Feature Section

 

Poetry for the People?

Modern Chinese Poetry in the Age of the Internet

By Heather Inwood


How has the Internet transformed Chinese poetry today? How has the democratization of publishing poetry online challenged the traditional gatekeepers, and how has this affected the quality of modern poetry? Heather Inwood explores these questions and reveals how such tectonic shifts have reinforced the status of poetry as a social form of culture, one that possesses great symbolic importance for China no matter who is doing the writing or critiquing.


 

World Map in Green

What has the growth of the Internet in mainland China meant for the genre of modern Chinese poetry as well as for the people who write and read poems? Most would agree that the Internet has made it much easier for anyone with a means of getting online to share their writings with a potentially global audience, regardless of whether they have previously published in print or whether anyone else thinks their writing is of decent quality. Has this resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of poetic talent, a poetry renaissance for the digital age, or a wholesale lowering of literary standards, allowing wave upon wave of literary spam (shui 水) to float unencumbered to the surface? What are the implications of a technologically enabled democratization of poetry writing, in which decisions as to which texts are made public and who can call themselves a “poet” are no longer made by editors, critics, and literary judges but solely by the individual who feels moved to write poems and post them online?

In one of the earliest studies of Internet literature in China, published in 2004, Michel Hockx noted that Chinese-language literature websites bore striking similarities to print literary journals of the nation’s Republican era, stretching from 1911 to 1949. In particular, the two venues shared an understanding of literature as a social as well as cultural institution and demonstrated a degree of playfulness that did not detract from their desire to promote serious rather than popular or formulaic writings.[1] This social understanding of literature ensured that symbolic production, or the evaluation of literature, was a central part of the operations of print and online literary communities. In both instances, Hockx found that acts of evaluation were usually carried out not by specialist literary critics but by the authors themselves, who, in the case of poetry, often constitute the majority of its readership. A decade later, it became common knowledge that the people most heavily invested in discussing and critiquing culture online, whether it be videos of cats finding creative ways to squeeze into boxes, blockbuster films, or even, on occasion, avant-garde poetry, are the online masses, so-called ordinary Internet users—or, in China, “netizens” (wangmin 网民)—who do not feel they need to possess academic credentials or professional qualifications in order to pass comment, despite this privilege having been reserved for scholars for most of China’s history. For better or for worse, we are living in an age of widespread, unfiltered digital participation in the production and evaluation of culture. What effects might this expansion be having on the standards of Chinese poetry, typically seen as one of the most symbolically important forms of culture in China?

Modern Chinese Poetry and the Public

In the new millennium, Chinese poets’ views of their art and place in the world are most easily ascertained by going online. Discussions that once took place in unofficially published poetry journals (shige minkan 诗歌民刊), which were difficult for the average citizen to obtain, and at exclusive face-to-face meetings and poetry events (shige huodong 诗歌活动) now occur in full view of anyone who knows where to look on forums, blogs, microblogs or Weibo, and, most recently—and somewhat more privately—the social networking platform Weixin 微信 (also known in English as WeChat).

In addition to hosting huge reams of poetry and its surrounding metatext,[2] the Internet also offers opportunities for the public to voice its impressions of the poems it encounters online and for the media at large to express their views on modern poetry in the contemporary era. Such commentary can take the form of news headlines that report on recent poetry-related developments. Here are some revealing examples of 2014 online news headlines:


A Critique of [the lyrics to Taiwanese pop star Zhou Jielun’s song] “Snail” Being Selected for Inclusion in Textbooks: The Decline of Poetic Culture


Commentary: Has “Poetry-Reading Fever” Returned to the Lives of the Masses?


The Final of the Second Beijing Poetry Recitation Competition Is Held, Nearly 500 People Take Part


Sichuan University Professor Wins the Lu Xun Prize for Poetry, Prize Is Said to Bring Profit But No Honor


Yu Jian: Poetry Never Was a Rice Bowl That Supports a Living, It Gives People Dignity (With Pictures)

 

As these various headlines suggest, there is conflicting information in the public domain about the status and value of poetry in China today, ranging from hopeful talk of a “poetry-reading fever” and well-attended recitation competitions to dismissive assumptions regarding what the endorsement of Taiwanese pop lyrics by China’s national high-school examination system might say about China’s poetic culture. One way or another, it appears that poetry is more capable of grabbing the headlines in China than in many other countries. In order to understand the complex relationship between Chinese poetry and what one might cynically term China’s “non-poetry-reading public” in the age of the Internet, it is essential to look beyond the texts of poems themselves to consider how a range of factors shape the writing and reception of modern Chinese poetry. These include media-based phenomena such as the proliferation of the Internet and its associated social media networks, along with wider factors such as educational policies, political discourses, and economic developments.

