The Classical in the Modern

From the June 2011 issue of Poetry East West

The Classical in the Modern: The Pursuit of “Poetic Flavor” (Shiyi) in Contemporary Chinese Poetry


By LI Dian 李点

Shiyi is inexplicable.

——-Wang Xiaoni

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of this relation to the dead poets and artist.

—–T.S. Eliot

                What is poetry? How does one define “poetic flavor” (shiyi or shiwei) in writings that purport to be “poetry”? These open questions have always been a focal point of aesthetics in the history of modern Chinese literature ever since the birth of vernacular poetry germinated in a professed rupture with classical poetry. Tradition, however, has many ways of asserting its presence. If we describe “the classical” as ideas of writing and reading classical poetry, it not only has never disappeared from modern Chinese poetry but also has often served as a stabilizing force in the latter’s search for legitimacy as a new literary genre. In contemporary Chinese poetry, the classical has been reappearing in more tangible ways than critics have accounted for, in part because the question of “poetic flavor” is becoming increasingly polemical and uncertain.

Let me start with a recent article by Wang Xiaoni, a highly respected contemporary poet and critic. The article, which was based on a speech to university students, is entitled “Jintian’s shiyi” or “The poetic-ness (sense of poetry) of our time.” The title suggests that Wang Xiaoni is attempting to address the the difficulty of defining poetry,or more specifically,what it is that
makes one identify a piece of writing or an experience as poetic. This is, perhaps, the most puzzling and most profound question in the history of modern Chinese poetics, which Wang fully acknowledges from the onset.  I guess that’s why she spends almost all the time talking about  shiyi in classical Chinese poetry. In a skilled reading of classical poems aided by spirited personal stories, Wang finds the existence of shiyi in classical poetry mainly in two areas: 1. the motif of shanhe or mountain and river; 2. the poetic form, or what she more broadly terms as moshi xing (paradigmatic form).[1]  What do these two things have in common with Wang’s article’s title question? Apparently a great deal. Even though Wang maintains that the modern man does not have the leisure or motivation to amble in the mountains and along the rivers and the New Poetry has thrown the last remnant of the classical form out of the window, she implies, if not stating forcefully, that the very absences of these two things in contemporary poetry make her question unanswerable. However, poetry has not gone extinct and people are still writing and reading poetry, so shiyi must exist, even if it is hard to be located, as Wang describes it, in the manner of a poet, perhaps: “Shiyi is inexplicable; it must be accidental, appearing only to those who happen upon it and who seize upon it; it is a sudden showing, a momentary flash.”[2]

Clearly, Wang Xiaoni here is tackling an age-old question in poetics, namely, the relationship between form and content, a topic that has inspired numerous theories and position in the history of literary criticism in China and the West. To expect her to settle it is too much to ask. However, one feels that she is speaking from the heart. Intellectually, she knows, like many enlightened poets and critics of her time, there is no return to the classical poem; yet her heart feels the call of the classical poem against the worrying state of the modern poem. One can argue whether contemporary Chinese poetry has finally entered a “pure” poetic realm or has been in a constant crisis mode,[3] but that shiyi is abundant in the classical poem yet is hard to come by in the modern poem is a feeling one cannot easily dismiss. This is a case of unsettling nostalgia, if you will, in which one is nostalgic about something which one wishes to break away from.

As we all know, Wang Xiaoni is the not the first one bitten by the nostalgia bug. The New Poetry had a difficulty birth at the beginning of the twentieth century, on an alleged clean break from classical poetry, one might add. This is almost a case of an infant’s identity formation in the language of Lacanian psychology: that the infant’s sense of self depends on autonomy from the parents’ watchful eyes and is wrought with an unrealizable nostalgia about the mother’s womb. How to write poems in an unproven language? Where to construct a new kind of shiyi separate from the cannons of shiyi already in place in the classical poem? It seems that at every critical juncture where the New Poem suffers from an identity crisis, such as the new gulu shi (new regulated poetry), in the 1930s, the jiuye shipai (New Leaves School) in the 1940s, the minge yundong (folk song campaign) in the 1950s,  the new gudian shi (new-style classical poetry) in the 1960s and 70s, and the menglong shi (misty poetry) in the 1980s, the classical comes back as a lamp and a mirror to capture of the intractable traces of shiyi, and is sought to re-launch the self-discovery journey of the New Poem. I am tempted to say that there exists a great paradox between the Classical Poem and the New Poem: the more that the New Poem claims to run away from the Classical Poem, the more the latter would sneak back to the former. This reminds me of Fang Zhi’s (1905-1993) famous untitled poem:

Sonnet 27

From a pool of freely flowing, formless water,

The water carrier brings back a bottleful, ellipsoid in shape

Thus this much water has acquired a definite form.

