This article, introduction to the special issue, lays out the theoretical groundwork for reading Chinese poetry. Situating critical discussions of Chinese poetry within the larger discourse of world literature, the introduction examines key concepts and concerns running through the entire issue.
Tracking the genealogy of world literature as it has been conceived in the West, one seems obliged to trace the inaugural moment to the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who coined the term Weltliteratur in his effort to propel the arrival of “the epoch of world literature” when national literature was regarded as “now a rather unmeaning term.”1 Goethe's high note of cosmopolitanism, however, did not stop him from positing Orientalist imagery of China as a heuristic other that enabled him to imagine the world at large. While Goethe used a Chinese novel as a hospitable gesture to register the point that other peoples have their literatures, urging for a global exchange of literary works, his friend and contemporary Johann Gottfried Herder held poetry at the heart of emergent nationalism while imagining a world of equal nations. Writing at a time when Germany was still divided into small principalities, Herder pleaded a passionate case for Germany to be taken as seriously as a nation on the global stage. He considered Germany, or any sovereign nation, for that matter, as the organic unity of a people, whose spirit or soul or character is epitomized in (folk) poetry. Herder construed poetry as speech that “affects the inner sense.”2 Whether Goethe's evocation of a Chinese novel or Herder's mythical notion of poetry, their accounts of world literature were responses to a world-historical moment in which the birth of the modern nation-state and cosmopolitan aspirations went hand in hand. From the outset, we evoke these two seminal figures not to regurgitate a clichéd history of world literature but, rather, to unsettle and steer clear of these overly romanticist and essentialist conceptualizations of national or world literature, which have been torn asunder by postcolonial, postmodern, and even postnational perspectives. While sharing Goethe's and Herder's confidence in literature's deep involvement in world-making activities (i.e., poiesis), this special issue troubles the power asymmetry between national and world literatures, or between the West and the Rest; it considers Chinese poetry not as a monolith that is necessarily glued to the imagined nation as a hegemonic political framework or as museumified objects for our aesthetic or critical gaze but, rather, always already an engaged agent that is birthed into existence with constant negotiation in its often fraught relations to the world or to the nation. This project is devoted to a wide range of discussion and investigation of how Chinese poetry interacts with the world via the crisscrossing routes of translation, dissemination, diaspora, mediation, transmission, reception, reincarnation, return, and so on. Contributors to the issue discuss the life or afterlife of Chinese poetry beyond the geographical boundary of China and, in so doing, examine the politics and poetics of world literature. The special issue joins and contributes to current debates and discussions on theories and histories of world literature by mapping Chinese poetry onto what Pascale Casanova calls the “world republic of letters” not only as world poetry but also along, beyond, or even against world poetry.
In Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability, Emily Apter critiques how the insidious forms of domination and coercion in globalism are imbricated in theories and conceptions of world literature. She discerns a critical difference between globalization and “planetarity” in terms of their relations to the global apparatus of neoliberal capitalism, deeming planetary thinking to be an intervention into globalization. Apter specifically problematizes the dominant directions already taken within the discipline, two of which are Franco Moretti's advocacy of “distant reading,” which to map out literary world systems prioritizes the generalization of large-scale patterns over meticulous textual engagement; and the anthologization of world literatures, as in the case of David Damrosch, which Apter considers not only blind to literature's linguistic and cultural specificities but also complicit in the neoliberalization of global education. In her attempt to posit a more ethical account of world literature, Apter insists on the “untranslatable.” Her reminder of the untranslatable troubles any celebratory account of world literature that, in her view, shows a “tendency to zoom over the speed bumps of untranslatability in the rush to cover ground.”3 Untranslatability thus requires one's critical attention to philological paradoxes and their inherent power dynamics. In short, “translation and untranslatability are constitutive of world forms of literature” because of their deep social-political underpinnings.4
Taking a cue from Apter on the philosophical and political purchase of translation, and responding to our mediation-saturated times, this special issue seeks to use the double terms translatability and transmediality as a conceptual anchor to reexamine the global circulation, reception, appropriation, mediation, and translation of Chinese and Sinophone poetry in the world. It also breaks the historical and conceptual boundaries between premodern and modern studies, bringing together articles that address Chinese and comparative poetics from both historical and contemporary periods, in both classic and modern forms. It accords the conditions of modernity or postmodernity a critical space of interrogation while heeding the persistence of poetic traditions and historic residuals in modern and contemporary literary productions. In foregrounding the historical and theoretical questions of translatability or untranslatability, this special issue resists a naive sense of arrival for Chinese poetry's place in world literature. Translation as a multidirectional and intertextual hermeneutic process, in effect, more radically lays bare the translational nature of worlding. In his most recent book, Chinese Whispers (2022), Yunte Huang argues that Ezra Pound's modernist work, especially in The Cantos, epitomizes what he calls “translational poetics,” and Pound's adventure into Chinese should be regarded as “a poetic exploration of the rhizomatic, subterranean, nomadic, and unconscious zones of language.”5 Indeed, Pound's poetic practice “points us in the direction of a world literature that is inherently translational and multilingual.”6 Covering a fascinating archive of texts and engaging with a wide scope of historical and theoretical persuasions, contributors to this special issue convincingly show the translational spaces that Chinese poetry opens up, as well as the translational epistemology of world literature as a system of knowledge and aesthetic production—hence the issue's subtitle, “Chinese Poetry in/and the World.” True, Chinese poetry is deeply entrenched in the geopolitical and ideological ecology of the world. Yet, it is not merely the happy admission of Chinese poetry into the canon of world literature that is emphasized herein, because Chinese poetry is not an accessory, afterthought, or epiphenomenon to world literature. Its unmistakable existence, adaptable localization, and deep participation in the world all point to an account of Chinese poetry as an intervention into the center-periphery system of literary and cultural capital, as Casanova's sociological study of world literature has pointed out.
