In Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes, Heather Inwood unravels a paradox surrounding modern Chinese poetry: while poetry as a representation of high culture is widely assumed to be marginalized to the point of death, poetry activity flourishes across the country. She finds that this ancient art form has benefited from China’s continued self-identity as a nation of poetry (shiguo) and from the interactive opportunities created by the Internet and other participatory media. In today’s guest post, Inwood provides a glimpse into some of the myriad ways the digital revolution has impacted the role of poetry in contemporary Chinese society.
There’s a famous Chinese saying that “the misery of the state leads to the emergence of great poets” (guojia buxing shijia xing)–or more literally, “when the state is unfortunate, poets are fortunate.” These words come from a poem by the Qing dynasty historian Zhao Yi (1727–1814), observing the phenomenon in which classic works of poetry often appear during times of calamity: war, famine, dynastic downfall, and so on.
Zhao Yi’s saying sprang to mind for many observers of Chinese poetry after the Sichuan Earthquake of May 2008. The loss of nearly 70,000 lives spurred an outpouring of poems that were widely circulated on the Internet, in newspapers, on television and radio, and recited at fundraising events. As a form of writing that “follows from emotion” (shi yuan qing), poetry is ideally placed in times of turmoil and tragedy. When things go wrong, you can trust that poets will find a way to put into words what many are thinking and feeling.
Turn the saying around (when the state is fortunate, poets are unfortunate) and we might have an explanation for why the very existence of poetry in twenty-first century China has been brought into doubt. China as a whole seems to be flourishing, growing in confidence on the global stage and on the way to becoming the world’s largest economy. Does that mean it is the poets’ turn to suffer, robbed of their source of inspiration and ignored by a public who craves instant entertainment over contemplative reading? Such questions echo concerns around the world about the fate of literature under neoliberal conditions, in which success is judged primarily by the ability to make money. If poets aren’t contributing to China’s economic rise, why bother writing at all?
This is, needless to say, a distorted way of thinking about what it means to write poetry. Yet similar suggestions have surfaced again and again in critiques of modern poetry that swirl across the Chinese media. One outspoken attack came from Han Han, a popular writer and race-car driver with a knack for stirring up public opinion through social media. Joining in the spoofing of some colloquial language poems that went viral on the Internet in late 2006, Han Han proffered the provocative lines,
“My opinion has long been that there is no need for modern poetry or poets to exist, as they are of zero value. These days paper is pretty expensive, so why not write some decent prose and fill the whole page?”
In Verse Going Viral, Han’s words lead me into an exploration of the public status of poetry and internal workings of poetry scenes in contemporary China. It is a widely accepted fact that China is a “nation of poetry,” but often the same person extolling the importance of poetry will be oblivious to the fact that anybody writes it anymore. Happily, even the briefest search online, look in a bookstore, or venture into China’s burgeoning poetry event culture reveals that poetry is, in fact, in rude health. Despite its widely assumed marginality, poetry is everywhere—in the course of my research I attended events in schools, parks, cafés, bars, real estate offices, peach orchards, and concert halls, among other locations—and many people still care about it very, very much.
You might even go so far as to say that rather than caring too little, the public cares about poetry a little too much. The development of modern Chinese poetry has been driven by the need to open the gates of poetry by abandoning the literary language and stylistic conventions of classical poetry for a more free-form, vernacular style of writing. By doing so, early twentieth-century poets hoped that they might use their poetry to participate in the rejuvenation of China, much needed after a series of national humiliations that marked the last few decades of dynastic rule.
Yet the move toward accessibility hasn’t always pleased the public. Making written poetry sound like everyday speech was supposed to facilitate communication between poets and their audiences. Instead, it appears to have prompted a large swathe of China’s online population to adopt a gatekeeping mentality of their own, complaining that poems that are too easily understood don’t deserve the title of “poetry.” In doing so, they inadvertently address the question I began with. Does poetry still matter? If the question is being asked in the first place, I would venture that we already know the answer.
Heather Inwood is lecturer of Chinese cultural studies at the University of Manchester. Her book, Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes is now available from the University of Washington Press.