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Modern Chinese symbolist poets’ exploration of musicality

CHEN LIMING | 2021-04-29 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: Dai Wangshu’s most famous poem translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang

Musicality is a realm that art desires to embody. After all, artistic quality is both the means and the goal of literature. Instead of contradicting each other, literary depth and art’s merits are mutually reinforcing. When the “New Poetry,” or modern Chinese poetry, was at its early stage, poets of both the Xinyue Pai (Crescent Moon Society) and Chinese symbolist poetry dug deep into the musicality of poetry. They established the study of the musicality of poetry, which continues to help modern Chinese with their poetry writing and poetry critique. 

Music in verse 
French symbolism was pioneered by French poet Charles Baudelaire and further developed by Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Valéry. By linking poetry with music, French symbolists made it essential for a poem to be succinct, connotative, mysterious, and even obscure. They were on a quest for “pure poetry,” the kind of poems that are ingenious beyond description—just like a piece of music. In those poems, sound and meaning are intertwined, while serving as footnotes for one another. 
Renowned symbolist poets in China include Mu Mutian(1900–1971), Wang Duqing (1898–1940), Liang Zongdai (1903–1983), Li Jinfa (1900–1974), and Dai Wangshu (1905–1950). Among them, the last two were particularly famous for their great accomplishments in composing symbolist poems. 
Liang, on the other hand, was a distinguished figure in symbolist poetics, whose most famous work was Poetry and Truth. Liang opposed to some of the propositions during the Great Liberalism of Poetic Form, a part of the literary revolution initiated by Hu Shih (1891–1962) around 1920, which proposed breaking the syntax constraints of classic Chinese poetry, and advocated for the “natural grammar” of vernacular Chinese. Specifically, Liang believed that a poem should neither resemble prose in its literary form, nor lay out its content in a transparent or plain way. He went so far as to say that these two features destroyed both the “stone” as well as the “jade” at the same time, which would only make the poem fall apart. Instead, Liang advocated for obscurity and symbolism in the “New Poetry” movement. 
He also criticized Benedetto Croce’s position that art is a vision or intuition, and is a tool of the intellect for intellectual abstraction. Liang was convinced that neither words in a poem nor the sound of a piece of music should be mere carriers of expression but the essence of an artwork. When new poems first came out, Liang spared no effort to reverse poets’ tendency to convey plain or shallow ideas in a loose form, and stressed the nature of poetry with the help of ontology and epistemology. 
Poetry is music 
By learning from the poetics of French symbolism, Liang adapted “pure poetry” to Chinese language and added artistry to modern Chinese poetry. He was convinced that poetry should be musical, and aimed to sway the magical power of words to create “music and color.” Thus, he adapted Valery’s theory of pure poetry, and wrote: “Like music, it is an absolutely independent, absolutely freer and purer and more  universally immortal than reality; its own phonology (metrics) and colors are its inherent reason for existence.” 
While rectifying the malpractices of “New Poetry” from the perspectives of ontology and epistemology, Liang also came up with a highly practical theory on the methodologies and objectives of writing pure poetry. He observed that the key to writing a pure and symbolic poem was to infuse musicality into words as well as the form: “to use words to create music, that is to say, to sublimate poetry to the pure realm of music.” For that to happen, it is necessary to explore the musicality of Chinese characters and vernacular Chinese, so as to create new syllables and metrical patterns. Liang’s proposal in this regard can be divided into the following three methodologies. 
The first method is to arrange the words in a rhythmic way such as through varying duration, stress, and pitch of the words. A poem symmetrically structured, in terms of the sounds it creates, is able to bring immense aesthetic pleasure to its audience. 
The second key method is to improve a poem’s yinyun, or sound, which involves the use of rhyme or a rhyme scheme. When it is not possible to guarantee both the musicality and the meaning, musicality should be the priority. This method helps harmonize the tone and syllables of the poem. 
