As the study of what we now call “premodern” China gained traction among students in the postwar United States, the question of how it should be approached emerged as a divisive issue among interested scholars, perhaps nowhere as much as it did among those with a particular interest in Chinese poetry. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the stakes seemed high as scholars confronted their passionate disagreements about things as fundamental as the proper subject of study and the most fruitful methodology. Is China a coherent and self-sufficient subject of study? Can it be rightly and accurately characterized as a civilization so separate from the West, and so perfectly integrated within itself, as to render impossible—and even damaging—an approach to any aspect of its civilization that enables comparison? What is lost and what is gained if one chooses to focus more on Chinese poetry as poetry and less on Chinese poetry as Chinese? Is it really necessary—or possible—to choose? Or is it possible to find balance along a continuum? Of particular interest is the discourse of scholars who saw in the rise of formalist studies of literature either an opportunity or a threat. This article traces just some of the lines of resistance and exploration, convergence, and bifurcation that developed in this period, observing that the disagreements that were exercising these camps, while quite real, were not as absolute as their rhetoric would suggest.

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