Chang Woei Ong
In a letter to his friend Wang Hui王回 (1023–1065), the great Song dynasty (960–1279) politician, scholar, thinker, and writer Wang Anshi王安石 (1021–1086) makes a distinction between the golden age of the ancients and the less-than-desirable world of the present. More importantly, it claims that the golden era was marked by a commitment to unity. Not only were morality and customs of the world made the same, but the learned were united in their learnings and opinions. The periods after the golden age, on the other hand, were marked by diversity and confusion arising from how the truth is understood. Wang believed that he had found the truth about unity and how it could be achieved from reading the Classics. His ambitious political reform (called New Policies) was a grand program that sought to bring the ideal of unity to the world through government.
Wang Anshi was of course not the only major thinker in Chinese history to ponder the question of unity. In fact, a dominant and enduring theme in the history of Chinese thought is the search for unity. Faced with uncertainties arising from a diverse and complex world, thinkers in different periods and with different intellectual orientations saw it as their main mission to discover the true nature of unity and ways of realizing it for attaining a harmonious world. The process began when Confucius (551–479
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.