Chinese poetry and South China Sea

Since the end of the 19th century, migration has become common for scholar-officials and ordinary people. In particular, the migration for the purpose of making a living seems to account for China's entry into an age of diaspora since the late Qing Dynasty. Re-discussions on the writing of poetry under such circumstances highlight the fact that overseas poetry writing has become a very important literary practice during migration. These discussions clearly depict the essence of Chinese traditional forms of literature, touching on how the literary forms are sustained and transformed in contact with foreign civilizations and on the means of rhetoric and characterization of poetry content. Such a migrant environment and a modern context of active and forced migration led the classical poetry writing, which is most familiar to traditional literates, to become a form of writing facing a “modern world”.
   Through poetry and the overseas perspectives represented by Chinese poems: with the fission and fusion of colonies, urban spaces, cultural impact, dispersion, double hometowns, nationality and language, Chinese poetry have witnessed the enormous contemporary changes from late 19th century to early 20th century and deepened our understanding of the possible changes of this classical form of literature subject to the stimulation of the contemporary elements. In other words, the modernity and dispersion encountered by poetry have changed the world and horizon of poetry.
   South China Sea to the Pacific are the two fields of migration which are the origins of overseas Chinese poetry in the late Qing Dynasty. From the sailboat era to the new steamboats, there were increasing contacts among countries and exchanges between countries across the South China Sea and the Pacific. The “Southeast Asian Migration Movement” is a typical route of migration for the official and civil sectors alike. In 1877, the Qing Dynasty government set up the first consulate in Singapore, which may be taken as a diplomatic arrangement in a geopolitical sense. However, a review of the records about the western voyages of Zheng He (1371-1433) and earlier records of the Qin and Han Dynasty shows that South China Sea was already documented in China's foreign transportation history. In particular, the industrial development and Asian colonialism by the capitalist west after the Opium War required massive Chinese laborers, which generated a grand overseas migration rush of the Chinese. The Southeast Asian Migration was one of the main routes of Chinese labor export. Moreover, intellectuals also migrated southward to satisfy trading, private teaching and newspaper office needs. Therefore, we need to include the cultural transmission arising from the grand migration of people when we talk about Chinese poetry.
   At the end of 1885, Huang Zunxian, who had been away from home for 8 years, resigned as a diplomat and returned from San Francisco to his hometown Jiaying. He wrote the poem “Little Daughter” to capture his interactions with his ten-year-old daughter during a reunion. At this merry moment of reunion, the daughter asked about the outside world. When the father was ready to roll out the map and point out the geographic location, he suddenly cast his eye on a bug resting at a corner in the pale yellow light. The map and the location he pointed to were irrelevant in such an environment. Huang Zunxian thus designed a context of conflicts between the inner and outer worlds as represented by the map and the room. Huang Zunxian is apparently intricate in his attitude. Why would map knowledge inevitably lead to conflicts with the traditional home life of leisure? In the environment of reminiscence, the poet intentionally included a map, a token of the outside world. It seemed to have changed the stable state of home life. This poem thus highlighted the feelings of discomfort and conflict that a returning envoy had during traditional home life at the end of the Qing Dynasty. If the map is a metaphor and a window intentionally included in traditional life, the external maritime perspective and experiences have secretly caused a fission to the interior peace and stability.
   Yang Yunshi, as secretary and translator of the consulate in Singapore on the eve of the fall of the Qing Dynasty, had Southeast Asia as the subject to talk about in his poetry, which explicitly demonstrated his political anxiety and national stance. Yang Yunshi wrote “Sorrows on Southeast Asia” in 1910, which depicted the pioneering stories of Chinese diaspora. In particular, he had in-depth observations and discussions on the rise and fall of Chinese and western colonial forces in Southeast Asia. His poetry marked a milestone in the writing of Chinese poetry in Southeast Asia from a diplomatic and geopolitical perspective. He depicted a route of migration across the South China Sea, underscoring that his lament for Southeast Asia was a regret for the Chinese kingdom's loss of preemptive entry into Southeast Asia.
   The poem demonstrated the worries of diplomatic officials at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Through the history of exchanges between China and Southeast Asia, he re-established the response of poetry to “territory”. This is a view of Southeast Asia from a capitalist perspective. However, the unavoidable “crisis” and “homesickness” therein show the collapse of the tribute system. The Qing Dynasty already lost the foothold to define the order and border of the world.
   As a descriptive frame, the South China Sea effectively explains the different migration contexts of the intellectuals and establishes the dialectics between Chinese poetry and civilization and between border and nature. The oceanic scenes fostered by Chinese poetry, the tribute and trading history of the Chinese kingdom and its surrounding countries and the reform of the world system, the evolution of the Chinese diaspora, the transmission of Chinese culture, identification and homesickness, colonial experiences, the geography and diplomacy of contemporary China and the home and national crisis arising from politics and economy have all become part of the unique features of overseas Chinese poetry and constituted a new perspective to look into the Chinese poetry system dialectically.


Ko, C. (2018). Chinese poetry and South China Sea. The NTU Journal of East Asian Culture, 5, 119-136. doi:10.6579/NJEAC.201804_(5).0007.

Chia-Cian Ko
Professor, Department of Chinese Literature



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