'Jian Bei Pian': Lao She's Forgotten Wartime Epic Poem
This thesis is the first English-language critical study of Chinese author Lao She’s(1899-1966) wartime epic ballad Jian bei pian and includes the ballad’s first translation into English. The thesis addresses a gap in knowledge about his work, a gap previously covered by simplistic labelling of it as patriotic propaganda. Lao She’s reputation in the West largely rests on his modern fiction, although his literary output covered many genres, generating at different times in his life the full range of reactions in China between popular acclaim and violent censure. Much of his writing, done during periods of intense cultural and political upheaval in China, reflected the events through which he lived. Jian bei pian, his poetic record of a journey through northern China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, is unique, both of its time and outside of its time, yet it has received relatively little attention from critics in China or in the West. Recent Chinese studies on Jian bei pian have highlighted the poem’s patriotic elements, retrospectively interpreting it as an endorsement of China’s Communist Party and deeming it part of his wartime nation-building literature. In the West Jian bei pian has been almost completely ignored, apart from observations which similarly focus on its imputed status as patriotic propaganda and condemn or dismiss it for that reason. This thesis evaluates the evidence for and against Jian bei pian’s significance and effectiveness as wartime propaganda by examining the poem through frameworks of nation building theory. Textual analysis of Jian bei pian’s images of China, its narrative treatment of China’s history, and of culturally significant periods and sites, finds that the patriotic rhetoric is inconsistent. This finding echoes recent work of some Western scholars who have observed contradictions and insecurities in Lao She’s pre-war and wartime fiction that undermined his ability to convey a patriotic message. In rejecting Jian bei pian as nation-building, the thesis argues that Lao She’s writing of the poem was primarily driven by personal factors. Against the background of his recorded views, expressed motives and comments on the circumstances in which the poem was written, further textual analysis focuses on Jian bei pian’s diverse features reflecting the influence of traditional and classical elements of Chinese culture. This analysis of the poem’s composition, in both form and subject matter, highlights the importance of China’s classical poetry for Lao She, and suggests that Jian bei pian, in its travelogue depictions of a China where geography is overlaid with a sense of its history, literature and art, may belong in China’s classical jiyoushi (poems about travel) tradition – aspects of Jian bei pian recently noted by a few Chinese scholars but previously overlooked in the West.