Look, the wind vane fluttering in the autumn breeze

Takes hold of certain things that cannot be held.

Let distant lights and distant nights,

And the growth and decay of plants in distant places,

And a thought that darts towards infinity,

All leave something on this banner.

In vain we have listened to the sound of the wind all night long,

In vain we watched the whole day the grass turning yellow and the leaves red.

Where shall we settle our thoughts, where?

Let’s hope that these verses will, like a wind cone,

Embody certain things that cannot be held.[4]

Facing the same shanhe (mountains and rivers) as the classical poet has been, Feng Zhi’s speaker carries on a dialogue with the realm of nature. Many inanimate objects are engendered to create a context of questioning the relationships between “I” and the world, between language and thought, and between permanence and transience of things and ideas. The feeling of “smallness” of the self projected in the poem recalls a familiarity going back to the heart of Chinese poetic tradition. Yet the poem is unmistakably “modern,” or shall we say “post-modern,” so it has been read by many critics.[5] What is it that prompts such a reading? Is it because the topic of language, thought and the self itself is the one that defines a modern aesthetic? And that the uncertainty of a definition bespeaks of a modern sensibility that we can easily identity with? Is it because the “smallness” of the speaker in fact enlarges his subjective consciousness rather than reducing it? In other words, “tianren heyi” or harmony with nature is evoked here not to make man disappear into an imagined and idealistic paradise but to centralize his subjectivity that is wrought with uncertainty and struggles in the real world. What is more remarkable, I should add, is that the poem was written in the form of sonnet, the very emblem of Western classical poetry that is just as rigid, if not more so, than, Chinese classical poetry in terms of formulaic constraints. Modern Chinese poetry was borne out of a desire to disrupt the formulaic constraints of classical poetry, but this is a case that has proven otherwise, i.e., form alone is not the definitive factor for modern poetry, not does it determine whether shiyi is present or absent. Needless to say, Feng Zhi’s sonnets are not an isolated case at all; in terms of its explicit employment of the classical form, it stands alongside with many modern Chinese poets, poets such as Wen Yiduo, Dai Wangshu, Bian Zilin in the first half of the twentieth century and poets such as Chen Dongdong, Wang Xiaoni, Bei Dao in the second half.

However, I do not mean to suggest here that the presence of the classical in the modern poem is only evidenced by a formal affinity, although this is certainly an easy but unpersuasive topic. Principle characteristics of the classical poetic form such as rigid word count, tonal arrangement, and parallelism have been largely abandoned by modern poets, for good reasons. If they exist at all in modern poetry, they function largely as ideas of control and order, as a springboard that launches us into discussions about the genre identity of the modern poem, which has happened many times in history—from the  debates about Xin gulu shi (new regulated poetry) in the 1930s to the controversies surrounding minjian vs. zhishi fenzi poetics (populism vs. intellectual poetics) in the 1990s.  One has reasons to believe that the specter of the classical form will remain a haunting influence for a long time to come.

What I mean to say is that there is another kind of presence by the classical in modern poetry, the kind that is, perhaps, more haunting than the convention of the form. There is no one word to define it, because, alternatively or simultaneously, it is an ethos, a stimulus, an echo, an imagination, a sign as well as a signifier that provides the context in which shiyi might be located. Two poems come to mind: Han Dong’s “Youguan Da Yata” (Concerning the wild goose pagoda) and Luo Fu’s “Following the Sound of Rain into the Mountains: No Rain.”  Here are the texts of the poems:

Concerning the Wild Goose Pagoda

concerning the Wild Goose pagoda 
what can we know 
many hurry here from afar 
climbing it 
to play the hero once 
still others come to play the hero twice 
or more times 
the disillusioned
the overweight 
all climb up 
to play the hero 
then come down 
go out into the street and disappear. 

