The Chinese written character and the reinvention of Western and Chinese poetry : Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound

Xiaohui ZHANG, Zong-qi CAI

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Invented in sixteenth-century Europe, the “ideographic myth”—the notion that all Chinese written characters are pictorial—has long been used either to romanticize or denigrate Chinese language and culture compared to those of the West. This article examines the many incarnations of this myth spanning more than half a century: from the Fenollosa-Poundian theory of the Chinese character and Ezra Pound’s reformulation of his Vorticist-Imagist ideals in the early twentieth century to the Imagist influence on modern Chinese poetry in the 1910s–1920s, and Sinologists’ reinterpretations of traditional Chinese poetry in the 1970s. Originated from Xu Shen’s 許慎 (30–124) Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 (Explanations of Simple and Compound Characters) in China, indiscreet ideogrammic explanations of Chinese characters made their way first to Japan, then through Fenollosa and Pound to the United States, and then back to China, marking the beginning of the age of international travel as well as a new model of cultural connectivity not limited to geographic boundaries. As an interesting case from a cultural export to a cultural import, the pictorial myth reinvented by Fenollosa and Pound, together with its incarnations, turned out to be beneficial to all cultures involved along its rapid but complex route of transmission. Both insights and errors arising therefrom not only helped modernist poets revolutionize their poetry in both China and the West but also inspired Sinologists to reinterpret traditional Chinese poetry from the perspective of the Chinese written character, especially the primacy of its sound.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Western Reinvention of Chinese Literature, 1910-2010 : From Ezra Pound to Maxine Hong Kingston
EditorsZong-qi CAI, Stephen RODDY
Place of PublicationLeiden
PublisherBrill Academic Publishers
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9789004515031
ISBN (Print)9789004515048
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2022

Publication series

NameChinese Texts in the World
ISSN (Print)2666-2361


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