The Modern beyond the Middle Kingdom: An Interview with Lucas Klein on China and Literary Modernism

Lucas Klein—a former radio DJ and union organizer—is a writer, translator, and editor. His translations, poems, essays, and articles have appeared at Two Lines, Drunken Boat, Jacket, and PMLA, and he has regularly reviewed books for Rain Taxi and other venues. A graduate of Middlebury College (BA) and Yale University (PhD), he is Assistant Professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong. With Haun Saussy and Jonathan Stalling he edited The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition, by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound (Fordham University Press, 2008), and he co-translated a collection of Bei Dao 北島 poems with Clayton Eshleman, published as Endure (Black Widow Press, 2011). His translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan 西川 (New Directions, 2012; for more, see was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in poetry, and he is at work translating Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin 李商隱 and seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke 芒克 His blog Notes on the Mosqutio won the Lucien Stryk prize for Asian poetry in translation this year.


C. Derick Varn: What do you see as China’s relationship to philosophical and political modernism is? 

Lucas Klein: One of the hardest, and therefore most important, things to do is define our terms. So I’m very glad that your questions are distinguishing between philosophical, political, and literary modernisms—manifestations of a single notion that are often seen as being the same thing, and which may indeed have a lot of overlap, but which also may have very little to do with each other. That said, I don’t really know what “political modernism” is, so can’t really say much about it (I recently came across Mikhail Epstein’s understanding of totalitarianism as “a specific postmodern model that came to replace the modernist ideological stance elaborated in earlier Marxism,” which I find intriguing, and which is probably relevant to Chinese politics today, but which I can’t claim to understand). Other than that, I can only add that since 1978 at the latest, when Deng Xiaoping enacted Zhou Enlai’s 1963 “Four Modernizations,” China has politically been trying to define its government and society as “modern,” with all the cultural insecurity and obstinacy vis-à-vis the West, which it sees as the standard-bearer of modernization thus far, that that entails.

As for philosophical modernism, I’ll take Haun Saussy’s definition in Great Walls of Discourse (I’m an academic; bear with me): “philosophical modernism is an attempt to regulate the relationship of fact and value,” while “postmodernism is the abandonment of such attempts.” Saussy goes on to say that in premodern China postmodernism would seem like “the taking of medicine to cure ills one never suffered from” (or “an inoculation against modernity”), but neither can anyone today in China live a totally premodern existence nor a life that looks completely modern the way we think of it from the West. Given that, there’s a lot of philosophical attempts to regulate the relationship of fact and value—whether from Marxists, neo-Marxists, or anti-Marxists—and a lot of philosophizing that appears to be undermining the relationship of fact and value but may instead be an attempt to re-regulate fact and value. The history of this is that so many people felt burnt out on a certain kind of Marxism by the end of the seventies, which yet formed the basis of so much of the thinking they had been able to do, that one of the only viable alternatives was a Hegelian idealism. Of course, the same thing also gave birth to a kind of postmodernism: Fredric Jameson, figuring that China would be the right place to critique postmodernism and appeal for a return to Marxist cultural analysis, gave a series of lectures in China in the mid-eighties, but his ideas ended up inspiring people to look into postmodernism as a way out of the Marxist framework many of them found themselves enclosed by.

What authors do you think represent China’s relationship to literary modernism, and are they readily available in translation?

Here’s a beginner’s reading list of twentieth-century Chinese poetry and fiction in English translation that bears some sort of relationship to literary modernism:
Bei Dao 北島. Endure. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein. Boston: Black Widow, 2011.
———. The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems. Edited by Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 2010.
Bian Zhilin 卞之琳. The Carving of Insects. Translated by Mary M. Y. Fung and David Lunde. Renditions Paperbacks. Hong Kong: Reserach Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2006.
Can Xue 殘雪. Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories. Translated by Karen Gernant and Zeping Chen. New York: New Directions, 2006.
Duo Duo 多多. The Boy Who Catches Wasps. Translated by Gregory B. Lee. Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002.
Gao Xingjian 高行健. Soul Mountain. Translated by Mabel Lee. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Liu Suola 劉索拉. Blue Sky Green Sea and Other Stories. Translated by Martha Cheung. Renditions Paperbacks. Hong Kong: Research Centre for Translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993.
Mo Yan 莫言. Red Sorghum: A Novel of China. Translated by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin Books, 1994.
Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書. Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays. Edited by Christopher G. Rea. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
Xi Chuan 西川. Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems. Translated by Lucas Klein. New York: New Directions, 2012.
Yang Lian 楊煉. Riding Pisces: poems from five collections. Translated by Brian Holton. Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008.
———. Yi. Translated by Mabel Lee. Green Integer, 2000.

