Keats's Afterlife in Twentieth-Century China

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This paper puts together a trajectory of Keats’s reception in China from appropriation to oblivion and then to restoration in line with three distinctive moments in Chinese modern history. It explores the interaction between the original text and its foreign context, particularly complex in Keats’s case for his often misconceived image as an escapist aesthete who seemed much out of place in 20th China undergoing violent political and ideological changes. While this aestheticism confined Keats’s influence to a smaller circle than that of his more radical contemporaries such as Byron and Shelley, his less discursive and more ambiguous poetry also ensured its survival in a repressive political context and continued to appeal to different generations of Chinese readers with its deep sympathy for fellow human beings and honesty about the human condition.

Keats’s Afterlife in Twentieth-Century China

Ou Li
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

1.        Ever since his Chinese readers introduced Keats to China at the beginning of the twentieth century, Keats’s afterlife in China has gone through drastic changes alongside the violent alterations experienced by the nation. Just as Auden writes of Yeats who, after his death, “became his admirers” and whose words “are modified in the guts of the living” (“In Memory of W. B. Yeats”), so Keats’s reception in twentieth-century China has involved the author and the text as much as his Chinese readers, translators, and critics, the latter of whom admired Keats with their own cultural perspectives on the one hand and embraced him for his foreignness on the other. Since different generations of his Chinese readers shaped Keats’s reception in China, and all of them had to wrestle with their own historical context, the ensuing discussion of Keats’s afterlife in twentieth-century China is divided into three stages, roughly following the periodization of the national history: first, from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1949, the late Qing to the Republican era when Keats was introduced and popularized; second, from 1949 to the late 1970s, the Communist China era leading up to the Cultural Revolution when Keats was slighted and almost silenced; and third, from the late 1970s to the end of the century, the post-Cultural Revolution era in which Keats underwent a revival.

2.        While a similar fate was shared by all the major English Romantics introduced to China, Keats, who is often misconceived as the pure artist, presented a rather unique case, different from his more radical contemporaries such as Byron and Shelley, whose more explicitly political poetry had greater bearing on or underwent fiercer contention with the local context throughout China’s history. [1]  When Keats’s apparently apolitical poetry was caught in the tumultuous historical changes of twentieth-century China, the interaction between the original text and its foreign context became more complex and had to be teased out more carefully. From the initial introductory stage, Keats was read and admired in a small circle of Chinese readers, mostly poets and scholars, while Byron and Shelley were popular among a big audience that included writers and radical intellectuals alike. Yet with his aesthetic appeal, Keats influenced several leading Chinese poets in their exploration of new forms of Chinese poetry, and in this sense his aestheticism became no less revolutionary than the ideological iconoclasm of Byron and Shelley, only subtler and more profound. On the other hand, during the politically more repressive Communist era, when literature and art were reduced to mere instruments of party propaganda, Keats’s poetry, although suffering no less than other Romantics’, managed to survive less scathed exactly for its comparatively less discursive and inciting nature. If Byron’s rebellious spirit posed a threat to an authoritarian state and thus needed to be severely censured and obliterated, then Keats’s aestheticism simply fell into neglect and dismissal. Ironically, however, when Western poetry and art began regaining their ground in China in the late twentieth century, Keats was read and studied chiefly among specialists rather than common readers. Throughout the twentieth century in China, Keats was very much an odd figure whose seemingly innocuous aestheticism paradoxically posed a strong challenge to a nation reeling with political metamorphoses. This paper, therefore, while putting together a trajectory of Keats’s fate in twentieth-century China, aims to explore the more acute, though veiled, tension between the violent shaping force of China’s historical and cultural context and Keats’s poetry that nevertheless constantly resisted the force with its own steadfastness.


3.        Keats entered into China at roughly the same time as other Romantics in the late Qing period when Western and traditional Chinese cultures clashed most intensely, and when the first wave of Western literature rushed into China in sweeping power. Keats is first mentioned by Lu Xun, the leading figure of modern Chinese literature and the New Culture Movement, in his early essay “On the Demoniac Poets,” published in 1907. Lu Xun, however, includes Keats only for dismissal: “John Keats, despite his being labeled as a demoniac poet, does not belong to the same school as Byron, and so will not be discussed here” (1:85). [2]  The editor’s note explains: “Keats’s works exemplify liberalism and were affirmed by Byron and Shelley. But he has an ‘art for art’s sake’, aesthetic inclination, hence not belonging to Byron’s school according to Lu Xun” (1:112.100). This is not the only time Lu Xun mentions Keats. In “A Happy Family” written in 1924, Lu Xun satirically depicts a writer composing a story with such a title. While the writer is busy defining standards for “a happy family,” he decides that the married couple should be reading Byron’s or Keats’s poetry, but then decides against it and settles for Wilde’s An Ideal Husband instead (2:37). In “From Self to Others,” published in 1934, Lu Xun starts the essay with the example of Keats as “one of the geniuses who were killed by the words of philistines” (5:502).

4.        These references to Keats are too brief to give one a definite idea as to Lu Xun’s stance towards Keats, but in comparison to Byron, who is the hero in his essay on the demoniac poets, Keats is obviously less attended to by Lu Xun. One does not know whether Lu Xun had read any of Keats’s poetry either. If he had, it would be in translation, for he did not speak English. Lu Xun’s knowledge about Keats and English Romantic poets in general must have come indirectly from Japanese or German sources, two foreign languages in which he was versed. From the distinction he makes between Keats and Byron and his presentation of Keats as a victim of the philistine world, one can detect in Lu Xun traces of the mainstream Victorian view on Keats as the weak aesthete, which must have been passed on to Lu Xun through Keats critics in Japan or Germany. With his tremendous influence during his lifetime and afterwards, particularly after 1949, Lu Xun’s take on Keats as a major poet who stands alone shaped the ensuing reception of Keats in China to considerable degrees. But one should not overestimate his influence, since many Chinese readers of Keats after Lu Xun had direct access to English sources, which gave them a more holistic picture of Keats, especially after the reputation of Keats steadily rose from the 1920s onwards in Britain and America.