Of special significance in the new millennium is the promotion of poetry-related activity by profit-driven businesses. Although it is often assumed that the growth of the consumer economy and the accompanying commercialization of culture have exacerbated the marginalization of cultural forms that are less easily sold for a profit, it is inaccurate to say that such artistic endeavors are unable to bring in any money at all. Indeed, many businesses have sought to sponsor cultural activities in exchange for the allure that the noncommercial status of these activities can bring.[3] As a result, there has been an upsurge since the late 1990s in the number of poetry events held in mainland China, many of which would not have been possible without the financial largesse of businesses and entrepreneurs operating under the government’s support of the cultural economy (wenhua jingji 文化经济) and the practice of “using culture to promote business” (yiwen cuxiao 以文促销). Thus, the continued visibility of modern Chinese poetry is dependent not only on the growth of the Internet and digital media technologies but on economic policies too, which help ensure that poetry events are never too far away from the public eye.

Modern Chinese Poetry as a “Social Form”

Modern Chinese contains a variety of value-laden terms that feature the character for “poem” (shi 诗), for example shixing 诗性 (“poetic quality”), shiyi 诗意 (“poetic flavor”), and shixing 诗兴 (“poetic inspiration”). Shiren 诗人 (“poet”) can be used as a term of admiration for anyone who creates beauty with language, regardless of whether or not the person claims to have written poems. As in English, poetry can even be located in places where there are sometimes no words at all: in paintings, music, architecture, and even justice. Joseph Harrington explains this symbolic function by describing poetry as a “social form,” indicating that the genre has always contained meanings that cannot be limited to the written or spoken text. The social aspects of poetry include not just its evolving historical definitions and aesthetics but also its reception and interpretations, physical modes of publication, and the roles it plays within personal relationships and communities. As Harrington succinctly puts it, “‘poetry’ is not reducible to ‘poems.’” Rather than being an ontological category or a “thing” whose existence and status can be firmly grasped, “poetry” is a descriptive term that is used in quite different ways, at different times, by different people.[4]

Nowhere is this more true than in contemporary China, where the very categories of “new poetry” (xin shi 新诗) and “modern Chinese poetry” (xiandai shi 现代诗) are built on an assumption of departure from the classical poetry tradition. Having been granted the responsibility not only to revolutionize old ways of writing but also to participate in the larger project of nation-building in twentieth-century China, modern poetry has gone on to play a variety of roles in the last hundred years. From the New Culture Movement to the War of Resistance against Japan and through the “Multimillion Poem Movement” of the Great Leap Forward to the liberalization of culture after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the Quake Poetry of 2008, poetry has variously been called upon to enlighten, educate, indoctrinate, mobilize, inspire, liberate, provoke, and soothe.[5] In early twenty-first-century China, almost every poetry group or individual poet possesses a distinct understanding of what a poem is and can be, ranging from a vehicle for avant-garde experimentation to a source of collective emotional solace, and everything in between.

If we accept that modern Chinese poetry exists as a social form, one that changes shape and definition according to who is doing the writing, reading, or critiquing, then it is essential for us to have some appreciation of the ways in which people are socialized around poetry—through, for example, education and exposure to the media—and of the processes that lead to the emergence and recognition of shared literary standards. Nowadays, the acts of valorization that decide the quality of poetic writings are no longer limited to the pages of literary journals or poetry-focused websites and blogs as they were just a decade ago. In today’s age of social media and mass participation in the production and critique of culture, the tensions that surround poetry have become, at times, explosive in their power, frequently emerging between the desire of modern poets to maintain their own standards for and definitions of poetry and the more conservative expectations of members of China’s non-poetry-reading public, acquired as part of their school- and mass media–based educations. These tensions are not the exclusive purview of China’s poetry scenes, but can be found in many areas of culture, society, and politics in the nation today. As increasing numbers of people gain access to public discourse via the Internet and other kinds of participatory media, new forms of conflict and contradiction have become visible within contemporary Chinese society and culture.

Minding the Literary Gates

With the opening up of public discussions about poetry in the age of the Internet comes a contrasting need to maintain some level of professionalism and exclusivity for the poetry world. Digital media have not merely led to greater participation in the production of literature and increased opportunities for the public to decide on what is good poetry and what is not. These new media have also enabled new means of literary gatekeeping, whereby poets and the general public alike adopt participatory strategies for deciding what a “poem” is. While the Internet is often thought to have lowered the threshold for entry into cultural scenes, the threshold has not ceased to exist altogether. In Internet-based literary production, only a miniscule proportion of what is written ends up capturing the attention of others. In the vast sea of poetic texts and noise that exists online, some form of filtering is necessary for deciding on and drawing attention to what is worth reading. Different models and media dynamics for assessing literary value coexist, together determining who and what rises to the surface. While these dynamics are far from being clear-cut, tensions between them have helped make modern Chinese literature, and poetry in particular, a fascinating area to observe during the early years of the new millennium.

