The Chairman’s Voice: Manuscript, Orality, and Revolutionary Classicism in Maoist China
PMLA (conditionally accepted)
The enduring influence of Mao Zedong’s classicist poetry worldwide is a fascinating phenomenon, especially because this “conservative” genre is marginalized in institutionalized modern Chinese literature. This article examines a curious case of “fake Mao” poems that enjoyed supreme ideological authority during the Cultural Revolution. By tracing the CCP cultural policies toward Chinese literary legacy, I argue that “revolutionary classicism” was the logical offspring of “revolutionary nationalism” when literati and folk traditions were mobilized to serve a totalitarian cause; that the institutionalized lyric voice of Chairman Mao was collectively created and appropriated; that by combining sounds, words, and imageries, classicist poetry was the chosen media for the masses to connect themselves to the purported inner subjectivity of the Chairman; and that, by rhyming and ventriloquizing in this voice, the Chinese revolution was finally embodied. Classicist poetry thus represents a neglected aspect in Chinese literary modernity and nation-building.
Writing in the Digital Sand: Technology and Classicist Poetry in the Chinese Cyberspace
Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, 20.2 (forthcoming 2023)
Since the late 1990s, Chinese avant-garde classicist poetry has become a notable literary phenomenon. Its birth was closely associated with the rise of the digital media, as internet publication enabled innovative poets to break the gates of print media jealously guarded by the literary establishment. Twenty years later, however, this landscape has radically changed. Overtime, it has become a vast graveyard of internet literature, as independent literary sites have virtually died out in an event of mass extinction, on which empires of a few giants are built. China’s digital censorship poses another grave challenge, forcing poets to employ rhetorical devices, such as jeu de mots and historical allusions, to voice their discontent – a game in which classicist poetry excels, though AI technology is increasingly making it harder to play.
In this paper, I examine the interface, power structure, and media technology of the digital platforms that have enabled the production and dissemination of Chinese internet classicist poetry, as well as the impact that technological evolution bears on its aesthetics, economics, and ecosystem. A particular focus of this paper is on the contrast between Tianya Club and WeChat as two major digital platforms for poetic production and consumption among Sinophone internet users. The former, born in a relatively anarchic digital age and struggling to remain relevant today, fostered a flâneur culture that had empowered avant-gardist lyric experiments. The latter, a social media “super app” with its strict top-down control and barriers against anonymous communication, rewards instead conservative aesthetics with monetary incentives. The rapid transformations of the Chinese cyberspace make it a digital sand beach in which the poets write. This situation creates a curious paradox: while the internet is supposed to “remember forever” words indifferently, the death of platforms and digital censorship can also erase words thoroughly and forever. On the digital sands thus arises a phantasm of literary immortality, which, in ways unprecedented in the human history, is conjured up by capital, technology, and political authority.
(with David Der-wei Wang) Introduction to the special issue “Classicism in Digital Times: Cultural Remembrance as Reimagination in the Sinophone Cyberspace”
Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, 20.2 (forthcoming 2023)
Nestled under the global rhythm of instant contemporaneity, there is a contradictory pull toward separate digital ecosystems in non-English languages and cultures. A global Sinitic-language (Sinophone) cyberspace, for instance, has empowered cultural and pop cultural trends that quickly sweep across geographically scattered, politically divided, and vernacularly distinct communities, creating a mediascape. Some of the most notable trends may be described as contributing to a “classicist revival,” if we understand every purported revival of the tradition as reinvention and reimagination. Literary and cultural articulations evoking China’s classical past instantly travel through a rhizomatic network of dynamic cultural production, dissemination, and consumption. Platforms of “knowing” and “learning” about the antiquity, too, are increasingly digital: databases, search engines, and digital preservation projects have fundamentally transformed the way we access and interpret Chinese classics, generating not only the interface but the metaverse of canons and memories. In our digital times, classicism necessarily embodies hybrid notions of time, even though at times it threatens to reduce temporality into a kind of timeless presentification. We argue that digital technology provides a special kind of enframing for the experience of one’s Chineseness in the cyberspace, which at the same time entails dangers and hopes.