5.        Lu Xun’s references to Keats correspond to the gradual popularization of Keats in China in the first three decades of the twentieth century, with the 1921 commemoration of Keats’s centenary as a milestone. In April 1921, a two-page article, “Centennial Commemoration for the British Poet Keats,” written by Yu Zhi, [3]  scholar and social activist, was published in The Eastern Miscellany. It quotes the epigrammatic ending of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and the opening of Endymion (in translation), and includes a portrait of Keats as well as photographs of Keats’s tomb and Keats House at Hampstead. Considering Keats a precursor of Aestheticism, the author claims, “taking Beauty as Truth is both Keats’s strength and weakness” (71). When discussing Keats’s poems, he also exemplifies an attitude similar to the Victorians’ toward Keats. Commenting on Keats’s sensuousness, he writes not without condescension, “Keats’s life was nothing but a series of sensations” (71). He also promotes the same myth as did the Victorians: “having always been weak in health, Keats became sick after working too hard on poetry from 1818 to 1820” (72). Biased as it sounds, the article made the first proper introduction of Keats to China.

6.        The following month saw the publication of another memorializing article, “Keats in the Centennial Commemoration” by Shen Bing, [4]  novelist and critic, in Fiction Monthly. The one-page article opens the issue and states that Keats “has long been known by all,” suggesting Keats’s familiarity among the Chinese readership by then (1). The author laments Keats’s fate, for Keats, like many other geniuses, lived a life of obscurity and remained neglected and misunderstood after death. The article concludes by quoting Keats’s famous words in the original, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death” (Letters 1:394), reminding one of Matthew Arnold’s memorable quotation of the same words and his warmly reassuring affirmation, “he is; he is with Shakespeare” (Arnold 291). The same author reports in the following issue of Fiction Monthly on the London exhibition in commemoration of Keats’s centenary (5).

7.        The commemoration, however, was rather moderate in comparison with the celebration of Byron’s centenary three years later conducted by various journals. The most extravagant one was carried out by Fiction Monthly, which compiled a special issue for Byron composed of eleven articles written by a team of most influential poets and intellectuals of the time. This is hardly surprising, for Byron’s (and Shelley’s) more openly radical poetry resonated among Chinese readers who were anxious for the future of their own country, which was caught in chaos and unrest after it had experienced a Revolution in 1911 and a Restoration in 1915 in quick succession. In comparison, Keats appeared less provocative, since his poetry was considered set in a realm remote from reality. After these passionate but brief celebrations of Keats in 1921, Keats’s popularity was confined to a small group of poets and scholars, almost slight in comparison with the idolatry Byron inspired. Even in his admirers’ eyes, Keats was a pure artist with no concern for the actual world. Keats therefore was popularized together with other Romantics in China in the wake of the New Culture Movement, but with his image as an aesthete, he was overshadowed by his more overtly political contemporaries.

8.        Small as the scale of Keats’s influence might be, the common admiration for Keats shown by some leading Chinese poets powerfully suggests the profound impact Keats had upon the formation of the modern Chinese poetic tradition. In the 1920s, a handful of poets, Xu Zhimo, Wen Yiduo, and Zhu Xiang, stood out as Keats’s ardent admirers and earliest translators. All three poets were associated with the Crescent Moon Society, a prominent poetic school in the New Culture Movement co-founded by Xu Zhimo and Wen Yiduo in the 1920s. It was often labeled as promoting aestheticism for its emphasis on formalistic elements of “new poetry,” that is, modern Chinese poetry written in vernacular Chinese as opposed to traditional Chinese poetry written in classical Chinese language and meter. All three poet-admirers of Keats died young. Xu Zhimo (1897–1931), usually regarded as the most important modern Chinese poet, died in a plane crash at the age of thirty-four. Wen Yiduo (1899–1946), a major modern Chinese poet who contributed to a more regulated form of “new poetry,” was assassinated by secret agents of Kuomintang for his political activism at the age of forty-seven; and Zhu Xiang (1904–33), poet and translator, committed suicide at the age of twenty-nine. All three poets, like most of their older and younger contemporaries mentioned above and below, had studied overseas, an experience that not only exposed them to Keats and other Western authors but shaped their own paths as Chinese poets. In fact, among modern Chinese writers, more than half had overseas studying experiences which in a sense became a shaping force for modern Chinese literature (Zheng 12–13), in the same way that students specialized in other fields in their study abroad led China to its path of modernization after their return. [5]  From 1918 to 1922, Xu first went to Clark University in Massachusetts and then Columbia before he studied at Cambridge University; Wen was at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1922 to 1925; and Zhu transferred from Laurence University at Wisconsin to the University of Chicago and later to the University of Ohio from 1927 to 1929.

9.        Xu Zhimo began to admire Keats as well as other Romantics in his Cambridge years, 1921–22. His article “Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’” published in Fiction Monthly in 1925, reads like lecture notes on Keats’s famous ode and translates its first five stanzas in prose. It interweaves the prose translation with commentary, which emphasizes Keats’s chameleonic quality, paralleling him with Shakespeare, the wording of the passage a loose translation of Keats’s “camelion poet” letter. He comments in admiration that Keats becomes a weeping cloud when singing to Melancholy and turns into a sweet kernel while celebrating Autumn (2). The article also includes excerpts from “Why did I laugh tonight?” and “After dark vapours have oppressed our plains,” both in English, and concludes with a portrait of Keats and the original “Ode to a Nightingale” in English.