Much has been written on the usefulness of gatekeeping as a concept for understanding practices in the media. Gatekeeping has been defined as “the process of culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited number of messages that reach people every day.” As the heart of the work performed by today’s media, gatekeeping determines what becomes “a person’s social reality, a particular view of the world.”[6] In China, existing discussions of media gatekeeping focus overwhelmingly on questions related to free speech and government censorship. It is important to note that although state-led surveillance and control of the media are inevitable in China (as they are in many countries around the world), these government-led measures are far from being the most important motivation for the gatekeeping of online literature. Just as gatekeepers of the media select and shape the messages that reach the public, gatekeepers of modern Chinese literature decide the social reality and public face of literature as it is seen by the world. Gatekeepers of literature are those with an inordinate amount of power over the publication and evaluation of literary texts, and include publishers, editors, critics, translators, academic researchers, and poets themselves. For readers of Chinese literature who are not part of the country’s lively literary scenes, it is especially easy to take the choices and standards of China’s literary gatekeepers for granted, and to assume that the writers they include in prominent literary anthologies or award with high-profile literary prizes represent, by virtue of their selection, the very best of China’s literary scenes. I would argue, thus, that any questions of quality and representativeness should be accompanied by efforts to think critically about the mechanisms used to determine literary standards and put certain writings on public display.

Gatekeeping Dynamics and Poetry Discourses

A variety of gatekeeping dynamics can be observed in action on the Chinese Internet, each of which is connected to separate stages in the history of media development and promotes slightly different social and literary values. I have identified three dynamics that are currently helping to shape the public face of modern poetry in China. To talk of gatekeeping dynamics is not the same as to analyze particular literary standards or tastes, which are attributable to any number of factors and which range from intensely individual appreciations of poetic beauty to collective assumptions of what a poem should look like that are shared by the majority of the population. My attempt to identify and explain these gatekeeping dynamics is an acknowledgement that people’s literary inclinations, or what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu might term their “habitus,” are as much a product of the broader media ecology and its surrounding political and economic environment as they are of aesthetic or literature-specific factors.[7]

The first gatekeeping dynamic is most closely associated with older print-based dynamics of literary production and emphasizes the authority of a limited number of experts who control the production and distribution of literature. This dynamic is embodied in the Chinese discourse of the “arena” (tan 坛), a word that appears in combination with “literature” (wen 文) in the term “literary arena” (wentan 文坛) and with “poetry” in “poetry arena” (shitan 诗坛, more commonly translated as “poetry scene”). Arenas are generally perceived to be top-down and hierarchical in structure, and operate as a kind of gated community. While many writers wish to be recognized by the poetry arena, acceptance is ultimately decided by the tastes and activities of those who already occupy it.

The second dynamic is associated with events that involve face-to-face gatherings of multiple participants, such as poetry recitation events, salons, or festivals. It is based on a belief in the importance of authenticity over authority and expertise, although authenticity can itself be viewed as a marker of authority. In this dynamic, cultural authenticity derives first and foremost from participation in specific spaces or sites of cultural production, whether physical—a café, theater, or bookshop, for example—or virtual, such as an online forum or Weixin discussion. Through these sites, individuals partake in the collective process of meaning-making and enjoy a sense of communal belonging that is essential to the functioning of any cultural scene. This dynamic is encapsulated in the Chinese discourse of xianchang 现场, or “live scenes,” a term that refers to the here-and-now of cultural happenings. In Chinese, “live scene” is also an adjective used to describe live events, as in live broadcasting (xianchang zhibo 现场直播) or live performance (xianchang biaoyan 现场表演). “Live scenes of poetry” (shige xianchang 诗歌现场) has been a popular phrase in poetry discourse since the 1990s and poses a challenge to the relatively hierarchical, elitist connotations of the poetry arena and its top-down approach to literary gatekeeping.

The third dynamic is most closely associated with the patterns of crowd-based circulation and mass participation in cultural production and critique that have emerged in the past decade with the advent of Web 2.0, the second phase of the Internet’s development that encourages user participation in the creation of online content and which is epitomized in social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Weibo. This dynamic tends to attach greater value to catching people’s attention than to demonstrating either authority or authenticity, although the latter two can be important too. Within this attention-oriented economy, by far the most important goal is to attract clicks and eyeballs, as these are what lead to visits, fame, and money for the websites through which the traffic flows. A dominant attitude among those who contribute to the mass circulation of online culture in China is skepticism, especially toward any claims of expertise, authority, or authenticity. It is an attitude vividly encapsulated in the discourse of spoofs (egao 恶搞), which often go “viral” in their spread across the Internet and feed off the desire of Chinese netizens for irreverent humor and entertainment.

The three case studies of poetry activity on the Internet described below roughly correspond to these three dynamics of online literary gatekeeping, although there are overlaps between them. The first is the poet Yi Sha’s 伊沙 poetry column known as the “New Century Poetry Classics” or simply “New Poetry Classics” (xin shige shidian 新世纪诗典 or xinshi dian 新诗典), in which the author recommends or comments on one poem each day of the year. The second is the poetry of the School of Rubbish (laji pai 垃圾派), a controversial online poetry group that was formed in 2003 and disbanded sometime around 2008. The third and most infamous example is the mass spoofing of the poet Zhao Lihua 赵丽华 that began in September 2006 and that attracted a large amount of attention from broadcast, online, and print media channels across China.

