The Subtle Revolution: Poets of the "Old Schools" during Late Qing and Early Republican China

By Jon Eugene Von Kowallis | Go to book overview
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Introduction

The final decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the beginning of a cultural transformation in China, the scope and depth of which have been unprecedented in modern times. The last of the great non-Western powers to remain independent of and largely unaffected by the technology, culture, and ideologies of the West was, as the result of trading pressures and the military vulnerability of its coastal defenses, forcibly drawn into a Darwinian age of nationalistic competition for Lebensraum, sovereignty, and colonies for which it had little taste and even less advantage. As Fairbank has described it,

The Chinese culture that came under stress from modern changes
was the most distinctive, separate, and ancient, the most self-
sufficient, balanced, and massive, of any culture known to history.
China’s intermittent revolution, fitfully gathering steam during the
last hundred fifty years, is therefore by far the most deep-going
and large-scale social change ever required by history.1

The implications of such a situation for the study of literature ought to be self-evident, particularly because the traditional literary genres underwent profound changes during this era and were, to some extent, eventually uprooted or at least displaced by their more “modern” counterparts. And indeed there has been no shortage of studies in the past of how this uprooting and displacement came about. Deterministic scholars, Western and Chinese alike, have vied to explain the historical factors that brought about the “inevitable” rejection of classical (read “native”) forms and language and its substitution with “modern” texts based on the Western models and written in vernacular or spoken language. I am referring here and throughout this study primarily to what

1 John King Fairbank, China Watch (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 22–23.

-1-

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