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Wellspring of Inspiration: The Mandarin Union Version and Modern Chinese Poetry in the Early Twentieth Century

  • JOHN T. P. LAI (a1)

Coinciding with the May Fourth new cultural and literary movement, the publication of the Mandarin Union Version, the vernacular Chinese translation of the Bible, in 1919 had a profound impact on the formation of modern Chinese literature. This paper examines the ways in which the Union Version provided a novel source of imageries, poetic genres and worldviews for the experimentation of modern Chinese poetry during the Republican period, particularly between the 1920s and 1940s. Revering the Bible as the Holy Scripture, young Christian poetess Bing Xin (1900–99) spontaneously expressed her religious sentiments and commitment by composing a series of “sacred poems” as her own poetic response to the striking beauty of biblical images. Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967), a renowned May Fourth Chinese writer and intellectual, regarded the Bible as a treasured anthology of Jewish literature and appreciated the humanistic values embodied in the teachings of Jesus. Placing the biblical references of the wilderness, Jesus's universal love and Moses's legalistic position in the forefront, Zhou Zuoren's poem “Qilu,” or “Crossroads,” captured the perplexity of his contemporary intellectuals, Zhou himself included, in their sabbathless search for cultural rejuvenation and national salvation during the transitional and tumultuous Republican era. An ardent admirer of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, Chinese modernist poet Mu Dan (1918–77) studied their poetry at the Southwest United University in Kunming during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). Imbued with biblical allusions, for instance, the fall of humankind and the loss of paradise, Mu Dan's poems, like “She de youhuo,” or “The Temptation of the Serpent,” articulate his penetrating critique of modernity. These works of poetry represent the multiple voices and diverse reactions of the early twentieth-century Chinese poets towards the Union Version which had not only firmly established its canonical status as the predominant Chinese translation of the Bible used by the Protestant Church, but also emerged as a literary tour-de-force to propel the evolution of modern Chinese poetry.

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