some daredevils take a jump

making a red flower

thus becoming a hero

the hero of our times

concerning the Wild Goose pagoda 
what can we know 

we climb up

and look at the scenery

then come down

Following the Sound of Rain into the Mountains: No Rain

Holding an oil-paper umbrella

Humming “Sour is the Plum of March”

In the mountains

I am the pilgrim’s only pair of shoes

Woodpeckers’ empty


A tree revolves up in the pecking pain

Into the mountains

No rain

The umbrella flaps over a blue rock

On which a man sits, head in this arms

Watching the cigarette stubs turn to ash

Down the mountains

Still, no rain

Three bitter pinecones

Poll along the roadsigns, toward me

Pick them up

A handful of chirping sound

Much has been said about Han Dong’s signature poem. Its theme is typically read as a rejection of high-mindedness and heroism. It is a deconstruction of history and authority and an elevation of the ordinary and the mundane. I am not going to directly challenging this “correct” reading because it is a real textual possibility and it confirms the poet’s well-known anti-intellectualism poetics. I would like to offer an alternative reading in terms of its evocation of the classical, that is, the Wild Goose Pagoda, an artifact of history and tradition. That the speaker chooses such a symbol to rebel against in order to establish his ordinariness is itself a point to ponder. But does he know the symbolic meanings of the Pagoda. Apparently not.  The lines “Concerning the Wild Goose pagoda / what can we know” are repeated to suggest a disconnect between the climbers and the structure and all the described actions by the visitors including jumping down from it are not the intended functions of this symbolic structure. Furthermore, there is a detectable sense of ridicule that the speaker meters out to the visitors who are so violently ignorant of this symbol. This un-acknowledgement of the classical in our lives and this tension between the surface and the significance, it seems to me, are what makes this poem so powerfully expressive.

In a less politically charged environment, the Taiwanese poet Luo Fu describes a moment of life’s true ordinariness: an outing to the mountains. From the onset, the speaker has all the props (his umbrella and tune) to relive a classic dream of emerging into nature. Yet nothing turns up as rehearsed: Rain does not come, and an uninitiated man destroys whatever remains with his cigarettes ashes. The ending of the poem, however, suggests this classic dream has not been a nightmare because the speaker does have three pinecones to treasure and to savor. These pinecones, which for some reasons have escaped from the self-contained world of nature, have thus become indexes to the classic dream which constantly tempts us. If they are a reminder of the classical, it means we can only experiences it in a discounted way, in a way that is always frustratingly unsatisfactory.

For a long time, the presence of the classical has been deemphasized in both modern poetry writing and criticism. Maybe it is time for us to give it appropriate attention. I hope that I have shown that the classical has been an integral part of modern Chinese poetry since its very beginning, and that it has helped to locate the discovery and the presentation of shiyi, however mysterious and fleeting it may be. This is clear to me: of the short list of canonical works in modern Chinese poetry, there exist the presence of the classical in varying shapes and forms. This fact alone is enough of an invitation for us to continue to explore this important topic.

About Author: Dian Li has a Ph.D. in Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  He is now an Associate Professor and Acting Head in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson.  李点,美国密执安大学亚洲语言文化系博士,现任美国亚利桑那大学东亚研究系副主任,副教授。主要研究方向为文学理论,现当代诗歌及电影。

[1] Wang Xiaoni, “Jintian de shiyi,” in Lin Jianfa, ed., Wenxue piping: 21 shiji Zhongguo wenxue daxi 2008 (Shenyang: Chunfeng wenyi chubanshe, 2009), 378-385.

[2] Ibid., p. 384.

[3] I am entering a dangerous argument here, about which many of my distinguished colleague will certain disagree with me. Let me just offer two examples: 1. the reduction of modern poetry in school textbooks. 2. When poetry were put up in posters on Shanghai subway stations recently, all of them are classical poem and none modern poem was selected.

[4] Feng Zhi, “Sonnet 27,” in Joseph S.M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt, eds., The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 509.

[5] For example, Michelle Yeh, Modern Chinese Poetry: Theory and Practice since 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).


About 诗东西 Poetry East West

Chinese-English bilingual magazine (will include more languages), published in Los Angeles USA, printed in Beijing China. ISSN 2159-2772

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