- Troubadours, Trumpeters, Troubled Makers: Lyricism, Nationalism, and Hybridity in China and Its Others
This book strikes a rather different note from a host of others that deal with such heavily marked and loaded terms as nationalism, hybridity, and Other that have become academic shibboleths of sorts that students of literature must pronounce in order to cross the line and join the crowd under the general rubric of Cultural Studies. What I am saying is that not only is Gregory Lee knowledgeable about Cultural Studies and the various critical theories underlying that enterprise (and he reads French as well as English and Chinese), but he often has a sense of what is going on and where he stands vis-à-vis the various issues and theories discussed in this book. In my view, at least, that is by no means an easy accomplishment. Right at the outset, then, this book has my recommendation as an informative and original contribution to the study of the cultural scene in contemporary China, a study that often relates the situation in China to other and comparable scenes in different cultures and places—for example, the United States, Britain, and particularly France.
Troubadours, Trumpeters, Troubled Makers is a collection of essays on different forms of what Lee calls "cultural productions," chief among which is poetry or the lyric, including the lyrics of songs in popular music. The author has a rather strong and serious, if not idealistic, belief in the efficacy of poetry in the contemporary world. With Benjamin Péret, he asserts that poetry is
determined by a commitment to a complex human emancipation and an overturning of the alienation of modernity. This is a positive poetic function surpassing the capacity to critique. It refers to active contribution to the construction of "absolute and active freedom," a thoroughgoing "liberation of humanity," not an illusory "liberation" offered by a nationalist credo.(p. 62)
Doesn't this sound a bit excessive for celebrating the force of poetry as an agent for "freedom" and "liberation"? Especially in the context of the rampant commercialism and market consumerism of the 1990s, this sounds rather idealistic, as it seems quite difficult at the moment to imagine poetry in China that still has some resemblance to the kind of liberating force Lee envisions here. But of course in an earlier period in China, much of modern (or modernist) poetry does contribute to the construction of freedom or liberation without degenerating into a simple tool of ideological and political propaganda. Lee has written on the modernist poet Dai Wangshu, and his discussion of Chinese literary modernism is well informed and persuasive, different from the rigid separation of works that a [End Page 487] modernism-postmodernism dichotomy would lead us to believe. "What distinguished modernism in China from the other modern literary modes," the author observes, "was its ambivalence towards the modernising, industrialising, materialist road to national salvation or regeneration which constituted the dominant narrative of progress for most patriotic Chinese intellectuals and producers of culture; an anti-imperialist narrative which can so easily become confused with national chauvinism" (p. 72). Lee observes that while some poets like Ai Qing are patriotic and loyal to the Communist Party, many modern and modernist poets in China are deviating from the official ideology and literary nationalism. "There is in this kind of verse," he says, "an attempt to establish, against official poetic practice, which in this instance is an instrument of society's regnant authority, a type of aesthetic autonomy, although of a sort that still provides a critique of social life" (p. 82). For the author, Bei Dao, Cui Jian, and particularly Duo Duo represent the poetic force of such a deviating modernism, one that challenges some of the time-honored nationalist and official concepts and habits of thinking.
Cutting through the pretensions of different political claims, Lee sees nationalism or national chauvinism as the...