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The Chinese self in xiangchou utopia
In the first segment of this chapter, a discussion is given to distinguish the metaphysical solitude symbolised by images in Bian’s poetry and the taste of fin de siecle in French Symbolist poetry. It is notable that Bian’s metaphysical solitude and the consequential seeking for inner peace resonate with thousands of manuscripts and poetic pieces written in the history of Chinese literature as they all centre around one important theme: xiangchou (&Ш ‘nostalgia’).
1 attempt to put the emotional structure of Bian’s pre-war poetry under the context of a shared psyche of Chinese intellectuals and discuss the driving utopian impulse: reprogramming classical Chineseness under the name of Western influences. Lying below the impulse is the development of the emotion of xiangchou. In order to introduce xiangchou as a motif of Chinese literature that resounds in Bian’s poetry, I begin with an introduction to the poem ‘Chi Ba (RA)’ as it represents the shared emotions of xiangchou through generations of Chinese intellectuals.
Imagination of self, time and the motif xiangchou in ‘Chi Ba’
During the cherry blossom season in 1909, Chinese poet Su Manshu (fj'Skffi) was on a self-exile trip in Kyoto in Japan. Upon hearing music from the Japanese instrument Shakuhachi (in Chinese, Chi Ba RA), Su found an inner resonance of the sorrowful and desolate tune. Inspired by the song of Chi Ba, Su wrote down the ninth of his famous ‘Ten Autobiographical Poems which is translated by Chung and Rexroth under the English title ‘Exile in Japan’:
On the balcony of the tower #M^5fc;RAI№>
I play my flute and watch The spring rain.
1 wonder ЯВ^Й#ШИ'!!о If I ever
Will go home and see The tide bore In Chekiang River again.
Straw sandals, an old Begging bowl, nobody Knows me. On how many A Bridges have I trampled The fallen cherry blossoms.
In the notes of this poem, Su explains the musical instrument Chi Ba and the fact that a dedicated group of Japanese monks is specialised in playing the music. It is interesting that this group of monks is known as the komuso (ЙЗсШу, as these Chinese characters manifest the absence of specific ego under the zen context, it is possible that the music of the Chi Ba played by a komuso has aroused the metaphysical solitude that corresponds to the theme of desolation and xiangchou in the poem.
Despite its widely practised translation in English as ‘nostalgia’, xiangchou distinguishes from the Western concept discussed among scholars in modernity, modernism and post-modernism. The latter is considered a traumatic consequence of modernity, ‘a time of emergence from darkness, a time of awakening and “renascence”, heralding a luminous future’ (Calinescu 1987: 20). Shadowed by progress and industrialisation, Baudelaire ‘nostalgically evokes the loss of an aristocratic past and deplores the encroachment of a vulgar, materialistic middle-class present’ (ibid.: 58). Nostalgia is also engendered by the nature of utopia in its Western context, as ‘the clash between the utopian criticism of the present and the antiutopian criticism of the future resolves itself into a variety of nihilisms ... with the concept of decadence’ (ibid.: 68). Therefore, in the following discussion, I will use the term xiangchou instead of its inaccurate English translation.
‘Exile in Japan’ is one of Su’s most well-knowm poems; and it reminds a Chinese reader of his or her experience of reading Su Shi’s ‘Calming the Waves (/ЁАй£)’: ‘Better than saddled horse I like sandals and cane/O I would fain/Spend a straw'-cloaked life in mist and rain
~ItflSifiEETi'fe)’ (trans. Xu). Su adapted the hermit in the Song Dynasty poem into a lonely exiled monk in ragged cloths. The music from the Chi Ba, which is so similar to the Chinese flute, has aroused the monk’s nostalgic feelings for home. As he walked over bridges covered in fallen blossoms, he w'as so plagued by the sorrow and desolation that he could not remember how many bridges he has passed; more importantly, he could not count how many steps away he was from home. Though there is no explicit expression of this feeling of desolation, every character and image in the poem supports the extension of the theme. The three characters Zhejiang chao (jffffiSJ ‘the tide bore in Chekiang River’) symbolise the scenes and life he left behind, again emphasising the theme of xiangchou.
