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  • The Subtle Revolution: Poets of the "Old Schools" during Late Qing and Early Republican China
  • Ban Wang (bio)
Jon Kowallis . The Subtle Revolution: Poets of the "Old Schools" during Late Qing and Early Republican China. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2006. vii, 299 pp. Paperback $20.00, ISBN 1–55729–083–0.

What is deemed old in Chinese culture tends to have a tenacious, enduring lease of life in the midst of the new. Classic style poetry is one such example. Despite Liang Qichao's call for a revolution in poetry in 1899 and the rise of vernacular, modernist poetry in the May Fourth New Culture, classical poetry has persisted in ebb and flow in twentieth-century China. Even during the most radical, revolutionary upheavals and movements, classical poetry often shared the public stage with new-fangled slogans, donned the mantle of revolutionary rhetoric. Jon Kowallis' book offers a good example of the messy intertwining of the old with the new in the innovations of classical poetry in the late Qing period. Here are two telling instances. In contemplating natural sights such as a snowfall or Mt. Wushan, late Qing poets, such as Yi Shunding, may imbue their lines with a profound sense of loss and uncertainty. This melancholy streak may imply a yearning for a different China at the end of the imperial era: the familiar sights in nature are there, [End Page 491] yet are also drained of their sense and vitality. They are mere vehicles for an idea. The poem "Swimming" by Mao Zedong, while enacting the same genre of natural contemplation, extols humans' conquest of nature by collective, organized efforts, a Faustian endeavor of modern progress and technology. In these two instances, what is modern and what is traditional? Ancient poets could arguably be more modern or even modernist, because they are riddled by the unmistakable signs of alienation, existential self-doubt, and loss in the face of bewildering change. Yet is not the socialist conquest of nature or remodeling of humans also a dynamically modern, Faustian undertaking? Or is it as old as the motive that compelled the Qin emperor to build the Great Wall? Jon Kowallis rightly focuses on the real problem to be tackled in this messy issue: it is a matter of "where exactly to locate the challenge of the era and how to 'man oneself to face it'" (Kowallis quoting from Emerson, p. 152). Due to its ambiguous status, classical poetry has been a nodal point for studying the persistence of the past in the new or the emergence of the new in the old, and in Kowallis' hand, this becomes how poets deployed the traditional resources in coping with challenges of their time, transcending the conventional divide of the modern and ancient. Kowallis has done an admirable, meticulous job in giving an account of subtle changes astir in late Qing classical style poetry: how it pried itself from the old shell yet still kept its authentic spirit.

China is known as the kingdom of poetry, but conventional literary history sees this kingdom declining since its apex in Tang and Song. This book attempts to modify an accepted interpretation of the poetic culture of the Ming and Qing. The Ming and Qing dynasties saw a time of chaos, conformity, and repression; in learning and culture, there was empirical and hairsplitting scholarship. The overall social trend was marked by a steady decline of the Confucian ethico-political order, hence the view that Ming and Qing poets "are essentially little better than a pathetic group of misguided literary alchemists, searching in vain for a philosopher's stone to lead them to the muse denied them by their own benighted condition" (p. 10). It is a fallacy, however, to write off a vast body of poetry produced during the Qing. To compound this bias, scholarly attention has been directed to the rise of the novel and drama, as these genres were presumably enmeshed in the social and political changes of the time. Somehow poetry could manage to stay aloof from cataclysmic events. There is also the view that the poetry of the Qing lacks a clear identity and...