Conventional approaches to Chinese literature have presented the late nineteenth century as an era in which the traditional literary forms, particularly classical-style poetry, ground to a halt, having petered out like the political fortunes of the “moribund” Qing dynasty. Only the infusion of new images from abroad and ultimately the language and ideas of the West, it has been held, served to propel Chinese poetry in the direction of the “modern.” In this study I have attempted to question the objectivity of that view, arguing that poetry in the classical language could and did serve its writers and their intended readership as a vehicle to articulate a complex and sophisticated understanding of as well as reaction to the entry of modernity.
Focusing on representative figures from three different schools of poetry prominent in the years roughly between 1871 and 1914 (some arguably influential for much longer), I have seen Wang Kaiyun (1833–1916), Fan Zengxiang (1846–1931), Yi Shunding (1858–1920), Chen Yan (1856–1937), Chen Sanli (1852–1937) and Zheng Xiaoxu (1860–1938) as poets with an active relationship to their readers who addressed vital issues central to the maintenance and survival of a threatened culture in time-honored literary forms. Originally aimed at an elite audience, such verse is to be judged not according to twentieth-century standards of readability or imported notions of how poetic expression operates, but rather by the standards of Chinese critical reception at the time. When re-set in their proper historical and literary context, these poets emerge as the voice of a generation which straddled the chasm between the traditional Chinese world-order and the Darwinian state of affairs which came upon the Third World by the mid-to-late nineteenth century.
For the most part neither political sloganeers nor aloof, disinterested aesthetes, these literary figures produced a body of poetry which articulated both the individual and the cultural dilemma