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Lyricism and the Utopian Impulse: A Study of Bian Zhilin’s Pre-war Poetry

ZHOU, YANG (2022) Lyricism and the Utopian Impulse: A Study of Bian Zhilin’s Pre-war Poetry. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.



This thesis joins a vibrant conversation in literature and cultural studies on modern China about the challenging nature of the construction of modernity in the early twentieth century as well as the paradoxical relationship between China and the West. Tracing the implications of the two popular approaches to modernity in twentieth-century China, namely Marxist collective modernisation and Kantian individual refinement, I argue that neither has resulted in a comprehensive and profoundly critical view of modernity and its consequences amongst the majority of Chinese intellectuals. This partial understanding of Western literary modernity, combined with the eagerness to modernise the Chinese society through the functions of literature, has contributed to the utopian impulse in thought and expression regarding a modern and better future. The utopian impulse has also played a significant role in shaping China’s political and cultural modernity, driving Chinese intellectuals into a ‘love-hate’ relationship with Chinese tradition.
This thesis delineates the utopian impulse in the poetic pursuit of modernity by Bian Zhilin with a focus on his most productive years between 1930 and 1937, namely the period of his pre-war poetry. It sets out to explore the nature of inconsistency between the actual dynamic of Western influences and classical Chinese poetics and what is envisioned under the context of iconoclasm after the May Fourth Movement. It is through this exploration that a vision is generated regarding Bian’s negative feelings as consequence of his pursuit for modernity.
By examining the angst in Bian’s experiment with a modern (Western) poetic expression to articulate his social critique by emulating the Western modernist style of poetry, this thesis provides evidence of his nostalgic yearning for classical Chinese literature, aesthetics and philosophy. I argue that strategies of French Symbolism and Metaphysical Poetry serve as a paradoxical bridge between Bian’s desire to fashion himself as a modernist poet and his spiritual attachment to Chinese tradition. I argue that the utopian impulse is characterised by the backward-looking and nostalgic features. Furthermore, it is a psyche shared by generations of Chinese intellectuals when facing the existential crisis of the coherent cultural centre. In this research, I focus on the early twentieth-century utopian impulse as it is symptomatic of the complex feelings of anxiety, doubt and hope of Chinese cultural elites at the historical juncture between tradition and progress, China and the West. The denial of the Chinese reality and romantic imagining of a modern West and the belief in its efficacy for a bright Chinese future create fertile ground for the utopian modernity that eventually evaporated in wartime China after the 1940s.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Modern Languages and Cultures, School of
Thesis Date:2022
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:09 Jun 2022 08:52

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