In all three instances, the gatekeepers—whether individual poets, a small poetry community, or the online Chinese public in general—function as networked stakeholders in modern Chinese poetry. Yi Sha’s interest lies in asserting his authority as a successful poet and his right to decide what constitutes “good quality” poetry. In doing so, he helps further the careers of the poets whose work he promotes. The School of Rubbish was concerned with maintaining the boundaries of a like-minded community of poets and resisting the elitist tendencies of the poetry arena. The netizens who participated in the spoofing of Zhao Lihua were invested in the maintenance of certain standards for Chinese poetry, having been educated about poetry’s important position within traditional Chinese culture and imbued with a patriotic vision of China as a “nation of poetry” (shi de guodu 诗的国度, or shiguo 诗国). Each of these cases has been shaped by developments in the Chinese economy, politics, and media since the 1990s. While the definition and quality of “poetry” is almost always the overriding concern of the writers and readers involved, modern Chinese poetry is deeply and unavoidably implicated in broader media dynamics, as well as the economic and political forces that oversee public communications in China.

Case Study One: Yi Sha’s “New Century Poetry Classics”

Many readers will already be familiar with the poet Yi Sha, whose poetry and criticism were featured in a 2012 edition of this magazine.[7] Born in 1966, Yi Sha is one of China’s most outspoken contemporary poets and was a vocal advocate of the “Popular Standpoint” (minjian lichang 民间立场) during the prolonged polemic that took place between so-called Popular (minjian 民间) and Intellectual Writing (zhishifenzi xiezuo 知识分子写作) poets in 1999–2002. The “New Century Poetry Classics” is a poetry column hosted by NetEase Weibo and replicated on Sina Weibo, Douban, and other websites. In each of his daily columns, Yi Sha selects one modern poem to promote to the online public. Along with the poem itself, he offers a few brief sentences of commentary. The poem is attached to the Weibo as an image that has to be clicked on and magnified in order to be readable, while the commentary occupies the body of the Weibo posting itself and is limited to 140 Chinese characters. The “New Century Poetry Classics” began on April 5, 2011, with each “season” lasting one year.

The very first poem that Yi Sha selected for recommendation to his online followers was written by the founder of the Lower Body (xiabanshen 下半身) poetry group and a good friend of Yi Sha, the poet Shen Haobo 沈浩波. The poem is entitled “Mary’s Love” (Mali de aiqing 玛丽的爱情) and reads as follows:

The female director of my friend’s company goes by the English name Mary
she has an exquisite face and a faint scent of perfume that
wafts about, just the right amount. A graduate of a famous university, elegant
four-inch heels make her professional career
stand out from the crowd. She works hard, at the dinner table
downing drinks, never drunk, or if drunk on occasion, takes herself off to the toilet to
puke it out, no sweat, then continues drinking until her opponent
looks set to crack. Deal after deal made just like that.
I admit, I admire her a bit.
One time after dinner I used the excuse of a drunken haze
to say to my buddy, her boss: you’re real lucky, such a good worker,
a beautiful lady like that helping you make money.
My friend roared with laughter: she’s not just a worker
but my secret lover, going behind her husband’s back
I can sleep with her whenever I like
think about it, a beauty like that, working for me like a donkey
sleeping with me like a bitch, and I don’t need to pay her any extra
how fantastic is that?
I listened, eyes and mouth agape, and asked him how he did it
my friend smiled: “It’s simple, I just tell her again and again that
I love her, and she believes it!”

In his commentary for this posting, Yi Sha explained his choice of poem as follows:

For several days your host has been wracking his brain trying to decide who should go first. In the end, I have decided to follow this line of logic: if I am to pick someone who grew up and matured in the new century, an outstanding poet who has a large influence both within and outside of the field, then Shen Haobo is undoubtedly the most appropriate choice. This poem demonstrates his typical style: sharp, to the point, yet showing his recent maturity by using calm narration and an unmoving tone. “Mary’s Love” is cruel and absurd, filled with mixed emotions, demonstrating the typical “love” of our times.

In just a few short sentences, Yi Sha makes it clear where his literary preferences lie: with living poets whose poetry displays a sharp engagement with pressing issues of the current era and whose writing does not shy away from the cruelties and absurdities of contemporary Chinese life. Yi Sha’s selection is justified not just by his identification of Shen Haobo as an “outstanding poet” with a “large influence,” but also by Yi Sha’s own identity as a famous contemporary poet.

In addition to hosting the “New Century Poetry Classics” online, Yi Sha has organized a number of offline activities and events to help promote the project. Among other enterprises, during the years 2012 to 2014, he organized three poetry recitals in Guangzhou, Xi’an, and Beijing, established a new poetry prize, and published print books containing the first two seasons of the Classics. Yi Sha placed the “New Century Poetry Classics Storm” ( xin shiji shidian fengbao 新世纪诗典风暴) at the top of a list of major poetry events of 2012 that he posted on his blog, claiming that the project was “constantly creating news and creating miracles, and has already become the central platform that is attracting the most attention within China’s poetry arena.”[8]

