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  • Beijing's Crypto-Victorian:Traditionalist Influences on Hu Shi's Poetic Practice
  • Daniel Fried (bio)

Introduction: Hu Shi, Imagism, and The Needs of Modernist Historiography

In both political and literary historiography of China, the first flowering of a modernist national consciousness has always been traced to a single canonical date: May 4, 1919. On that date, thousands of Peking University students marched out from Tiananmen Square in protest against Western confirmation of Japanese colonial interests in China at the Paris Peace Conference. The protest march drew nationwide media attention, both because of its size and its vehemence (the march culminated in torching the house of a Chinese delegate to the conference), and in the ensuing weeks sympathy marches and strikes were organized by university students across the country.

The immediate political results of the protest were not great. The Chinese government was pressured into refusing to sign the treaty of Versailles, but this refusal did not affect the treaty's implementation, and Japan took control of German colonial possessions in Shandong province. The real fruits of the protest movement were intellectual: national university life was politicized, a raft of new journals were launched, and a vibrant general debate was begun on the sources of, and possible remedies for, the national weakness that had been demonstrated at Paris. Not only were specifically political solutions discussed; much of the debate was driven by a desire for a wholesale renovation of Chinese culture.

Indeed, the literary aspects of this intellectual reform movement were so strong that political historiography of modern China almost unavoidably fuses into literary history during the 'May Fourth Era.' This is the main reason why so much weight has come to be placed upon a young Western-trained Peking University professor, Hu Shi 胡適 (1891–1962), who was at the forefront of this intellectual movement [End Page 371] through his advocacy of 'literary revolution'. In a series of essays written largely before May Fourth, but which became emblematic of the movement's modernizing Zeitgeist, Hu argued for the abandonment of classical styles and the reformation of Chinese literature as a thoroughly vernacular mode of expression – only then, he argued, could the national experience of literature be popularized and made to serve as a unifying cultural force. However, Hu, who had recently finished his doctorate at Columbia University under John Dewey, was a thorough devotee of pragmatism and was averse to the advocacy of theory without practice. Hence, in addition to his theoretical essays, he also published the Experimental Collection (Changshiji 嘗試集, 1920), the first book of vernacular Chinese poetry, as a public test of his theories regarding the creation of a truly vernacular and modernist Chinese literature.

What Hu did not reveal, and what most readers have failed to notice, is that the verse in the Experimental Collection is 'modern' only through linguistic dislocation. In fact, and rather ironically, the primary models on which Hu bases his poetic style are clearly traditionalist English-language poems. Hu's primary poetic reading, both as an undergraduate at Cornell and then later at Columbia University, was the standard course of poetry popular with American university students of the period: the Elizabethans, the Romantics, and the Victorians, especially Browning and Tennyson. Insofar as Hu read contemporary English-language verse, he was reading stylistically conservative poems published in popular periodicals, not the more radical work of those now considered canonical English-language modernists. And this reading left its mark: in diction, imagery, theme, and prosody, Hu's own poetry is remarkably similar to those conservative English-language models.

Scholarship on Hu Shi is plentiful – his signal importance as a conduit for Chinese modernism assures continuing attention. But this scholarship has generally focused more on Hu's theoretical statements rather than his own poetic practice. As a result, a very partial debate has arisen on whether or not, and to what extent, Hu received his primary influences from the Imagist school (including T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, and Amy Lowell, among others). Indeed, if one confines oneself to Hu's public and private statements of his poetic ideals, there are good reasons to suspect that he may have had Imagist sympathies. In his diary, Hu quotes extensively from...


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pp. 371-389
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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