The Poetics of Memory:
Wang Jingwei (1883-1944) and China’s Wartime Collaboration
This is a book manuscript that I have completed and submitted. It is currently under review.
In this monograph, I investigate the complex of poetry, history, and memory. The focus of my investigation is Wang Jingwei, his classical-style poetry, and China’s memory (or the lack thereof) of its collaboration with Japan during World War II. It proposes to read Wang’s poetry as a site of memory, where the author’s individual memory converses with China’s cultural memory, as well as with future reader’s memory of him. It is an interdisciplinary work that spans across the fields of history, literary, and memory researches.
Wang’s is a story never properly told. He is someone whom everyone has heard of but no one knows much about. Among all senior Republican statesman, he remains a haunting figure hovering in the margin of historiography. Now, he is almost solely remembered as a collaborator, or Hanjian (“traitor of the Han nation”). Less known to historians is the fact that he was an acclaimed classical-style poet and remains broadly admired today among students of Chinese poetry. His poems written during the period of collaboration, in particular, often betray intense patriotic sentiments, which has convinced scholars like Chia-ying Yeh and Ying-shih Yü to argue that his collaboration was driven by altruistic motivations, or even a “martyrdom complex” (in Hu Shi’s words), to sacrifice his life and reputation to save China. In this regard, the damnatio memoriae paradoxically becomes the ultimate fulfillment of his “martyrdom.”
This book takes issue with this romanticized image. It intends to complicate the relations between poetry and history by introducing the dimension of memory into the equilibrium. Given that there has not been a complete biography of Wang that attempts to weave the strands of his life together, this book divides into two parts. The first part is a biography of Wang Jingwei that integrates his political, intellectual, poetic, and private lives. The second part consists of thematic investigations of his late poetry.
The significance of this story is evident from an ongoing war in memory. Mainland China to date prohibits serious academic research on collaboration in general and on Wang Jingwei in particular. The polemical stake on Wang’s legacy as a “traitor” or a “martyr” is high, as the answer will bear an impact on how China remembers her role in the hagiography of an Anti-Fascist World War, its unfolding global memory culture having fundamentally shaped world politics, international justice, concepts of sovereignty, and national identity. And even though historians in the West have made significant contributions to understanding the Chinese collaboration, they have so far neglected to note Wang’s poetry, partially due to its textual challenge. Even for Chinese biographers of Wang, these poems are simply treated as a minor genre of evidential material, let alone that their interpretation is conditioned by the political task to condemn. As a literary scholar, I find the exegetical questions posed by Wang’s poetry enchanting. I resist the temptation of expressionist reading, proposing instead an indeterminate relation between the lyric “I” and the historical author. I argue that the ambivalences and nuances in Wang’s poetry should be treated as possessing a particular kind of historiographical power, which helps to write a history with human temperature. Furthermore, Wang’s poetry played various functions through his political career. As Japan’s wartime propaganda was based on the rhetoric of pan-Asianism, constructed upon China and Japan’s common traditions, by examining a type of poetic practice shared by Chinese and Japanese cultural elites, this project also problematizes the nation-state paradigm that dominates the narrative of WWII in China.
The Lyric Angelus Novus: The Vitality of Chinese Classicist Poetry Online
I am currently working on a monograph investigating contemporary Chinese classicist poetry online, a literary phenomenon that has become highly notable in the new millenium. It is part of a broader project on “Sinophone lyric classicism” that I am committed to in the next decade. Since the New Culture Movement performatively pronounced Chinese classical literary traditions to be “dead,” poetry written in classical styles by modern poets has not been treated as proper “literature” by literary histories, anthologies, school pedagogy, or award-giving bodies, which is especially the case in mainland China. In “Frankfurt Consensus” cosigned by a number of -prominent researchers published after the “Back into Modernity” workshop that I organized in Frankfurt in 2014, we propose the term “classicist poetry” to argue that such poetry is part and parcel of modern Chinese literature–no less modern and no more Chinese than, say, freestyle poetry [Link]. Within this broader project, I plan to introduce and translate works of representative contemporary Chinese classicist poets into English; to investigate the process of canonization of literary works, poets, and aesthetic standards in modern China; and to study poets related to the transnational network of the Southern Society and investigate their relations with cultural and intellectual movements of their times. I am also interested in other art forms in which China’s classical traditions are exerting influences today, such as avant-garde calligraphy, modern dance, and pop music, in the Sinophone space.
In The Lyric Angelus Novus, I will trace the rise (and arguably, the fall) of internet classicist poetry in China from the late 1990s to date. While the rise of such poetry broke the monopoly (in the domain of classicist poetry) of the “Old Cadre Style” in post-Maoist China, the latter continues to enjoy institutional dominance and has in recent years morphed into the formally conservative and ideologically conformist traditionalist school. Technological means, media platforms, state censorship, cultural nationalism, and market forces all play a role in the transformation. I will examine the works of a number of leading innovative poets, including Lizi 李子, Xutang 噓堂, “Lone Carnivore” 獨孤食肉獸, “Snow Studio” 添雪齋, and “Turkic Horse” 胡馬, whose works, while strictly abiding by traditional prosodic prescriptions, have achieved a high level of stylistic innovation. Their lyric classicism thus represents a kind of “antimodern modernism” (M. Kundera) and occupies a unique niche in China’s postmodern literary landscape. In the end, I argue that the age of social media has unleashed the force of pastiche, symptomatic of the nationalist cultural conservatism recently on the rise in China.