Article Index


Shengqing Wu.

Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900-1937.

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: 2013. Pp. xviii + 437.


review by Kent Su (University College London)


modern archaics



In January 1917, Hu Shi (1891-1962) published an essay entitled “A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform” (1917). This composition initiated the literary revolution known as the May Fourth Movement by proposing the radical idea that free verse could be composed in baihua 白話 (vernacular). Near the end of the piece, Hu Shi outlines the doctrines of “Eight Don’ts” 八不主義, which bear striking semblance to Ezra Pound’s “A Few Don’ts” (1913). The mirroring publication of “Don’ts” was not an absolute coincidence. When Hu Shi was studying abroad, he was heavily influenced by Imagist principles concerning precision of language. In his own manifesto, Hu Shi calls for writers to “reject melancholy” and “eliminate old clichés,” which are common characteristics to be found in the strict, regulated prosody of wenyan wen 文言文 (classical Chinese poetry) and traditional lyricism. By specifying that literary imagination should never “imitate the ancients,” Hu Shi regarded the poetry of past traditions as ideologically inert and inimical to modernisation. It has generally been understood since then that Hu Shi’s anti-traditional stance set the standard for Modern Chinese poetry.

However, Shengqing Wu’s Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900-1937 challenges the iconoclastic ideas put forth by Hu Shi. She cogently argues that Hu Shi’s rhetoric as a “hegemonic power over other contemporary discourses… is a misleading statement” (11). In other words, Wu highlights poets of the same/similar period/periods who rejected Hu Shi’s ideology. Scholarship may have suggested Hu Shi had set the standard, but Wu argues both that the standard was a weak one and that many poets refused to be influenced by Hu Shi. Wu contends that from the late Qing dynasty to pre-WWII (1900-1937), the literary scene “was a hybrid field consisting of the modern and the archaic, the elitist and the popular, and the Chinese and the foreign” (11). The oxymoronic title of the monograph, Modern Archaics, thus delineates the potential reciprocity and confrontation between the traditional and the modern. Wu asks readers to reconsider the paradox dialectically, without privileging one or the other. She attempts to illustrate this concept of “modern archaics” by exploring how poetic styles of classical and lyric writings continued to be the artistic medium for various modern intellectuals in the first three decades of twentieth-century China.

Before giving a brief summary of Wu’s book, I would like to consider how the book can help scholars of Western poetry understand how two stark traditions (Western and Eastern) occasionally overlap and/or influence each another. For instance, I discovered that these Chinese intellectuals’ attempt to reinvigorate and interact with the poetic traditions of the past appears to echo T. S. Eliot’s assertion of the “historical sense.” In other words, tradition exists in the present, and the poetic appropriation of particular literary strains from the past informs a new reading and formation in the present. Simultaneously, the present revises or co-opts the past in many different ways. This two-way influence captures the essence of “modern archaics.” Tradition becomes a poetic technique for Chinese intellectuals’ stylistic innovation and literary imagination, which in turn seems to enable them to usher in the modern age through the creation of a collective identity.

Following a compelling introduction on the tradition of ornamental lyricism, Wu’s monograph consists of three main parts, each with two subsections. The total six chapters are connected thematically. Her research proceeds chronologically through a short span of Modern Chinese history, from the year of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the translations of English poetry in the mid-1930s.

Chapter 1 discusses the poetic genre of ci 詞, a style commonly used in the aftermath of the invasion of China by the Eight Allied Nations. Historically, ci poetry often implies a male authorial identity who adopts a female voice in order to better describe conventional concepts of domesticity or melodrama. Wu maintains this genre was employed because of its capacity to evoke sentimental feelings of loss and assist with mourning for the country’s calamity. Readers of the time supposedly needed to join in this act of grief after reading these works. Ci “was a politically charged process and was presented as a strategy to respond to the historical challenges and cultural crises…” (52). Wu limits her scope of research in Chapter 1, focusing exclusively on two literary events that employed the old-fashioned, ornamental style of ci. The first event involves a group of poets that appropriated the technique of ci to honour the tragic life and death of the Guangxu 光緒 Emperor’s (1871-1908) beloved concubine, Zhen Fei 珍妃. Wu argues that “[t]he seemingly frivolous love poems . . . are thus particularly endowed with profound meaning, becoming allegories for the crumbling nation and culture” (57). The second event discusses and selects three ci lyricists, Wang Pengyun王鵬運 (1848-1904), Zhu Zumou朱祖謀 (1857-1931) and Liu Fuyao 劉福姚 (1864 - ?), who articulated their shared grief and found collective consolation through the composition of Song Lyrics of the Autumn of Gengzi. Through their reliance on the features of the ci genre, they devote themselves to exploring themes related to the country’s downfall.

