Written by Emma Tilley, (Brown University) Student Correspondent CET Harbin, Spring 2019
“The 1930s have been called a decade of left-wing poetry. So, how do you understand the terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’?”
“Progressivism and conservatism more so than specific political alignments, right?”
“What? No, not at all. Revolutionary, and capitalist.”
My one-on-one class on modern and contemporary Chinese poetry is a whirlwind. Each week I read a few poems and an accompanying essay and Professor Zhang from nearby Heilongjiang University grills me on form, content, relation to the author’s life experience, and significance in historical context. I’m often completely off base. It’s at times an exercise in frustration and embarrassment trying to analyze something abstract in abstract terms, or find the perfectly nuanced word to describe the purpose of a literary device.
I accept that this difficulty is the result of my own choice but whether I receive sympathy varies. “It’s because you chose a topic related to your major rather than something you’re just curious about. Your expectations for yourself are higher than necessary.” versus more optimistically, “If you don’t start now, when will you?”
But each time I do break through, it’s reaching an understanding of one of the most important works of the past century. Knowing what my friend meant in saying Guo Moruo was not just a poet but “half a revolutionary” (and what another friend meant in calling said poet a playboy), and recognizing long-memorized lines brought up reflexively in conversation. It’s jumping into the deep end of cultural immersion, and the result is sometimes satisfaction but usually a shock I thought would never come when differences in food and traffic didn’t faze me.
Much of the best Chinese poetry is subtle to the point of being easily misinterpreted or mistaken for simple admiration of nature. A tradition of 借景抒情 – “[borrow/make use of/use as pretext] scenery to express emotion” – goes as far back as Chinese literature itself. I can’t help but wonder if this is a window into the indirect communication style I hear so much about. Though it’s a generalization, and honestly I’ve been taken aback by straightforwardness far more often than left puzzled by ambiguity in conversations with Chinese friends, there’s a marked tendency to replace the second half of a sentence with “well, you know”. Or in text, an emoji followed by “you understand?”.
I almost always do understand. Sometimes I wish you just stated the opinion you implied, and sometimes I wonder if instead I am overly declarative.
“No one really writes poetry anymore because the standard of living has improved. We aren’t in dire straits, things are stable, what is there to write about?” – A view expressed by several of my teachers and friends, and one I would never have arrived at on my own.
But it instantly reminded me of the reasons I’ve heard for young people’s comparative lack of involvement in politics, albeit stated more positively. Poets have always responded to their political situation, but since 1919 the two have become still more clearly intertwined. To study modern Chinese literature then is to study China’s recent history, but to understand either is a process longer by far than a semester; both are vital to understanding culture and at the same time rely on understanding culture. It’s like watching a perpetual motion machine and trying to find the initial force that made it all work a certain way: the very point is that there isn’t one, that everything must be considered simultaneously, and that it’s adjacent to the impossible.
That being said, it’s hard to imagine a more productive way to start.