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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:

Li’s association with literary symbolism was established before Light Rain 微雨 (weiyu), his first collection, which was published in 1925.15 The connection came about as a result of the work of Zhou Zuoren 周作人, who himself had already been established as the leader who introduced French symbolism to a Chinese context, beginning with his own poem “Rivulet” (小河 xiaohe), a sixty-line prose poem published in 1919. The introduction to that poem begins, “Many ask me what form of poem this is, and the truth is I can’t really say myself. The prose poem that French poet Baudelaire has called for is roughly what this is.”16 In the following years, Zhou continued promoting symbolism in China, a fact not missed by Li Jinfa, who by this time was writing poetry while pursuing his art studies in Paris. As one of the earliest conscientious experimenters with symbolist style, Zhou was in a good position to recognize a literary practice that he believed could be associated with his chosen mode of literary production, and when Li sent the manuscript of his two poetry collections to Zhou in 1923, Zhou’s response was favorable.17 Describing Li’s work as “something which China had never seen before,” Zhou agreed to publish Li’s work in his New Wave Society 新潮社 (xinchaoshe) series, with Light Rain 微雨 appearing as the first of the series (Beixin shuju, 1925).

Li Jinfa’s reputation was further developed by the critic Su Xuelin 蘇雪林 (1897–1999), who in a 1933 article published in the journal Xiandai 現代 provided a thorough account of Li’s poetic style.18 In this article Su placed opacity as Li’s first characteristic, stating bluntly that “of Li’s poems there is not a single one that we can expect to fully understand” (Su 1932 n.p.). She went on to explain that, just as a musician’s ears are more developed than those of normal people and a painter’s eye privy to more colors, Li can see and hear what others cannot. Su, possibly drawing on the anecdote surrounding the origin of Li’s pen name related earlier, then likened Li to a sick person in the midst of hallucination (ibid., 349). Su’s opinions about Li were picked up shortly thereafter by Zhu Ziqing 朱自清 (1898–1948), whose introduction to the poetry section of the 1935 collection of modern Chinese literature provided the most influential