Chapter 2 concentrates on the classical, traditional forms in the poetry of Chen Sanli陳三立 (1853 -1937). Wu observes that Hu Shi consistently criticised Chen’s stilted diction; he characterised Chen as a “scrivener, slave or servant-girl to the ancients” (Hu Shi cited in Wu 113). Wu takes exception to this, arguing that Hu Shi restricted himself by exclusively using the vernacular rather than embracing it as one possible medium. She further claims that “conventional form did not fetter poets’ self-expression as much as writers such as Hu Shi and his successors would have us believe” (113). Wu points out that Chen was responsible for the revival of literary interest in Song-dynasty poetry (960-1276) through the process of “grafting,” which involves “uprooting traditional habits of expression and forcefully forging new connections in the soil” (120). I would argue that this sentiment clearly echoes Eliot’s concept of “tradition” in which the writer composes poetry with the awareness and understanding of the works from the past. Working from this place of knowledge, the writer will shape the poetic “tradition.” The writer will manage this by presenting a renewed perspective of the present, which he or she has grown to understand through several dichotomous strategies: emulation and creation, progression and fracture, reconstruction and deconstruction. In the case of Chen Sanli’s poetry, the writer reinterprets classical allusions from the Song-dynasty to accommodate his experience for modernity.

Chapter 3 examines the traditional poetry clubs and societies that were often excluded from the canons of twentieth-century Chinese literature because of their ideological differences. Wu addresses this gap, arguing that scholars dismissed these clubs too quickly and suggesting the societies provided a different venue for individuals who wished to exorcise “pent-up emotions and obstructed energy through meaningful literary and artistic experience” (167). These clubs produced a collective aesthetic understanding as a response to the sense of rupture their members’ felt had been generated by the historical situation of modernity. With the aim of recreating the lost golden ages, these individuals repeatedly returned to tradition, deliberately mimicking the elegant lifestyle, as well as other cultural idiosyncrasies, of the ancient scholar-literati class. Wu contends that this shared attitude of evoking nostalgia strengthened their cultural memory of antiquity in the face of disintegrating present.

Chapter 4 looks at the poetic career of Chen Yan 陳衍 (1856-1937), a literary contemporary of Chen Sanli. Borrowing Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of literary fields, Wu demonstrates how Chen Yan initially assumed the role of editor by compiling the Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, in which he tirelessly promoted classical poetic forms. With the advent of institutionalisation of the literary field, Chen Yan successfully established himself as “a modern literary scholar and intellectual” by incorporating traditional works into contemporary disciplines (222). Being both an editor and academician enabled Chen Yan to build up social capital and cultural prestige, thereby disseminating his knowledge and retaining his position as a prominent literary influence on later generations of intellectuals. Chen Yan’s ambitious task of redefining and ensuring the survival of classical poetry in modernity demonstrates that he was ingeniously capable of adapting to the cultural and political transformation of his time.

Chapter 5 explores the ci poetry of Lu Bicheng呂碧城 (1881-1936), which Wu suggests “has been generally neglected by literary scholars until very recently” (268). Lu’s poetic craft challenges this predominantly and ideologically masculine form by infusing the traditional genre with a unique feminine subjectivity and consciousness. More impressively, Lu’s poetry written overseas reflects how female imagination has the capacity to reject and reshape the representation of natural and cultural spaces in ci. For instance, in a poem written in Switzerland, Lu depicts the Alps as implicitly masculine and the speaker as distinctively feminine. I believe that by capturing the transcendental values of the mountain, Lu remarkably echoes a Shelley-esque moment but with a specifically female voice. In other words, Lu acknowledges the miniscule human mind in the face of majestic, sublime powers of nature. Overall, this fascinating chapter brings the re-discovery of a neglected female poet to the canon of the modern Chinese literature.

In her final chapter, “O My Love is Like a Red Red Rose: Classical Form and Translation,” Wu considers how writers would adapt the rhyme scheme and formal features of Chinese poetry when translating a Western poem. For instance, Su Manshu蘇曼殊 (1884-1918), also known as the “Chinese Byron” for his translations of Romantic poetry, borrowed what Roman Jakobson referred to as a “creative transposition” from one system of signs to another. Su rejected similes and metaphors, instead using the poetic device of xing , which Wu translates as a “stimulating or evocative image” (336). In xing , the expression of the scenery is symbolically connected with the poet’s thoughts (336). In other words, Su domesticated the original English verses into the conventional form of classical Chinese poetry. I would argue that Pound, by contrast, went the opposite direction when rendering the strict forms of classical Chinese poetry into the free verses in Cathay. The literary innovation of both Su and Pound reflects the significance of cross-cultural transmission and translation taken during the period of modernism.

The book’s last figure of discussion is Wu Mi吳宓 (1894-1978), who was a student of Irving Babbitt at Harvard. Studying abroad enabled Wu Mi to examine Western intellectual works. However, this experience led him “to adopt a more appreciative attitude toward [his] own literary and cultural past” (366). Wu notes that his translations of Christina Rossetti and Matthew Arnold “consciously cultivate a tone of languorous melancholy, exploiting the elegiac potential of the form and language to great effect” (368). He believed that translating foreign poetry would give him the opportunity to be more aware of the conventional forms in classical Chinese poetry, thereby consolidating his sense of China’s cultural heritage and identity.

Modern Archaics is an indispensable addition to the study of modern Chinese poetics, dispelling the preconceived notion that the vernacular language was the only mode of composition. Most chapters begin with a thought-provoking narrative that transports the reader to the vivid scenery of twentieth-century China. Wu then weaves each chapter with lucid prose, astute readings, archival materials and informative footnotes for consultation. What I find most admirable is the reliable and rigorous translations of classical Chinese poetry into English. Shengqing Wu executes this laborious task brilliantly. Poundians who desire to undertake the challenges of understanding the literary tradition of Chinese poetics will certainly benefit from this book.