The “New Century Poetry Classics” has drawn a mixed reaction from Chinese poets. Many of Yi Sha’s friends and like-minded poets enthusiastically commented on them and forwarded them to appear on their own Weibo sites. The original post recommending “Mary’s Love,” for example, was forwarded 839 times and commented on 379 times, not an inconsiderable amount of attention for a poetry-related Weibo. Others expressed doubts about Yi Sha’s motives in hosting the “Classics.” One poet wrote, “Yi Sha’s value to poetry is that no matter how he messes around, he will always be the equivalent of a walk-on character in a film . . . A person’s natural instincts permeate right through to the bone, a hooligan will always be that same person hanging out by the side of the street . . . I’m not trying to vilify the individual talented poets in his ‘New Poetry Classics,’ I’m talking about its ‘cliquishness’ and ‘entertainment value.’”[9]

The “New Century Poetry Classics” show signs of all three of the gatekeeping dynamics introduced above. Yi Sha’s Weibo column acts as a kind of live scene where readers engage interactively in commentary and debate, discussing his selections of “classic” poetry in real time; the long-running poetry website Poemlife (Shi shenghuo 诗生活) even referred to Yi Sha’s NetEase Weibo page as a “live scene of discussion” (taolun xianchang 讨论现场).[11] The medium is also conducive to individual posts going viral and spreading beyond the original author’s control. This is likely of benefit to Yi Sha, as it raises the profile of his project and attracts readers to his own web pages. Indeed, aware as he must be of the importance of crowd-based circulation and the function of microblogging as an attention economy, Yi Sha appears to have chosen poems not just for being “outstanding” representatives of modern Chinese poetry but also in many instances for the controversial nature of their subject matter and their potential shock value. The primary model of gatekeeping on display in “New Century Poetry Classics,” however, is the first kind. It privileges the editorial authority of Yi Sha as a famous representative of China’s poetry arena, and aims for preservation and permanence by creating a body of “quality” poems to be later published in print and circulated on- and offline under the grand-sounding title of “New Century Poetry Classics.”

Case Study Two: The School of Rubbish

The School of Rubbish was formed on March 15, 2003, with the establishment of an open poetry forum named Beijing Review (Beijing pinglun 北京评论). Although the group ceased its activity around 2008, its name is still recognized as a key player in the Low Poetry ( di shige 低诗歌) movement, one of most provocative poetry movements in recent Chinese history. The forum attracted a significant amount of theoretical attention as well as all-out condemnation from some literary critics within China during the mid-late 2000s. From 2003 until its deletion in 2010, Beijing Review served as the central headquarters and live scene of activity for the School of Rubbish, as well as for any poets who wished to join the group or post derogatory messages or personal attacks against it. It was on Beijing Review that the group’s founder, a poet who used the three separate web IDs—Old Man (Lao 老头子), Pidan 皮旦, and Zhi Feng 支峰—posted the group’s manifesto, slogans, and representative works, thus creating a set of interpretive principles that were accessible to anyone who wished to join the community by attempting to write in a Rubbish style.

Old Man created the School of Rubbish with a keen awareness of the group’s avant-garde mission, which was to go “one meter lower” than China’s apparently most avant-garde poetry school to date, the Lower Body group, famous for its focus on all things sexual (among other subjects).[12] Instead of concentrating on the lower half of the body, members of the School of Rubbish used their poetry to focus on the very end products of human existence, such as “shit and piss” (shiniao 屎尿). In his critical writings, Old Man put this mission in an international context, writing, “The USA has the Beat Generation, whose representative figure is Allen Ginsberg. After it is beat, where does it go? The answer, of course, is rubbish. Therefore, if the Beat Generation walked a beat further forward it would become the School of Rubbish. If modernist poetry is to develop according to plan, it should have a School of Rubbish.”[13] The intimate mode of interaction on display on Beijing Review resulted in a strong sense of identification between poets and the group itself, as seen in the following poem entitled “Worshipping the High is Exhausting” (“Chonggao zhen lei” 崇高真累, 2003) by one of the group’s core members, Xu Xiangchou 徐乡愁:

The East is black, the sun is bad
China has given rise to a School of Rubbish
you’re black I’m even blacker than you
you’re bad I’m even badder than you

born as a Rubbish person
I’ll die as a Rubbish ghost
I am the School of Rubbish
the School of Rubbish is me

In this self-satisfied world
being degenerate is fantastic worshiping the high is exhausting
black is School bad is also School
Rubbish, School is even more School

I am totally School of Rubbish
the School of Rubbish is totally me
if you want me to quit the School of Rubbish
the only way would be for me to quit me

The first half of the poem reads as a sacrilegious parody of the classic Chinese revolutionary song “The East is Red” (“Dongfang hong” 东方红), only here the East has turned from auspicious Communist “red” into evil counterrevolutionary “black”; the sun is not rising but simply “bad”; and rather than producing Chairman Mao, China has given rise to the School of Rubbish. The poet’s identification with the School of Rubbish is so all-encompassing that the only way for him to leave the group is to quit being himself altogether.