10.        Keats appears in Wen Yiduo’s first “new poem,” “The Western Bank,” the epigraph of which is a quotation from Keats’s original lines in “There are four seasons in the mind of man”: “He has a lusty spring, when fancy clear / Takes in all beauty within an easy span” (Red Candle 30). The poem is included in Wen’s first poetry collection, Red Candle, published in 1923, which pays tribute to Keats in other poems as well. In a markedly Keatsian poem “Autumn Colors,” the poet addresses the season as Keats did a hundred years ago: “I will sing your color / by borrowing from Yishan [6]  and Keats” (126). Especially dedicated to Keats is the poem, “The Loyal Minister of Art” (Red Candle 86–87), in which Keats is regarded as the only loyal minister of the King of Art:

Countless ministers were like pearls,
Attached to the royal dragon robe
Of the King of Art,
Together admired his brilliance with the same heart;
Among them, Keats alone
Was a fiery bead embraced and upheld by dragons,
Its flame outshining all other pearls. (1–7)
In the second stanza, the poet apostrophizes Keats as
Poet of Poets!
All officials of the court were only
Capable courtiers of Art;
You alone were his loyal minister.
“Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty.”
Your genius, I know,
Was saved for the King ordained by heaven.
Complacent, other ministers reigned in their own domains;
How could they be worthy of you? (8–16)
The last stanza celebrates Keats as an eternal soul in the kingdom of Art:
Ah, you exhausted your life to death;
You became indeed a martyr of Art!
The loyal and devoted dead soul!
Your name was not writ in water,
But inscribed on the Ding [7]  of the divine kingdom of Art! (17–21)
The poem, though presenting Keats as the familiar figure of an aesthete, challenges the disparagement of aestheticism by empowering Keats with political metaphors to be the only loyal minister serving the King of Art whose name will be immortalized. By inverting Keats’s original words, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” Wen literally inscribes Keats’s name in his poem. In elevating Keats above other poets, Wen pledges his allegiance not only to Keats but to Art as a loyal devotee himself. The importance he attached to the formal beauty of “new poetry,” a significant contribution he made to the modern Chinese poetic tradition, cannot be dissociated from his unreserved devotion to Keats as most fully exemplified in this poem.

11.        Keats often appears as Wen’s presider in his prose as well as in his poetry. In his article, “On the New Poems Published in This Year’s Weekly,” Wen cites the last lines of “When I have fears that I will cease to be” in English as an example of “true poetry” (New Poetry 4). In his “Commentary on Winter Night,” the first collection of “new poems” by Yu Pingbo, he uses Keats again as the exemplar of true poetry on account of Keats’s firm command of words, supporting his view with the quotation of the original lines in Endymion: “Obstinate, silence came heavily again / Feeling about for its old couch of space / And airy cradle” (New Poetry 35–36).

12.        One of Wen’s poems, “Rain of Tears,” was reviewed in Supplement to Beijing Daily on 2 April 1925: “the poem does not have the kind of verbal painting as found in Keats, but it is still a poem that could only have been composed by Keats” (Zhu, Essays 2:346). The same reviewer also criticizes Wen’s wordiness in another article, “On Wen Yiduo’s Poetry,” in which he suggests that one can compare Wen with Keats in the sense that Keats’s earlier works are also extravagant, with images crowded like “summer reeds or unpruned branches” (Zhu, Prose 122)—different than his mature ones in which not a single world can be added or taken off. The commentator is Zhu Xiang, another fervent poet-admirer of Keats in China. In his correspondence with Xiang Peiliang on 23 April 1925, Lu Xun writes: “Zhu Xiang seems to have fallen as well, and nobody mentions him any more—even though he is ‘the Chinese Keats’” (7:283). As the editor speculates, Lu Xun may have misremembered Zhu Xiang’s comment on Wen’s poem quoted above (7:284.8), but the identification with Keats stayed with Zhu Xiang ever since. By “fallen,” Lu Xun seems to refer to Zhu’s increasing association with the Crescent Moon Society (7:284.7); Lu Xun did not share the Society’s aesthetic pursuits.

13.        Zhu Xiang himself, however, was not happy with the label of “the Chinese Keats.” In his poem “Returning South,” included in his first collection of poems Summer published in 1925, he expresses nostalgia for his hometown in the south by comparing himself to a lonely young swallow:

Many friends meant well;
They suggested that I return to the jade cage;
They said they would take me to Keats’s nightingale,
To correct my tuneless songs. (Zhu 15)
Apparently self-deprecating, the poet refuses to take his friends’ well-meaning suggestions by insisting on his own cultural identity: “They don’t know that I am only a small bird of the Orient” (Zhu 16).

14.        Despite his claim for his own identity instead of being “the Chinese Keats,” Zhu seemed often haunted by Keats. In “Visiting Beihai Park,” an essay describing his excursion to the famous site, the poet cannot help but remember lines of Keats’s “Fancy” when raindrops begin to fall on the lake:

Ever let the Fancy roam
Pleasure is never at home:
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth,
Like to bubbles rain pelteth. (Zhu 171; quoted in English)
In the poet’s remembrance of his poet-friend Meng Wei (“Meng Wei’s Death”), he imagines that his friend must be dwelling in the paradise together with Keats and Li He [8]  (Zhu 186). When he discusses his newly-composed English poems [9]  based on Chinese mythology in the article, “The Dialogue between the Sun and the Moon,” he talks about various poetic images of the sun, and does not forget to include Keats’s “barred clouds” that “bloom the soft-dying day” (quoted in English) in “To Autumn” (Zhu 200). In another essay on “Ancient Ballads,” he pays tribute to Keats’s “wonderfully sensuous” poetry, citing “I stood tiptoe on a little hill” and The Eve of St. Agnes as having qualities that can be “rarely found in Chinese poetry.” On the other hand, he also gives several examples from ancient Chinese ballads that, he writes, “can only be barely rivaled by Keats even when Keats is at his best” (Prose 80–81). In his correspondence with his friend Luo Niansheng (“Letter to Luo Niansheng”), he acknowledges Keats’s influence on his own poetry, mentioning that his poem “Wang Jiao” is more lyrical than narrative, belonging to the same category as Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes (Prose 246). Like Eve, “Wang Jiao” is a narrative romance, ending tragically with the titled heroine dead after being abandoned by her lover.

