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.
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.
The lifetime of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (“Sir Syed”) (1817–1898) spans profound transformations introduced to India and the wider world by the twin forces industrial capitalism and British imperialism. Sayyid Ahmad’s intellectual responses to a changing world and his leadership in the establishment of educational institutions, voluntary associations, and a broad public sphere all played a significant role in defining what it means to be Muslim, especially in India and what would become Pakistan but also in wider cosmopolitan and global networks.
The development, compromises, and contradictions of Sayyid Ahmad’s ideas and projects over time track the challenges he faced. If these efforts pointed the way to some sort of modernity, it was rooted in the Indo-Persian and Islamic formation of his early years and developed by selectively adopting bits and pieces of European ideologies, technologies, practices, and organizational arrangements. He has been claimed or condemned by advocates and opponents of a wide range of ideological and political tendencies under circumstances that he would barely have recognized in his own time: nationalism, democracy, women’s equality, and religious and literary modernism. At different points in his career one may find mysticism, scriptural literalism, and daring rationalism with respect to religious texts; charters for Muslim “separatism” and calls for Hindu-Muslim unity; demands for autonomy and political representation and opposition to it; bold critiques of British rulers; and proclamations of “loyalty” to the colonial state. A major figure in the advancement of the Urdu language, he later argued for the superiority of English, of which he himself had little, for the purposes of education and administration. Most of all, he helped establish an intellectual and institutional framework for contemporaries and future generations to debate and pursue collective goals based on religion, language, social status, or class interest.