A similar mode of self-identification is evident in the following poem by the School of Rubbish poet Little Moon 小月亮, entitled “I Want to Write My Poetry on Shit” (“Wo yao ba shi xie zai shi shang” 我要把诗写在屎上):

Today, I’m fed up with those shameful fake gentlemen
who claim they are poets
and we are all rotten people.
They like to boss us around
and tell us how to act,
Explain to us what is a Rubbish state.
I want to write my poetry on shit,
whenever people talk of shit I always think of poetry,
whenever people talk of poetry my mind goes straight to shit.
What kind of state can a person like this be in?
Who could possibly save him?
I’m truly fed up with their lies
fed up with their hypocritical Rubbish state
there’s no need for anyone to guide me or educate me
I’ve long since been a totally Rubbish person![14]

Here, “shit,” a homophone for the word “poem” or “poetry,” serves as a metaphor for the poet’s resistance toward the moralizing authority of the poetry arena, in particular toward those who try to draw a line between true “poets” who presumably occupy a position of authority and the “rotten people” who do not. Rather than denying her own rottenness, Little Moon lays claim to being Rubbish as a positive identity and declares it a state far more authentic and intuitive than the hypocrisy on display in the writings of China’s “shameless fake gentlemen.”

In addition to posting their own works and giving feedback to fellow School of Rubbish poets on their most recent poems, participants on Beijing Review also engaged in gatekeeping behaviors toward poets outside of the immediate Rubbish community by deleting posts that did not share their views or that explicitly attacked the group’s poetic principles. In 2004, a poet named Ding Youxing 丁友星 wrote a blog post accusing the School of Rubbish of limiting his freedom of speech by repeatedly deleting posts by himself and other poets from Beijing Review. Such complaints suggest that the kind of poetic community created by the School of Rubbish, while intended to counter the cliquish, authoritarian tendencies of the poetry arena (“those shameless fake gentlemen”), was equally concerned with monitoring membership of its own in-group through gatekeeping practices designed to maintain its own specific set of Rubbish principles. Thus, while the style of gatekeeping on display on Beijing Review adhered most closely to the live scene model of community-based participation, it also unintentionally ended up replicating the dynamics of the poetry arena by privileging the unique authority and expertise of the poetry community itself.

Case Study Three: The Spoofing of Zhao Lihua

The mass spoofing of Zhao Lihua is one of the most widely publicized events to have occurred within modern Chinese poetry since the turn of millennium. It all began on September 11, 2006, when someone wrote a post on the campus Internet forum LQQM.net (两全其美) under the title “the most sweat-inducing poems in history” (shishang zui han de shi 史上最汗的诗). The poems reproduced in this post were written by the female poet Zhao Lihua who, the poster revealed, had published poetry in official poetry journals such as Poetry, People’s Literature, and Poetry Selections as well as in numerous poetry anthologies and individual collections, and had served as judge for several high-profile awards such as the Lu Xun Prize for Literature. The poster concluded with an exclamation, divided into short lines: “It turns out / poetry / can also / be written / like this / !!!!!!!!” (shi / yuanlai / keyi / zheyang / xie / !!!!!!!! 诗 / 原来 / 可以 / 这样 / 写/!!!!!!!!). Before long, the post was forwarded to other forums including MITBBS.com (Weiming kongjian 未名空间), based in the United States, and Tsinghua University’s newsmth.net (shuimu shequ 水木社区). From that point on, the post quickly went viral, with hundreds and thousands of people reposting it on forums across the Chinese web.

The first poem by Zhao included in the original 2006 post was the following, still widely cited as an example of how “terrible” modern Chinese poetry has become nowadays:

Alone in Tennessee
There is no question
The pancakes I make
Are the best tasting
In the entire world

“Alone in Tennessee” was reproduced millions of times alongside several other of Zhao’s short, colloquial poems, with many netizens responding in kind by penning short, colloquial poems of their own that spoofed Zhao’s poetic style. Here is one, apparently written by an elementary school student:

Mooncakes
Mid-Autumn Festival is nearly here
Mom bought some mooncakes
I ate half of one
It was disgusting

The following untitled poem is even more direct in its parodying of Zhao’s poetry:

If
the return key on your keyboard
works particularly well
then
feel free to join us
if you
happen to also stutter
or suffer from chronic constipation
then
before long
you’ll become
a poet above all others

This means of composing poetry, supposedly based upon frequently hitting the “enter” key ( huichejian
回车键) to divide a piece of prose into short lines, quickly became known as “Pear Blossom Form” (lihua ti 梨花体) in a pun on the last two characters of Zhao Lihua’s name. Websites dedicated to explaining Pear Blossom Form appeared across the Internet; they typically contained some of Zhao’s original poems, a selection of netizens’ spoof poems, and a number of critical responses from well-known poets and critics. Zhao was widely and somewhat sarcastically described as a “first-level national poet” (guojia yiji shiren 国家一级诗人) and, more derogatively, the “lotus of the poetry arena” ( shitan furong 诗坛芙蓉), a reference to China’s notorious Internet celebrity Sister Lotus (furong jiejie 芙蓉姐姐), who became famous in 2005 for her ill-fated attempts to dance her way into graduate school at Peking University.[15]