Other writers, such as the poet Dai Wangshu 戴望舒 and the story-writer Shi Zhecun 施蟄存, who both flourished in the twenties and thirties, have been more spottily translated. I should also include Taiwan writers like Wang Wenxing / Wang Wen-hsing 王文興 and Hongkong writers like Lau Yee Cheung / Liu Yichang 劉以鬯.

Also, that’s only writing from modern and contemporary China that represents China’s relationship with modernism. Another fundamental part of China’s relationship with modernism is how ancient or premodern Chinese literature and culture inspired and was written into the discourses of modernism in Europe and America: Ezra Pound without Li Bai 李白 (701 – 762), or Confucius (551 – 479 BCE) and the Book of Songs or Shijing 詩經 (10th – 7th cents. BCE) would be a very different Ezra Pound, as would Kenneth Rexroth without Du Fu 杜甫 (712 – 770), or Bertolt Brecht without Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳 (1894 – 1961), or Victor Segalen or Sergei Eisenstein without China and Chinese. And then there’s what China means in the stories of Franz Kafka or Jorge Luis Borges…
[Why are there so few women named here? A combination of my own taste—I respond more to Pound’s Chinese translations than I do to Amy Lowell’s—and of what’s been canonized in Chinese and then translated into English, and also that significant Chinese women writers either see their modernism shunted away early in their careers, like Ding Ling丁玲 or, in a very different way, Eileen Chang張愛玲, or else are generally considered postmodernist, like Sai Sai / Xi Xi 西西 in Hongkong and Chu T’ian-wen / Zhu Tianwen 朱天文 in Taiwan]

Do you think there is a unique Chinese modernism in literature and art that is clearly distinct from Euro-North American literary modernism?

One of the best contemplations on this question I’ve seen recently is Eric Hayot’s article in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms. Basically, the thrust of modernity is to incorporate everything into its own logic, eliminating cultural distinction; so how could there be a Chinese modernism, a modernism that stands outside of the unifying tendency of modernity to assert a “Chineseness”—an essentialism that is also very problematic, if you believe as I do that defining any culture, whether from within or without, leads to very real political problems such as genocide.

So that’s the problem. But as I’ve argued in a piece that’s forthcoming, modernism in literature is postmodernist in its philosophical implications. Modernism in literature as often as not engages with the local, engages with the traditional, and does not, as is often the critique of it, eliminate it in favor of some totalizing logic such as capitalist modernity (people who think so are confusing the economic substructure with its superstructural cultural expression, which I think is kind of like saying all petitions circulated on Facebook are bound to fail because of the corporate ownership of the internet). And I don’t think I’ve ever believed in modernism so much as modernisms. An interesting observation is that modernist writers who come from countries that claim an ownership of tradition—modernists from France or Italy or Russia—are often the ones to say, like Marinetti, “Museums, cemeteries!” while the modernists from countries that cannot claim such ownership—Pound and Eliot from the US, Joyce from Ireland—are the ones who want to revivify the ancient amidst the machinations of the modern (this isn’t foolproof, of course: William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein stand against such generalizations). As for whether there’s a Chinese modernism, the interesting thing is that after the Cultural Revolution, you get both: those feeling like their country has too much a claim on tradition, and is overwhelmed and stifled by it, as well as those who feel like their country is too displaced from tradition, and needs to re-own it and re-define it. So at any given moment Bei Dao might read like a shrugging off of tradition, and Yang Lian might read like a refitting of it, and Xi Chuan a refitting of that refitting, but they’re also specific responses to the relationship between tradition and modernity as have played out in China in the past hundred years and more.

So is that a unique Chinese modernism distinct from what you find in Europe and North America? If Quentin Compson denies hating the South at the end of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, is it the same or different if a Chinese writer says, “I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” about China?

What do you make of modernists like Ezra Pound’s use and abuse of the Chinese tradition?

