A review of The Inferno Tango: Gender Politics and Modern Chinese Poetry, 1917-1980, by Liansu Meng.
The Inferno Tango analyzes the gender politics of modern Chinese intellectuals through examining modern Chinese poetry from the 1910s to the 1980s. The author focuses on selected poets and closely examines their figurations of gender that refract the construction of modern subjectivity in phases of China’s modernization. To this end, the author combines close readings of poetry with detailed analyses of the larger historical contexts, which include the poets’ biographical narratives and archival and first-hand materials that are excavated by other scholars and the author. Meng’s research focuses mainly on Guo Moruo, Wen Yiduo, and Chen Jingrong among the earlier generations, and more recent poets such as Bei Dao, Mang Ke, and Shu Ting who emerged from the literary activism of Today! in the late 1970s. The title’s central phrase, “the inferno tango,” is taken from female Chinese poet Chen Jingrong’s 1946 poem “Diyu de tangewu” (“The Inferno Tango”), vividly capturing the discursive tension between love and violence. Through sensitive and close readings, Meng fruitfully delineates manifold factors that have contributed to the Chinese poets’ construction of their gendered subjectivities in times of profound national crisis. Meng argues that the masculinity of the poetic canon in modern China was “naturalized and perpetuated by the discourses of love, marriage, nationalism, revolution and industrial progress as well as by the indigenous literati tradition” (p. ix).
The dissertation has an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction explains the importance and value of examining gender through the lens of poetry. For the author, poetry is central because of “the age-long intimate relationship between politics, poetry, and male literati-officials in Chinese history” (p. 4) as well as poetry’s subsequent symptomatic loss of status since the turn of the twentieth century. The deep-rooted ties, so to speak, makes poetry “the best means to gain close insights into the formation and transformation of modern Chinese male intellectuals” and the relationship with female poets who “entered this traditionally male dominated field” (p. 8).
The author’s pursuit lies in the same vein of scholarship as that of Lydia Liu (Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity, 1900-1937, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), Wendy Larson, (Women and Writing in Modern China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), Wang Zheng (Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), and Haiyan Lee (Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
The first two chapters focus on two important yet quite different male poets in the May Fourth period, Guo Moruo and Wen Yiduo, respectively. Chapter one demonstrates how Guo constructed a hyper-masculine poetics through his identification with industrial progress and his aggressive appropriation of new concepts from Western science, technology, literature and philosophy. This new construction was a poetic solution to a sense of emasculation resulting from his failed new-style marriage with a Japanese woman Satō Tomiko. The second chapter demonstrates how the industrial environment and feminist atmosphere in Chicago compelled Wen Yiduo to reflect critically on May Fourth mainstream discourses The author demonstrates that, unlike Guo Moruo, Wen’s vulnerable existence in the context of Chicago enabled him to embrace his emasculated condition and embark on a radical departure from the popular enthusiasm over industrial progress as well as stereotypical paean on romantic love that was prevalent among Chinese May Fourth intellectuals.
Meng’s third chapter traces the poetic journey of Chen Jingrong, one of the few celebrated female Chinese poets from the early 1930s to the late 1950s. Unlike many May Fourth Chinese intellectuals such as Guo Moruo and Wen Yiduo who later embraced the Marxist discourse of nation and revolution, Chen never let go of early May Fourth ideals such as individual autonomy. Chen’s painful struggle enabled her to gain acute insights into “the discrepancy between modern Chinese male intellectuals’ discursive promotion of gender equality and their actual practice of traditional patriarchal values in reality” (p. 130) which resulted in a remarkable poetics of irony.
In the last chapter, Meng examines the new poetic paradigm that was conceived by avant-garde poets from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Comparing gender politics between the male and female members of the group, Meng argues that the creation of a new symbolic system in avant-garde poetry was not simply part of the pro-democracy movement. Rather, it bore closer ties with earlier generations of modern Chinese literary intellectuals. The marginalization of women poets in this group continued the male-centered tradition. Though literary activists brought gender difference back into public discourse through their art, they did not destabilize the value system of a male-centered culture in which men were always seen as superior to women. By upsetting CCP’s gender-equality policy that takes men as the norm but suppresses sexuality, they created an alternative form of male superiority that is based on the traditional distrust of women’s capacity. In the eyes of the author, this is “a huge step back from both CCP’s gender equality policy and the May Fourth generation’s gender equality ideals” (224).
In her conclusion, the author extends her exploration of the century-long trajectory of the male-dominated modern Chinese poetic canon further into three decades of the contemporary Post-Mao era. According to the author, contemporary Chinese poets face a different set of challenges, such as the increased intervention of commercialism and its effect of reinforcing gender inequality. The author forcefully contends that a gendered perspective is indispensable in order to gain a deeper understanding of poetry in the new era.
Department of Chinese
Sun Yat-sen University
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University of Michigan. 2010. 255 pp. Advisor: Lydia H. Liu.
Image: Photo of Chen Jingrong, Wikimedia Commons.