The third method is to balance both the vision and the sound. Wen Yiduo (1899–1946) once observed that all lines of a poem will be in order when all its syllables are absolutely harmonized. Comparing this method to Wen’s high standard, Liang’s suggestion allowed for more variations. He was interested in a poetic device named “encroachment,” and believed that a poet’s personality should be in line with what he/she wrote. Liang observed that sometimes adding or cutting a few pai (beats) might render the poem more musical. This method has also become integrated in Sun Dayu’s theory of “tone groups.” They shared the belief that the musicality of “new poems” should be embodied only in the right form, the same way an originally silent breath blown into a vertical flute travels through a narrow tunnel to make a beautiful sound. The freedom of art can only be obtained within a framework, or under certain requirements, while artistic sublimation can only be reached when the artist has walked beyond intuition, to “manifestation, and finally to aesthetic appreciation.”
Expression methods 
Other Chinese poets inspired by French symbolism include Mu Mutian, Wang Duqing, and Feng Naichao (1901–1983) from Chuangzao She  (Creation Society). 
Inspired by French symbolists’ theory of “pure poetry,” Mu created his theory on the musicality of poems. In his article “On Poetry,” he concluded that each poem should not only carry just one idea, but also present to readers a continuous flow of movement, or a dynamic state of being. 
Mu noted that the early works of “New Poetry” were too rough both in form and content. He advocated for poems that exhibit the beauty of mathematics and music by combining the beauty of structure and sounds. He stressed that poems should imply, not tell. Poets need to pay attention to rhymes, rhythm, and melodies while they compose “sound waves” with ink and pen. 
Another Chinese symbolist poet, Wang Duqing, expressed his views on pure poetry and musicality in poetry in his article “More on Poetry.” Wang’s poetics drew upon Alphonse de Lamartine’s romantic sensibilities, Paul Verlaine’s attention to music, Arthur Rimbaud’s synesthetic imagery of colors and vowels, as well as Jules Laforgue’s stress on strength. Wang believed that the formula for an “ideal poem” is the combination of “emotions plus strength,” and “musicality plus colors.” He believed that the latter two were the hardest instruments for a Chinese poet, since vernacular Chinese was too loose and plain to be shaped into a condensed, implicit, and poetic form. 
The poet who most influenced Chinese symbolist poems was Dai Wangshu. He not only inherited the essence and broadened the depth of modern Chinese poetry, but also allowed it to learn from contemporary works, fitting its poetic aspirations to French symbolism, which was suggestive and musical. Dai was passionate about the beauty of verse and found the Chinese classical tradition is not a perfect role model, although it fit well with western symbolists’ priority on suggestiveness and musicality. Therefore, he advocated for Paul Verlaine’s philosophy of “De la musique avant toute chose (music before all else)” and Verlaine’s thoughts on the musicality of poetry. 
However, modern Chinese poets’ vertical inheritance of the classics (especially musical poetry exemplified by Shijing, or The Classic of Poetry) was insufficient, and the pursuit of modernity and horizontal transplantation also lacked sufficient discipline. The main constraints included the macroscopic social context (as seen in excessive emphasis on the instrumental nature of poetry) and microscopic knowledge structures (as in insufficient knowledge of Chinese and Western music theory and poetry musicality), coupled with a biased perception of vertical inheritance and horizontal transplantation. The academic community remained ignorant of how it opened up a new era “for the syllables of New Poetry,” Dai said afterwards that poetry cannot borrow from music but abandon the composition of music. This “de-musicalization” epistemology hindered poetic refinement. As a result, principles of mainstream poems and musical poetics of the West were not efficiently and effectively translated and introduced, which undoubtedly limited the breadth and depth of the musicality of modern Chinese poetry and partially affected its artistic quality. 
Nevertheless, by absorbing and adapting the principles of French symbolism poetics, symbolist poets in China rebelled against the clarity and simplicity of early New Poetry with their symbolic, musical, and suggestive ambiguity, resisting the free and loose “natural rhythm” in favor of an obsession with phonetic rhythm, compensating for shortcomings of the Great Liberation of Poetic Form with their musical versification and repetitive music structures, and using the concept and practice of “pure poetry” or art for art’s sake to correct the instrumental rationality and moralizing properties of modern Chinese poetry. These poets endeavored to “create new syllables and metrical patterns” in theory, and sway the power of symbolic words to “create music and color.” In this way, they established unique symbolist music poetics, setting a good example for modern Chinese poetry’s artistic return. Its gains and losses are both worthy of reflection for future generations. 
Chen Liming is a professor from the College of Foreign Languages at Huaqiao University. 


Edited by WENG RONG