Chinese poetry today is divisive. One view regards it as highly invigorating — so much so that some have proclaimed the advent of a “golden age.” Others, however, believe that poetry these days is not worth the paper it’s written on.
Poets and writers largely support the former assertion, while the general public — and particularly internet users — support the opposite view. A closer look at this discrepancy reveals fascinating insight into the spiritual mindsets of people today.
I believe that most people nowadays have lost their passion for poetry. In keeping an eye on their own economic returns and broadcasting influence, most mass media channels have little interest in publishing poetic works. Worse, what does get published tends to meet one of two fates: It either goes completely unnoticed, or it is targeted for abuse.
It is true that poetry has come back into the public consciousness at various points in recent years, but this has rarely been because of the beauty of the words themselves. The suicide of Xu Lizhi, a poet and factory worker, commanded the attention of the country’s media, while Yu Xiuhua shot to fame for reasons bound up as much with the quality of her poems as with her identity as a woman farmer with cerebral palsy.
When people lament the so-called decline of Chinese poetry, they often hark back to a long-lost golden age. This period refers either to the 1980s or to the world of classical Tang and Song poetry from the 8th to the 13th centuries.
High Tang poetry represents the apogee of China’s broad literary tradition, which stretches back to the second millennium B.C. Tang poets like Li Bai, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi have had a profound effect on later literature, both in China and abroad. Indeed, traditional Chinese poetry survived centuries of imperial rule, the collapse of the imperial system, and then the republic that replaced it — until its very fabric was intentionally torn apart in the early 20th century by a certain group of people.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Chinese new poetry, a vernacular form whose style differs significantly from the stilted classical style of the Tang and Song. The group of reformists who propagated new poetry represented China’s sociopolitical elite at the time, and believed that China needed to abandon its traditions completely in the face of world powers that posed an existential threat, such as Europe, the United States, and Japan. When they launched the New Culture Movement in 1916, they said that if China wanted to become a stronger country, it needed to embrace a Western system of governance and culture.
Later, in the more open atmosphere of the 1980s, the so-called Misty Poets — Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Mang Ke, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian — ushered in an era of vernacular literary accomplishment that is still remembered with fondness today. Over the three decades that have passed since then, the poetic world has largely agreed that new works have grown in both scope and depth, allowing Chinese new poetry to truly come into its own.
But poets assess modern poetry by looking at the texts themselves, whereas the general public tends to focus on the relation of poems or poet to their broader cultural context — meaning the public casts its gaze back upon supposedly more relevant poetry from the ’80s whenever it critiques today’s work. As a result, while most poets these days agree that contemporary works are better-written than those of the ’80s, most non-poets believe the opposite. This has turned China’s poets inward into an echo chamber of their own making.
There is a sense in China that there are simply too many poets today. Poemlife, probably the country’s foremost poetry website, already lists over 600 contributors, all of whom are professional poets who have published collections, received prizes, or otherwise gained recognition for their work. While this makes poetry a difficult field to break into, it is testament to the variety of styles on display.
Yet to most people, every one of these poets is merely seeking to recreate the utopian ideal of Chinese poetry’s golden age, be that the Tang dynasty, the 1980s, or some other cultural zenith. Even the most compelling contemporary work cannot improve their view that Chinese poetry isn’t what it once was. Unfortunately, this view fails to appreciate that the best poetry is very often a product of its unique historical circumstances.
The social hierarchies of Tang and Song China were strongly influenced by the civil service examinations, which were used to select the empire’s government officials. One of the requirements for exam success was that students could write good poetry. The effect of this was twofold: First, every student in the country was encouraged to compose their own poetry; and second, poetry appreciation was restricted to a class of literati and remained inaccessible to working-class peasants.
In the 1980s, social conditions were very different. A large majority of the population had become literate, and the lifting of restrictions on artistic expression created an atmosphere of experimentalism and openness to new art. Precisely because the circumstances of the High Tang and the 1980s were so conducive to producing beautiful work, Chinese poetry is now reverting back to type as the fervor of those periods diminishes.
My previous conversations with poets from the U.K., the U.S., and elsewhere have revealed that there has been a general schism growing between poets and the public since the second half of the 20th century, with people today being unwilling or unable to appreciate modern poetic works.
But the predicament facing Chinese poets is unique. On one hand, many Chinese idealize ideas of poetry and poets themselves. This has created a popular notion of the poem as something highly abstract and subtle, and of the poet as some kind of sage-like being. On the other hand, modern poets and works are subject to more castigation and criticism than ever before. In China, we are witnessing people condemn wonderfully wrought works of verse simply because they are not immediately comprehensible. In a sense, ignorance on the reader’s part is being flaunted as a yardstick for measuring the quality of new poetry.
It may be that people do not trust poetry they deem too confusing, but there might also be other reasons at play. For instance, the aesthetic tastes of the audience might not be suited to appreciating modern works, as most people are only exposed to poetry during middle school and the stress of the gaokao commonly puts them off it forever. Having not fully developed the cognitive framework by which to appreciate poetry, many Chinese readers are simply disregarding their limitations as readers and instead blaming the works themselves. Interpretations from so-called experts are also met with short shrift.
This kind of anti-intellectualism has existed in China before, and since the ’80s it has flourished again as society has become more individualistic. While this has allowed people more room to assert and fulfill their own desires, it has also made them more willing to challenge, even topple, previously hegemonic forms of knowledge. If this is done in a rational way, it is not in itself problematic; however, if it is done immodestly, without respect for the limits of one’s own understanding, it can produce conflict. At that point, we go from expanding our repository of knowledge to actively tearing it down.
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article was published without the concluding paragraph.
(Header image: Image Source/VCG)