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  • Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900–1937 by Shengqing Wu
  • Michael Gibbs Hill
Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900–1937 by Shengqing Wu. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013. Pp. xviii + 437. $49.95.

Since the 1990s, scholars writing in many languages have sought to reevaluate the forms of literature disavowed by the New Culture and May Fourth movements, particularly poetry and prose written in “classical” or “traditional” modes.1 Shengqing Wu’s Modern Archaics, which focuses on the practice of classical poetry and poetics in the first four decades of the twentieth century, takes new and important steps for understanding an area of literary writing that, for too long, scholars have regarded as moribund, decadent, and even detrimental to the formation of a so-called modern Chinese literature.

The introduction lays out the scope of the book’s discussion of “ornamental lyricism,” which refers to “the extensive use of literary conventions, allusions, tropes, and the rhetorics of bi 比 (metaphorical [End Page 243] comparison) and xing 興 (affective images), thereby conveying a feeling of excessiveness or overdecoration” (p. 2). Moving from literary technique to lived experience, Wu further argues that ornamental lyricism should be seen “not only as this formal aesthetic, but more broadly as a social practice, and elegant lifestyle, and a concomitant cultural and intellectual ideal” (p. 2).

From the beginning, Wu asserts that “linguistic transparency—the idea that we can express whatever inner thoughts we have through language—is an ideological myth” (p. 31). She argues that these classical-language poetic forms served as vehicles for literary innovation. Rather than resulting from an excessive devotion to the past, the best among these poems emerged out of “a self-conscious use of language and stylistic elements in an active search for new means of expression” (p. 35). Wu borrows from Raymond Williams to argue that ornamental lyricism was an “embodied structure of feeling” that articulated “the shared perceptions, values, and lived experiences of the once dominant, now disintegrating class of Chinese literati” (pp. 13–14). Building out from this use of the “structure of feeling” framework, Wu also borrows the term “affective community,” coined by Maurice Halbwachs in scholarship on collective memory, to describe the groups of poets who wrote together and for one another. Often going beyond the bonds of native place that were so important to Chinese men of letters, these affective communities of writers and readers produced in new contexts (notably the modern university) the ideal of “literary elegance” (fengya 風雅).

The rest of the book is divided into three parts, each with two chapters. Part 1, “A Formal Feeling Comes: Poetry of Mourning,” includes a chapter on the writings of many prominent figures after the Boxer Rebellion and another chapter on the work of poet Chen Sanli 陳三立 (1852–1937). Both chapters engage in intensive close reading of texts, showing how poets used both ci 詞 (lyric) forms and shi 詩 (verse) models to push the boundaries of these forms as they reflected on the calamitous events of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With an expert hand, Wu guides the reader through the thicket of allusions and references found in works by poets such as Wang Pengyun 王鵬運 (1848–1904), Zhu Zumou 朱祖謀 (1857–1931), and Liu Fuyao 劉福姚 (jinshi 1892). Many of the poems chosen by Wu demonstrate a high degree of difficulty because of the vocabulary and the wide range [End Page 244] of references; without Wu’s guidance, even a well-educated reader might have no idea these poems were responding to the destruction wrought in the capital by foreign armies or that some of them were referring to the death of the Guangxu emperor’s royal concubine, Lady Zhen (Zhen Fei 珍妃, 1876–1900). Often the allusions in these poems make ironic use of tropes and references from other poems, leading to “a closed world of reverie and illusion, mediated through the ambivalence of language that is simultaneously representational and concealing” (p. 63). Two major arguments emerge from these very fine close readings. First, these difficult and allusive poems created and demarcated a sense of community among “a few tightly knit coteries...


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pp. 243-250
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