Selected Criticism

China, Whitman in
Huang, Guiyou
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Of the vast number of foreign writers China has introduced and translated, none other seems to have enjoyed the kind of respect and popularity that Whitman holds. His free verse helped start China's New Poetry movement in the first decades of the twentieth century, and he is one of the very few foreign writers for whom biographies have been written in China.

Whitman was first introduced into China in 1919, a year marked by great turmoil and patriotic passion that witnessed the famous May Fourth movement. This movement was an essential component of the larger New Culture movement, characterized by a cry for the downfall of Confucianism and the adoption of two Western ideals: science and democracy. In the wake of the May Fourth movement, Tian Han, later known as one of China's foremost playwrights and poets, published the introductory essay, "The Poet for the Common People: Commemorating the Centennial Anniversary of Whitman's Birthday," in the inaugural issue of Young China, a radical journal for contemporary intellectuals.

The importance and accomplishment of this long essay cannot be overestimated. It reached a large audience of intelligentsia, and essays on and translations of Whitman soon began to surface in journals and newspapers. Tian's essay was certainly read by Guo Moruo, then studying in japan, who would come to be known as the apostle of Whitman and recognized as the most important voice in Chinese new poetry (that is, vernacular poetry as opposed to the traditional, classic poetry that had reigned in Chinese literature for two thousand years). Guo not only read Whitman's poetry in English and Japanese; he also translated some of the poems into Chinese, though only a small portion of his translations have survived. Guo thought that the spirit of the American poet was identical with the Chinese May Fourth spirit.

As a result of Tian's high praise and Guo's imitation of Whitman, a considerable number of "new culture" poets and writers turned to Whitman for inspiration and began to write poetry and prose in vernacular Chinese. Among them was Ai Qing, perhaps second only to Guo as a significant twentieth-century Chinese poet. Ai's poetry reflects the influence of a number of foreign writers, including Whitman and Charles Baudelaire. Ai and Guo both share Whitman's tendency to use long, irregular lines to contain unconstrained thoughts. Whitman's influence is not limited to poets; important Chinese writers in a variety of genres embraced Whitman as a model in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but Guo and Ai were among the strongest advocates of free verse, and their work best represents Whitmanian qualities.

Whitman has also been used in China for political purposes. In 1955 the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass sparked a renewed interest in the American poet. That in turn led to the publication of new translations of and essays on Whitman, including some East European writings translated into Chinese, such as Maurice Mendelson's influential Life and Work of Walt Whitman: A Soviet View. That same year—two years after the Korean War, which involved both the United States and China—the World Peace Council convened in Beijing, where Whitman was lauded as a peace-loving, democratic poet as contrasted to the warlike, imperialistic U.S. government. Thus Whitman was turned into a propaganda tool against his own country. Among the politicians making use of Whitman was Yuan Shuipai, a high official in the Ministry of Propaganda, who claimed that in the Cold War Whitman would be on the side of the peace-loving Chinese, rather than on that of the American government.

Whitman was not seriously studied in the academy until the late 1970s, when China reopened its doors to the West and Whitman made a triumphant return. He has been taught to English majors in Chinese university classrooms ever since. Six complete Chinese translations of Leaves of Grass have been published in Mainland China and Taiwan. Of all the Chinese translators of Whitman, Chu Tunan was the earliest and perhaps also the best known. He started rendering Whitman into Chinese in the 1930s during imprisonment for political activities against the then nationalist rule. Chu was better known as a successful politician who, before his death in the early 1990s, served as a vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (the highest legislative body of China), but he is remembered by literary scholars as a pioneering and able translator of Whitman. Using Chu's partial translation, Li Yeguang completed a translation of the entire Leaves of Grass. Li also wrote A Critical Biography of Whitman, perhaps the first Whitman biography of its kind in China. No less notable is the work that Zhao Luorui has done on Whitman. With a doctorate in American literature from the University of Chicago in the 1940s, Zhao taught at and is a retired member of Beijing University; she single-handedly completed another translation of Leaves of Grass, in addition to publishing many essays and articles on Whitman.

The efforts of these first-generation Chinese Whitman scholars have paid off handsomely. Whitman is now available to students and scholars who cannot read English. In recent years, many younger scholars have appeared in universities and research institutes who are conducting research and writing master's theses and doctoral dissertations on Whitman. Clearly, there is a bright future for Whitman studies in China.


Cohen, Mark. "Whitman in China: A Revisitation." Walt Whitman Review 26 (1980): 32–35.

Fang, Achilles. "From Imagism to Whitmanism in Recent Chinese Poetry: A Search for Poetics That Failed." Indiana University Conference on Oriental-Western Literary Relations. Ed. Horst Frenz and G.L. Anderson. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1955. 177–189.

Huang, Guiyou. "Whitman in China." Walt Whitman & the World. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 406–428.

____. Whitmanism, Imagism, and Modernism in China and America. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1997.

Kuebrich, David. "Whitman in China." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 1.2 (1983): 33–35.

Li, Shi Qi. "Whitman's Poetry of Internationalism." West Hills Review 7 (1987): 103–110.

Palandri, Angela Chih-Ying Jung. "Whitman in Red China." Walt Whitman Newsletter 4.3 (1958): 94–97.

Wang, Yao. "The Relation Between Modern Chinese Literature and Foreign Literature." Chinese Literature 38.3 (1988): 149–160.


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