Sinophone Classicism: Chineseness as Temporal and Mnemonic Experience in the Digital Era
Journal of Asian Studies 81.4 (2022): 1-15
In recent decades, highly heterogenous literary and artistic articulations harking back to China’s classical past are gaining increasing currency in the global Sinophone space and cyberspace. Instead of dismissing them as “fetishisms” or authenticating them as “Chinese traditions,” I propose “Sinophone classicism” as a new critical expression for conceptualizing this diverse array of articulations. It refers to the appropriation, redeployment, and reconfiguration of cultural memories evoking Chinese aesthetic and intellectual traditions for local, contemporary, and vernacular uses, by agents identified or self-identified as Chinese. This essay proposes a subjective, intimate, and reflexive way to experience an individual’s culturally acquired “Chineseness,” which is temporal, mnemonic, and often mediated by digital media. It joins recent scholarly efforts to dismantle the view of “Chinese modernity” as a monocentric and homogenous experience by refocusing on classicism as a kind of “anti-modern modernism.” It also joins the post-Eurocentric turn in global academia by hinting at a future of “global classicisms.”
An Alternative Lyric Modernity? Modern Classicism and Zhou Zuoren’s Wartime Doggerels
Journal of the American Oriental Society 142.2 (2022): 335–52
Zhou Zuoren, a pioneer of the New Culture Movement, became a collaborator and classicist poet during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This article attempts to bridge the gap between two periods of Zhou’s life: his later return to Chinese lyric classicism and his earlier career as a pioneer of vernacular poetry, translator of Japanese haiku, and literary critic championing a “Short Verse Movement.” I argue that Zhou’s wartime doggerels consisted of a modernist project in classicist guise, a continuation of his endeavor to lend expression to the immediacy and the transience of the moment through a native linguistic medium. Reflecting the urgency of self-expression under the Japanese occupation, Zhou’s esoteric doggerels represent a lyric subjectivity in crisis vis a vis the epic of history. By participating in a global moment of literary modernity, they also represent an “alternative lyric modernity” for China.
The Memory of an Assassin and Problem of Legitimacy in the Wang Jingwei Regime (1940-1945)
Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 80.1 (2020): 37–83
In early 1942, a poetry exchange about a painting on the ancient assassin Jing Ke took place among top collaborators at Nanjing. Chinese cultural memory of Jing Ke, long contested, shifted in the twentieth century, making him into a Republican and national hero, eventually symbolizing resistance against Japan. Thus, these poems, especially considering their Japanese readership, show that although cultural memory can be evoked as a legitimizing discourse to serve political needs, its plasticity gives it versatility. Wang’s own iconography as assassin, central in constructing the legitimacy of his regime, was a floating symbol that assumed varying meanings in different contexts. It simultaneously justified collaboration, assuming that Japan’s pan-Asianism would usher in a new unified Qin empire, and also resistance, assuming Wang Jingwei’s perceived readiness to make a personal sacrifice to save the nation.
The Everyday Life under the Occupation: Doggerels in the Bitter Tea Studio as Texts of Liminality 淪陷的日常:作為閾限文本的〈苦茶庵打油詩〉
Modern Chinese Literature 中國現代文學, 38 (Dec. 2020): 93–118
“Reading into the Night in the Double-Shining Tower”: Poetry on the Moon in Wang Zhaoming’s Final Years 「雙照樓中夜讀書」：汪兆銘晚年的詠月詩
Republican China Literature and Culture Studies 民國文學與文化研究集刊 8 (Dec. 2020): 139–154
Thatched Cottage in a Fallen City: The Poetics and Sociology of Survival under the Occupation
European Journal of East Asian Studies 19.2 (2020): 209–236
This article examines the construction of lyric identities by Li Xuanti, a classical-style poet, cultural celebrity and prominent civil servant in collaborationist regimes based in Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It argues that Li used his poetry to explore the confusion, ambivalence and sense of cultural pride while living with the occupiers. Despite his collaboration, a frequent identity that appears in Li’s poetry is that of a yimin (loyalist), who has retreated to the inner world of reclusion. With the progress of the war, however, another identity eventually emerged in Li’s poetry, namely that of a patriot. Historical allusions in Li’s poems thus acquire double-entendre, expressing his ambivalent loyalty. Li was also at the social centre of a group of like-minded collaborators and accommodators in Nanjing, bound by their common practice of classical-style poetry and arts. Their community thus becomes a special case of study for the sociology of survival under the Japanese occupation.
