Poetry, History, Memory: Wang Jingwei and China's Wartime Collaboration
(manuscript in submission)
This book investigates the complex of poetry, history, and memory through the case of Wang Jingwei (1883–1944), a poet, politician, and one of the most controversial figures in modern Chinese history. As Sun Yat-sen’s political heir, champion of leftwing democratic centralism, and rival of Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese Nationalist Party (GMD), Wang is now primarily remembered as the chief Chinese collaborator with Japan during WWII. The full story, yet to be told, is much more complicated; his intimate subjectivity, performed through refined classical-style poetry, has inspired scholars like Chia-ying Yeh to pronounce his collaboration as driven by a “martyr complex,” which however is based on another reductionist view that sees the function of poetry as revelation. The purpose of this book is three-fold. First, it sheds light on a historical figure long neglected due to moral and ideological biases. Second, it investigates ways of bringing disparate methodologies into a fruitful dialogue, including a sophisticated exegetical method that allows historians to use poetry while maintaining the latter’s ambiguity and hermeneutical openness. Third, it addresses the problem of justice in mnemonic practices and explores ways of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Since we cannot speak of memory without having a basic consensus on history, part one of this book offers a critical biography of Wang Jingwei. Drawing on archives (in the PRC, Taiwan, Japan, the USA, France, and Germany), memoires, historical journals and newspapers, interviews, and scholarly works, this is the first comprehensive biography of Wang’s in any language. Wang’s poetry, as I argue, played a central role in constructing his political identity and posthumous memory. Given the linear and fluid narrative demanded by a biography, part one may raise but cannot fully address hermeneutical issues such as the question of authenticity in lyric poetry, nor can it offer comprehensive readings of some poems that are intensively allusive or have highly complex discursive contexts.
Part two thus consists of thematic explorations of the “poetics of memory,” primarily investigating poems written by Wang during the period of collaboration and his coded lyric conversations with other elite collaborators. By examining a genre practiced by both Chinese and Japanese elites, I also problematize the nation-state paradigm that dominates the scholarship on cultural production in wartime China.
The Lyric Angelus Novus: Avant-garde Classicist Poetry in the Chinese Cyberspace
(manuscript in progress)
Borrowing a Benjaminesque metaphor, this book explores the avant-garde classist poetry of four Chinese poets (Lizi, Xutang, Dugu, and Tianxue) as lyric impersonations of the Angelus Novus. While fixing their gaze on the horrible deconstruction and fragmentation of China’s classical literary language, they are moving with the “wind of progress” towards an unknown future. All four poets broke onto the literary scene around the end of the 1990s by publishing on online forums. Their voices are radically different both from those of their post-Maoist “old cadre” predecessors and from those of the increasing backward-looking young classicists of the Xi Era. They represent a unique moment in China’s cultural shift toward postmodern conservativism: a native lyric form, together with all its archaic prosodic prescriptions, was given a new life when the authority of the past remained dead. By refusing to let institutions speak through them in pastiche (Jameson), they create a truly innovative, hybrid, and cosmopolitan language, which simultaneously evokes China’s cultural memories as a source of discursive resistance to the present.
I propose to explore the following research questions:
1) How does the changing digital media landscape cause the rise (and arguably, the fall) of avant-garde classicist poetry? While the BBS “flâneur” culture was essential to the poets’ stylistic innovations, the social media “follower” culture is encouraging aesthetically conservative kitsch.
2) How does this poetry combine classicist and modernist features? The linguistic and technical innovations of the poets are often inspired by modern literature, Chinese and foreign alike.
3) Since modern Chinese freestyle poetry rhymes in the Standard Mandarin, critics have accused classicist poetry following medieval prosodic prescriptions of anachronism. However, since most Sinitic topolects have preserved medieval vernacular elements to varying degrees, poets native in these topolects (e.g. Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien) may find the purported medieval prosody no more “imposed” than the Standard Mandarin, if not closer to their vernacular mother tongue.
4) How does this poetry respond to changing gender relations? Though male poets living on the margins of literary sociology are unlikely successors to premodern literati, female poets (like Tianxuezhai) face the unique conundrum that their premodern gender roles in lyric representation were extremely constrained and are entirely obsolete today.
In China today, tightening top-down ideological control, market force, and populist cultural nationalism all conspire to promote a lyric conservatism that is often excessively aestheticist and ideologically conformist. In the end, I will attempt to locate such avant-garde classicist poetry in the history of Chinese poetry. By compiling, preserving, and critically examining the lyric innovations of these four poets, this project also aspires to engage in a discussion on Chinese classicist poetry as a living genre not only of our times, but also of a global literary future.