Nanjing, a city that served as the capital of multiple Chinese dynasties, mostly southern dynasties during eras of political division, has experienced repeated cycles of prosperity and conquest. Stephen Owen has explored how its poetic history has transposed the actual reality of the city, turning it into a “site of memory.” Here, however, I examine the close interaction between poems about Nanjing and contemporary historical events during the Republican period. Instead of being generic variations on the theme “meditating on the past,” such poems well chronicled to reflect actual horrors and glory. Curiously, however, few such poems were ever written after the 1937 Massacre. I argue that it was perhaps because the narrative of an impersonal force of history, the “rise and fall,” risked of reducing the immediate and unique historical event into déjà vu. In this sense (and to paraphrase Adorno), “meditating on the past” after the Rape of Nanjing was barbaric.
The weight of memory at Nanjing was particularly reflected in the classical-style poems by poets in Wang Jingwei’s collaborationist regime, established under the Japanese patronage at Nanjing in 1940. The fact that most leading members in this regime were classically-trained poets (and resisting the literary vernacular dominant in their time) was itself notable, bespeaking of a peculiar eco-system in which resistance, accommodation, and collaboration all sought justifications under the umbrella of China’s cultural traditions. For a regime struggling with its own legitimacy, “meditating on the past” would suggest that it, too, would suffer from the fate of conquest. Their reactions to the burden of literary tradition ranged from self-defense to wistful denial, but most commonly a pregnant aphasia. The ways in which Wang and his followers treated this topic become therefore a case study on the complex of cultural memory, political legitimacy, and literary representation in occupied China.
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