(with Jeremy Taylor)
Introduction: Toward a New History of Elite Cultural Expression in Japanese-occupied China
European Journal of East Asian Studies 19.2 (2020): 189–207
This paper provides a ‘state of the field’ view of what the authors refer to as the ‘new cultural history’ of Japanese-occupied China. It explores how this small but growing field is beginning to provide new perspectives on questions of ‘collaboration’ and ‘resistance’ that have dominated many recent studies of wartime China. In addition, the authors argue that more research needs to focus on elite forms of Chinese cultural expression under occupation (a topic which has hitherto eluded serious academic scrutiny). This introduction also introduces the four key papers which make up this special issue.
Site: The Impossibility of Remembering the Past at Nanjing
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC), 32.1 (2020): 233–278
Nanjing, a city that served as the capital of multiple Chinese dynasties, mostly southern dynasties during eras of political division, has experienced repeated cycles of prosperity and conquest. Stephen Owen has explored how its poetic history has transposed the actual reality of the city, turning it into a “site of memory.” Here, however, I examine the close interaction between poems about Nanjing and contemporary historical events during the Republican period. Instead of being generic variations on the theme “meditating on the past,” such poems chronicled actual horror and glory. Curiously, however, few such poems were written after the 1937 Massacre. I argue that it was perhaps because the narrative of an impersonal force of history, the “rise and fall,” risked of reducing the immediate and unique historical event into déjà vu. In this sense (and to paraphrase Adorno), “meditating on the past” after the Rape of Nanjing was barbaric.
The weight of the memory of Nanjing was particularly reflected in the classical-style poems by poets in Wang Jingwei’s collaborationist regime, established under the Japanese patronage in Nanjing in 1940. The fact that most leading members in this regime were classically-trained poets (and resisting the literary vernacular dominant in their time) was itself notable, bespeaking of a peculiar eco-system in which resistance, accommodation, and collaboration all sought justifications under the umbrella of China’s cultural traditions. For a regime struggling with its own legitimacy, “meditating on the past” would suggest that it, too, would suffer from the fate of conquest. Their reactions to the burden of literary tradition ranged from self-defense to wishful denial, but most commonly a pregnant aphasia. The ways in which Wang and his followers treated this topic become therefore a case study on the complex of cultural memory, political legitimacy, and literary representation in occupied China.
A Humanist in Wartime France: Wang Jingwei during the First World War
Poetica 49. 1–2 (2019): 163–192
August 1912, Wang Zhaoming 汪兆銘 (1883-1944; better known as Wang Jingwei) left China for France. A leader of the nationalist movement, he had been imprisoned by the Manchu Regime for a failed attempt at the Prince Regent’s life. Now, the Republic was founded, he chose to reject all offers of government positions. Instead, he decided to continue his study in France, under the tutelage of his anarchist friends. This erstwhile assassin would emerge from WWI France as a humanist against all forms of violence.
Employing rarely studied archival materials gathered from Taiwan and France, this paper analyzes his poems during those Lehrjahre and Wanderjahre. It argues that, far from being idyllic pastorals many biographers assume, they show a man torn by conflicting ideologies, agonizing over unfulfilled commitments, and tormented by his inner demons. Through these poems, he also creates an identity that is a traditional scholar-bureaucrat, anarchist philosophe, modern knowledge professional, and statesman all in one—an identity that was unique in China’s transition into a modern polity. Wang’s later protean ideological allegiances, including his infamous collaboration with Japan under the banner of Pan-Asianism during WWII, arguably illustrated his intellectual hybridity. This paper will in particular examine a poem that ostensibly “translated” Jean-Pierre de Florian’s fable “La Brebis et le Chien” into a pentasyllabic ballad, elaborating on pacifism and the strength of the weak. It was both a personal response to the wartime upheaval and a harbinger of his future fate.
(with Dayong MA)
Classicism 2.0: The Vitality of Classicist Poetry Online in Contemporary China
Frontiers of Literary Studies in China (FLSC), 12.3 (2018): 526–557
In this paper, we examine the various approaches toward literary classicism among contemporary Chinese poets. If “poetry of the establishment” features ideological conservatism and aesthetic populism, then its opposite is the online scene of classicist poetry which represents an innovative continuation of the poetic tradition. Here such innovations are discussed in terms of theme, language, and form. Thematic innovations include further that of ideology, worldview, and urbanity. In particular, we argue that a major distinction between contemporary online classicist poets and their premodern predecessors is in their cultural identity. Unlike a traditional literatus who is a poet, scholar, and bureaucrat, contemporary poets often endure economic, intellectual, or political marginalization; or at the very least, writing in the marginalized genre of classicist poetry is a skill that can no longer be readily translated into career success. This new type of poetic identity, in addition to their modern education, has given rise to fresh interpretations of our living world unseen in premodern poetry. Despite their broad spectrum of intellectual persuasions and aesthetic preferences, most of the poets have demonstrated an audacity to experiment, which, coupled with full versatility and virtuosity in the classical poetry tradition, creates outstanding poems. The highly original works of a few leading classicist poets like Lizilizilizi (Zeng Shaoli), Xutang (Duan Xiaosong), and Dugu Shiroushou (Zeng Zheng) will be examined in depth.
