- Trekking through Modern Chinese Literary History with Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal
Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) has been a familiar name in the Chinese literary world since the early 1920s. His impact on China’s early modern literature is acknowledged by both writers themselves as well as researchers. This book is the first to target specifically the subject of Baudelaire in China through an extensive and intensive comparative textual analysis of primary texts. By tracking Baudelaire’s original French poems, their Chinese translations, and their multifarious Chinese reincarnations over the past one hundred years the author provides an extraordinary example of literary transmission and reception.
The historical context was one of widespread and intense Chinese nationalism that was ignited by Japanese claims on Chinese territorial sovereignty in 1915. In what has been called the May Fourth era (1915–1921), young Chinese intellectuals condemned China’s cultural traditions as the cause of China’s failure to cope with modern times and called for modernity in all aspects of cultural life. As intellectual culture is proliferated via the language of written texts, the classical language of China’s literary heritage was abandoned and writers came forward to lay the foundations for China’s new literature. The new literature created in the contemporary language manifested cultural modernity by addressing issues in contemporary reality. For this, writers turned to European models. Baudelaire was one such model.
The large number of comparative studies that have identified affinities between Baudelaire and classical Chinese poetry are surveyed, but it is argued that Baudelaire had no direct knowledge of China, even though “there is something in his poetry that invites comparison” (pp. 12–13). Alleged similarities with Li Bai (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770) are considered, but more weight is given to the comparison with Li He (790–816) made by Tu Kuo-ch’ing, in which he alludes to similarities in images and themes, as well as Li He’s use of synesthetic imagery. The comparison with Li Shangyin (813–858) made by James J. Y. Liu is cited: “[T]he worlds explored in some of his poems, with their languorous beauties, exotic [End Page 509] perfumes, strange drugs, embroideries and precious stones, music and dance are all reminiscent of Baudelaire” (pp. 19–21). The general assertion is that striking resonances in traditional Chinese poetry prepared Chinese poets to embrace Baudelaire in their construction of a new poetic tradition.
It was through the major literary associations that emerged in the 1920s that Baudelaire came to be known in China. Established in 1920, the Association for Literary Studies published the first Chinese translations of Baudelaire in its magazine Short Story Monthly. Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967), one of the founders of the association, introduced Baudelaire’s prose poems; he and his brother Lu Xun (1881–1936) were among the first practitioners of the genre. Zhou was also instrumental in publishing the poetry of Li Jinfa (1900–1976), the earliest Baudelaire devotee in China (p. 30). However, it was among the members of the Creation Society established in Japan in 1921 that a number of Baudelaire-inspired writers emerged. Tian Han (1898–1968) wrote on Baudelaire, and the fiction of Yu Dafu (1896–1945) earned him the label “China’s Baudelaire.” The poets Feng Naichao (1901–1983), Mu Mutian (1900–1971), and Wang Duqing (1898–1983) wrote about Baudelaire in the pages of Creation Monthly (p. 31). The poets of the Crescent Moon Society that formed in 1923 published Crescent Monthly with poets Xu Zhimo (1897–1931), Wen Yiduo (1899–1946), and later Bian Zhilin (1910–2000) as chief editors. These poets had studied in America and England, and the publication soon took the lead in introducing Western literature as well as new Chinese poetry. Xu Zhimo and Bian Zhilin wrote on Baudelaire and also translated his works (p. 31).
However, politics soon intruded into all literary endeavors. At the Paris Peace Conference, China’s contribution to the Allied war effort was ignored because a secret treaty...