The kind of media dynamics on display in the Zhao Lihua spoofing incident exemplifies the third of the three dynamics identified above: this is gatekeeping in the hands of the online masses, who participate in the circulation and deconstruction of writings and images and assign cultural value based on their collective responses to the text. It is also the clearest example of online poetry operating as an attention economy. Although she did not actively seek the attention she received, Zhao Lihua rose to a position of national prominence because her poetry hit a nerve with a huge number of netizens who came to share a skeptical attitude toward the supposed achievements of modern Chinese poets and poetry—and who, perhaps needless to add, were wholly ignorant of the literary context in which Zhao’s colloquial language poems (kouyu shi 口语诗) had originally been written. Significantly, mainstream Chinese media outlets were also active participants in the spoofing and widely reported on the incident in a series of light-hearted news reports. One often-repeated question in the headlines at the time was “Is this a case of netizens spoofing a female poet, or of a female poet spoofing poetry?” Most seemed to think the latter case was more accurate, expressing incredulity that Zhao and her fellow contemporary poets had managed to become central players in China’s poetry arena by writing such “facile” poetry. The amount of attention showered on the spoofing incident by the mass media suggests that the online masses were not the only audience that questioned her talents. Even the media, typically considered the ultimate gatekeepers of information and culture in China, suspected that Zhao was not truly deserving of her poetry credentials.

Conclusion: The People’s Poetry?

These three examples of online poetry gatekeeping are not intended as an exhaustive representation of all the different ways in which poetry is evaluated and made meaningful online. Nonetheless, they aptly demonstrate some of the existing tensions between different media dynamics and models of valorization on the Internet today: the economy of authority, associated with the discourse of the poetry arena and the controlled distribution model of print publishing; the economy of authenticity, associated with the discourse of live scenes and based on real-time participation within a close-knit cultural community; and the attention economy of mass participation that is typically mistrustful of authority and authenticity and often plays out in the form of viral circulation and mass spoofings. The values that these models perpetuate and the reactions they elicit from poets and audiences are closely related to the historical development of modern Chinese poetry, as well as to the changing position of literature and art within contemporary Chinese media, society, and politics.

In particular, the cynicism toward China’s poetry arena that is reflected in the spread of live scene discourse and in the viral circulation of poetry spoofs can be viewed as a reaction against government-sponsored uses of literature and culture in China. In the twentieth century, poetry was regularly called upon to perform propagandistic functions for the state, thus continuing the tradition of “literature as a medium for conveying the way” ( wen yi zai dao 文以载道) that can be traced back several millennia. As the century moved forward, however, many poets became increasingly disaffected by such didactic uses of poetry. From the Misty Poetry (menglong shi 朦胧诗) of the late 1970s on, much of the development of modern Chinese poetry has been motivated by a desire to guard against official appropriations of literature and to create a space for poetry that is free from the aesthetic and ideological restrictions of both the classical tradition and national politics—although this is often easier said than done. When it emerged in the early 1990s, live scene discourse could be understood as a response to the rapid commercialization of culture taking place during that decade and the resulting marginalization of more highbrow (gaoya 高雅) forms of literature and art within Chinese society. As poetry was unable to make money in the same way as commercial media such as television, film, or pop music, poets instead looked inward to place the ultimate value on community-based interactions and performances—or, in other words, on “live scenes.” In the 1990s, these gatherings took place largely in person, at poetry salons and recitals in cafés, bookshops, and bars.

As the live scene approach to poetry activity moved online in the 2000s and poets began to create their own models and means of literary gatekeeping via forums, blogs, and Weibo postings, even live scenes of poetry have become associated with the older editorial authority of the poetry arena, as evidenced in the distaste expressed by the School of Rubbish toward “shameless fake gentlemen” who call themselves poets, and in negative reactions toward Yi Sha’s “New Century Poetry Classics.” Some poets have made sarcastic puns on the term “poetry arena,” calling it an “arena of death” (sitan 死坛) or “arena of shit” (shitan 屎坛). Such suspicions of cultural authority have been exacerbated since the mid-2000s, as poetry has found itself an unexpected beneficiary of state support due to the government’s promotion of the cultural industries (wenhua chanye 文化产业) and of the resulting synergies between culture and big businesses. As more and more companies have realized the public relations benefits to be had in sponsoring poetry activity, China’s non-poetry-reading public and news media have become wary yet again of apparent collusions between poetry and power. Thus, when Chinese netizens react to modern Chinese poetry with collective bemusement and horror, as they did during the mass spoofing of Zhao Lihua, they are not just behaving as individual consumers who prefer entertainment (yule 娱乐) over literature and art (wenyi 文艺) and enjoy sharing spoofs and in-jokes on a massive scale. Just as significantly, they are also responding to the perceived complicity between China’s cultural elites and national politics.

Despite the widely divergent approaches to literature and to meaning-making that mark the reception of modern Chinese poetry in the age of the Internet, there is a shared assumption among poets and the non-poetry-reading public alike that poetry, as a representative of high culture and a core part of China’s national cultural identity, should rise above the cacophony of material desires and everyday politicking that goes on across the country and reverberates in the mass media. While it remains to be seen if the “quality” of modern Chinese poetry has been affected by the growth of participatory media, one thing is certain: poetry in China continues to flourish as a social form, one that possesses great symbolic importance for the nation no matter who is doing the writing or critiquing. Whether ownership of poetry has truly returned to the people or whether we are simply witnessing a poetry-specific manifestation of broader tensions between culture, media, and politics that are rife throughout contemporary China, poetry is far from losing its ability to get people talking. Surely that can only be a good thing.

