MU DAN, PEN NAME OF ZHA LIANGZHENG (1919—1977) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

MU DAN, PEN NAME OF ZHA LIANGZHENG (1919—1977). Poet. Born in Tianjin, Mu Dan studied Western literature at Qinghua University. When Japan invaded China, he followed his university to the southwestern city of Kunming to continue his studies. After receiving his bachelor’s from the National Southwestern Associated University in 1940, he joined the Chinese Expedition Force to Burma to aid the British troops fighting against the Japanese Imperial Army, a traumatic experience that nearly cost him his life. In 1949, he enrolled in the University of Chicago and three years later he was awarded a master’s degree in English literature. A year after that, he returned to Tianjin to teach at the Foreign Languages Department of Nankai University. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign in the late 1950s, Mu Dan was stripped of his teaching responsibilities and assigned to work as a librarian, a post he held until a heart attack took his life in 1977.

Mu Dan’s literary reputation rests solely on three poetry collections published in the 1940s: Tanxianzhe (The Explorer), Mu Dan shi ji 1939—1945 (Collected Poems by Mu Dan 1939—1945), and Qi (Flags). Influenced by T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and William Butler Yeats, Mu Dan’s poetic voice is meditative, philosophical, ironic, and at times abstract, questioning the meaning of life and dealing with issues concerning the self, the soul, and the spiritual. Although he did write some patriotic poems such as “Zan mei” (A Song of Praise), he was much more adept at treating existential subjects such as alienation and tragic human existence. Mu’s poetic persona is often portrayed as lost, alienated, and fractured, as shown in “Cong xuwu dao chongshi” (From Nihilism to Substantiation). “Fangkong dong de shuqing shi” (Lyrics of an Air-raid Shelter), a poem written during the Sino-Japanese War, while expressing compassion, patriotism, and hope, does not echo the heroic, indignant sentimentalism of much of the Chinese poetry produced at the time.

Mu Dan understood the anxiety Chinese intellectuals felt as their country transitioned from the established order in which they were firmly anchored to the new, unpredictable world. While the sense of alienation expressed in his poems is firmly grounded in Chinese reality, he saw the Chinese experience as part of a human dilemma. In “She de youhuo” (The Seduction of the Snake), a parody of the Biblical story, Mu Dan readily embraces the Christian notion of original sin to convey both the Chinese intellectual’s spiritual crisis and the universal human condition. As a poet experimenting with a new form and a new language, Mu Dan did not attempt to bridge the old and the new. Indeed, his poems, whether in form or content, show little influence from the Chinese poetic tradition.

Like Shen Congwen, Feng Zhi, and many others who gave up creative writing after 1949 and turned instead to the politically safer academic writing or translation work, Mu Dan wrote only a few poems after he returned to China from the United States. He devoted his energy to translating Russian and English literature. Among the authors he translated are Alexander Pushkin, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. His translation of Byron’s Don Juan, which he finished in the 1970s, is widely considered a masterpiece in its own right. Mu Dan’s literary accomplishment was largely ignored in the People’s Republic of China until the 1980s, when the rediscovered poet was hailed as the most innovative modernist poet in 20th-century China.