15.        From Keats’s prominent presence in his poetry and prose, one can clearly see Keats’s influence on Zhu Xiang, but the influence seems to have also brought him a sense of anxiety. The tension between the awareness of his own cultural roots and his fascination with English poetry seems particularly strong in him, which may have something to do with his continuous endeavor to blend the two cultures in his short life, as seen in his pioneering work in translation, especially of English Romantic poetry. In his translations, Keats is given an eminent position as well. His collection of translated poems, titled Myrtles: Translations of Foreign Poems, published in 1936 posthumously but actually translated in 1928 while he was studying in Chicago, includes five poems by Keats, only next in number to the nine selections from Shakespeare. They are “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “To Autumn,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and The Eve of St. Agnes. All the translations are rendered in the form of Chinese “new poetry,” that is, in vernacular Chinese and often with a loose sense of meter or rhyme. After Zhu Xiang, other translators of Keats followed him in adopting the free verse form, with some trying to capture the original metrical pattern wherever it was possible.

16.        After the 1920s, Keats’s haunting presence in China continued to be felt not only in poetry but in scholarship as well. Fei Jianzhao, professor at Wuhan University, stood out in the 1930s as the most important Keats scholar in China; he admired Keats so much that he would only dress up when teaching Keats, and even blamed Fanny Brawne for killing Keats. He died of tuberculosis as well. His writings on Keats’s life, aesthetics, and philosophy were mainly published in Monthly Journal of Literature and Art. In “Keats and Shakespeare,” from the April 1934 issue, Fei extensively quotes, in translation, from Keats’s letters while tracing Shakespeare’s influence on Keats. The article covers almost all key passages on Keats’s poetics, such as Shakespeare as Keats’s presider and as the man with neutral intellect, Shakespeare’s intensity and negative capability, and Keats’s poetic axioms and dramatic ambition. It also includes a passage from King Stephens in the original, possibly the first mention of Keats’s drama in China (147).

17.        On 1 December 1940, the fourth issue of Western Literature included a special column on Keats, collecting Keats’s poems translated by Wu Xinghua, poet, translator, and scholar regarded by many as a young genius. The collection includes “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” “Human Seasons,” “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Bright Star” (retitled as “Last Sonnet”), and “When I have fears.” Translations of Keats’s letters by Song Tifen (Song Qi) are found in the column as well, containing Keats’s self-reflection on Endymion, his confession of his dramatic ambition, discussion of Milton, as well as a letter to Fanny.

18.        By 1949, Keats had already been commonly taught in universities. In Taiwanese scholar Qi Bangyuan’s autobiography Ju Liu River, she recalls the English Poetry course taught by Zhu Guangqian, the founder of aesthetics in twentieth-century China, at Wuhan University during the Sino-Japanese War years. Zhu started the course with the Romantic Era rather than following the chronological order in The Golden Treasury edited by Francis T. Palgrave, and Qi remembers her first looking into Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (195) and about ten other poems by Keats, including “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “To Autumn,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and The Eve of St. Agnes (208–09).


19.        The canonical status of Keats at universities can be seen in “On Teaching English Poetry,” the first article that involves Keats published in Journal of Literature and Art after the founding of New China in 1949. The article was written by Bian Zhilin, an important poet, scholar, and translator of Shakespeare, who recalls his experience of studying and teaching English poetry from 1929 when he entered Peking University as an undergraduate. Like Zhu Guangqian, Bian’s American professor also started the course directly with the fourth chapter of The Golden Treasury, “Romantic Poetry.” When he was in his second year, the course was taught by Xu Zhimo, whose syllabus was entirely confined to the nineteenth century, with particular attention to the Romantics. This preference for Romanticism, Bian reflects, had its historical inevitability, for the tensions between revolutionary fervor and escapism and between idealism and disillusionment, which were most fully exemplified in Romantic poetry, had a particular resonance for Chinese readers, who had been caught in complex fluxes of “colonial, bourgeois, and proletarian revolutions” ever since 1911 (32). Byron, Shelley, and Keats, the best-known Western poets in China then, Bian writes, were “revolutionary poets,” but their revolution was bourgeois, and they gradually became escapists when their ideals failed to be realized (31). After cataloguing the escapism in Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, Bian acknowledges Keats’s difference determined by his humbler “petty bourgeois” background, but he concludes that the cruel reality Keats faced only turned him away to romance and the sensuous imaginary world with the “wings of poesy” (31). It was Keats’s poetry “that defined the course of ensuing bourgeois poetry, which turned from ‘revolutionary efforts’ to ‘escapism’” (31). Bian also discusses the influence of Romanticism on modern Chinese poetry, especially the Crescent Moon poetry, which became increasingly escapist and bourgeois. This tendency did not change until Mao Zedong’s 1942 “Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art” (32).

20.        The politicized reading of Keats and other “bourgeois poets” in Bian’s article published right at the beginning of Communist China suggests the dramatic change of the political climate, when the nation began to be firmly controlled by the official ideology established by Mao’s “Yan’an Talks.” Given in 1942, Mao’s “Yan’an Talks” became the most important guideline for literature and art in Communist China. Their essence was the politicization of literature and art, which were deprived of their autonomy and reduced to the means to serve the end of achieving the Party’s political aims. In the field of foreign literature, the author’s class stance, particularly relevant because of his or her bourgeois background, was the most important standard in determining the value of a literary work. In the field of Chinese literature and art, the Westernized tendency after the May Fourth Movement was criticized; whether or not a writer or an artist would employ Chinese or nationalist artistic forms was no longer a matter of taste, but a vital issue of political stance (Gao 352). In such a context, the apolitical Keats well established before 1949 was naturally disfavored and became an increasingly marginalized figure. Even when touched upon, Keats was viewed with reservation as someone who, starting from a lower class background, could have become, but eventually failed to be, a thorough revolutionary. This politicized Keats took almost a U-turn from the pre-1949 overaestheticized Keats. While in both cases Keats was appropriated, the pre-1949 appropriation was essentially literary in nature, whereas the post-1949 one was ideological. As a result, Keats almost sank into oblivion in both translation and scholarship in Communist China, even when translations of Western literary classics were organized by the government in early 1950s.

