- Emily Dickinson’s Reception in China: A Brief Overview, Part I
Although Emily Dickinson’s poetry was well received from the first publication of Poems in the 1890s, she did not become well-known in the United States until the 1920s. It was therefore to be expected that the publication of her poetry in China would not precede this decade. The period between the 1910s and the 1940s, which witnessed a passionate introduction of every possible kind of Western literature in China, only resulted in a few references to Dickinson. Modern Chinese literary figures who studied in Europe and in the United States in the 1910s and 1920s paid much attention to the Western New Poetry Movement and with their newly gained insights attempted to provoke a similar and simultaneous movement in China. It is quite likely that these Chinese scholars had the chance to read or hear about the controversial criticism associated with Dickinson’s poetry. If this was indeed the case, why were they so insensitive to the work of this poet, as well as to the legends surrounding her?
According to my examination of Chinese publications that are available for the period between the 1910s and the 1940s, the first reference to Dickinson appears in a sixteen-page long “Outline of American Literature,” which was published in one of China’s most influential journals entitled Fiction Monthly in 1926.1 The author of the article, Zheng Zhenduo (郑振铎, 1898–1958), also the chief editor of the journal, was one of China’s most influential and prolific literary figures. “Outline of American Literature” is the fortieth chapter of Zheng’s Outline of World Literature, which was published from 1924 onward and consisted of forty-five chapters. This specific outline traces the history of American literature from the very beginning through to the early twentieth century, focusing on the most important authors and works in terms of literary genres. In the poetry section, as is [End Page 110] to be expected, Zheng singles out Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Walt Whitman. Zheng notes, for instance, that Poe is “the top one influential American poet outside of America,” Longfellow is “the poet laureate, the most popular poet all through his life,” and Whitman is “gradually becoming well-known in his old age.”
At the end of the poetry section, Zheng remarks that although American poetry reached its peak with Whitman, good poets and poems are to be found from time to time. In this context, Zheng pays special attention to Dickinson: “Dickinson (Dickinson’s name was translated into Chinese for the first time as 狄更生) is well-known for her meditative poems on life which are full of imagination and wonders, such as ‘the forbidden fruit,’ ‘I died for beauty.’”2 Zheng’s use of the phrase “meditative poems on life” (默想诗) refers to a metaphysical or religious spirit, while “life full of imagination and wonders” (富于想像而奇异的人生) points to a sort of vital power that can overcome the stillness associated with meditation. However, when contextualized in such an ambitious and lengthy Chinese outline of world literature, this earliest reference to Dickinson does not really stand out and was therefore unlikely to catch the attention of a Chinese audience.
Three years later, shortly after the publication of Conrad Aiken’s American Poetry, 1671–1928, a review essay written by Ye Gongchao (叶公超, 1904–1981) appeared in another one of China’s most influential journals entitled Crescent (新月) in April 1929.3 Ye reports that Aiken foregrounded Dickinson in his anthology by including twenty-four poems of hers. This group of poems outnumbered those of other poets like Poe, Whitman, and Robert Frost. Poe and Whitman were already well known in China, from 1905 and 1917 onward, respectively. In his essay, Ye reiterates Aiken’s view that Dickinson’s work functioned as a landmark indicative of the increasing quality of American poetry. Such high praise could hardly be neglected by any reviewer. If Dickinson was a strange name to the target audience of Ye’s essay, and evidently this was the case, Ye would have had a responsibility to say more about her. Unfortunately, however, Dickinson’s significance and status...