First off, I don’t buy that it’s “abuse.” Power can be abused, children can be abused, drugs can be abused, but not languages or traditions like Chinese. Read enough in Chinese historiography, and you’ll realize that it’s not very different from what Pound does in the Chinese history Cantos, i.e. narrating recorded events to prove an ideological point. To that extent, Pound is adding to, not misusing or abusing, the Chinese tradition. As for what he does with Chinese language, it’s a bit different, inasmuch as a lot of what he claims is factually wrong. But at its core the Fenollosa essay, which Pound edited, and whose ideas he adopted, is not about Chinese being a pictographic language, but rather about the transference of energy that takes place in parataxis or juxtaposition, which Fenollosa claims is inherent in Chinese and from which English could learn. This is why it didn’t inspire graphic poetics such as writing “mOOn” and “oHIo” but rather a way of configuring the building blocks of long works, from Pound’s own “ideogrammic method” to the “New Sentence” of Language poetry. Certainly this issue of Chinese as paratactic is something that can only come out in translation, which is to say that Chinese cannot appear paratactic to itself, but only in relation to other languages, especially as seen from the outside, via translation.

So as far as that goes, I take T. S. Eliot’s claim that Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time” seriously, even to the extent that I’d consider him in Michel Foucault’s term as a “founder of discursivity”: Pound invented the way that Chinese poetry would be translated into English for the foreseeable future. That discourse of Chinese-poetry-in-English-translation has been developed through the work of Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, Burton Watson, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton (not too many women in this group, either; I think Amy Lowell and Florence Ayscough tried to combat Pound’s discourse, but from my point of view they didn’t add much to it; Carolyn Kizer’s translations are worth looking at, but the women translators I can think of who are defining the discourse are translators of contemporary Chinese poetry: Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Eleanor Goodman, Nicky Harman, Andrea Lingenfelter, Jennifer Feeley, Cindy Carter…), to the point that now it seems like there are both many and no options for the translator of premodern Chinese poetry. This discourse, as all discourses are (and as all translations are), is partial and limiting, but it also entails possibilities that exist for the translation language and through which it can influence poetry and aesthetics beyond translation proper (in addition to Language writing, mentioned above, there’s a recognizable mode of writing about or in reference to China in English, which is very much a mode begun by Pound; even people writing against this discourse—my friends who translate classical Chinese poetry into rhymed English, or Timothy Yu in his Chinese Silences, are still circumscribed within the confines of its discursivity).
So while there are political problems or sensitive spots in English language modernism’s use of Chinese (Pound was a Fascist, and there’s straight-up racism in his Shih-ching translations), I can’t see how it falls into the most common criticism of it, which is imperialism. I think it would be much more imperialist not to translate, not to allow foreign poetry to influence and inspire us, but insist only that they yield to our influence. (And Steven Yao points out the predominant image Americans had of Chinese people used to be of the Yellow Peril; Pound’s Cathay changed that by introducing them to Chinese poetry).

Has China experienced a transition from “modernism” to “post-modernism” in a way similar to its Euro-American counterparts, and if, how has it affected the literature?

I suppose that to flesh this out I’ll have to say more about my thoughts on postmodernism, and what I mean by saying “modernism in literature is postmodernist in its philosophical implications.” First, I have to say that I think there’s a lot of insight in philosophies and the intellectual tradition called postmodernism: in Derrida’s poststructuralist acknowledgement of how prioritization slips into the distinction between binaries, or Foucault’s discussion of how power and discourse underlie a lot of the seemingly linguistic foibles… but at a certain point postmodernist observations serve to excuse right-wing mendacity (Ronald Reagan comes to mind), and all this free-play of signifiers and the abandonment of any “attempt to regulate the relationship of fact and value” seems like so much acceptance of “free-market” capitalism and the philosophical counterpoint to accepting the transcendent truth of exchange value over use value. And from that point of view, postmodernism isn’t very postmodernist at all; it’s actually just as modernist, because as reliant on capitalist modernity, as anything else, and it begins to look like we can’t have a postmodernism worthy of the name until we have as a global society moved past modernity (I’m not saying anything more complex here than acknowledging, for example, that the claim that the US is “post-racial” has been used to reiterate racism in American society).
So how does this have to do with China? Well, one of the points that’s supposed to distinguish postmodernism from modernism in literature is the rebirth of the local. There’s this notion that in modernism you have scenes that could take place anywhere, and in postmodernism you’ve got, say, Magic Realism that is specific to its South American locale. But I don’t think you can square away the regionalism of say Joyce or Faulkner with that notion of placeless modernism; nor does postmodernism in architecture, say the kind that comes after Bauhaus and the International Style, necessarily have anything else to do with locality (I’m thinking of Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Tower, Paul Andreu’s egg-shaped National Center for the Performing Arts, and Heurzog & de Meuron’s Olympic “Bird’s Nest” 鸟巢, all in Beijing, but which don’t to me demonstrate any specific relationship with the architectural traditions of that city). So basically, I think this part of the narrative is broken. But just that break allows us to see some of the things that have been considered modernist, and some of the things that might otherwise be considered postmodernist, coexisting in Chinese literature at any given moment. If you look at Xi Chuan, for instance, it’s very clear that he started out being interested in modernists such as Pound and Borges, and over time you can see his interest in Pound and Borges turning to an interest in what China means in Pound and Borges, and then transforming into an interest in China, but still based on some of the ways in which a Chinese reader sees China through non-Chinese eyes, the way Chinese people often approach, for better or for worse, some of “their own” tradition through foreign eyes. Is this modernism or postmodernism? I don’t think there’s such a clean break at all.