China as a supersign for a historic formation, however—or Chinese poetry, for that matter—can also operate as a symbolic system of power and domination. This critical formulation gives rise to what Shu-mei Shih influentially calls “Sinophone articulations,” which encompass “Sinitic-language communities and their expressions (cultural, political, social, etc.) on the margins of nations and nationalness in the internal colonies and other minority communities in China as well as outside it, with the exception of settler colonies where the Sinophone is the dominant vis-à-vis their indigenous populations.”7 As such, this issue includes contributions that examine Taiwan's unique literary history and, specifically, the presence or absence of Russia in Taiwanese poetry, the Angel Island poems by Chinese American immigrants in the early twentieth century, as well as Chinese American scholar-poets' positionality in the interimperial spaces in which China is theorized not as a clear-cut nation-state. Rather than imagining one single center, the special issue posits a polycentric world. “How and where China is mapped in world literature,” as Yingjin Zhang puts it, “reveals various positions of view and modes of engagement open to readers and scholars.”8 To sustain such a multidirectional approach, contributors thus draw on not only Chinese and comparative literary studies but also Asian American studies, among others, breaking rigid disciplinary boundaries in our practice of knowledge production and critical inquiry.
Using transmediality as the other anchoring concept, this special issue also aims to expand the notion of what constitutes a literary text. We consider text not as an object of analysis but as a performative process, as an intertextual hermeneutic, or as an affective affordance, hence the centrality of transmediality in our reconfiguration of poetry and poetics in this era of hypermediation. This transmedial turn invites a rethinking of how the medium has always already provided certain conditions of possibility for meaning production. How have new technologies of the Internet altered literary production and consumption, for example? To what extent does social media restructure sociality and affect? How do we reconceptualize notions of textuality, narrativity, and performativity in this increasingly mediated era? These questions also lend the special issue a critical and reflective space to think about the place of theory. Poststructuralism, in its various persuasions, has for the past few decades made the linguistic turn extremely influential and sometimes quite problematic. The recent few years, however, have witnessed a phenomenological, affective, and even posthumanist turn that argues for a critical account of meaning production beyond discursive hermeneutics, thereby troubling the logocentric view of literature by exploring the centrality of, for example, acoustic and tactile structures of feeling and affect. Thinking about questions of medium and meaning makes us more acutely self-aware about how Chinese poetry, in its global itinerary of circulation, translation, and reincarnation, depends on the infrastructural support of various mediums.
In a 2003 follow-up article to his provocative 1990 review of Bei Dao's poetry, Stephen Owen spends a few pages elaborating on the powerful place of new media that lies beyond the purview of traditional print culture: “In place of the cultural establishments of nation-states, charged with defining literary history and canon (these have their Web sites as well), we have an immaterial medievalism of shifting texts and authors, working in an e-space that is peculiarly local. In this space, diaspora dissolves, and Romanized Yiddish poetry continues in an e-shtetl.”9 Not only has this “immaterial” infrastructure of the e-space thickened the context in which (world) poetry is rendered intelligible or accessible, but it also lends a more democratic (minjian) space to literary production and circulation beyond the traditional gate-keeping institutions. The technology of remediation, however, can be traced way back in history. In the case of translating Henry Wadsworth Longfellow across the Pacific, for example, the poem is presented in the form of a Chinese fan, which might be received as an orientalist medium at the mercy of a racialized gaze across the Pacific. In summary, medium and meaning are inseparable as an integral part to the production and reception of literary texts.
