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The Development of Modern Poetry during the Century and the Search for Self-Identity (Cheng-Chen Chien)


              Since the first modern poem by Hu Shi was published in 1917, poetry in Chinese literature gradually transited from the classical style to the modern poetry (or “new poetry”) that is written in vernacular Chinese. Echoing the literary revolution associated with the May Fourth Movement, Hu Shi and a few other writers and scholars believed that the modern vernacular style of poetry, which does not follow prescribed forms as in classical Chinese poetry, could better allow for diversity in theme or subject and also for the more profound expression of complex emotions.  Nevertheless, poems written during the beginning stage of modern poetry in China were more like a “practice” of the vernacular Chinese, in other words, they appear rather as propaganda or slogans in vernacular Chinese than as poetry. Moreover, in response to the demands of the political and social atmosphere in the 1920’s and 1930’s, new poetry usually carried a strong purpose in promoting certain ideologies or movement, and thus was led further away from an artistic existence. 

Like the new Taiwanese literature was influenced by the May Fourth Movement, the development of modern poetry in Taiwan was influenced by that modern poetry in China, and, moreover, it was also inevitably and indubitably affected by Japanese modern poetry due to the Japanese occupation and the education of scholars in Japan. Additionally, Taiwanese writers had to face the language dilemma between their mother language and language of the ruling power-- the first time occurred when the island was relinquished to Japan in 1895 and later again when the island was returned to the Republic of China in 1945. Many local writers and poets faced struggles in trying to cross the language barrier, and thus, most of the collections of poetry published in 1940’s and 1950’s were by poets moving to Taiwan from China.      

 The failing of the R.O.C. government in China led to the urge for a high control on media and literature during the period, thus the founding of the New Poetry Association by Chi Hsuan in 1953 under such situation was especially notable. It provided a platform for poems not intended to please the taste of the government, and thus promoted the importance of the artistic value of poetry and further distinguished new poetry from classical Chinese poetry.  

   One strand of the western impact on modern Taiwanese poetry worth mentioned in particular is that of surrealism. In the history of modern Taiwanese poetry, surrealism made its debut through the Fengche (“windmill” literally) Association of Poetry, founded by Taiwanese and Japanese poets in 1933. They insisted that literature should exist neither for the purpose of protest nor  as a tool to serve social reality. Instead, it was a reflection of the state where the minds and the senses intertwine, and as such, was absolutely not a written expression of reality. Surrealism later became a shelter for poets, protecting them from scrutiny by the government and allowing them to concentrate on artistic creation.

  In addition to a brief overview on the development of modern poetry in China before 1949 and that in Taiwan, this article also introduces the search for the self-identity of poetry from the following perspectives: (1) The shadow of classical poetry; (2) The differences between poetry and prose; (3) The relations between society and literature; (4) First-person and third-person narratives; (5) Sense vs. sensibility; (6) Creative and foremost use of language   

 Among all literature genres, modern poetry is the youngest face on the stage of literature and therefore it was strongly questioned by many from the outset. The search of its own identity in literature stumbled further due to the shackles inherited from classical poetry, the confusion with proses, and the conflict between sense and sensibility, etc. Instead of the rhyme or prescribed forms found in classical poetry, the key to modern poetry is the mental imagery. While visual rhythm is no doubt essential to modern poetry, conventional rhyme restricts the freedom of spirit and creativity required for the writing of poem. In addition to the struggle of how to break away from classical poetry, modern poetry also faced the challenge of how to distinguish itself from prose. The major element in differentiating poetry from prose lies in the intention or purpose in writing. Prose is more purposeful and thus provides more immediate fulfillment in terms of social expectation and observation, and, due to the social and political expectation of the time, the poetry written in the early development is more like prose in the disguise of poetry.

In addition to the aforesaid struggles with classical poetry and prose, there were further issues for modern poetry to answer before recognition and self-identity could be achieved, such as that of the conflict between sense and sensibility to be carried in words and sentences and between social responsibility and literature value, and also how to be creative and pioneering in use of language without losing sense.

Despite the numerous confrontations and challenges, modern Chinese poetry moved forward with every beat the history of the Republic of China, namely in the reforms inspired by the May Fourth Movement, the social reality of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the relocation to Taiwan, the surrealism imported from the west in the 1960’s, and the local literature movement in the 1970’s.  Finally in the 1980’s, modern Chinese poetry was no longer written with an eye to the regeneration of classical poetry nor was it a camouflage for prose. As sense and sensibility convinced each other in poetry and reality has been turned into touching philosophical thinking, modern poetry has triumphed with its creative and distinctive characteristics among literature genres and has found its own exclusive status in literature history.  


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