The Making of a Master Narrative and How to Break It:
Introduction to the Double Special Issue ‘Multivalent Lyric Classicism’
Frontiers of Literary Studies in China (FLSC), 12.2 (2018): 153–181
The narrative of a “literary evolution,” driven by the the Chinese language’s internal tendency of vernacularization, has been canonized through literary histories from Republican China to date. This view, however, not only fundamentally altered our judgment of literature of value in the past, but also blinds us to the vital field of classicist literature that continues to be written and read today. A thorough reexamination of our literary histories, starting with the inclusion of modern classicist poetry as part and parcel of modern Chinese literature, is thus overdue.
(Trans. Zhao Fan 趙凡)
Jianghan xueshu 江漢學術 37.2 (2018): 99–113
Chinese translation of ““The Tower of Going Astray” (MCLC 28.1 )
The Tower of Going Astray: The Paradox of Liu Yazi’s (1887–1958) Lyric Classicism
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC), 28.1 (2016): 174–221
This article explores the metaphor of Milou – the Tower of Going Astray, a place where Liu Yazi (1887-1958) and his Southern Society associates gathered for drinking and revelry in December 1920 and which they commemorated with 808 poems produced on location or after the event. I argue that this metaphor expresses Liu Yazi’s paradoxical attitude toward China’s lyric tradition. Through his life he composed exclusively classical-style verse and conducted a series of formal experiments to keep it relevant to a modernizing society. His “classicist” literary practice represented the Southern Society’s effort of creating a modern national literature in succession of the tradition, a culturalist nationalist approach showing the influence of the National Essence Movement. Their inconsistency in upholding the aesthetic standard, however, was most tellingly shown in the 1917 “Tang and Song poetry,” a conflict that led to the group’s ultimate disintegration. Liu’s belief in the ethical dimension of the lyric form drew him close to the New Culturalists’ utilitarian approach, leading to his eventual conviction that vernacular (baihua) poetry was morally superior and its victory necessary. Classical poetry became for him a tower of pleasure standing by the eddying stream of history, an imposing edifice doomed to collapse. His was an eloquent case representing a generation of Chinese literati who kept chasing the tides of radical proposals to reform the society, until they woke up in a brave new world where they felt alienated, marginalized, and ultimately abandoned.
The Modernity of the Ancient-Style Verse
Frontiers of Literary Studies in China (FLSC) 9.4 (2015): 551–580
This article explores the stylistic innovations in the Ancient-Style Verse, and particularly in the subgenre of gexing 歌行, from the Late Qing to the 1930s and 40s. It argues that the relative free prosody of the Ancient-Style allowed innovation disguised as restoration. Yet, instead of being the prelude to modern vernacular poetry, the innovations in this genre may have found an end in themselves — namely, creating a style of verse which showed a unique combination of modern elements and deliberate stylistic archaism. Its lyric archaism and innovation were formulated in dialectical terms, which have been frequently evoked in the reformative moments of the Chinese tradition. This paper examines the evolution of the new gexing style through the close reading of a few gexing poems by Huang Zunxian, Liang Qichao, Lin Gengbai, and Liu Yazi. Given the rise of vernacular poetry since 1917, the poems of Lin and Liu may be called the Classicist Verse, which represents the author’s conscious choice to elaborate on the subject matter using a particular classical genre, when other modern genres are available. In the end, I will also discuss the gexing style verses by Li Sichun in the translation of multi-stanza European poetry, as a practice in accord to the indigenization agenda of the Critical Review magazine.
Introduction to the Special Issue on Modern Chinese Lyric Classicism
Frontiers of Literary Studies in China (FLSC) 9.4 (2015)
In this Introduction to the special double issue on modern Chinese lyric classicism, I argue against the outdated notion of literary evolution and propose to reinclude classicist poetry as part and parcel of modern Chinese literature.