As a response piece to his 1990 essay, however, Owen's premise in the aforementioned article seems unchanged: there are costs and sacrifices that the admission of Chinese poetry into the canon of world literature entails. A concrete manifestation is, as Owen famously laments, the seamless and effortless translatability of Bei Dao's poetry, which is rendered rather hollow by being written for international consumption and stripped of its rootedness in Chinese literary traditions. “Most of these poems translate themselves.”10 Scholars such as Rey Chow, Michelle Yeh, and Yunte Huang have critiqued Owen's assumptions and blind spots in his influential essay from feminist, postcolonial, and critical perspectives. Owen sets an untenable, or even unnecessary, dichotomy between what he calls national literature and world literature; in contrast, this special issue tries to advance a more polycentric and translocal approach, construing the world as a more heterogeneous and diverse space and demystifying the nation as a nonessentialist, agonistic, and translocal imaginary. As Jacob Edmond's article, “Literature as Translation: Bei Dao beyond World Poetry,” powerfully reframes it, translation is the sine qua non of Bei Dao's or his fellow contemporary “Chinese” poets' creation of literary work. It cracks open the false opposition between Chinese and world poetry by rendering translation inherent to the formation of Chinese or contemporary poetry.
Ultimately, the contributors to the special issue advance and, indeed, put into practice a mode of critical inquiry or a reading practice that is at once sociological, culturalist, formalist, and epistemological. First, epistemologically, we recognize literature's fundamental purchase on our access to and knowledge of the world as well as our radical reimagination of it. Let us return to Apter's paradigm in Against World Literature, in which she treats cultural translation as “a major heuristic challenge for the interpretative humanities,”11 interrogating the very political formations—often both transnationally and historically situated—of literature, namely, “what it means to ‘have’ a literature or to lay claim to aesthetic property.”12 Second, sociologically, the contributors discuss Chinese poetry in/and the world as products of certain institutions that underpin the global production, circulation, and reception of literary works, in the manner of Casanova's deconstruction of the world republic of letters.13 Third, the special issue takes a culturalist approach in examining the cultural work performed by Chinese and world poetry as they are implicated in political economy and cultural politics. Finally, contributors demonstrate a formalist reading practice, refusing an ethnographic reduction of Chinese poetry by a full commitment to what Yunte Huang calls “the inseparable formal and social materiality of the poetry.”14
The special issue begins with Haun Saussy's deeply reflective rumination on the semantic indeterminacy and widely open interpretive spaces inhabited by Wang Wei's 王維 poetry. He considers world making as an opening up of plural worlds. By closely reading Wang's pentasyllabic jueju “Lu zhai” 鹿柴 in both its Chinese original and Eliot Weinberger's renderings in Nineteen Ways of Reading Wang Wei, Saussy polemically engages with established readings by Wai-lim Yip and Pauline Yu to press for greater possibilities in which the poem's wording and worlding can be interpreted and imagined beyond imagist poetry or Buddhist ontology. His interpretive power is further enhanced by his move to situate Wang's poetry in its dialogic context in which his friend and interlocutor Pei Di 裴迪 provides responses to Wang's poems. In demonstrating a plurality of worlds in poetic wording, Saussy thus rescues Wang Wei's poetry as world literature from an essentialist notion of Chineseness. The next two illuminating studies, by Shengqing Wu and Xiaorong Li, demonstrate how poets in late Qing and early Republican periods articulate lyrical and sensualist accounts of the world and of the self via their self-conscious encounters with the West, both in real travel experience and in poetic imagined scenarios. Xiaorong Li, carefully reading and meticulously contextualizing Zhou Shoujuan's Fragrant Talks (Xiangyan conghua 香豔叢話), convincingly shows how sensualist poets skillfully negotiate between renewing Chinese traditional sensual sentimentalism, on the one hand, and embracing a transcultural and more universalist discourse of Enlightenment romanticism, on the other. Zhou and other sensualists translated foreign texts and adopted new motifs, themes, and neologisms, all rendered in classical Chinese, as a way of asserting a sense of local agency while pursuing a cosmopolitan and transcultural hybrid project. In Shengqing Wu's study, Chinese poets actually traveled to Europe, climbing up the Eiffel Tower and gazing at the moon. Wu advances the insightful notion of “lyrical looking” to tease out how these late Qing poets, who climbed the Eiffel Tower and rendered the travel experience in their poems, mediate their visual imagination of the world (shijie 世界). These mediated poetic visions, Wu argues, gave rise to the repeated tropes of “categorical associations” (lianlei 聯類) and poetic empathy that conditions the knowledge production by late Qing poets in their worlding activities.
