Imagery connected Chinese and Western poetics

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-06-08

When Liu Xie (c. 465–522), a famed Chinese writer and politician in the Liang era during the Southern Dynasties (420–489), formally endowed yixiang (idea-images) with aesthetic value in his magnum opus Wen Xin Diao Long (The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons), China’s greatest literary aesthetic work, the term gradually became central to Chinese literary criticism. In the history of Western literary theory, since Plato proposed the “imitation theory” and Longinus expounded on the “sublime,” imagery has existed in Western poetics in different forms.

Commonality and difference

Although imagery theory has different origins in China and the West, the theoretical development models both deepened continuously. When interpreting images, Chinese and Western scholars noticed that imagery is a natural fusion of the subjective “inside” and the objective “outside.” They shared views on the original meaning of imagery.

However, due to multifaceted factors, imagery theory has had notable differences throughout Chinese and Western history. For example, Chinese imagist poetics stresses focusing on the xu (emptiness) [as opposed to the shi (substance)], emphasizing infinite textures beyond yi (ideas) and xiang (images). In contrast, Western imagery is more attentive to the expression of the shape. The shape here encompasses the material and spiritual levels. 

When Westerners pursue beauty, they always resort to an object, which could be a visible circle, the golden ratio, or the invisible spiritual God. In the eyes of Western imagists, Chinese imagery theory is a manifestation of the object of beauty. In addition, Westerners’ emphasis on the shape also reflects their pursuit of clarity and precision. Compared to traditional Chinese imagery theory, their definition of imagery is more clear-cut and rational.

Formal exchange

Chinese poetry was introduced to the American literary community roughly in the early 20th century. Although some Chinese poems had been translated into English before that era, there was a narrow range of materials for translation due to immature translation approaches and literary environments. Shi Jing (The Book of Poetry) was the most frequently translated work at the time, but repeated translation of the same material by different translators inevitably made the work less interesting. Neither poets’ tastes nor the atmosphere of literary criticism was favorable to the systematic introduction of Chinese poetry.

The formal exchange between Western imagism and Chinese poetry stemmed from the publication of renowned American poet Ezra Pound’s Cathay, a collection of renditions of classical Chinese poetry, in 1915. Within a few years, classical Chinese poetry quickly swept American poetic circles, as the publication set off a wave where foreign authors composed new poems with Chinese elements. 

American imagist poets absorbed nutrients from classical Chinese poetry and shaped a poetic trend with characteristics of their era. Later, new American poetry that integrated Chinese elements were brought back to China by Chinese scholars, enlightening a host of Chinese poets.

In the early 20th century, Chinese scholars were eager to learn advanced Western science, culture, systems, and thoughts. The May-Fourth New Culture Movement introduced Western culture to China, in an aim to showcase diverse ideas from the Western Enlightenment to Chinese people. 

Till then, traditional Chinese culture had fulfilled its travel to the West, while Western literary thoughts with Chinese elements were imported back to China, which drew many scholars to research and imitate, as national rebuilding was urgent in the first half of the 20th century.

Exquisite images contained in classical Chinese poetry and their dynamic aesthetic appeal shocked the Western literary establishment, substantially advancing the development and reform of Western imagism while fueling translation studies of Chinese poetry. 

Western scholars’ high praise of classical Chinese literature also prompted the West to recognize Chinese literature and revisit China, subtly changing the West’s view of China and therefore contributing to the building of a positive image of the Eastern nation. While classical Chinese literature promoted and enriched imagism, Western imagist poets helped popularize Chinese literature in the West.

Classical Chinese poetics has distinctive imagery and profound meaning, constructing an aesthetic network unique to Chinese civilization. In terms of cultural communication, classical Chinese poetry impacted imagist poetry in the West, while Western imagist poetry influenced modern Chinese poetry. 

Western imagists transformed Eastern imagery after absorbing it, integrating related theories into their local culture and striving to retain salient national features on the literary level, thereby modernizing poetry.


A review of the period from 1909 to 1917, when imagist poetry was flowering, shows imagism’s development as a reflection of Chinese culture’s reach. As Pound introduced Chinese culture to Western poets through Cathay, he also provided intellectual materials for the further development of Western poetry. In Cathay, classical Chinese poetry was reborn, even if the rebirth was mingled with misinterpretations and distortions. Nonetheless, it indeed made a difference on modernist poetry in the West. For example, readers paid far more attention to Chinese poems translated by Pound than his original pieces.