Foreword to Frontiers of Literary Studies in China (FLSC) 9.4 (2015): 507-509
A short document co-signed by a dozen prominent researchers on modern Chinese classicist poetry.
The Road to Lyric Martyrdom: Reading the Poetry of Wang Zhaoming (1883–1944)
Chinese Literature: Essay, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 37 (2015): 135–164
In contrast to the current revisionist tendency in literary scholarship to read the poetry of Wang Jingwei (also known as Wang Zhaoming, 1883-1944) as revelation, this article instead explores the functions that Wang’s poetry played on the different stages of his political career and examines the various poetic personae that it constructed for public display. Wang’s lyricism represents a vision of alternative literary modernity in succession of the tradition, even though its ideological claim of restoration disguised renovation and discontinuity. Wang’s literary nationalism, a consequence of the “National Essence” movement, represented the Nationalist Party’s cultural policy. The irony of history was attained when Wang’s poetry became prophecy and his persona came true.
Return to an Inner Utopia: Su Shi’s Transformation of Tao Qian in His Exile Poetry
T’oung-Pao 99 (2013): 329–378
This paper examines Su Shi’s systematic matching of Tao Qian’s poetry during his last exiles to the Far South. Su understood the aesthetic features of Tao’s poetry as having an ethical dimension. Through his emulation, Su Shi reinterpreted his exile as a result of his natural inclinations, just like Tao’s reclusion, and even as a felicitous condition for his “return” to an original state of authenticity and spontaneity. By assuming certain agency for his suffering, Su Shi claimed control over his fate and reasserted his freedom of choice. Meanwhile, his poetry betrays a sense of anxiety and dislocation in his natural and cultural habitat, as well as alienation from the political center. As a result, he transformed Tao Qian’s “Peach Blossom Spring” to be an inner utopia. His “return” into this inner realm was further influenced by Daoist alchemical practice and possessed esoteric features.
Classical Poetry in Modern Politics: Liu Yazi’s PR Campaign for Mao Zedong
Asian and African Studies, 22.2 (2013): 208–226
This paper provides a case study of the use of classical poetry in modern politics, through the close reading of Mao Zedong’s lyric song “Snow” (1936) and Liu Yazi’s matching poem (1945), and through the close examination of their contexts, including the political background, social circulation, media controversy, and cultural political implication. The diverging interpretations of Mao’s poem, expressed through dozens of matching poems, reveal the charm as well as the danger of using classical poetry, which relates the author’s persona to historical models and offers opportunities of prognostication for the future. It also shows the vitality of classical poetry in our modern era, in a way that cannot be replaced by vernacular literature.
Zhu Xi as Poet
Journal of the American Oriental Society 132.4 (2012), 587–611
This paper examines Zhu Xi’s poetic composition chronologically and thematically. Where previous scholarship subjugates Zhu Xi’s poetic composition to his literary criticism, and the latter further to his philosophy, this paper argues that the three endeavors do not necessarily share the same agenda. Read closely in its own right, Zhu’s poetry reveals multiple dimensions. It is a publicizing instrument used to advance an aesthetic ideal, to propose, comment, and modify philosophical arguments, to define social relations, and to address the author’s hidden political and private concerns. It also generates delight on its own. This paper examines the many paradoxes underlying Zhu Xi’s theory and his practice of poetry. His apparent stance against literature is found to be deeply rooted in his visceral understanding of literature, developed from his long and self-conscious literary practice driven by both purpose and pleasure.
The Book of Odes in 18th Century Britain 《詩經》在十八世紀的英國
Multi-Cultural Studies 多邊文化研究 (Beijing: Peking Univ. Press), 3 (2005): 451–467
The Book of Poetry is generally regarded as one of the foundational canons of Chinese literature. This paper examines some of its earliest introductions and translations into English in 18th century works. Some of these translations have never been noted before.
From Exchanges on Banquets to Matching the Ancients: On Su Shi’s Drinking Poems
Peking University Graduate Student Bulletin 北京大學研究生學志 2 (2005): 58-67
In this essay, I argue that Su Shi’s “matching Tao” poems were milestones in the development of the subgenre of chouchang. It was no longer just a social gerne, but had been elevated to means of virtual identification with an ancient, resulting in changes even in one’s actual behavioral pattern and (in Su Shi’s case) alcohol tolerance.