The next two articles, by Chris Song and Lucas Klein, stand as illuminating cases of transpacific poetics. Song's article offers a critical reading of British diplomat Thomas Francis Wade's translation and Qing foreign affairs official Dong Xun's rewrite of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “A Psalm of Life.” Dong Xun's rewrite was inscribed onto a Chinese fan and was supposedly sent back to Longfellow. Song's study situates this curious itinerary of a popular American poem across the Pacific within the tension-laden context of Sino-Western diplomatic exchanges in late Qing China. Thus, Song sheds light on how translation becomes a technology of diplomatic maneuvering. Lucas Klein's article studies the Angel Island poems, which were written in classical Chinese and etched by detainees and victims of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station. More specifically, it investigates the politics of translation or, rather, how translation mediates politics that these poems initiate, namely, the association between translation and immigration. Klein argues for the centrality of translation in heightening the political impact of literature, or what he calls “the activism of literature.” As a scholar-translator, he advances a translation strategy that is neither too nativizing nor too alienating. To render the modern classical aesthetics of the Angel Island poems viably into English, Klein insists on the importance of rhyme as a way to register a sense of formalism that is inherent in the Chinese originals. The double investments in poetic formalism and culturalist politics in Song's and Klein's studies are shared by Michelle Yeh's groundbreaking article that examines the presence or absence of Russia in modern Chinese poetry produced in Taiwan, by focusing on two cases, Ya Xian and Yang Mu. Yeh argues that the scarcity of Russia in poetry in Taiwan is due to the geopolitical tension across the Taiwan Strait; that is, the Soviet Union was seen as an enemy by the Nationalist regime in Taiwan. However, by meticulously reading selected poems, Yeh shows that when Russia does appear as an image or motif in Taiwanese poetry, it is endowed with great symbolic significance.
The remaining five articles in the special issue are devoted to studies of contemporary Chinese poetry. Jacob Edmond's highly original study of Bei Dao makes a larger point about translation's singular place in the very making of contemporary poetry. He advances a notion of world literature that includes texts that do not travel readily. More significantly, he recognizes the ubiquity of translation in contemporary (Chinese or otherwise) poetry, laying bare the falsity of the opposition between the West and the Rest, between the local and the global, between national literatures and world literature. The next study, coauthored by Cosima Bruno and Lianjun Yan, offers an excellent example of transmediality. It offers an illuminating reading of a 1999 poem titled “Dadi zhi ge” 大地之歌 (The Song of the Earth) by the late poet Zhang Zao 張棗. This poem deploys Gustav Mahler's (1860–1911) symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) (1909) as its source text. Mahler's homonym symphony, written in 1908–1909, in turn was itself based on Chinese Tang poems. The translational and transmedial life of a music-poetry nexus affords this study a fascinating opportunity to examine questions of transculturality. Expanding the notion of medium to questions of genre, Nick Admussen's article invites us to think about the intersection of scholarship and poetry as they are embodied by scholar-poets who live in North America and navigate the interimperial spaces. Drawing on Laura Doyle's theorization of interimperiality as constant negotiations with multiple empires, Admussen's study leads us to think about the subject formation of scholar-poets in transnational China studies, as well as their struggles with the process of intellectual identification that takes place across empires. The special issue concludes with two articles, respectively by Maghiel van Crevel and Hangping Xu, that examine two contemporary Chinese poets on the periphery or subaltern poets: the migrant worker poet Zheng Xiaoqiong and the poet with disabilities Yu Xiuhua. Maghiel van Crevel coins the helpful term hypertranslatability to query why a poet such as Zheng gets translated more than other poets. Addressing larger questions surrounding China's battler poetry (dagong shige 打工詩歌), van Crevel insightfully analyzes how translation, as well as global political economy, contributes to the fact that a certain poet becomes the face of a certain poetic genre, such as battler poetry. Finally, Hangping Xu's study of Yu Xiuhua's widely circulated and translated poem “Crossing China to Sleep with You” posits a notion of translation as performance. Contextualizing Yu's rise as a cultural figure, Xu suggests that a performative account of translation can be considered as a response to a changing notion of textuality and hermeneutic of Chinese poetry in our transmedial ecology when publication, reception, and reading practices are radically reshaped. Xu's article concludes with a reflection on world literature pedagogy, comparing various translations of the same poem as a way to practice close reading and render the untranslatable more viable and meaningful, and thereby bringing the entire special issue to a critical summation.
This special issue grew from a collaborative endeavor by both of us. Our deep gratitude is due to Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, especially to Zong-qi Cai and Heidi Huang, for their enthusiastic support for this project. We also wish to thank our esteemed contributors, whose brilliant work has made this an incredibly rewarding adventure.
This is quoted in Damrosch, What Is World Literature?, 1.