Chineseness in Bian Zhilin’s pre-war poetry: An exploration of utopian notion and New Poetry

Yang Zhou

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, utopian impulse has played a significant role in shaping China’s political and cultural modernity. Bian is treated as a representative figure of the Chinese intelligentsia, driven into a ‘love-hate’ relationship with Chinese traditions. This ambivalence created a utopian impulse in thinking and expression in imagining a modernist future during the Republic period (1911-1949).

By examining the angst in Bian’s experiment with a modern (Western) poetic expression to articulate his social critique of emulating Western poetry, this study revealed his nostalgic yearning for classical Chinese literature, aesthetics and philosophy. The exploration of this chapter shows that strategies in French Symbolism and Metaphysical Poetry serve as a paradoxical bridge between Bian’s desire to fashion himself as a modernist and his spiritual nativity to Chinese tradition. This study argues that the utopian impulse, with its backward-looking nature is, on one hand, shared by Chinese intellectuals throughout history through the motif of xiangchou (%Ш nostalgia); on the other, symptomatic of the complex feelings of anxiety, doubt and hope of Chinese cultural elites in the historical juncture between tradition and progress, China and the West. The denial of the Chinese reality and romantic imagining of a modern West and the belief in its efficacy for a bright Chinese future creates a fertile ground for a utopian modernity that subsequently evaporated in wartime China after the 1940s.


This chapter is set out as a study of the twentieth-century Chinese poet, translator and literature researcher Bian Zhilin (1910-2000), with specific

focus on his poetic work between 1930 and 1937, namely, his pre-war poetry, with references to his other works, such as proses and, most notably, articles reviewing his own literature practice. Though active in the early twentieth century, Bian’s works reflect the utopian notion shared by almost all intellectuals of his era.

In this study, I have drawn upon the theoretical standpoint of the utopian notion. Utopia has much to do with the idea of tradition in New Poetry in China, sharing the character of the motif of xiangchou nostalgia). Therefore, though this study is focused on Bian and his poetry, I hope its discussions could contribute to common issues surrounding the debate of New Poetry and modernity in China.

Following a brief review of rationale and research gaps in Bian Zhilin’s pre-war poetry, the first segment of this chapter analyses the connection and distinction between these poetic scenes and those in French Symbolist poetry. Textual analysis on selected poems is accompanied with critical reflection of existing research in New Poetry under the context of the New Cultural Movement. I argue that instead of a positive attitude toward progress, Westernisation and modernisation, the emotions of despair - hesitation accompanied with utopian impulse to reconstruct traditional Chineseness - are evident among intelligentsia represented by Bian.

The second segment of this chapter draws a cross-reference between the poet’s self-claimed association with French Symbolist poetry and his much deeper connection with classical Chinese poetics. By turning to the emotional depth of his writing rather than lingering on the much-sought-after discussions of modernity (which usually means Westernisation), a fresh insight could be generated: Bian came to a Westernised representation of the artistic agency of classical Chinese poetry.

Therefore, in this chapter, 1 argue that Bian’s pre-war poetry is a Chinese child despite its birthmark from Symbolism and Metaphysical Poetry. 1 carry on exploring the emotional structure of Bian’s pre-war poetry in search of the shared psyche in early twentieth-century China. 1 attempt to make a connection between the poetic emotions dominated by classical Chinese poetics and the concurrent reality of China’s existential crisis.

In summary, this study sets out to address three issues in Bian’s pre-war poetry: the justification of the expression of the Chinese self under the cover of Western influences, the development of the emotion xiangchou under the context of total iconoclasm and the Chinese construction of backward-looking utopia intertwined with xiangchou. Unless noted otherwise, all translations of the poems and texts in this chapter are completed by the author.

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