This article discusses the uneven treatment of William Empson’s encounter with China. While Chinese accounts of Empson’s brief stay in China in the late 1930s present him as one of the progenitors of Chinese modernism, his second stay, during the founding of the People’s Republic, is rarely mentioned. Empson’s significant work The Structure of Complex Words, completed in Peking in the early 1950s, remains untranslated and under-studied. Empson’s encounter with China illuminates the material mediation of language, local and global politics, and cultural difference, which have conditioned both intercultural dialogues and the practice of literary modernism. Using this historical case as polemical leverage, the article emphasizes two aspects of modernism’s global trajectory: modernism as modernisms, that is, simultaneous and similar cultural practices that take place in multiple languages and different locations, intersecting and diverging; and modernism as a missed encounter, an imaginary dialogue either facilitated or foreclosed by global geopolitics. Together, they present a picture of global modernism not as one holistic entity, but as errant and reiterative articulations.

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