Poets of the Chinese Revolution

Poets of the Chinese Revolution

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How poetry and revolution meshed in Red China

This is a book of poems by four veteran Chinese revolutionaries. Chen Duxiu led China’s early cultural awakening before founding the Communist Party in 1921. Mao led the Party to power in 1949. Zheng Chaolin, Chen Duxiu’s disciple and, like him, a convert to Trotskyism, spent 34 years in jail, first under the Nationalists and then under Mao. The guerrilla Chen Yi wrote poems in mountain bivouacs or the heat of battle. All wrote in the classical style, which Mao Zedong officially proscribed, though he and other leaders kept using it. Poetry, especially classical poetry, plays a different role in China, and in Chinese revolution, from in the West – it is collective and collaborative. The four poets were entangled with one another in various ways. Chen Duxiu inspired Mao, though Mao later denounced him. Mao and Zheng joined the leadership under Chen Duxiu in the 1920s, though Mao later gaoled Zheng. The maverick Chen Yi was Zheng’s associate in France and Mao’s comrade-in-arms in China, but he clashed with the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution. Together, the four poets illustrate the complex relationship between Communist revolution and Chinese cultural tradition.


  • While poetry for sure has, as T. S. Eliot noticed, a stubborn relationship to nationalism, the list of revolutionaries who are also poets is long and robust. This book collects the work of four Chinese poet-revolutionaries Chen Duxiu, Zheng Chaolin, Chen Yi, and Mao Zedong. All of them were using poetry’s long traditional formalism and conventions so as to wrestle with and better understand the upheavals of the Communist revolution. The complications of their work have for too long been overlooked in the endless debates about poetry and politics that define our contemporary moment. There is much that is crucial in these beautifully done translations.

    Juliana Spahr
  • Interpreting revolution broadly and translating poetry generously, this volume introduces and deepens the seemingly heretical idea that political radicalism and cultural traditions can sustain a productive historical dialogue. Each of the four "red" poets draws on classical forms and imageries to produce utterly new senses and sensations of China and political possibility through the twentieth century. Achieving the almost miraculous, Benton's translations are faithful, rhythmic, and idiomatic in all the ways one would hope of a poetry collection. A pure pleasure, and a pure inspiration.

    Rebecca E. Karl, New York University
  • Gregor Benton and Feng Chongyi’s edited collection of translations of the poetry of the Chinese Revolution offers a fascinating glimpse into an understudied body of what the editors call “Red poetry in the classical style.” Invoking forms of cultural authority long associated with the practice of governance, these poems translate the lived experience of political upheaval, disappointment, and despair into classical poetic idioms in an era when such traditions were subject to increasingly intensive criticism. As a result, these poems present a radically unfamiliar lyric history of the Chinese revolution. Accompanied by lively editorial contextualization, a generous annotated selection of the poetry of Zheng Chaolin, in particular, is a revelation--offering measured but pointed political commentary on everything from rapidly shifting political circumstances inside China, to Soviet science fiction novels and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. In Benton and Chongyi’s hands, an intimate, impressionistic, and extraordinarily affecting biography emerges of this neglected dissident poet who spent much of his life in prison for a singular commitment to a “revolution without breaks or interruptions.

    Christopher S. Chen, UC Santa Cruz