21.        The politicization of Keats as well as other Romantics in China further was exacerbated by the introduction of the Soviet literary theory of progressive and reactionary Romanticism. The 1953 British Literary History edited by Gorky World Literature Research Institute at Moscow, for example, became almost the official guide in reading English literature in China. Its preface first analyzes the increasingly intensified social conflicts in Romantic Britain so as to determine the nature of the class struggle, thus defining British Romanticism as the “product” of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution (3). It then divides the British Romantics into two camps: the reactionary, that is, the Lakers; and the progressive, unsurprisingly consisting of Byron and Shelley, who take up most of the space in the entire book as well as in the preface. The Byron chapter is more than a hundred and thirty pages long, the Shelley one a hundred pages, whereas Keats is given less than thirty pages.

22.        The Keats chapter in British Literary History opens by calling Keats a “complex and important phenomenon,” occupying a special position in English Romanticism (158). It defines Keats as divided from the Lake poets because of his humanitarianism, materialism, and limited radicalism, and notes his affinity with the revolutionary Romantics, citing Shelley’s and Byron’s championship of Keats as evidence. However, his aestheticism, according to the chapter, also made him different from the two, who regarded poetry as weapon for political protest (158). The chapter then introduces Keats’s life briefly and discusses his poetry, with emphasis on his early “political” poems, such as “On Peace” and several poems dedicated to Hunt, which are considered progressive but still remote from the actual condition of British political struggle (162). The sensuous love celebrated in Endymion is regarded as a protest against the puritan hypocrisy of British bourgeoisie, and Keats’s Hellenism is aligned with the revolutionary Byron and Shelley, suggesting his dissatisfaction with reality (167). The post-Endymion stage is described as revealing Keats’s awakening social consciousness, exemplified in his keen awareness of hardships endured by the Scottish and Irish people he witnessed on his Northern tour (168–69). Hyperion is interpreted as manifesting great social revolution, namely the replacement of feudal society by the capitalist one, and the historical idea conveyed by the poem that the new will triumph over the old suggests Keats’s deep doubts about the prospect of the capitalist society (173–75). The three narrative poems, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Lamia, reveal Keats’s hostility or even hatred towards private ownership and exploitative society, echoing Shaw’s famous comment on Isabella (176–77). [10]  The Fall of Hyperion is considered Keats’s greatest poem, in which he criticizes his own earlier aestheticism, and replaces it with a new understanding of humanitarianism that develops into a deep sympathy for the people enslaved by the pernicious social system (178–79). The great odes, melancholy as they are, bespeak optimism for future mankind despite present social injustice (180). “To Autumn,” for example, depicts the agricultural labor of a female peasant (182). The Cap and Bells is also mentioned for its satire of aristocracy and royalty (183). The last part of the chapter discusses Keats’s style, and attributes his concrete imagery to his realism and materialism, thus distinguishing Keats from the reactionary Romantics (184–86). The chapter concludes that, although Keats gave up imaginary beauty and came closer to heroic beauty found in reality, he failed to fully develop it (186). This was achieved only by Byron and Shelley, who participated in people’s political struggle for liberation (186).

23.        Another key Soviet reference that Chinese scholars often resorted to was Anikst’s Outline of British Literary History, published in Moscow in 1956 and translated in China in 1959 by several renowned Chinese scholars of Western literary studies. The chapter on Romanticism makes the same division of the Romantics into the reactionary or passive and the progressive or revolutionary, but the division is based on the two camps’ differing attitudes toward the French Revolution. The reactionary side was represented by Burke, the progressive by Priestly, Paine, and Wollstonecraft (274–75). Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey are examples of turncoats (282). The publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812 marked the formation of revolutionary Romanticism, but Anikst points out that Byron failed to transcend bourgeois democratic principles, whereas Shelley was the spokesman for the masses’ socialist struggles (282). Keats is not even mentioned in the introductory section. Again, the space the author gives to each Romantic in the chapter is telling enough: the Lakers, en masse, take up ten pages; Byron alone, thirty two; Shelley, fourteen; and Keats, faring better than the Lakers, eight pages. Scott, for his affinity with realism, is allotted twenty pages.

24.        The eight-page section on Keats defines him as the third progressive Romantic; this claim is supported by his association with Leigh Hunt, whose circle was “against the ruling class in Britain” (359), and by the affirmative comments of Byron and Shelley on Keats. According to Anikst, “Keats was disapproved of by the capitalist aristocracy but deemed a comrade by the revolutionary Romantics. This fact alone is sufficient to determine which camp Keats belonged to in his age” (340). Again, Keats’s early political poems are cited, and Isabella is also singled out for its accusation of the capitalist exploitation of the laboring class (341). Keats’s progressive Hellenism is contrasted with the reactionary Romantics’ ideals in medievalism (342), with the medievalism in The Eve of St. Agnes conveniently disregarded. Hyperion is interpreted as an allegory of the failure of the French Revolution, and affirmed for its overall revolutionary stance (343). Anikst seems on the whole quite sympathetic with Keats, fiercely against the bourgeois aesthetes who claim Keats as their precursor, but her remark that Keats’s death was “probably” caused by reactionary critics’ malicious mockery and attack still betrays the deep-seated influence of the myth surrounding Keats’s death propagated chiefly by these bourgeois aesthetes (339–40).

