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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:

high-speed, widespread modernization of China’s society and culture collectively referred to as the May Fourth period, and the most extreme advocates of modernization, read Westernization, would indeed have described China as being a “sick” nation in need of immediate attention.9 For even the more moderate, and Li Jinfa would be among these, study of the West was a given, not only as the reason Li was in France to begin with but also as the basis for his authority as he took up a position as artist, writer, and arts educator with his former classmates in various cities in China in the 1920s. Li’s East-West name suggests then the fundamentally geographical dimensions of China’s modernity—a blending of once disparate cultures into a single body politic, perhaps not unlike a Chinese person with flowing blonde hair.

Li is in many ways more than a “mere poet” of early twentieth-century China; he is the embodiment of reform-oriented discourse, a discourse that is at once as visual as it is literary. The visible parts of the figure, as the earlier anecdote indicates, relate to the Chinese intellectuals’ interface with a visual-arts tradition (among others) alien to their own, a tradition embodied obviously in the artworks themselves but less obviously in the dress, the material experience of a foreign culture, and the wide array of textual references that were newly at their disposal.10 In this respect the radical nature of the changes taking place in the lives of young Chinese intellectuals in the early part of the twentieth century is not unlike what emerges again in the late twentieth century, and together these two points serve to frame Chinese modern poetics, a genre that was being built along with a vast array of other cultural not to mention social and political forms. I will return to the similarities which post-Mao poetry bears in relation to Li’s work in subsequent chapters. For the moment, in these two pictures of Li Jinfa appears the lyrical subject in his state of modernity, distantiated from previous experience by virtue of having embarked (literally) on a new path. These aesthetic statements, seen in both poetic and visual terms, resonate across the media, which is to say that the image of the poet is the image of the voice heard in lyrical performance of poetic modernity. In a way similar to the relief of color