differences, mentally converting it into two or more different entities. The bewitching distortions worked by the passage of time and the way the isolated culture can flourish are astonishing. Until there comes a time when people can look back at the time of the divergence with cool detachment, at which point they set their sights on consolidation and conformity. Only when this point is reached do people discover that the original suffering was not wholly damaging, but that some benefit has fermented from the mixture also. There comes the realisation that the shaping and harmonising of changing fortunes lie beyond the powers of men.

The restoration of China's territorial integrity is a matter which still requires much patience, but poets are united in their conviction: adhering to the notion of a unified greater China in poetry will remove the obstacles standing in the way until there are none remaining. It appears that we have the opportunity and indeed the obligation to meet this objective: not only to establish a new category of poetry, that of a unified China, but also to apply similar thinking in reassessing the poetic and cultural history of China once unified. We have to ensure that the first steps on the way to achieving these aims are borne in mind when approaching the broader task of choosing appropriately representative selections from the poetry prevalent today. This task is made significantly less daunting by the increased communication and deeper understanding between poets in the last decade or so, by the bridging of the chasms dividing them and by their command of the issues at stake. It is wonderful to entertain the possibility that these ideals may be realised, since this is proof of the triumph of the integrity of Chinese poetry; proof that the convictions of poetry may triumph in breaking the bounds of commonly held stereotypes and ideologies; proof that the intuition of the poets of all parts of China will emerge victorious.

Translated from the Chinese by: Justin Watkins

* Lecturer at the Chinese Department of the Beijing University. Reknowned critic of Chinese Poetry.

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