No figure of twentieth-century literature has had a more overt relation to China than Ezra Pound. From the early moments of his career in London to his final days in Italy, Pound made China part of his general project to rethink the nature of the West, to discover in poetry the best that humans had ever said or thought, painted or sung, and renew it. As a young man, he translated Chinese poetry into English, and through that poetry developed an aesthetic theory rooted in an ontology of Chinese writing. Later on, he intertwined Chinese characters and philosophy with his cantos, published translations of Confucian texts, and partially explained his interest by insisting that the texts belonged as much to him as to the Chinese. Such ideas stayed with him till the end of his life: a video segment made in the 1960s (Ezra Pound) shows him carefully explaining to the camera the pictorial relation between the Chinese characters for sun, tree, and east, a relation that he first brought to notice in a short book he edi ted and published in 1918, more than 40 years earlier (Fenollosa).
[CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ACSII]
Cataloging Pound's relation to China has been the work of literary critics, who over the years have produced a vast discourse on the subject of Pound and China. Following Pound's literary canonization in the 1950s, scrupulous attention has been paid to his readings of Chinese history, to the sources of his Confucianism, and especially to his translations of Chinese poetry. These have been subjects of innumerable chapters and critical essays, dissertations, and books. They range from meticulously researched discussions of Pound's original source material--John Nolde's Blossoms of the East, for instance, compares every single line of Pound's 1940 Chinese history cantos with Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla's 13-volume Histoire generale de la Chine--to more contemporary work on the role of the East in the construction of Western modernism. Between the practical and the theoretical we find a number of takes on Pound's techniques of translation, ranging from the critical (Dembo) to the comparatively neutral (Yip), all struggling to decide how far Pound saw into China or, in some cases, how far it saw into him.
The critical discourse on Pound and China thus has a life and history of its own, one symbiotic with but ultimately separate from the person Ezra Pound and his interest in China. It begins in reactions to Pound's earliest translations of Chinese poetry and extends well past Pound's death and into recent literary and cultural criticism. It includes the major texts of Pound criticism when they discuss China, the many essays and books that focus exclusively on Pound's Chinese material, and texts that situate the subject of Pound and China within larger frameworks of literary theory.
As "Pound and China" grows and changes, modifies its premises and reorganizes its conclusions, it reshapes the commonly understood relation between Ezra Pound and China. The latticework that has been built around the original relation between Pound and China can be read not only as a history of that particular relation but also as a history of a particular Western literary understanding of China and the Chinese language. And as a side effect--or perhaps its most important symptom--"Pound and China" also produces various understandings of the West's relation to China in general, understandings influenced by judgments both literary and moral. I am interested, therefore, not only in the ways in which Pound speaks to us about China today but also in the way Pound's perceptions have been either repeated or refused by critics working with a substantially different apprehension of the West's relation to China, their critical visions often dreaming through Pound's literary ones.
FRAME: ORIENTALISM AND MODERNISM
In 1995 Zhaoming Qian published Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams, a book in which he claims that China's substantial influence on both the principles and the principals of Anglo-American modernism has been sorely overlooked. A year later, Robert Kern published Orientalism, Modernism, and the American Poem, a book that attempts to discover why China worked as an important catalyst for some American poets--among them Pound.
The linking of orientalism and modernism in both titles signals the (belated) arrival in "Pound and China" of the vital gesture toward Edward Said's landmark 1979 book Orientalism. Orientalism is a damning critique of the West's literary and political production of the Orient, which Said says helped justify and extend the West's colonization of the East. It is also one of the major attacks on Western literature's claim to autonomy from politics. Said insists that the literary academy's separation of politics from literature has concealed its cultural and political contribution to imperialism and goes on to suggest that the West cannot seriously study its own literature unless it considers that literature's relation to its political and social context.
Such claims, which offer a powerful explanatory narrative of the history of Western literature, have been less often applied to twentieth-century literature (and to modernism) than they have to the writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Orientalism's appearance in the titles of two books about Pound and China may not point to a general trend in scholarship, but it offers the opportunity to consider the value of the paired terms modernism and orientalism as a frame for thinking about Pound and China, the modernist and the Oriental.
Inconveniently, Pound, who said much about genre and style, said very little about his relation to China, and therefore makes a poor theoretical foil for Said (even though he makes a good subject of investigation). Both Kern and Qian therefore choose another figure as the avatar of a modernist conception of literature's relation to the Orient: T. S. Eliot. This choice depends largely on one sentence, which appears in Eliot's 1928 introduction to Pound's Selected Poems: "Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time." This entrancing declaration has exerted such an influence on Pound scholarship that it is nearly impossible to find work in the field that does not cite it. And yet, as Kern points out, Eliot's remark, "often quoted as unqualified praise,... actually seems intended to indicate the limits of what Pound had accomplished" (3). Eliot had written:
As for Cathay, it must be pointed out that Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time. I suspect that every age has had, and will have, the same illusion concerning translations, an illusion which is not altogether an illusion either. When a foreign poet is successfully done into the idiom of our own language and our own time, we believe that he has been "translated"; we believe that through this translation we really at last get the original.... His [Pound's] translations seem to be--and that is the test of excellence--translucencies: we think we are closer to the Chinese than when we read, for instance, Legge. I doubt this: I predict that in three hundred years Pound's Cathay will be a "Windsor Translation" as Chapman and North are now "Tudor Translations": it will be called (and justly) a "magnificent specimen of XXth Century poetry" rather than a "translation." Each generation must translate for itself.
This is as much as to say that Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound. It is not to say that there is a Chinese-poetry-in-itself, waiting for some ideal translator who shall be only translator. (14-15)
Eliot says at both the beginning and end of this quotation that Pound effectively "invented" Chinese poetry for his readers. In writing that the poems seem like "translucencies" and imagining Cathay a "magnificent specimen of XXth Century poetry," Eliot makes clear the degree to which the sheer force of Pound's language makes its China believable. Eliot is thus in the difficult position of making two points at once: first, that Cathay is not Chinese poetry, and second, that it is great poetry. The effect of the second of these points is to make the first difficult to hear.
In claiming that Pound has invented Chinese poetry, Eliot carefully lays out the difference between what Pound has written and actual Chinese poetry. He emphasizes that Pound's representation of China will seem translucent for only a few hundred years and insists that "each generation must translate for itself." The illusion of Chinese reality will fade with time. He also insists, however, that no one will ever perfectly translate Chinese poetry: he does not want the reader to imagine he is criticizing Pound for not achieving perfection where someone else might do so. Accordingly, in the last …