Fan Zengxiang and Yi Shunding:
The whole problematic set up by the question of “formalism” in the poetry of the late Qing is one that should, theoretically at least, come to a head in the evaluation of such poets as Fan Zengxiang (1846–1931) and Yi Shunding (1858–1920), representatives of a school generally but rather imprecisely known as the Zhong-wan Tang shi pai or “poets in the mid- and late-Tang tradition,” most commonly thought of as the embodiment of florid verse, widespread allusion and, more often than not, of degenerate, irrelevant, and insipid content.1 But through an examination of their views on poetry, their works, and the authentic reception they were accorded at the time, I shall focus on this “formalism” and inquire whether it did present a serious obstacle to dealing with the modern situation in literature in a meaningful way.
Chinese literary critics in the past have, almost invariably, treated Fan Zengxiang and Yi Shunding together because of their stylistic affinities and personal acquaintance, the standing they held in the literary world of their day, and their influence on contemporaries.2 In this sense, Chen Yan underscores the positive
1 Liu Yazi has an oft-quoted line of denunciation: “The licentious cries of Fan and Yi throw the notes of orthodox poetry out of cadence.” See his Lun shi liu jueju (Six quatrains on poetry) in Hu Pu’an, comp., Nanshe congxuan (Selected poems of the Southern Society) (Shanghai: Zhongguo wenhua fuwu she, 1936), 4:597. Strange to see the “revolutionary” Liu Yazi as a self-appointed watchdog of “orthodox” poetry. Wu Mi writes off Fan Zengxiang’s poems as “singing for the most part of wine, women, actors, and actresses” and continues, “I therefore find little worth adopting from them” although he later concedes that there is considerable value in Fan’s Caiyun qu as “a model for the infusion of new material into old forms.” See Wu Mi shiji (Collected poems of Wu Mi) (Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju, 1935), final juan, p. 75.
2 A number of their poems were “written in response” (he) to one another’s verse.