Huiwen Helen Zhang
An expeditionary force soldier. A jungle war survivor. A patriot who traded opportunities in the United States for a tedious journey home to the newly founded People’s Republic of China. A “counterrevolutionary.” A forced laborer who spent the last third of his life translating English and Russian literature.—A poet. Careful study of Mu Dan’s (1918–1977) poetry enables us to explore a string of moments in modern China’s transformation.
Twenty-two poems by Mu Dan have been selected as a history of China from the climax of the New Culture Movement (1919) through the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1976). Fusing linguistic audacity, philosophical acumen, and historical vision, they weave a thread of themes illuminating the tortured path of a nation and an individual. Further, they span a spectrum of sentiments ranging from those of ordinary people to those of extraordinary intellectuals.
To reveal the turning points in modern China’s history, the twenty-two poems have been contextualized along two axes. A vertical axis, the thread of themes, consists of eleven motifs developed and revisited by Mu Dan from 1940 through 1976; they are: Youth, War, Disillusion, Maturity, Sacrifice, Exposure, Enlightenment, Conversion, Awakening, Anguish, and Reflection. A horizontal axis, the spectrum of sentiments, exhibits Mu Dan’s contradictory attitudes toward modern China’s transformation by identifying him with his countrymen or distancing him from them as a free spirit and cultural critic.
This conceptual framework assists in examining the interaction between history and literature. It demonstrates how modern China’s history informs, provokes, and shapes a poet whose life span coincides with it and, at the same time, how poetry can be and is being read as history itself. This reading allows more than new access to the historical events that mold a poet and his poetry. Reading poetry as history uncovers lost sentiments, struggles, observations, and critiques that advance our understanding of modern China.