25.        The dominant influence of the Soviet theory is evident in Zha Liangzheng’s (Mu Dan’s) preface to his translation, Selected Poems of Keats, the publication of which in 1958 went much against the current. A leading Chinese modernist poet under the influence of William Empson, with whom he studied at the National Southwestern Associated University before getting his PhD at Chicago, Zha was also the most prestigious and affinitive poet-translator of Keats and other Romantic poets (Byron and Pushkin most famously) in twentieth-century China. Given the harsh political climate, the poet-translator is clearly on guard in the preface, quoting from the authoritative 1953 British Literary History discussed above to define Keats’s class stance “as oppositional to the reactionary Lakers and affinitive to the revolutionary romantics,” as well as emphasizing Keats’s liberalism and social awareness through his association with Leigh Hunt and his early poems such as “To Kosciusko” (365–66). Zha also attempts to legitimize Keats by his high reputation among Soviet readers (368). Dancing with shackles, he can only convey his admiration for Keats in these politically correct terms. Had he not done so, it is questionable whether the publication of the translation of Keats, the less progressive Romantic, would have been permitted in the first place. On the other hand, even in Soviet standard, Keats was a safer choice than “reactionary” Romantics. In this case, it was probably Keats’s middling political position that saved him from the fate of being completely forbidden. The translation, though not likely to have reached a big readership, nevertheless ensured that Keats’s poetry continued to survive, however precariously, even in such a repressive time. As to whether or not Zha picked Keats exactly for his not so overtly political poetry under his own restraining political circumstances, however, one is only left with conjecture. In the preface, however, Zha strives to give Keats a fair aesthetic evaluation as much as he is allowed. He highlights Keats’s unrivalled influence upon subsequent poetry, and vindicates Keats by freeing him from the charges of being an exemplar of art for art’s sake and progenitor of sensuous decadents made by “bourgeois critics” (365). More importantly, he was the first Chinese scholar and translator to point out the sane and healthy nature of Keats’s poetry, the concrete and truthful qualities of Keatsian beauty, and the underlying sense of irony in Keats’s celebration of artistic immortality, despite the fact that Keats “was not a revolutionary Romantic as Byron and Shelley” (366). He concludes that Keats’s poetry is “bright, tough, and genuine,” with neither Byron’s pessimism and despair nor Shelley’s utopianism, but contains “a half-illusory, half-concrete world full of human warmth,” “hence conducive to the fostering of socialist taste of the readership”—the last note betraying the repressive political environment again (367–68).Soon after the publication of the translation, Zha was labeled as a counterrevolutionary for his enlistment in the Chinese Expedition Force for Burma to aid the British forces against the Japanese during WWII, and then worked in a library under surveillance for almost two decades. He translated Don Juan during this period (1962–65).

26.         Zha’s Keats translations were quickly drowned in the overall enthusiasm for the headlong Great Leap Forward Campaign launched in 1958. This was Mao’s ambitious scheme to rapidly transform the agrarian China into a socialist nation through industrialization and collectivization, which ended up in famine. In the field of literature and art, the “Great Leap Forward” meant to attack the tendencies to “elevate the classic and debase our contemporary literature” and those that “preferred Western to Chinese literature.” Keats became an increasingly minor poet in Chinese readership and scholarship, as evident in the standard university textbook Western European Literary History, first published in 1964 and used until almost the end of the twentieth century. As the title of the Romanticism section, “British Romanticism, Byron, Shelley,” indicates, Keats is given much lighter weight than the other two poets. His class stance is defined as anti-feudal in Isabella and The Eve of St. Agnes, progressive in Hyperion, but escapist after all in his “aestheticism” (2:67–68).


27.        With the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 and the ensuing sudden outburst of the long-repressed craving for art and poetry, especially Western ones, among Chinese readers, the last two and a half decades of the twentieth century witnessed a gradual revival of Keats. In 1983, Zhu Weiji’s translation of Keats’s poetry, Selected Poems of Keats, was published, but Zhu, also the translator of Don Juan, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost, had already died during the Cultural Revolution. By also including Endymion, Hyperion, and Lamia, this selection significantly expands Zha’s translation of sixty-five poems which are mainly short lyrics, the longest being Isabella and The Eve of St. Agnes.

28.        In 1991, the most authoritative scholarly work on English Romanticism in China, Wang Zuoliang’s History of English Romantic Poetry, was published, giving the most holistic, in-depth, and sympathetic review of Keats up to the day. Wang, who returned to China in 1949 after obtaining B. Litt at Oxford, was a leading scholar of British literary studies in the latter half of the twentieth century. He was also an enthusiastic champion of Zha Liangzheng’s poetry and translation, on top of being Zha’s fellow student at the Southwestern Associated University and his dear friend for a lifetime. Wang’s scholarly work became a milestone on the path of Keats’s restoration in China. Unlike the two Soviet literary histories, the Keats chapter in Wang’s History is the longest, longer than all the other five chapters on the rest of the “Big Six,” reaching almost a hundred pages, whereas Byron is given thirty pages, and Shelley, sixty. The chapter is a thoroughgoing introduction with generous quotations from Keats’s poetry (in translation), starting from the very first “Imitation of Spenser” and going through the early poems, Endymion, post-Endymion sonnets, short lyrics, narratives, the plays, the two Hyperions, and the great odes. Quotations from Keats’s letters (in translation) are also extensive, including the most important passages on poetics, such as the “authenticity of the Imagination,” “negative capability,” “the camelion poet,” poetry with “a palpable design,” Keats’s “poetic axioms,” “mansion of many apartments,” and the “vale of soul-making.” The last part of the chapter concludes with Keats’s distinctive features, including his poetic status as among the greatest English poets, his amazingly rapid progress made especially in his “Great Year,” his deep insights into life and poetry conveyed in his letters, and his transitional role in taking after Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton and passing his legacy on to Tennyson, the Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne, Wallace Stevens, and most relevantly, to Xu Zhimo and Wen Yiduo in China. As Wang concludes, Keats is both a nineteenth-century man and our contemporary, having had to face many problems of modernity. He thus highlights Keats’s post-Romantic qualities (292), which has been a central issue in Western Keats scholarship in the latter half of the twentieth century as well. Throughout the chapter, one can see that Wang had kept up-to-date with Keats scholarship in the English-speaking world for the past four decades from his citation of secondary sources, which include leading Keats scholars from the beginning of the century to the 1980s, such as John Middleton Murry, Douglas Bush, Walter Jackson Bate, Robert Gittings, and the more recent Helen Vendler. The fact that China had been cut off from the West for about four decades made Wang’s work all the more impressive a feat. Wang’s work is therefore historic in the sense that it resumes the dialogue between Chinese and Western scholars and in turn, Keats’s afterlife is regenerated when China itself was experiencing a regeneration.

