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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:

characterization of the symbolist movement, if not all of vernacular poetry composed up to that time.19 Zhu credited Li’s contemporary Mu Mutian 穆木天 (1900–1971) with having explored new and remote regions of human emotions while at the same time observing strict rules of well-ordered prosody. Feng Naichao 馮乃超 (1901–1983), meanwhile, is said to have used “tinkling” prosody to compose poems of an “otherworldly” quality. Li Jinfa, in contrast, gets a more critical reception:

His poems certainly are not short on imagination. Still, I don’t know if Li’s desire to create a new language is too strong, or his knowledge of his mother tongue is not adequate, in any event, his syntax is too Europeanized, giving one the impression that they are reading a translation; add to this a sprinkling of classical words and phrases and one finds the reading experience more uncomfortable still.20

These are the definitive comments on Li Jinfa’s work and the point at which he became irrevocably linked with the symbolist movement. Most important in Zhu’s observations, though, is a single metaphor he used to describe the experience of reading Li’s poetry. Zhu likened Li’s work to so many red and green, multisized beads with no string. The reader, Zhu explained, must link the beads together on his own. Zhu added that this is the method of the French symbolists and credited Li Jinfa with having introduced it to China.

Zhu’s pronouncement in this anthology most firmly establishes Li’s association with symbolism in the Chinese literary historical record, but the implications of this metaphor are more than this. Zhu’s metaphor relates to the fundamental shift in reading practice that Li’s poetry occasions, a shift that is essential to understanding Li’s role in the development of modern poetry in China, and with it modernist poetry that would develop in the decade following publication of Li’s three collections (1925–1927). The basis of this development is a shift not so much in content or even form of the poem but in the reading experience itself, a new orientation toward textual experience of all kinds. Part