25 March 2018

The poetic-political mind of Wen Yiduo

Mural art depicting Wen Yiduo

I’ve mentioned the Republican-era poet Wen Yiduo 聞一多 a couple of times on this blog – once in connexion with the Chu classicist Qu Yuan 屈原, and once in connexion with the populist philosopher Liang Shuming 梁漱溟. Reading a couple of compilations of his poems with commentary now, this dual juxtaposition now strikes me as all the more appropriate. What could be more fitting than to pair him with both an outspokenly-political contemporary and with a beloved poetic figure from China’s distant antiquity?

Wen cut a figure nearly (but never quite) as anachronistic and out-of-step with his time as his political comrade Liang Shuming did. As translator TT Sanders recounts it, his students remembered him as an odd, frail, bespectacled man in a traditional Chinese robe (at a time when such things were decidedly passé), who would open each of his lectures by offering his students cigarettes, take one himself, and then proceed to give mesmerising lectures on the Classics and the poets of bygone ages, which would keep his students spellbound into the wee hours. This picture may seem quite out-of-step with the rabble-rousing activist Wen Yiduo who, on 15 July 1946, defiantly delivered a thunderous speech in Kunming 昆明 denouncing the corruption and violence of the Guomindang, particularly in relation to their political murder of proletarian author and labour activist Li Gongpu 李公樸, whom Wen had been eulogising. Later that same day, Guomindang operatives would gun him down on the streets of Kunming for this speech. In his death, then, he would come to resemble for millions the same Qu Yuan whose poetry he admired. His outspoken political convictions and martyr’s death at the hands of the Nationalists made him a favourite among Chinese Communists, including Mao.

Indeed, from what I can tell, there exists a body of commentary on the radical left politics which ultimately got Wen Yiduo killed; and another largely separate body on his poetry, which – even though it is expressed in the vernacular – nonetheless can never quite detach itself from China’s past and the fragments of the lao shehui 老社會 still embedded in it. It can be tempting to separate Wen’s art from his politics, and indeed the poet himself tries valiantly to do so, referring to himself deprecatingly as a ‘bookworm’. Another of his English-language translators, RH Dorsett, refers to these ‘stark conflicts’ within him between his radical-left politics and his love for the ancients that went unresolved, but which give his writing such power, and I agree with him about their nature. I’m not so convinced, however, that these conflicts are indeed the sort of grave contradictions Dorsett implies they are.

This kind of ‘contradictory’ politics, after all, has a certain degree of precedent. Commentators haven’t quite been able to figure out just what to make of Gong Zizhen 龔自珍 either – another poet-activist whose ‘eccentric’ work alienated him from the authorities. I’d say the resemblance is a passing one at best: Gong Zizhen’s revolutionary-conservative politics have a markedly different focus and context from the left-traditionalism of Wen Yiduo. But the parallels are still intriguing.

Gong Zizhen was, after all, very much a member of the literary class. His styles of poetry and prose, if idiosyncratic, were still highly traditional. He used these high literary forms, however, to express strident criticism of the bureaucracy and give voice to revolutionary ideas – confiscatory land reform favouring the poor, liberation for women, ‘constitutional’ restrictions on the powers of the Emperor. For these stands and for his cantankerous personality, he was long considered an ‘eccentric’.

Wen Yiduo is very different, both in terms of personality and of literary method. Though he shared Gong Zizhen’s high scholar-official class background and was given a thorough classical education, his involvement in the May Fourth generation left an impact that was equally deep. His travels abroad and his experiences among the Chinese immigrants of America also shaped his outlook; his outrage at their treatment gave his work a patriotic tinge. His poetry was therefore expressed in the vernacular (baihua 白話), in the oral language of the ordinary man. His orientation was, to borrow the Russian term, narodnik. His heart was always with the common people, and never with the élites. But he could never bring himself to issue the violent denunciations of the Classics and the old society that his May Fourth contemporaries delighted in. His poetry is laced particularly with allusions to mediæval Chinese authors such as Li Bai 李白, Bai Juyi 白居易 and Li Shangyin 李商隱. Furthermore, he wanted to reconstruct for the new vernacular literary forms the same kinds of rigorous formal standards and patterns that had obtained for classical poetry. He didn’t want the vernacular merely to speak; he wanted it to sing.

The two men are very different; that is because their social surroundings were different. Their times were different. The ‘big questions’ each man faced were different. How could their modes of expression possibly be similar? And yet a certain similarity lingers; the two men seemed to be pointing, with different means at their disposal and from different vantage points, to a similar ‘winged vision’.

The ‘non-ideological’ nature of Wen’s vernacular poetry can be deceptive. Dorsett rightly speaks of Wen’s poems having a ‘lustre’ which indicates more about their depth than their surface. Wen’s poems talk of the fleeting nature of love; many are meditations on death and deprival, the loss of a loved one or regret at not being there for them. These are experiences which are immediately accessible. Wen’s daughter passed away from sickness while he was abroad in America; a couple of his more heart-rending poems, like ‘Forget Her’, appear to be addressed to her. Wen has his ‘light’ poems as well, such as the self-deprecating ‘Mr Wen’s Desk’, which has all of his anthropomorphised office stationery and furniture complaining about their neglect and misplacement by their ‘master’, like subjects petitioning against a wicked magistrate. But regardless of the mood of his poems, when he tries to speak in his poems through someone else’s voice – whether a laundry-washer or a rickshaw-puller – there is always an attempt to ‘get into their shoes’ even though Wen can never really succeed in casting off his literary background. Here is where Dorsett sees some of those contradictions which lend his poetry complexity and power.

Sometimes politics can ‘break in’ on a poem in a surprising, unexpected and yet completely-fitting way: as when his poem on ‘Spring Light’ ends suddenly with a piteous outcry by a blind beggar on the street. It’s also hard to keep political thoughts away from a poem like his most popular one, ‘Dead Water’; the attractions and repulsions of an algæ-covered stagnant pool are directly indicative of larger themes – though even ‘Dead Water’ is downright subtle in comparison to some of Wen’s later poems, like ‘A Concept’, ‘A Discovery’, ‘A Phrase’ and ‘Tian’anmen’, which deal directly with the contradictions and frustrations of Republican China.

Romantic Anglophilia is a presence in Wen Yiduo’s poems. He is particularly drawn to Keats, whom his poems occasionally quote. However, despite belonging to the same Crescent Moon literary circle (Xinyueshe 新月社), he is not another Xu Zhimo 徐志摩. Despite Wen Yiduo’s poetic narodnichestvo, the Romantics cannot claim him for their own without reservation. After his return from America, Wen was simultaneously too engagé to fit in well with Crescent Moon’s naturalistic focus, and too classically-minded to bless poetic innovation and ‘authenticity’ for their own sake.

Wen Yiduo cannot be neatly separated into two halves: poet and activist. Even in translation it becomes clear that the two sides are inseparable and often indistinguishable. Wen wanted to point, with his work, to a certain lyrical sensibility in the common man and the common woman, even when they themselves were flawed, in pain and confusion, riven with contradictions. In himself, these ‘contradictions’ led him to champion both classical literary culture and left politics in a highly idiosyncratic way – idiosyncratic, but not unprecedented. In death he became a powerful symbol of the Revolution. Had he lived, his disciplined vernacular form of poetry might have inspired earlier the sort of reviving embrace of the Classics that appears to be taking shape now.

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