As part of the LCL Faculty Colloquium Series, Liansu Meng, Associate Professor of Chinese, presented “Ecofeminism Avant La Lettre: Chen Jingrong and Her Creative Translation of Baudelaire.” The presentation was excerpted from her essay in Chinese Poetry and Translations: Rights and Wrongs (Amsterdam University Press, 2019) edited by Maghiel van Crevel and Lucas Klein, a book that brings new thinking to the interrelations between translation, poetry and China. It is also part of a chapter in her forthcoming book Man/Woman, Machine/Nature: Modern Chinese Poetry at the Intersection of Industrialism and Feminism (1915-1980) with the University of Michigan Press. Chen Jingrong belonged to a poetic lineage that performed translations of Western works into Chinese in order to stimulate innovation in Chinese poetry. Chen was the only woman translator of Baudelaire and one of the very few women poets of her generation. Blending translation and reception studies, Professor Meng explored Chen’s original interpretation of Baudelaire’s poetry in her critical essays, her translations and her own poetry, drawing a contrast between Chen’s approach to Baudelaire and those of his male translators to argue that the differences between theirapproaches can be mapped onto an early form of ecofeminism.
Chen moved to Shanghai in 1946 shortly after the end of the Japanese occupation of the city when the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) drew to a close with the defeat of Japan in WWII. China resumed the unresolved civil war between the Nationalist Party (GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (The CCP would finally prevail against the GMD in 1949). Although Shanghai was controlled by the GMD in 1946, when Chen published her first essay on Baudelaire, “Baudelaire and the Cat” (波德莱尔与猫), the CCP’s influence dominated the intellectual underground and championed a political realist-inspired poetics dubbed the “People’s Poetry” that was supposed to appeal to the masses. Baudelaire’s bourgeois poetry was not considered appropriate and Chen faced grave criticism from an all-male community of literary critics for translating a decadent Western poet.
In her essay, Chen characterizes Baudelaire as a poet who feels equal empathy for all things, especially “minor and small things,” which “he painted . . . with a layer of miraculous radiance.” Intellectuals in China had been drawn to Social Darwinism from early twentieth century. Chen pointed to the savagery of the war to refute the theory, arguing shocking cruelty towards their own kind and other creatures proved that humans had not evolved as a species. In Baudelaire’s deceptively simple invocations of everyday things, Chen argued that he created images infused with the unpretentious feeling of lived experience and empathy for the poor and the marginalized, precisely because he had written from the point of view of his own experiences of suffering.
In response to her critics, Chen published another essay in 1947, “On My Poetry and Poetry Translation” (我的诗和译诗) in which she foregrounded her identity as a woman, associating her individual suffering with the universal oppression of women and other injustices. This was a bold stand to take considering many male intellectuals’ confident assertions that women’s equality in China had been achieved or was included in the discourses of class, revolution and national survival. In the essay Chen sketched out what Liansu Meng described as eco-feminism avant la lettre, a poetics that emphasizes the interconnection and co-existence of all living things and advocates for a wide spectrum of empathy that spans across such categories as class, gender, age, physical ability, and extends to animals and the natural environment. Chen addressed the issue of gender relations head-on, arguing that again and again women demonstrated their strength, resourcefulness, and empathy in the face of unspeakable challenges, their resilience and compassion offering its own testimony about the range of women’s agency. In her talk, Meng characterized Chen’s interpretations of Baudelaire as eco-feminist also because Baudelaire’s symbolically-saturated landscapes, their startling juxtapositions of life, death, suffering and decay, pointed towards a new poetics that she drew on in her own poetry to describe landscapes that had been desecrated by war. Meng argued that “the endless oppression of Chinese women enabled them to urgently and sensitively critique this and other injustices in the world—a view which echoes Chen’s reading of Baudelaire’s poetics.” In this way, Professor Meng concluded, Chen made the case for women’s agency and their empathy that was born from their gendered experience of suffering.