29.        In 1995, a symposium was jointly hosted by Chinese Translators Association and Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe (People’s Literature Press) to commemorate Keats’s bicentennial, two years after which the current standard Keats translation by Tu An was put to press. The translation opens with the great odes, followed by fifty-five sonnets, lyrics and ballads, narratives, and finally romances and epics, which include the entire Endymion and Hyperion. The translator’s preface encapsulates the sense of transition from the politicized reading of the last four decades that slighted Keats to the recent revival of the poet’s reputation. Keats’s political stance is stressed as before: “In terms of his opposition to tyranny and oppression and longing for democracy and freedom, Keats stands together with Byron and Shelley, even though he has not suggested revolution and reform like they have” (3).Citing even more early poems to demonstrate Keats’s “democratic awareness,” Tu An also quotes Shaw’s association of Isabella with The Capital as Soviet critics did. On the other hand, he points out the Shakespearean qualities in Keats and discusses Keats’s letters. Most remarkably, the translator introduces the more up-to-date criticism from the English-speaking world, which challenges the earlier evaluation of Keats as a sensuous aesthete with more recent findings on the poet’s close engagement with history and politics (3). Though not directly citing any English secondary source, his remark reveals an awareness of the historicized reading of Keats prevalent from the late 1970s onward in Britain and America. In this sense, Tu An carried on the dialogue between Chinese and Western Keats scholars resumed in Wang Zuoliang’s work. He finally pays tribute to the preceding generations of Keats translators, namely, Zhu Xiang, Zha Liangzheng, and Zhu Weiji, at the close of his preface, thus writing the past into the present of Keats scholarship in China and extending Keats’s afterlife in China to the turn of the century.

30.        However, for all the strenuous efforts Wang and Tu made to restore Keats to the eminent status he deserved among English poets, one should not be over-optimistic in estimating the impact of their works, which, after all, were mainly circulated among specialists. Even in the post-Mao era, Keats remained the lesser English Romantic than Byron and Shelley among common readers. Within the academic circle, the number of scholarly publications on Keats, much lower than that of works on Byron, shows no sign that Keats’s reputation in China was growing dramatically.

31.        This can be corroborated with a brief look at the state of Keats translation and study in the twenty-first century. Keats’s Letters, translated by Wang Xinruo, was published in 2003, but the preface penned by the translator makes an evident mistake in stating that Keats’s father “was murdered” when he was eight (1). Another important work was Fu Yanxiu’s Keats: A Critical Biography published in 2008. In the preface and the afterword, the author points out rightly that in China, Keats had long been overshadowed by Byron and Shelley, both of whom inspired admiration more easily than Keats in the turbulent context of the early twentieth century (11). One of the purposes of his biography, he claims, is to correct the misleading portrayal of Keats as “a second-rate figure” provided by some textbooks in China and the dated misconception of Keats as an aesthete and a weakling killed off by his reviewers (464). He also draws a parallel between Keats’s England and contemporary China in the rapid process of commercialization and suggests, “some phenomena that took place in Manchester and Glasgow are replaying in many cities in China” (12). One is not sure whether he has the dark Satanic mills or Peterloo Massacre in his mind when writing this. It is for this parallel, he concludes, that Keats is most needed now in China for his humanism and passion for poetry (11–12).

32.        By looking at the trajectory of Keats’s reception that underwent appropriation, oblivion, and restoration in twentieth-century China where tempestuous ideological changes had taken place, one can see that the original text had been constantly reshaped by its foreign context. Keats’s poetry, however, with its tranquil resistance, refused to be trodden down by these hungry generations and still survives. In this unfamiliar nation, Keats “[found] his happiness in another kind of wood,” and “[was] punished under a foreign code of conscience” (“In Memory of W. B. Yeats”). Throughout the twentieth century, Keats had been evoked for various causes—as the other to the Satanic poets, as the other to both the reactionary and the revolutionary Romantics, as a poetic hero for modern Chinese poets, and as a humanist against the rampant modernization and industrialization in China. These multiple Keatses (Stillinger 10), partial as they all are, testify to Keats’s multi-faceted richness and indeterminacy achieved by his remarkably sympathetic imagination and honesty about the human condition that lend his poetry a peculiar contemporaneousness for different generations of his Chinese readers. As Keats famously writes about “the poetical Character,” “that sort of which, if I am anything, I am a member,” a poet “has no identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body” (1:386–87). In those foreign bodies of others that he continually fills, Keats’s afterlife is carried on vigorously.

Works Cited

Anikst, A. A. Yingguo Wenxue Shigang [Outline of British Literary History]. Translated by Dai Liuling et al., Renmin Wenxue, 1959.

Arnold, Matthew. Essays in Criticism. Everyman, 1906.

Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Collected Poems. Edited by Edward Mendelson, Vintage, 1991, pp. 247–49.

Bian, Zhilin. “Kaijiang Yingguoshi Xiangdaode Yixie Tiyan” [“On Teaching English Poetry”]. Wenyi Bao [Journal of Literature and Art], vol. 1, no. 4, 1949, pp. 31–32.

Fei, Jianzhao. “Jici Yu Shashibiya” [“Keats and Shakespeare”]. Wenyi Yuekan [Monthly Journal of Literature and Art], vol. 6, no. 4, 1934, pp. 139–48.

Fu, Yanxiu. Jici Pingzhuan [Keats: A Critical Biography]. Renmin Wenxue, 2008.

Gao, Hua. Hongtaiyang Shi Zenyang Shengqi de [How Did the Sun Rise over Yan’an?]. Chinese UP of Hong Kong, 2000.

