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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.

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The Progressive Writers Association (PWA) was founded in the mid-1930s by a group of South Asian leftist intellectuals who moved between metropolitan and colonial contexts. Announcing itself with a manifesto written in London in 1934 and reaching its peak of influence as a movement and an organization inside India in the 1940s, the PWA was a significant component of the South Asian cultural left. Its interlinked political and literary aims (founded upon the principle that the political and the literary must be interlinked) addressed anticolonialism and radical social change at home, while simultaneously positioning itself as part of the international popular front against fascism. As the Progressive writers moved into the post-independence decolonizing period, they identified closely with communist movements in India and Pakistan, while simultaneously positioning themselves at the forefront of Afro-Asian or Third World liberation solidarity formations during the Cold War. Thus these writers occupied a dual position, as simultaneously the cultural wing of the South Asian left and the South Asian manifestation of an international anti-imperialist movement that in both periods viewed art, literature, and ideology as crucial components of building socialism and decolonization.