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  • Classical Chinese Poetry in Singapore: Witnesses to Social and Cultural Transformations in the Chinese Community by Bing Wang
  • Jing-yi Qu (bio)
Bing Wang. Classical Chinese Poetry in Singapore: Witnesses to Social and Cultural Transformations in the Chinese Community. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017. xi, 187 pp. Hardcover $90.00, isbn 978-1-4985-3515-1.

I am pleased to see that the author, who like me was engaged in the study of ancient Chinese literature before coming to Singapore, has chosen to focus on the development of classical Chinese poetry in Singapore (CCPS) since 1881, assessing the role of these poetic compositions and their associations in different periods from the perspective of sociocultural change. Ordinary readers may find it difficult to believe that literary production, such as the writing of poetry, actually occurred on a small island centered on economy and trade, which became the center of literary production, communication, and consumption in Southeast Asia. What is more surprising is that this trend has continued to this day, though the overall momentum is no longer as strong as in the last century. However, compared with the study of classical Chinese poetry (Han poetry) in East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, literary writing with distinctive Chinese traditional cultural characteristics in Southeast Asian countries has not received enough attention in current [End Page 240] academic circles. One possible reason is that scholars believe that all local poets in Southeast Asia are ethnic Chinese who immigrated early or late, an assumption not made about non-Chinese writers in East Asian countries. Nevertheless, this particular cultural phenomenon is worth studying, especially in the context of the 200th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore and the global spread of Chinese culture. I think that helping young readers who are not familiar with Chinese literary heritage in Singapore or other countries understand the evolution of CCPS and its underestimated value (p. 7) is the author's creative motivation and the book's most valuable function.

Readers may hold the stereotype that CCPS is completely transplanted from China, with no significant innovation in form or content. This was indeed the case for the majority of poems written by writers or officials who lived in Singapore in the early days. This poetry differed from that from Mainland China, however, in that the content of the poetry involved the natural scenery of tropical rainforests and the customs of the island. However, this situation changed in the works of the first generation of naturalized immigrants and the second generation, as the poets' internal identity and the external appearance of the poetry gradually became localized (p. 28). CCPS has the essence of Chinese traditional culture but also has its own characteristics, so its complexity, uniqueness and the importance of the inheritance and development of Chinese culture in the Chinese community are highlighted.

The author devotes many words to elaborating three important aims: (1) to analyze the evolution of the poets' identity from the perspective of views of Nanyang; (2) to assess the significance of these elite groups to the construction of Singapore's cultural space from the perspective of the poet community; and (3) to examine the influence of various media on poetry composition and publishing from the perspective of the publishing medium. In other words, the author does not follow the practice of most literary monographs focusing on appreciation of poetic texts and evaluation of artistic achievements. Rather, he closely links the literary production of classical poetry with the social environment and cultural atmosphere of the time, tracing the sociocultural transformation of Singapore's Chinese community. Though I cannot confirm whether this transition from textual analysis to cultural-historical analysis shows that CCPS is uneven in quality, it at least broadens the horizon of literary research.

Identity, cultural space, and media are three key words related to the development of CCPS, and this core content occupies three chapters of the book. Given the complexity of Singaporean Chinese immigrants, the author skillfully uses the view of "Nanyang" held by different groups of people as the criterion for distinguishing their identity. Thus, sojourning and naturalization informed the identity of the first generation of immigrants after...


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