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Modern Poetry in China: A Visual-Verbal Dynamic By Paul Manfredi

Chapter 1:  Li Jinfa
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Modern Poetry in China:

of the novelty is again fundamentally progressive, the same ideology of the new that sent Li Jinfa to France and upon which Zhou Zuoren, Zhu Ziqing, Su Xuelin, and countless other modern intellectuals based their newfound authority as leaders in the transformation of Chinese culture and society. At the same time, however, one cannot observe that Li was successful in the progressive sense. As Zhu’s comments indicate, in the years following the publication of his work, critics began complaining about the fact that he was too difficult to understand. This “inscrutable” label on Li’s work has been in fact the single most durable, continuing throughout the century and now into the twenty-first. Sun Yushi 孫玉石, one of the most prolific critics of symbolist literature in Chinese, for instance, discussed at length the troubled relationship with readership that marks Li’s poetry. In a rather amusing formulation, Sun distinguished two kinds of opacity. The first type is demonstrated in a poem that exhibits a kind of “misty beauty,” a technique of making what would otherwise be an ordinary object appear beautiful simply by making it difficult to see. The second is a poem that is “all mist, and no beauty.” Li Jinfa, in Sun’s estimate, is among his contemporaries the most guilty of the overly misty style (Sun 1986, 20).

However one evaluates Li’s work in the project of modernizing Chinese letters, the core metaphor used to describe his poetry—the unstringable beads—is visually inspired; the reader can see the images clearly, s/he just cannot find the connections among them. Sun’s analysis, in other words, bears out the extent to which the reception of Li’s work is largely a matter of image, something seen but not understood. The effort to understand, however, remains key in the progressive context of Li’s literary project. In an elaboration on the two types of “mist,” Sun mentioned a kind of “indeterminate floating” that results from the reader’s attempts to follow the author’s expansive imagination. Quoting again from comments made by Zhu Ziqing, Sun explained how reading “metaphors drawn from afar” can in fact increase the imaginative potential of the reader, providing the added bonus for having read a symbolist poem (ibid., 17). However, he continued, the same phenomenon can be carried too far, as when a poet