What do you make of Fedric Jameson’s influence in China on the idea of the post-modern?

Well, I think it’s ironic, and I’d be curious to know what Jameson himself thinks of it. My sense is that he showed up hoping to find a sympathetic audience, and instead found an audience hungry for something new (and certainly not to be told that their version of Marxism was inauthentic; to many of his listeners, it was authentic and yet something to be put behind). But despite my claim, above, that postmodernism is still “reliant on capitalist modernity,” which sounds kind of like Jameson’s “cultural logic of late capitalism,” I don’t actually find him compelling most of the time. An essential aspect of postmodernism, for him, is that it had to deal with the canonization of literary modernism; that, to me, doesn’t make it a “post-” movement, but rather just a later development of the movement that has to deal with its historicization. (I’ve also got a problem with his “national allegories thesis” of third-world literature, much of which is based on Lu Xun; but what definition of third-world is he working with where it can describe Lu Xun’s China?)

Anyway, this often happens in literature, in translation, in cultural transmission. What one person introduces as a bad thing inspires people who see it perhaps as a good thing. Xi Chuan told me that as a child he got most of his education in the Chinese classics based on whatever was being criticized at the time. Criticize Confucius! And so he could read Confucius.

Did “modernism” cleanly overlap with specific political movements in China?  

In a word, no. Of the Shanghai-based modernists associated with the New Sensationism 新感覺派 in the thirties, for instance, Mu Shiying 穆時英 did underground Marxist work and was a Nationalist double agent (but was assassinated by the Nationalists as a traitor); Li Na’ou 劉吶鷗, whose parents were Japanese and Taiwanese, served as president of the National News Agency under Wang Jingwei’s Japanese-collaborationist regime (and was killed by Shanghai gangsters); Liu Yichang (mentioned above) moved to Hongkong after the revolution and became one of the founders of the new literature here; and Shi Zhecun (also mentioned above) had a stint organizing for leftist cultural organizations—though never joined the more strenuous Communist groups—and stayed in the PRC after the revolution in ’49, becoming an important translator and scholar. These were all friends and like-minded litterateurs, but in politics I can’t imagine they ever saw eye-to-eye.
That said, there was a much more cohesive anti-modernism, which usually gets called “realism,” amongst the Leftists before (and after) the revolution, which fact itself probably pushed some modernists into the various right wings (you know, the whole “freedom” versus “equality” thing). The dream of a modernism that could also be socially revolutionary and egalitarian—which in the west rests on Brecht and Benjamin and maybe a bit of John Dos Passos before the fifties (see also Tom Stoppard’s Travesties)—doesn’t show up in China very much, though I do see hints of it, and hints of its remaining a dream, in Lu Xun’s translation theory.

Anything you would like to say in closing?

Since I’ve just mentioned translation theory, I would like to add that so much of the question of modernism and China seems based on the central issue of translation, understanding what it is and understanding how it works. Sometimes translation has to find a way to express similarities, sometimes differences. In the west, there have been many attempts to incorporate China in its difference into the languages of modernism; this is complex enough, but facing similar attempts to incorporate such differences into the languages of Chinese modernism, scholars in the west have seen this as an assertion of similarity. In some ways that’s true, and a result of the world “getting smaller,” as we say, through modernity; but in some ways it’s a reassertion of difference, or better, a renegotiation of difference and similarity. Ultimately, what we see may depend less on what it is than on where we are.

(Originally posted here)


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