Both the school of imagism, led by English literary critic and poet Thomas Ernest Hulme, and the imagist movement, spearheaded by Pound, mirrored elements of intuitionism. The approach of expressing what poets were thinking through metaphors bears a high resemblance to classical Chinese poetry. As a language of poetry, imagery integrates the author’s emotions and concrete objects to convey special aesthetic feelings to readers. 

The West learnt and drew upon classical Chinese poetry, aesthetics, and philosophy through translation, but uncertainties and recreations are common in the translation of foreign literature. In the early 20th century, due to technical constraints and other reasons, the communication between China and the West was not smooth, making it difficult to the export of classical Chinese literary works to the West.

Meanwhile, because of bias against and misconceptions of China, as well as some writers catering to Western readers’ expectations of China, the original landscape of Chinese culture was misinterpreted intentionally or unintentionally. 

Although the literary community tried to redress the misinterpretations, modernism paid attention to Chinese literature simply to further the reform and development of Western literature, so Western literature’s misinterpretations of Chinese literature were unavoidable. There were three types of misinterpretations: deliberate misinterpretations, misinterpretations resulting from inadequate knowledge about Chinese culture, and necessary misinterpretations based on reader reception. These misinterpretations have perpetuated the West’s bias against and hostility toward Chinese culture until now.


In the early 20th century, some intellectuals brought Western literary thoughts into China, boosting the emergence and development of modern Chinese poetry. Among these literary thoughts, imagism played a significant role.

Under the impact of the domestic social environment, the development of Chinese imagist poetry was manifested in the transformation of textual language, due primarily to the rise of irrationalism in the 20th-century West, in order to overcome the traditional dualistic mindset that divorced humanity from the world. 

Due to the combined influence of 19th-century French symbolism and classical Chinese poetry, Pound, one of the leaders of Western imagism, single-handedly introduced ancient Chinese poetry to the West, thus advancing imagist poetics in the West.

In the 1920s, rising numbers of Chinese scholars woke up to the limitations of Western imagist theories, so they successively drew inspiration from theories of classical Chinese poetry and Western aesthetic thoughts, in a bid to spur the innovation of poetic theories by combining Chinese and Western scholarship on imagery. 

Carrying on this theoretical consciousness, Chinese modernist poets in the 1930s accelerated the modern transition of Chinese poetic theories. Over the next decade, scholars of imagist poetry in China could be divided into the Qiyue (July) School represented by Ai Qing and Hu Feng, and the Jiuye (Nine Leaves) School with Tang Shi and Yuan Kejia as main figures.

In the first half of the 20th century, Marxism had spread in China. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Marxism rose to become the dominant thought, offering overall guidance on all fields of work in the country, including research in the humanities and social sciences. 

At the same time, different Marxist literary theories poured into China, exerting an important influence on modern Chinese literary studies. In the 1950s, major aesthetician Zhu Guangqian began to rectify his own aesthetic theory in reference to Marxism.

In the 1980s, reform and opening up swept across China, as it embraced Western literary theories and thoughts massively. Thereafter, the globalizing cultural environment and a growing sense of national identity led to vigorous debate among diverse schools of Chinese poetics. Poetic studies of imagery also displayed a trend of pluralistic development. During this period, poetic construction of imagery followed two research paths. 

On the first path, representatives such as Gu Zuzhao, Wang Yuxiong, and Zhang Shiying, influenced by prevailing Western literary thoughts at the time, regarded imagery as a research object within aesthetic psychology based on dualistic philosophical views. The second path was filled with scholars who broke through the dualistic theoretical model to examine aesthetic and phenomenological resources of classical Chinese imagery.

As cultural exchanges become increasingly frequent among nations, Chinese and Western imagery theories are diversifying while blending with each other. This has facilitated the communication on imagery between Chinese and Western poetics. In the imagery-related communication, commonalities and differences coexist, aesthetics and rationality fit in with each other, misinterpretations and imitations interweave, and integration and transformation coordinate with each other. The communication, in essence, is an epistemological extension of humanity’s common psychological identification and aesthetic synaesthesia of poetic imagery. 


Xu Pan is a professor from the School of Western Languages at Harbin Normal University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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