Reflecting China’s rapidly changing political, social and cultural topography at the end of the twentieth century, poetry too has experienced a dazzling and fast-paced transformation in both thematic concern and aesthetic orientation. The function of poetry in cultural life and the role of the poet in society have become increasingly problematic and polemical, an indication of the continuing internal crisis—since the 1910s—of vernacular poetry as a viable literary genre. On the other hand, through endless self-generated controversy and debate, poetry manages to hold on to, at least partially, its avant-garde status in literature and its former glory as a harbinger for cultural change. What is at stake is no less than the possibility of poetry in a commerce-dominated society, not to mention its relevance in China’s agenda of modernization.
The resurgence of socialist realism poetry at the end of 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s led the way for the resurrection of poetry in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, during which poetry had been reduced to mere slogan-ism and a mechanical hymn to the Communist Party and Chairman Mao. The poetry of realism was written by a group of ‘returning poets’, established poets who had been silenced in numerous political campaigns since 1949. They returned to poetry with a vengeance to write about their personal suffering and to expose rampant corruption and injustice. Their poetry of ‘truth’ resonated with the public and reclaimed a lost audience. But the complicity of socialist realism with the Maoist ideology forestalled the potential of the ‘returning poets’ so that they were unable to completely break with the power that created them. It was the Misty poetry (Menglongshi) that provided a real alternative to the official poetry of propaganda.
Led by Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Shu Ting or the so-called Today (Jintian) group (see literary periodicals), Misty poets burst onto the scene almost at the same time as the ‘returning poets’, but they quickly replaced the latter as the dominant voices of discontent and nonconformity. Bei Dao’s well-known statement ‘I—do—not—believe!’ strikes at the heart of the discredited Maoist ideology and summarized the sentiments of a generation. The uniform concern of Misty poetry was the restoration of personal space and the freedom to live a life of dignity and fulfilment without political consequences. More far-reaching was Misty poetry’s creation of a poetic language with novel metaphors, unusual image combinations, and elliptical syntax that stood in sharp contrast to poetry of realism. Through the example of working against its immediate predecessor, Misty poetry led contemporary poetry into an exhilarating journey of stylistic innovations.
By the mid 1980s, Misty poetry was pronounced ‘dead’ as a genre by younger poets. This was not so much a denial of the legacy of Misty poetry as the declaration of an open season for poetic experimentalism. In 1986, two newspapers listed almost a hundred self-described schools of poetry featuring several hundred new poets and created an exciting national cultural event. Although many of the schools were without substance, their existence (however brief) helped to create an atmosphere of uninhibited experimentation in style and language that is still the spirit of poetry today.
In the 1990s, an all-consuming debate between ‘intellectual poetry’ (zhishifenzishi) and ‘street poetry’ (minjianshi) continued to energize poetry (see minjian). The former, which includes the ‘cultural epics’ (wenhua shishi) by Yang Lian, Jiang He and Haizi, all of whom produced major works in the 1980s, and the metaphysical poetry by Duoduo, Wang Jiaxin and Xi Chuan, maintain a close relationship with Misty poetry in its sense of social mission and humanistic thrust. The latter, which includes the poetry of Han Dong, Yu Jian, Li Yawei and Yi Sha (see Tamen), underplays the importance of personal voice and resorts to narrative or dramatization to produce parody and humour. In the early 2000s, more extreme positions of anti-hero, anti-allegory and anti-image have become common among the ‘New Generation’ (Xinshengdai) poets. In contrast, some women poets, including Zhai Yongming, Yi Lei and Tang Yaping, have moderated their position on ‘personalization’ (gerenhua) and ‘impersonalization’ (daiyan), making the body both a physical sign and an allegorical text. As China’s market economy takes root and power relations continue to shift from the centre to the periphery, contemporary poetry will thrive in a state of ‘beautiful disorder’ and sustain its momentum with its culture of experimentation.
Li, Xinyu (2000). Zhongguo daidai shige yishu yanbian shi. Hangzhou: Zhejiang daxue chubanshe.
McDougall, Bonnie and Kam, Louie (1997). ‘Poetry: The Challenge of Modernity’. In idem, The Literature of China in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 421–40.
van Crevel, Maghiel (1998). Language Shattered: Contemporary Chinese Poetry and Duo Duo. Leiden: Research School CNWS.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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