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The utopian notion and its relevance in Bian Zhilin’s pre-war poetry and New Poetry
Bian achieved a unique, poetic life, though he was only active as a poet for less than 20 years. Existing academic attention and interest in Bian highly commend the poet’s skilful hand in combining Chinese and Western elements, the latter pointing to French Symbolism and modernist poetry in English and American poetry. Most of such existing research dwells on the textual level of analysis. In the relatively less visited area of the mentality behind poetry writing, I see a unified vision of attributing Bian’s poetic success to the modern qualities benchmarked to Western poetry. In various articles, the unified vision is supported by the unified standard of modernity in poetry benchmarked to French Symbolist poetry, T.S. Eliot’s modernist writing and Shakespearian qualities.
In this study, I review discussions from two of the most notable books of their kind: Bian Zhilin and the Art of Poetry ( KЩfjtxf2 ) (1990), edited by members of Les Contemporains, Yuan Kejia (JrrTIS), Wu Ningkun (Si't'hf5) and Du Yunxie (t±3£'®); and Studies of Bian Zhilin’s Poetic Art (2000) by Bian’s student Jiang Ruoshui (jXlizK). A notable feature of key literature lies in the predominant voice following the general principles of Marxist literary criticism, especially among scholars in mainland China studying this topic after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Such research engages the functional Marxist criticism with the ambiguous equation between modernisation and Westernisation. As a result, it focuses on the homogeneous recognition of Bian’s poetry as an example of total iconoclasm. At the same time, the social and political function of New Poetry that fits into the grand narrative of the revolution is the undertone of almost all key literature of this kind.
However, 1 argue that Bian’s Westernised modernity has much to do with an imagined ideal that accommodates the poet’s yearning for tradition. Bian’s artistic agency comes directly from classical Chinese poetry. Therefore, Bian’s pre-war poetry, despite its birthmarks from Symbolism and Metaphysical Poetry, can be recognised as a Chinese child. Bian’s experiment with articulating a modern social critique in emulating French Symbolism reveals his nostalgic longing for the lyrical beauty of Chinese classical poetry. French Symbolism and Metaphysical Poetry paradoxically serve as a bridge between Bian’s desire to fashion a modernist, ‘progressive’, aesthetic and a subconscious return to his spiritual home in Chinese classics. This double ambivalence is symptomatic of the complex feelings of anxiety, doubt and hope of Chinese cultural elites in the period. The denial of the Chinese reality coupled with the romantic imagining of a modern West had the power to produce a belief in a bright Chinese future of aesthetic modernity that evaporated in post-War China.
This chapter primarily looks into the two resources that define the dynamic of New Poetry, reflected primarily in Bian’s pre-war poetry: classical Chinese poetry and Western ‘modern’ poetry. One important aspect of this dynamic is the justification for New Poetry: whether or not a piece of literature work could be considered modern and new has to do with its Western elements and the level of vernacular Chinese language adopted. This aspect is highly relevant to this study: it is a standard that Bian uses to justify his poetry.
In my view, this is due to a widely recognised equation between modern and Western influences among academics in mainland China. Therefore, research that looks beyond textual quality tends to use Western poetics as benchmarks and makes arguments based on the closeness of Bian’s pre-war poetry to such standards. Some scholars discuss Bian’s intellectual poetry (£П‘|41.тр) and consider such writing good examples of modernity, as it is a fruit of the poet’s successful and conscious absorption of Western culture, such as the influence of Western modern poetry, traditional Western culture and the Western scientific cognition of the ontology of the universe and life. This equation itself captures features of the utopian notion that exist alongside the passionate and anxious debates around New Poetry.
The utopian notion resides in the concurrent theoretical review of modernity and New Poetry; it is confirmed by the conflict between theory and practice among poets such as Bian. As Yuan Kejia (1990) passionately admires Bian’s poetry and sees him as one of the pioneers of modernising New Poetry, his idea of modernised New Poetry is a good example of the utopian notion held by Chinese intelligentsia in the 1930s. Modernity in New Poetry is based on the emulation of external influences rather than a result of internal experience and the deliberate notion of reformation and transformation.
Under the banner of total iconoclasm and Westernisation, Chinese intelligentsia denied the fact that tradition survived through the succession of crises in the early twentieth century. Paradoxically, in their pursuit of modernity through literature, they were constantly reminded of their close ties to tradition. In this chapter, I discuss the predominant presence of classical Chinese cosmology, aesthetics and poetics in Bian’s pre-war poetry to highlight the utopian attempt to construct modernity. Tradition, in this research, is not considered the opposite of progress; instead, it is treated as a motif repeatedly reviewed even by those who despise and are ashamed of tradition.
The period of silence in New Poetry in the 1930s was a result of total iconoclasm; Chinese poets, with an image as, simultaneously, a creator and a destroyer (Kubin 1996: 247), began to recognise their discomfort and anxiety in front of what they made as creators. On the one hand, with the abrupt shattering of the classical Chinese coherent centre, the construction of a new raison d’etre was far from the Chinese experience; on the other, the Chinese tradition continued to act as a spiritual homeland and tempt the poets in the discomfort of transformation.
Therefore, in the construction of modernity in New Poetry, the names and faces of tradition were constantly changing to serve the utopian notion. As the term modernity gradually became a widely recognised concept, tradition, with its invisible role in the utopian construction, became fully dynamic and reflected the most profound mentality and mechanism of literary expression. Bian represents the group of poets attempting to invent the classical poetic tradition that could be applied to New Poetry without branding themselves as the very tradition they are against. This created a paradox in both their literature and their psyche. Therefore, in this study, a discussion must be carried out to identify tradition and its influences.
From fin de siecle to metaphysical solitude: Bian Zhilin’s struggle for raison d'etre
In order to understand his motivation and need for justification through Western influences, this segment examines Bian’s mentality reflected through poems featuring two specific scenes: dusk in autumn and a traveller on a long journey. Both scenes are frequently visited by classical Chinese poets and French Symbolist poets. Therefore, analysis is set out to understand the interplay between Bian’s reception and interpretation of Western poetry, notably French Symbolism, and classical Chinese knowledge and poetic emotions.
Though Bian claims that his poetry writing is built around emulation of Western models, my argument is that the poet’s belief in constructing Western influences in his poetry is an imagination. Analysis in the frequently visited images of autumn, dusk and setting sun in this segment reveals that anxiety and metaphysical solitude experienced by classical Chinese poets play a vital role in constructing the seemingly decadent poetic ambience of fin de siecle. The poet’s conscious emulation and claimed affiliation to the French school is motivated by the desire to fashion himself as a ‘modern’ poet. Therefore, Western influences are used to justify the poet’s nostalgia for traditions.
The belief that Western poetry could solve all problems in the Chinese society by an injection of modernity (though with a highly ambivalent definition) is motivated by, first, the Confucian morality and classical Chinese tradition of ganshi youguo (Шй^'УсШ ‘sorrow over defeated nation in difficult time’), and second, the need for justification and a method to make up for the guilty yearning for tradition. Bian’s imagined construction of modernity has endowed him with the aspiration and confidence necessary to the rediscovery of his spiritual homeland: classical Chinese poetics. This aspect of Bian’s poetic career is much neglected in existing research. Moreover, as existing research focuses on recognising Western influences and the notion of progress, movement and iconoclasm, negative experiences including solitude, despair and paradoxical feelings are hardly discussed in current literature. This chapter therefore is dedicated to textual analysis on images and scenes that symbolise negative thoughts, as they are key to Bian’s deep emotional structure and poetic mentality.