Gorky World Literature Research Institute, editor. Yingguo Wenxueshi [British Literary History]. Translated by Miao Lingzhu et al., Renmin Wenxue, 1984–86.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Harvard UP, 1958. 2 vols.

Lu, Xun. Lu Xun Quanji [Complete Works]. Renmin Wenxue, 2005. 18 vols.

Qi, Bangyuan. Ju Liu He [Ju Liu River]. Tianxia, 2009.

Shaw, George Bernard. “Keats.” The John Keats Memorial Volume. John Lane, 1921, pp. 173–76.

Shen, Bing. “Bainian Jinianji de Jici” [“Keats in the Centennial Commemoration”]. Xiaoshuo Yubao [Fiction Monthly], vol. 12, no. 5, 1921, pp. 1+.

---. “Lundun Juxing Jici Bianian Jinian Zhanlanhui de Shengkuang” [“London Exhibition on Keats’s Centenary”]. Xiaoshuo Yubao [Fiction Monthly], vol. 12, no. 6, 1921, pp. 5+.

Stillinger, Jack. “Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats.” The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats. U of Massachusetts P, 1998, pp. 10–35.

Tu, An, translator. Jici Shixuan [Selected Poems of Keats]. Renmin Wenxue, 1997.

Xu, Zhimo. “Jici de Yeyingge” [“Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’”]. Xiaoshuo Yubao [Fiction Monthly], vol. 16, no. 2, 1925, pp. 1–11.

Wang, Xinruo, translator. Jici Shuxinxuan [Selected Letters of Keats]. Baihua, 2005.

Wang, Zuoliang. Yingguo Langmanzhuyi Shigeshi [History of English Romantic Poetry]. Renmin Wenxue, 1991.

Wen, Yiduo. Hongzhu [Red Candle]. Renmin Wenxue, 1981.

---. Wen Yiduo Lun Xinshi [Wen Yiduo on New Poetry]. Wuhan UP, 1985.

Wu, Xinghua, and Song Tifen, translators. “Jici Shichao; Jici Xinzha Xuan” [“Collection of Keats’s Poems and Letters”]. Xiyang Wenxue [Western Literature], no. 4, 1940, pp. 133–43.

Yang, Zhouhan, editor. Xi’ou Wenxueshi [Western European Literary History]. Renmin Wenxue, 1964. 2 vols.

Yu, Zhi. “Yingguo Shiren Keci de Bainian Jinian” [“Centennial Commemoration for the British Poet Keats”]. Dongfang Zazhi [The Eastern Miscellany], vol. 18, no. 8, 1921, pp. 70–72.

Zha, Liangzheng. Mu Dan (Zha Liangzheng) Yiwenji [Collection of Mu Dan’s (Zha Liangzheng) Translations], vol. 3, Renmin Wenxue, 2005.

Zheng, Zhenduo, editor. A Special Issue on Byron. Xiaoshuo Yubao [Fiction Monthly], vol. 15, no. 4, 1924.

Zhu, Weiji, translator. Jici Shixuan [Selected Poems of Keats]. Shanghai Yiwen, 1983.

Zhu, Xiang. Fanshiliu Ji [Myrtles: Translations of Foreign Poems]. Commercial Press, 1970.

---. Zhu Xiang. Edited by Sun Yushi, Renmin Wenxue, 1985.

---. Zhu Xiang Sanwen [Zhu Xiang’s Essays]. Edited by Pu Huatang and Xiao Fei, China Broadcasting and Television Press, 1994. 2 vols.

---. Zhu Xiang Wenji [Zhu Xiang’s Prose]. Xianzhuang Shuju, 2009.


[1] This paper is part of a larger research project I have been working on on the metamorphosis of British Romanticism in China, which also includes a study of Byron’s reception in twentieth-century China that is forthcoming elsewhere. BACK

[2] The quotation here and those hereafter from Chinese sources in this article are my own translations. BACK

[3] The pen name adopted by Hu Yuzhi. BACK

[4] One of many pen names (such as Mao Dun) adopted by Shen Yanbing. BACK

[5] From the beginning of the twentieth century to 1940s, students went overseas either with private support or with government funding. Among them, many were funded by the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, a partial remission of the indemnity China had to pay the U.S., Britain and several other Western countries for the damages caused during the Boxer Rebellion. Wen Yiduo and Zhu Xiang, for example, were Boxer Indemnity scholars, as were Zha Liangzheng and Wang Zuoliang mentioned below. BACK

[6] Courtesy name of Li Shangyin, a major Tang poet who has been compared with Keats by some Chinese scholars for the sensuousness and stylistic felicity found in both of their poetry. See, for example, Zhu Ruidang, “A Comparison of the Poetic Art of Li Shangyin and Keats”, in Journal of Luoyang Teachers’ College, no. 1, 2002, pp. 77–78; Yang Hui, et al., “A Parallel Study of Li Shangyin and Keats’s Aesthetics”, in The Theory Monthly, no. 11, 2003, pp. 128–30. BACK

[7] Ding, huge drinking vessel in ancient China, is a symbol of sovereignty. BACK

[8] Another major Tang poet who has been compared with Keats in Chinese scholarship because of their short life (Li He died at the age of 26), celebration of beauty, and mastery of words and music. See, for example, Zhu Hui, “Artistic Features of Keats and Li He”, Foreign Languages, no. 2, 1994, pp. 62–65; Wang Yonghui, “A Comparative Study of Keats’s and Li He’s Poetic Art”, Southwestern University of Minority Nationalities Journal, no.6, 2007, 155–58. BACK

[9] Zhu Xiang might not be the only Chinese poet who wrote English poems. But leading poets of his time such as Xu Zhimo and Wen Yiduo were mainly interested in experimenting with Chinese “new poetry” and had not published English poems. BACK

[10] Shaw famously writes, “Keats achieved the very curious feat of writing one poem of which it may be said that if Karl Marx can be imagined as writing a poem instead of a treatise on Capital, he would have written Isabella” (175). BACK


Published @ RC

December 2016