Twenty years after Su wrote his ‘Exile in Japan’, Bian Zhilin arrived in Kyoto and wrote his poem under the name of the musical instrument in Su’s sorrow'ful dream of xiangchou: ‘Chi Ba (АЛ)’- In the article ‘The Night of Chi Ba (ААЙ)’ published in 1936, Bian recounted his experience and inspirations. In 1935, as a translator, Bian took the cruise ship ‘Chang’an’ and sailed from China, passed Kobe, and eventually arrived at Kyoto. Bian stayed in a small room close to Kyoto University. His landlord at the time was a research assistant in the department of physics in the university; Bian heard that the landlord played the Chi Ba though he never had the opportunity to listen. In his trip to Tokyo in March, as Bian walked down a street near the Waseda area, he heard the music of the Chi Ba for the first time in his life and
all of a sudden 1 remembered the incomparable lines written by Su Manshu ... I cannot remember how many times I read them in middle school; I do not understand what great sorrow I could have had at such a young age. Remembering all this has touched a soft spot in my heart.
When Bian returned to Kyoto in May, his drunk landlord played Chi Ba in the evening and the music is ‘so strange yet so intimate’ (ibid.).
‘Chi Ba’, upon first reading, is a beautifully designed lyrical poem about uncertain sorrows. The first ten lines of ‘Chi Ba’ thread together three different periods of time: the time w'hen Chi Ba as a Chinese musical instrument was brought to Japan (notably Bian uses classical images of ‘from the setting sun’ and ‘from w'est of the sea’ to metaphorically symbolise China, his time when the drunk landlord played Chi Ba in the middle of the night, and the Tang Dynasty Chang’an in the imagination of the traveller. The non-linear arrangement of time reflects Bian’s Taoist cosmology, which is under the significant influence of late Tang Dynasty poets such as Li Shangyin (813-C.858). Through poetic imagination, the same music and instrument exist simultaneously in two different times with the connection of one echoed emotion: xiangchou.
‘Chi Ba’ is a poem in which the overall voice is separated into three layers: the self, the narrative voice and the characters. The inconsistency among the three voices results in the dramatic tension, which led to the discovery of uncertainty behind the sorrow as the tone of the poem. The characters in ‘Chi Ba’ include ‘the traveller from west of the sea’, who feels nostalgia when hearing a second character, the musician, play the musical instrument, the Chi Ba. The traveller dreams of his past experience with the same instrument and compares his dear memory with ‘the sniff of the past’ in the modern city of Tokyo. He cannot hold back his sorrow and the music of the Chi Ba turns into the cry ‘O Return’ in his ears. The narrative voice, on the other hand, not only tells the story of the characters. It plays a character created by the poet as well, therefore distinguishing itself from the self in the poem. The narrative voice, though invisible in the plot, comments on the scenes and acts. For example, when the traveller is walking in Tokyo, the narrative voice asks: ‘why, amongst thousands of flowers lit by the bright light, a sniff of the past is floating in the air?’ followed by the repeat voice: ‘O return! О return! ’ Just when the voices of the traveller and the narrator merge into one by ‘O return’, the narrative suddenly poses another question: ‘Do you also want to bring back the sorrow of loss?’ The last question is posed by the self, which represents the poet’s own voice, questioning the patriotic passion of his Chinese intellectual peers and ask whether or not they would become the traveller, who only thought about his nation when sniffing the past.
The third layer of self is the voice of Bian, as the abrupt verses of ‘O return, О return!’ which is used in one of his long, narrative poems ‘Peking, 1934 serves to achieve semantic uncertainty in the poem, which broke the structure of narration and exposed the lyrical quality of ‘Chi Ba’. ‘O return’, in both poems, represents the self-interfering of the characters and plots in the poem out of strong subjective feelings. The interference has united the three voices: the traveller as someone missing home; the narrator as one poet, yet not the writer of the poem, that sees his own feelings in the traveller’s; the self, which is the poet himself, who sorrowfully looks into ancient history to find the resonance of his xiangchou.