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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money
  • Jack W. Chen (bio)
Maghiel van Crevel. Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 86. Leiden: Brill, 2008. xviii, 518 pp. Hardcover €119.00/ US$169.00, ISBN 978-90-04-16382-9.

Studies of Chinese poetry, with few exceptions, tend to be confined to studies of pre-twentieth-century literary writers and texts. This volume, by Maghiel van Crevel, is one such exception and is all the more welcome for its coverage of Chinese poetic practice from the 1980s to the early 2000s. The title, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money, speaks to the larger political, economic, and cultural contexts into which the author sets his examination of specific poets. By “mind,” van Crevel refers to the “upbeat atmosphere during the Reform era until the summer of 1989,” a time in which poets and artists found themselves freed from the subordinating yoke of political control (p. 13) and accordingly responded with an outburst of sustained aesthetic production. By “mayhem,” he means the violent suppression of demonstrators on June 4, 1989, and the period following this event, when writers became increasingly somber and pessimistic. “Money” refers to the increasing commodification of Chinese life (including aesthetic pursuits) during the nineties, which was the result of pragmatic economic reforms that began in the eighties. [End Page 385]

In chapter 1, van Crevel sketches briefly a history of poetry from early China to the present, discussing the long mutual relationship between poetry and politics. While one might quibble with the reductiveness of aspects of this account, it is, nonetheless, a useful way to consider how certain ideological pressures (both within and without poetry) have caused the emergence of the unofficial poetry scene (fei guanfang shitan ) from underground literature (dixia wenxue ) in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. The term “unofficial” refers to the fact that these poets did not publish by means of state-sanctioned “official” publishing institutions, but produced independent journals, anthologies, and literary events within informal urban networks of other writers and critics. This territory has been covered by other scholars, but van Crevel seeks to show how the unofficial poetry scene was not simply a historically limited alternative within a period of literary repression. Rather, the unofficial scene would become a source of cultural value that would live on in the writings of the avant-garde (xianfeng ) poets, who would be able to claim official recognition as members of the literary elite and enjoy being identified as somehow independent of official institutions.

Van Crevel sets up an opposition in this first section between what he calls the “Elevated” and the “Earthly” (the author capitalizes these terms). The “Elevated” refers to qualities such as lyric heroism, self-conscious literariness, elitism, intellectualism, and an academic style of discourse. The “Earthly,” then, is its mirror opposite, championing an antilyrical ordinariness, a self-conscious colloquialism, as well as an anti-elite, populist, and everyday style. Van Crevel sees avant-garde poets as occupying the place on the spectrum between these aesthetic polarities. He also notes that no individual poet can be reduced to one extreme or the other, but each has divergent tendencies toward qualities of one or the other or both. However, his broader claim is that “across the contemporary period, the overall trend has been away from the Elevated and toward the Earthly” (p. 26). This statement sets up a kind of literary historical framework that is, indeed, operative in structuring large parts of the monograph. The author states that the subsequent twelve chapters follow a rough chronological order, and as with all productions of literary history, consciously seek to canonize a group of avant-garde poets in the contemporary period (pp. 50–51).

In chapter 2, the author discusses the poet Han Dong (b. 1961), who was also the founding editor of the literary journal Tamen (Them). He charts the ways in which Han Dong’s early poetry and his journal consciously rejected the aesthetic tenets of the seminal journal Jintian (Today), which was itself identified with Misty Poetry (menglong shi ; translated more literally by van Crevel throughout as “obscure poetry”). However...