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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:

The “Missing String”:
Reading Modernity, Reading Li Jinfa

Li’s vivid position in China’s modern cultural history is a function of his self-depiction in imagery such as the earlier portrait and as a matter of his literary record, the framing of which evolves courtesy of a dynamic and rapidly changing literary critical establishment in the China of the 1920s and 1930s. Such a record, and the somewhat peculiar profile of Li’s poetry, derives in large part from Li’s remarkable imagery, which almost immediately (1928) earned him the title “poetic strange” and subsequently “father of Chinese symbolism” by his contemporaries.13 Given the importance of the “symbolist” affiliation to understanding Li’s work, it is worth investigating in some detail how this came about. What follows, then, is a sort of case study in building a literary-historical persona in the modern Chinese poetic context, a procedure that is not particular to Li Jinfa but instead common to the poets writing in Li’s generation, which is to say the first generation of self-consciously modern Chinese poets.

To begin with, symbolism itself is a literary style that developed in nineteenth-century France. Thus, as one instance of the broader nomenclature of “isms” (realism and modernism principal among them), symbolism must be understood within the overall teleological tenor of the May Fourth era, in which the modernization of a wide range of Chinese technologies—be they military, urban infrastructure, or even political/bureaucratic—served as a model for the progression of aesthetic style in the cultural context. The urgency of the modernization project stemmed from widespread assumption that China’s self-strengthening depended on a radical change to its modus operandi, meaning that conversations about aesthetic style were often rhetorically infused with social importance that would seem out of place in a conversation about poetics.14 In this context, “symbolism” emerged as more than a new trend; it was “the answer,” albeit briefly, to the restlessly evolving question of form in modern poetry itself.