Notes:

[1] Michel Hockx, “Links with the Past: Mainland China’s Online Literary Communities and Their Antecedents,” Journal of Contemporary China 13 (February 2004): 105–27.

[2] Maghiel van Crevel defines poetic metatext simply as “discourse on poetry,” noting that it includes everything from “one person’s inability to name even a single author” to a “scholarly genealogy of the avant-garde ever since its underground beginnings.” Maghiel van Crevel, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem, and Money (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 30.

[3] For more on the relationship between poetry events and big businesses, see John Crespi, Voices in Revolution: Poetry and the Auditory Imagination in Modern China (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2009), chap. 7.

[4] Joseph Harrington, Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2002), 4–5.

[5] For more on Quake (earthquake) Poetry see Heather Inwood, “Multimedia Quake Poetry: Convergence Culture after the Sichuan Earthquake,” The China Quarterly 208 (2011): 932–50.

[6] Pamela J. Shoemaker and Timothy Vos, Gatekeeping Theory (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1.

[7] For more on the application of Bourdieu’s sociological theories to the study of modern Chinese literature, see Michel Hockx,The Literary Field of Twentieth-Century China (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 1999); Michel Hockx, Questions of Style: Literary Societies and Literary Journals in Modern China, 1911–1937 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003).

[8] See Chinese Literature Today 2, no. 2 (2012): 6–22.

[9] Yi Sha, “‘Xin shiji shidian’ 2012 niandu Zhongguo shitan shi da xinwen” 《新世纪诗典》2012 年度中国诗坛十大新闻 (“‘New Century Poetry Classics’: Top Ten Chinese Poetry Arena News Items of 2012”), http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_489db0970102ekik.html.

[10] Zhang Li 张礼, “Xiaokan xin shidian: yiban laji, yiban renqing” 笑侃新诗典:一半垃圾,一半人情 (“Some Humorous Thoughts on the ‘New Poetry Classics’: Half Rubbish, Half Human Feelings”), http://www.chinawriter.com.cn/yc/2011/2011-11-24/58141.shtml.

[11] Shi Tongshe Xiaoxi 诗通社消息, (“Yi Sha ‘Xin shiji shidian’ toupao: Shen Haobo ‘Mali de aiqing’ yin reyi” 伊沙‘新世纪诗典’头炮:沈浩波‘麻利的爱情’引热议 (“Yi Sha’s ‘New Century New Poetry Classics’ Kicks Off: Shen Haobo’s ‘Mary’s Love’ Attracts Controversy”) (2011) http://www.poemlife.com/newshow-6102.htm.

[12] For a detailed discussion of Lower Body poetry see Van Crevel, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money, chap. 9.

[13] Lao Touzi, “Di si zha: Fa Qing” 第四札:法清 (The Fourth Epistle: Fa Qing) (2003), http://hk.netsh.com/eden/bbs/6411/html/tree_4095350.html.

[14] Written in 2010. http://blog.sina.com.cn/s blog_4c6017e10100xla6.html.

[15] For more on Sister Lotus, see I. D. Roberts, “China’s Internet Celebrity: Furong Jiejie,” in Celebrity in China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Univ. Press, 2010), 217–36.

Heather Inwood is currently Lecturer of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester, where she teaches modern and contemporary Chinese literature, media, and popular culture. She received her PhD in modern Chinese literature from SOAS, the University of London, in 2008 and was Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Cultural Studies at The Ohio State University from 2008 to 2013. Her research focuses on the interactions between contemporary culture and media in the People’s Republic of China, and in particular on the impact of digital media on the production and reception of contemporary Chinese literature. Her first book, Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes, examines interactions between poetry scene participants, the media, businesses and members of the general public that shape the production and evaluation of contemporary Chinese poetry. 

From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 1

Current Issue
Volume 5 No. 1 Issue Cover

Table of Contents

VOLUME 5, NUMBER 1

FEATURED AUTHOR: CHEN JINGRONG

  • 7 Introduction
  • 8 Selected Poems, by Chen Jingrong
  • 18 Charming Connections: Chen Jingrong’s Translations as a Factor of Poetic Influence, by Giusi Tamburello
  • 26 A Window to the Busy Street: Noise Pollution and Chen Jingrong’s Eco-Poetry in the 1980s, by Liansu Meng

CHINESE LITERATURE / GLOBAL CONTEXTS

SPECIAL SECTION: INTERNET LITERATURE

FEATURED SCHOLAR: BAN WANG

IN EVERY ISSUE

  • 3 Editor’s Note
  • 4 Contributors
  • 104 Chinese Literature in Review
  • 120 Pacific Bridge

ON THE COVER: Liu Wei, Liberation No.1, 2013, oil on canvas, 118 x 212 1/2 in. (300 x 540 cm) Courtesy of the artist; the Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong; and the Rubell Family Collection, Miami. Photo credit: Chi Lam

 

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